How to Create an Arecibo Message

Before I moved to New York City I visited there with some friends, in college.  I was fascinated by the subways and the effort it must have taken to dig all those tunnels, back in the 18th Century.  I had to find out how they were made.  While riding the train, I saw an ad for the Transit Museum.  Awesome, I thought.  It was the early 1990's so I still said Awesome.  I am bringing it back, by the way.

I went to the Transit Museum so I could find out more about this Herculean effort.  I was sadly disappointed to find out the museum was all about the Metropolitan Transit Authority itself.  What a rip-off, I thought.  They had some vintage subway cars and the fa├žades of old buses.  There was zero information about how the subways were made.  I registered my frustration on one of those little comment cards.  Yes people actually fill those things out, with serious suggestions.  I am that guy.  I never thought anyone would actually read it and act on it, though.

Building New York's Subways
STEEL, STONE, & BACKBONE: Nobody Rides for Free
I visited the City some time later, it could have been a year, I do not remember.  How shocked was I when I saw an ad on the subway which read, "STEEL, STONE, & BACKBONE: Building New York's Subways..."

Sacre Bleu!  They read my suggestion.  And they built a whole exhibit around it.  Are you kidding me?  Was it my suggestion that did it?  There is no way I will ever know.  But the fact remains, I filled out the little card suggesting the Museum show people how the subways were made and not long after that there was an exhibit showing exactly that.

I mention this story for one reason.  Last November, on the 15th to be precise, I posted an article which mentioned the Arecibo Message, titled Don't You Ever Listen?  The Arecibo Message was basically a big, "Is there anybody out there?" broadcast.  It was sent out 45 years ago and that was that.  The scientists at the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico hung up their lab coats and called it a day.  I am sure they removed their pocket protectors before hanging up the coats but they probably kept their horn-rimmed glasses on because they needed them to see.

That article was a tiny bit critical of the effort behind reaching out to aliens.  I mean really, one message and people on other planets are supposed to be on pins and needles waiting for it like a teenage girl sitting by the phone on a Saturday night, hoping her dreamboat will call?  We have to put forth a little more effort than that.  Just a little.

The Arecibo Lab in Puerto Rico

I visited the Arecibo Lab Website some time later, about five months later.  How shocked was I when I saw a story on the website which read:

The NEW Arecibo Message

"We are seeking innovative ideas resulting from a global collaborative effort of inter-generation [sic], diverse and international teams of students to inspire a new generation of space enthusiasts and define the New Arecibo Message."  The Challenge was issued on November 16th, one day after my story.

Sacre Bleu!  They read my suggestion.  And they built a whole contest around it.  Are you kidding me?  Was it my suggestion that did it?

Most likely it was not.  I do believe that the Transit Museum created an exhibit around my comment card.  I do not believe the Arecibo Lab created a contest around my blog article.  There was not enough time for them to put it together.  It was one day.  Had it been a few weeks or months later, I would gladly have taken credit for it.  In this case it was likely just a fantastic coincidence.  Or I have precognition.   Ya, probably not.

At any rate, there it is.  The makings of the New Arecibo Message.  Well, it's about time, fellas.  It has only been 45 years!  I guess things move more slowly down in that part of the world.  I suppose I would too, if every day it was sunny and warm and everywhere you went people were handing you coconut cups full of rum, with little paper umbrellas in them.  That is how I picture everyday life in Puerto Rico.  I am certain this is true.

From the looks of it, the new message will be similarly primitive.  Why bother.  They are asking kids to come up with the next message.  I suppose the scientists at the lab had a brain-storming session to figure out why the first message, only 45 years ago, has not received a response yet.  They polished off the second bottle of rum and realized they were out of little paper umbrellas.  One of the senior scientists suggested sending the intern out for more umbrellas, "The kid.  Send the kid out for more."

The other guy was like, "The kid.  Eureka!  That's it!  We'll use kids!"

Yes, it is true that all scientists say, "Eureka," when a light bulb comes on above their heads. You can look it up.

What is the New Arecibo Message?

Oy vey.  I have to put my critic's hat back on, for a minute.  Remember the first message?  I provided more detail on it in the article Deep Space Signal back in January of this year.  It was a crudely-crafted binary-coded message which when decoded would produce the image on the right.

The old Arecibo Message

Back in October of 1985 I received a copy of Mad Magazine in the mail.  I had a five year subscription.  That is a big commitment for a 12 year old.  I was receiving those stupid magazines every month until I was 17.  I loved it, though, and I still have all of them.

That particular issue was significant to this story in that it contained computer code.  I was already a computer nerd at that time, even though I did not own a computer and never imagined that a decade later I would become a software engineer.

My school only had a few computers and I was one of the only kids who actually knew how to program them.  I had little training because there were no teachers at my school who knew much about computer programming.

Mad Magazine Computer Program

So I would sit there, a junior high student in the back of the Math room with my back to the room while older students took Trigonometry, and I would hack away at code, writing If Then statements and Looping structures.

Once in a while the computer would start beeping erratically and everyone would turn around and look at me.  I would put my arms over the computer like it was naked and someone was about to take a picture of it.  It was not long before a couple more computers were purchased and placed in the library, which became my new hacking station.

I was one of the few idiots in the world who actually sat there and tried to write the Mad Magazine Computer Program.  Sadly, my code did not run and the program did not render the surprise I eagerly anticipated.  It turns out it was just a pixelated picture of Alfred E. Newman, Mad Magazine's mascot / spokesman.  You can see it here

That was all a long and winding way of saying, the first Arecibo Message sucked.  Why on Earth did we send out something which, if you actually took the time to decode it, looked like a game for the Atari 2600?  Why not send out a message with actual words or images?  What kind of dummies created this?  Some guy named Dr. Carl Sagan worked on it.  What a maroon! ;)

The New Arecibo Message
The New Arecibo Message
The meaning behind the message is actually pretty smart.  There is information coded into it which represents the building blocks of basic life, DNA, Humanity, and our solar system.  It is a way of telling people on other planets, "Hey, I speak science.  Look, DNA!"  It is like when a kid says, "I speak Japanese.  Karate!  Sushi!  Toyota!"  We are smarter than that, people.

How to Create an Arecibo Message

We think aliens are smart enough to decode odd binary-coded messages and decipher deeper meaning behind them but not smart enough to decode a verbal greeting, inviting them to land on the White House lawn.  I disagree.  Why not just use something like EDI?

When I was a programmer I built a few applications to exchange data between two different companies.  When swapping info between two businesses you have to account for the likelihood that each company has built their own software for internal use and those programs will not be compatible with the other companies' programs.  So the company sending the information has to send instructions that the computer on the other end can read and use to determine how to interpret the information which will follow.

The instructions tell the other computer what format the data will come in, how long the transmission will be, and other important info to enable it to properly handle what it is about to receive.  Why not just do something like that, with aliens?

How about we send aliens instructions on how to decode a phone call, in English, and then they can call us and talk to us.  Sounds easy enough to me.  Am I missing something?

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Thank you for reading and keep an eye on the sky.