By Maria Vincent

“Are we alone?” is a question people have attempted to answer since they first explored space. But now, that search is going in an additional direction- are there intelligent creatures in space? One of the earliest mentions of extraterrestrial intelligence dates back to 1896. The Drake equation predicts the existence of such an intelligent race beyond Earth. The members of the SETI Institute, and several others believe so. If that’s the thing, then are we prepared to meet our potential peers or rivals, or however you want to put that? Find out more in…

The E.T. Diaries

Part I: Talking with Intelligent Aliens

     Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence has always been a fascination, especially for those who believe it is a reality. While the search for any form of alien life has been going on in one direction, searching for physical evidence, searching for intelligent life is proceeding in another. Such a search for an intelligent race beyond Earth is pursued through communication attempts, since modes and complexity of communication have always been regarded a hallmark of intelligence.  

     Early mentions of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Nikola Tesla proposed in 1896 that the wireless electrical transmission system he designed to transmit electrical energy around the world could be used to contact Martians if developed into a much more powerful version than the one he wanted to create as power infrastructure on Earth.[1] In addition, Guglielmo Marconi, Lord Kelvin, and David Peck Todd suggested in the early 1900s that radio systems also might be used to establish contact with Mars. [2]

     Even before we tried speaking to the so-called intelligent aliens, there have been instances when we thought they were talking to us—like the discovery of the first pulsars by Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell. After discovering a source of a rapidly repeating radio signal, they named the source LGM-1, for “Little Green Men,” as a joke. Though the discoverers themselves ruled out that the signal was generated by aliens, the general public were caught in a frenzy of excitement over the thought until a year later when Thomas Gold concluded their source to be a rapidly rotating neutron star. [3]

     Ever since radio signals have been discovered, they have been put to various uses. Our first notable attempt to communicate with any intelligent life out there is the use of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to send a message to the globular cluster M13, 25,000 light-years away.

     The Arecibo message, a combination of 1679 binary digits (equivalent to the product of two primes— 73 and 23), was broadcast into space a single time via frequency modulated radio waves.  The message consists of the numbers 1-10, the atomic numbers of elements that make up DNA, structural information on DNA, a graphic figure of a human, a graphic of the Solar System indicating the messenger planet, and a graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope. This particular set of data was transmitted in the hope of giving information about intelligent life here on Earth, including our very origins, what we look like, and what sort of equipment we used for the conversation conveyed by the “image” of the telescope. Many people may argue that this information is not comprehensive enough as an introduction since intelligent life may not even know binary or the structure of DNA. But it definitely was a great first step toward a conversation with E.T.

     Three years later, NASA sent two 12-inch, gold coated phonograph records aboard Voyager-1 and Voyager-2 containing audiovisual media intended to illustrate life and culture on Earth [4]. For example, the sounds on the records include natural sounds as well as music, greetings in different languages, and even brainwaves while images range from scientific maps and diagrams to those representative of people’s daily routines. The Voyager messages thus held far more information than the Arecibo message in this respect, given that they conveyed more about intelligent life on Earth, what that life did, what that life studied, how the life lived, and what the life wanted to tell those fascinating, intelligent aliens out there. The records have travelled incredibly far, with Voyager 1 having entered interstellar space and Voyager 2 being in the heliosheath. These messages are more or less like a message in a bottle, but this time in vast, endless space.

     However, as technologically and creatively advanced those messages may be, they have drawbacks that still have no satisfactory solution.

     One major difficulty that arises in these attempts to communicate is that we don’t know what we’re really looking for. Perhaps the civilizations out there are simply intelligent beyond our understanding, and we may have a long way to go before we reach their level of understanding. They may not even use prime numbers or phonographic records. Our instruments may not be even suited for their own messages. Another obstacle we may consider is the long distance nature of trans-cosmos communication. For instance, the Arecibo message will take 25,000 years to reach its destination. If there really is an intelligent species out there that understands and responds to our message, it will take another 25,000 years for their response to reach us. So we may not get our answers in our lifetime.

     The hope we hold for communication with another intelligent civilization, assuming one exists, thus has a melancholic aspect to it. Anthropologist John Traphagan of the University of Texas says,

"When it comes to ET, you'll get a signal of some kind; not much information and very long periods between ‘Hi, how are you?’ and whatever comes back. We may just shrug our shoulders and say 'This is boring’, and soon forget about it or, if the time lag wasn't too long, we might use the minimal information we get from our slow-speed conversation to invent what we think they're like and invent a kind concept of what they're after." (6)

Our technology and intelligence have advanced to an extent that we can detect beacons or intentional signals. In our search, we also look for leakage radiation - indicative of an intelligent civilization that uses radio signals, like we do, for communication. However, we don’t know if the intelligent species out there, if any, use something else that is beyond the scope of our observations. Who knows if they’ve been trying to talk to us but we are not technologically capable of receiving their messages. But what if we were able to finally establish communication? How would things be? What would we end up talking about?


  1. Seifer, Marc J. Wizard: the life and times of Nikola Tesla: biography of a genius. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1996.
  2.  Corum, Kenneth L, and James F. Corum. Nikola Tesla and the electrical signals of planetary origin. 1996.
  3. American Physical Society. “This Month in Physics History: February 1968: The Discovery of Pulsars Announced.” APS News, February 2006.
  4. California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The Golden Record.” Voyager.
  5. California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “What are the contents of the Golden Record?” Voyager, Golden Record.
  6. Logan, Tracey. “Are we sending aliens the right messages?” BBC, November 12, 2014.