Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Communicating in Space and Cyberspace

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all
Arecibo digital message - click to enlarge
On November 16, 1974, the Arecibo radio-telescope in Puerto Rico, transmitted a radio signal to outer space. It was directed at a globular cluster, M13 - a massive cluster of hundreds of thousands of stars, some 25,100 light years away. This was an attempt to communicate with galactic civilizations outside our own galaxy.

Communicating in space:

The Arecibo message consisted of digital information. Laid out in an array of 73 rows by 23 columns, it may appear like the picture above.

The pattern in white, along the top row, defines the binary code used throughout the rest of the message. The second line shows information about the 5 essential elements of which we are made - hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus. The blocks in green and blue and the vertical white block show the special parts that make up DNA, the building blocks of life itself.

Other parts to the left and right of the little red creature, show respectively the average height and population of the creatures here on earth. The yellow line depicts the sun and the relative sizes and positions of its eight planets and dwarf planet. Earth is identified by its displacement in the pattern. The violet radio telescope points to the code in white that shows the size of the telescope.

If the Arecibo message is detected and decoded by a galactic civilization, it will take over 50,000 years before we will receive a reply. If we ever receive one, let's hope it's not the equivalent of a voice-mail message.

More detailed information about our position in the universe was sent in another direction in 1977 on the Voyager mission. A capsule contained a gold recording of sounds here on earth, together with explicit engravings on its gold cover showing our precise location in the solar system.

NASA's Voyager Golden RecordCourtesy NASA.

Communicating in cyberspace:

Much of the advice given to young learners networking in cyberspace is to do with the protection of personal identity. Young networkers, who understand the risks, use a nickname in their communications. They take care not to share personal data such as full name, age, phone number, email address or street address.

Both the Arecibo message and the Voyager information contravene the precautions now recognised to protect personal information when communicating. If these missions were launched today, would we be so willing to share precise details about ourselves as well as our precise location? We'll have to wait a bit to find out what the consequences might bring us.

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Ka kite anō - Catch ya later


V Yonkers said...

I think one of the issues this reveals is how to make yourself known to the unknown while still being secure.

The fact is that many youth reveal physical characteristics about themselves that really are not a threat to their own personal safety.

However, with the exception of the DNA string (hopefully in 50,000 years the DNA will be mutated enough so beings wanting to menace us will not have the code) very little of the information could be used against our own safety.

I think even in face to face meetings, we hold something back until we can trust the person. However, we make assumptions based on physical characteristics. This is the problem in cyberspace (who is to say that the coded message that went into space is really accurate).

Shaun Wood said...

Wow what fun read. I found the potential to explore visual language very exciting. What about asking if knowledge itself is dangerous? This is going to be a great resource, thank you.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia.

Recent observations to do with cybersafety of juveniles has indicated clearly that posting personal details can present the potential for considerable risk. Pictures as well as email, phone or home address can be used for less than caring purposes, including bullying or worse.

My understanding of the 'DNA string' is that it was an attempt to communicate the so-called carbon-base nature of life forms here on earth. The symbols are not specific to humans necessarily, as we share the DNA backbone with many other life forms. This suggests that a major change in the basic structure is unlikely even in 50,000 years. Who knows?

Perhaps the accuracy of the coded message is not as important as the intent to communicate, for as you pointed out, there is scope for things to change here in the next 50,000 years. Let's hope that any change isn't too far removed from the life we recognise in human forms today.

Ka kite

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Shaun.

Great that you found this stuff interesting. I've put a link on the first mention of the Arecibo message (I forgot to do this when I posted :-| . It gives more detail about the message - could be another useful resource for you.

I've no doubt about the potential for knowledge being dangerous. But usually it's the lack of it that's the real problem. Certainly that seems to be the case with cyber issues. Alexander Pope, in his Essay On Criticism, gave us the line, "A little learning is a dangerous thing." I just love Pope's wit.

Ka kite

samccoy said...

Yes, in the 1970's, we were often guided by very naive scientists like Carl Sagan who, like our scientists who supported the creation of the atom bomb, NEVER thought of the unintended consequences in a coherent manner, it seems to me.

Remember the movie, CONTACT, with Jodie Foster? Carl Sagan wrote the novel that was the source material for the movie. Sagan always chose to make the aliens benign or positively favoring humans, while Sagan's faith in humanity was very negative.

Carl Sagan was very influential in sending both these messages you mentioned in your excellent posting. This may explain why they were so open in their total inclusion of the basic data that makes us who we are.

I think since then, humans have decided that we don't have to welcome others from another world the way Montezuma welcomed Cortez, as a demi-god sent to fulfill their Aztec scriptures.

Through the writings of science fiction authors, we have had time, since we began to explore our local space, to think, to brainstorm about various scenarios of an unknown future. What will happen when humans meet living organisms from another world?

Your analogy of comparing these two foreign space continuums is "spot on". The messages, from Voyager and Arecibo, shouted out to the universe and our online presence are analagous to one another.

In my view, people are a bit more aware through our problem solving, role playing, and real experiences online to take a more tempered, less naive view of Cyberspace. There will always be a need to keep telling the safety story for young and new online participants.

I am impressed with your ongoing discussion of internet safety and privacy, from your commenting guide to this post. Thanks, your writing moved me to correlate this analogy within my experiences.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Samccoy!

My boyhood heroes were Jacob Bronowski, Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling. It wasn't until much later I realised that they were all pacifists.

I had a passing interest in Sagan and admired his imagination. But I found Asimov more down to earth. Besides, he was a chemist, and an excellent writer too.

I remember reading about Oppie and the Manhattan project. I was shocked to learn that the scientists didn't really know how powerful the atom bomb was until they detonated the first one. Even they were shocked when they found out its power.

I felt a similar pang of doubt recently when experiments went ahead on the Large Hadron Collider. It may be my natural caution, but I felt that the scientists (again) didn't really know what they were toying with.

I guess the natural curiosity of humankind is what has put us where we are today, still pushing the frontiers.

Ka kite

Claire said...

Nice analogy. What a great example to use with students when discussing their safety online. Perhaps it could be used as a starter for an essay or assignment. Thanks for the inspiration :-)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Claire!

Yes this is a strange topic. I must admit that I thought much about it, even after I'd posted it up, and wondered what people might think about my take on the matter.

But you're right - it is a good opener for further discussion on cybersafety. Thanks for the suggestion. I could use that one!

Ka kite