The objects, messages and miscellany dispatched from Earth to outer space in hopes of reaching extraterrestrial life paint an eclectic portrait of humanity. On the more conventional side, there’s the 1974 Arecibo message, which famously details scientific concepts ranging from chemical elements to DNA and the numbers one through ten, and the 2008 Message from Earth, which is a collection of 501 text messages, photographs and drawings capturing participants’ lives and ambitions. Comparatively, transmissions such as a 2008 Doritos’ video advertisement, a Star Trek-inspired invitation to an Earth-based Klingon Opera performance and a personal note from Paul McCartney fall on the more unusual end of the spectrum.
Researchers have long had a vague sense of the information released into the universe as a means of introducing humans to our alien counterparts, but a new study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology represents the first comprehensive accounting of every cultural artifact and message beamed into space.
As Paul E. Quast, creator of the catalogue and director of the non-profit Beyond the Earth Foundation, explains to Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow, the assorted data forms both a “fluctuating, artificial field of intelligent design that emanates outwards from our planet” and “the celestial legacy of our civilization beyond Earth’s borders.”
According to the study, the disorganized jumble of information floating around space could lead extraterrestrial intelligence to adopt a slanted perspective of Earth and its inhabitants. It’s possible, for example, that these artifacts and messages present an interpretation of the world lacking culturally and ideologically diverse viewpoints. At the same time, messages offered by different sources could contradict each other, leaving aliens with a conflicted understanding of humanity.
The centralized database may not preclude the emergence of such obstacles, but it does provide scientists with a more complete overview of the image humans hope to present to their extraterrestrial neighbors. As Laskow notes, transmissions encompass everything from “eternal libraries” responsible for storing information off of Earth to art, official cultural outreach initiatives, direct appeals to alien intelligence and symbolic gestures. All entries in the catalogue must have been available in space for a moderate to extended period of time.
Quast himself spearheaded one of the more recent projects, Robin Seemangal writes for The Observer. In 2016, he collaborated with institutions across Europe, Canada, the United States and Asia to create a piece entitled “A Simple Response to an Elemental Message.” The celestial message in a bottle asked participants to address the question of how humans’ current environmental interactions shape Earth’s future and shipped their replies to the North Star, Polaris. Estimated time of arrival, Seemangal notes, is 434 years from departure.
“A Simple Response” shares many similarities with one of the most well-known items on the list, a collection of images and sounds embedded in a so-called “Golden Record” carried by twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2. The 115 analog images included photographs of planets, sketches of human bodies at various stages of development and snapshots of daily life across the planet, while the assortment of sounds featured whale songs, chimpanzee screeches, spoken greetings recorded in 55 languages, and a 90-minute musical sample.
As project creative director Ann Druyan told NPR’s Christopher Joyce in a 2017 interview, she and her colleagues disagreed regarding the inclusion of items referencing the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide and similar examples of humanity’s darker side. Carl Sagan, an astronomer who led the team, argued against it, citing concerns that it would be misconstrued as a threat. Druyan adds, “He wasn't really certain that it would be understood for what it was—an expression of failure and regret on our part.”
Sagan’s argument speaks to the potential problems associated with attempts to reach extraterrestrial life; Laskow writes that it’s possible making contact could generate chaos amongst humans or even prompt aliens to wreak havoc on our world. Still, the collective human experience represented by Quast’s database is significant not only to potential celestial friends or foes, but to mankind itself.
“It’s reflective of how we judge ourselves and our perceived position throughout the universe,” Quast tells Laskow. “It’s quite inward reflecting.”
Entries such as the Arecibo message and the Golden Record certainly offer a more contemplative reflection of humanity, but as the catalogue shows, there’s room for fun, too. Just look to the 20,000 Twitter postings and celebrity videos dispatched by National Geographic in 2012, a six-minute broadcast of a Stephen Hawking speech, and the oddly specific “Poetica Vaginal,” a series of 1986 recordings the catalogue describes as “a series of weak test transmissions of vaginal contraction sounds (translated into text, music and phonetic speech) from ballet dancers.”