A drawing of a hydrogen atom. A map of Earth. A visual representation of DNA’s double-helix structure. Scientists hope that these and other messages, written in binary code of zeroes and ones, will resonate with extraterrestrial life forms in the Milky Way galaxy and invite them to strike up a conversation with Earthlings.
And if they don’t, maybe the nude illustrations researchers intend to transmit into space will.
Researchers from a range of institutions, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently published their proposal for communicating with aliens in the open-source scientific repository Arxiv.
Though the decision to include pixelated drawings of naked humans in the mix may seem odd at first blush, researchers have good reason to include them, reasoning that aliens would, naturally, want to know what humans look like.
The page containing the two human figures “can easily be considered one of the most important parts of the message,” the scientists write, adding that the physical depiction “would certainly be of compelling interest.”
The proposed message won’t be the first to include nudes. In 1972, researchers launched the Pioneer 10 space probe, which contained a small gold plaque with an illustration of a naked man and woman, along with Earth’s location in the galaxy and other messaging. It’s not clear whether extraterrestrials ever received Pioneer 10’s message, but the probe sent its last signal in January 2003 while it was 7.6 billion miles away.
This latest bid to communicate with aliens, dubbed “A Beacon in the Galaxy,” or BITG for short, is a follow-up to a 1974 interstellar message scientists sent from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to a globular cluster some 25,000 light-years away. That note contained a crude, stick-figure representation of a human, a DNA double helix, atomic numbers of the chemicals necessary for life on Earth and a drawing of the telescope, which collapsed in 2020.
NASA also tried to communicate with extraterrestrials when it launched Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977. Both spacecrafts contained a 12-inch, gold-plated copper phonograph record with images and sounds from Earth, including greetings in 55 languages.
These chaste messages gave rise to a more offbeat (and unofficial) transmission in the 1980s. Scientific artist Joe Davis objected to the fact that NASA’s messages didn’t convey the female reproductive system. So he recorded the vaginal contractions of ballerinas and other women and made a mashup of electronic music and spoken words based on the data. Davis covertly transmitted “Poetica Vaginal” into space using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s million-watt radio telescope.
The proposed message is more straightforward—and though it will contain the human form, it won’t contain references to human culture. Including images of humanity’s greatest art and architecture would make the message prohibitively large, the researchers argue, and the aliens may not understand what they mean.
“If humanity were receiving a message containing these depictions it is not clear we would understand what they meant,” they write.
Instead, they plan to focus on concepts that any intelligent life form would presumably understand: math and physics.
For now, the message is basically a rough draft, though the scientists want to someday transmit it from the powerful Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China and the Allen Telescope Array in California to a specific section of Milky Way they believe is the most likely place for life to have developed.
Their ultimate goal is to start a dialogue with intelligent extraterrestrial beings, no matter how far in the future that happens. And though the nude illustrations are intended to serve a practical, non-sexual purpose, the scientists are taking Carl Sagan’s open-minded approach all the same. As the astronomer once wrote, “Even if the aliens are short, dour, and sexually obsessed—if they’re here, I want to know about them.”