Extra Terrestrial Intelligence-1: Getting a signal

In the years 2002 and 2003, during the peak of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement, I was invited to a few meetings of that movement to provide the opposing view. This was the time when the IDC side was promoting such debates as a means of increasing visibility for IDC ideas.

During those meetings I heard over and over again about the significance of the film Contact, based on the novel of the same name by astronomer Carl Sagan. This surprised me because I knew Sagan was a self-described agnostic. Why was the work of such a well-known skeptic being shown so much love at gatherings of religious believers? I was intrigued by this question but didn’t get around to reading the book or seeing the film until I did both last month.

I now understand the IDC people’s fascination with Contact. The book and film deal with extra-terrestrials making contact with people on Earth. The signal of their existence is that radio telescopes on Earth start receiving a series of pulsed signals from outer space that are the sequence of prime numbers, which are numbers that can only be divided by themselves or one. (i.e., the numbers, 1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19,23,…)

While prime numbers are a source of great fascination for mathematicians and are used by them in a wide variety of ways (cryptography being one), there is no naturally occurring physical process that generates those numbers. Hence the reception of prime numbers is an unambiguous signal of a real intelligence out there manufacturing these artifacts, unlike the earlier false alarms created by the detection of pulsars in 1967. Those earlier signals consisted of regular pulses of energy with very precise times between each pulse and initially were thought to be signals sent by an extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) but were later found to be caused by rotating neutron stars. But one would be hard pressed to find naturally occurring physical explanations for signals that had the pattern of the prime numbers

The IDC people used this idea from Contact to argue that the existence of certain biological systems could not occur naturally and hence were similarly unambiguous signals for the existence of an ‘outside’ intelligence. While this intelligence could also be extra-terrestrial (as postulated by the Raelians), the IDC people preferred to believe that it was caused by god. This was the Paley’s Watch and Mount Rushmore metaphors modernized.

I found both book and film interesting but mildly dissatisfying. Sagan’s weaknesses as a novelist show, though his knowledge and command of science help to make the book readable.

All books and films that deal with contact with ETIs suffer from the same problem, that the really exciting part is the thrill of discovering the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence and the anticipation of what aliens look like, are like, and their attitudes towards us. But we just do not have any data at all on which to base our conceptions of these alien beings, so any choice the authors make is bound to be seen as deficient. Whatever the creators dream up about the actual encounter cannot help but be a bit of an anticlimax.

All the novels that I have read on this topic (admittedly not that many) suffer from the fact that the plot’s dynamic requires a revelation of the ETI at the end but the actual realization of the concept is almost always disappointing. I don’t see any way around it.

Next: More on ETIs.

POST SCRIPT: How to become a New York Times columnist

All you have to do is be consistently wrong.


  1. says

    I agree, Mano. That’s why my favorite depiction of aliens in the movies is from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Here aliens are only dealt with indirectly, and never actually seen. Even their advanced technology has been reduced to a metaphor. Many don’t understand the film, but I feel that is part of the point: we will probably not be *able* to comprehend advanced alien intelligence.

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