Right now, as you read this, our world is being watched keenly and closely by a nearby alien spacecraft. So far the aliens have only observed circumstantial evidence of life: water, oxygen, and a mysterious light-absorbing chemical (chlorophyll). But the aliens are about to detect something that will prove conclusively not only that there’s life on Earth but that there is intelligent life.
Okay, the content of Earth’s radio broadcasts might not seem all that intelligent, but the existence of such broadcasts is clear, unambiguous evidence of a technologically advanced civilization of some kind.
First off, these radio signals are being affected by Earth’s ionosphere in a particularly telling way. During the day, the ionosphere becomes energized by solar radiation, effectively blocking the planet’s radio emissions from escaping into space. But at night, the ionosphere calms down and allows more radio signals through. Because the aliens detect most of the radio emissions from the night side rather than the day side, it would seem clear to them that the signals originate on the planet’s surface, rather than sources near or directly behind the planet.
Secondly, the radio emissions remain stable at constant frequencies over the course of many hours. Naturally occurring radio emissions would tend to drift significantly from one frequency to another over that time period. This strongly suggests an artificial source.
And thirdly, these signals exhibit “pulse-like amplitude modulation”—in other words, the signals appear to be modulated in such a way as to contain bits of information. I imagine this would present something of a double challenge for the aliens: first the technical challenge of decoding the signals, and then the linguistic challenge of interpreting our language—or rather, our many languages.
Whether or not the aliens could make any sense out of these radio signals, this sort of pulsed amplitude modulation is never observed with naturally occurring radio sources. The only reasonable hypothesis is that there is intelligent life on the planet’s surface.
Tomorrow, in the final post for this “Alien Eyes on Earth” series, the aliens will report their findings back to their home planet, and there’s one word—one particular scientific term—that will feature prominently in that report.
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Today’s post was inspired by a 1993 paper by Carl Sagan and others. Sagan and his colleagues wanted to know which of Earth’s features can be observed by a passing spacecraft and, perhaps more interestingly, which features cannot.
P.S.: Of course the aliens would pick up more than just pop music. They’d be able to hear our news, educational programming, personal cell phone calls, coded military transmissions, et cetera, et cetera… but something tells me that music in particular would draw their interest. The special combination of mathematics and aesthetics is, in my opinion, one of the strongest indicators of intelligent life.