The First Comprehensive Account of Every Cultural Artifact and Message Sent into Space

Humans aren’t the only things sent into space. Along with actual people society has sent many objects, messages and miscellaneous items from Earth into outer space, hoping it will make its way to some form of extraterrestrial life. For example, there are more conventional items like the 1974 Arecibo message, which famously outlines scientific concepts such as chemical elements, DNA and the numbers one through ten. Then there’s the 2008 Message sent from Earth, which is a collection of 501 text messages, photographs, and drawings that depict the lives and ambitions of those who wrote and drew them.

Moreover, there are slightly more fun transmissions like the 2008 Doritos’ video advertisement, a Star Trek-inspired invitation to an Earth-based Klingon Opera performance and a personal note from Paul McCartney.

Although researchers have had a vague sense of what’s been sent into the universe as a way to introduce ourselves to our alien counterparts, now there is a new study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology that represents the first comprehensive account of every cultural artifact and message ever sent into space.

Paul E. Quast, the creator of the catalogue and director of the non-profit Beyond the Earth Foundation, explained to Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow that all this data makes both a fluid, artificial field of intelligent design that stems outwards from Earth as well as a celestial legacy of our civilization beyond the borders of Earth.

As per the study, the disorganized cluster of information floating around space could end up making extraterrestrial intelligence adopt a slanted view of Earth and our people. For instance, it’s possible that these artifacts and messages represent an interpretation of the world that lacks cultural and ideological diverse viewpoints. What’s more, messages provided by different sources could contradict each other, confusing aliens with a conflicted understanding of our society.

This new catalogue offers a centralized database, but it may not prevent such obstacles from emerging. However, it does give scientists a complete overview of the image humans hope to present to their extraterrestrial neighbours. As Laskow stated, transmissions encompass everything from eternal libraries that are responsible for storing information beyond 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 an extended period of time.

As Robin Seemangal writes for The Observer, Quast himself was in charge of one of the more recent projects. In 2016, he worked in conjunction with institutions across Europe, Canada, the United States, and Asia to craft a piece called “A Simple Response to an Elemental Message.” This celestial message in a bottle asked participants to answer the question of how humans’ current environmental interactions form the future of Earth. He then shipped their replies to the North Star, known as Polaris. Seemangal notes that the estimated time of arrival is 434 years after departure.

Interestingly, “A Simple Response” has many similarities to one of the most famous 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. 115 analog photos include pictures of planets, sketches of human bodies at various stages of development and snapshots of daily life across Earth. There’s also an assortment of sounds such as whale songs, chimpanzee screeches, spoken greetings recorded in 55 languages, and a 90-minute musical sample.

Ann Druyan, the project’s creative director, told Christopher Joyce from NPR in a 2017 interview that she and her colleagues disagreed with the inclusion of items referencing the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and similar examples of humanity’s darker side. However, Carl Sagan, an astronomer who was in charge of the team, argued against it, stating concerns that it could be misconstrued as a threat. Druyan adds that he was worried it would be misunderstood and not seen as an expression of failure and regret on the part of humanity.

Sagan’s argument highlights potential problems connected with efforts to reach extraterrestrial life. As Laskow writes, it’s possible making contact could produce chaos amongst humans or even trigger aliens to wreak havoc on Earth. Yet, the collective human experience represented by Quast’s database is significant not only to potential celestial friends or foes but for humankind itself.

Entries like the Arecibo message and the Golden Record definitely provide a more thoughtful reflection of humanity. However, as the catalogue demonstrates, there’s also room for fun. One representation of fun is the 20,000 Twitter postings and celebrity videos deployed 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 outlines as a series of weak test transmissions of vaginal contraction sounds (translated into text, music and phonetic speech) from ballet dancers.

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Jessica Zeitz