The Arecibo Message

Let's say you're a human with a big radio transmitter, who wants to send a message to the putative aliens out there light-years away, listening by their radio receivers. What would your message say? How would you format it, since you don't have any concept of the recipient's language or cognitive abilities? What would be most interesting and salient to a completely unknown civilization? Given the limits of the exercise, there are only a few known factors about the recipient: you can assume that the recipient is technologically advanced enough to have built a radio, received the message, and recognized that it's actually a message rather than noise. But aside from that, a world of questions surround the issue.

Carl Sagan dramatized this problem (in reverse) in his 1985 book Contact. His novel was likely based on his own experience more than ten years earlier, he was faced with the challenge in real life. In 1974, astrophysicist Frank Drake proposed sending just such a message -- and Sagan was recruited to help write and format it.

Drake, Sagan, and others developed a message to be broadcast by the Arecibo radio telescope, using a mathematical scheme they hoped could be decoded by an alien civilization. The message itself consisted of just 1,679 binary digits (1's and 0's). The digits were broadcast one per second, on November 16, 1974. The telescope was pointed at the M13 cluster, some 25,000 light years away. The broadcast was never repeated -- hopefully someone will be listening when the message arrives in deep space (for what it's worth, by the time 25,000 years pass, M13 will no longer be where it was when we sent the message -- so our transmission will miss whoever lives there). But let's get back to brass tacks -- what did the message say? Well, using binary encoding, the message carried the information below. (A colorized version of the message, rendered as blocks, is also presented at left.)

  1. the numbers one (1) through ten (10)
  2. the atomic numbers of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, which make up deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)
  3. the formulas for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA
  4. the number of nucleotides in DNA, and a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA
  5. a graphic figure of a man, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth
  6. a graphic of Earth's solar system
  7. a graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish

It's clear that the transmission was more a symbolic event than an actual attempt at communication -- if we were attempting to communicate, we'd probably send the message more than once, or to more than one spot in the sky. (A 1999 press release said as much, with Cornell Professor Donald Campbell explaining, "It was strictly a symbolic event, to show that we could do it.") But the possibility remains that some intelligence could intercept the message and perhaps decode it -- and maybe, just maybe, reply. In August of 2001, a crop circle appeared in farmland near the Chibolton radio telescope in Hampshire, UK. Known to crop circle aficionados as the Arecibo reply, the pattern looked like a modified version of the original transmission, showing a big-headed alien and adding silicon to the list of elements, among other changes. While it's clearly a hoax, it's a clever one, and took a lot of work to put together.

Further reading: the Arecibo message at Wikipedia, a mathematical explanation of the message, and more on Frank Drake.

So let's hear it: if you were sending a message into the unknown depths of space, what would you say?

The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression

Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

Pop Culture
The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM

FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

“In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

[h/t Fast Company]


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