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Aliens Meet Aliens

Design Research, 2020

A message that reveals the hidden connotations behind aliens

Longing to find aliens in space, and maybe even communicate with them, humans have developed multiple hypotheses about their existence and methods to contact them with radio telescopes. By far, we have sent greeting messages embedded in the Golden Records, our biological data encoded in binary codes, and many more to the potential aliens. Even though no single reply has been received yet, the belief in the existence of aliens has only increased in the past few decades, transforming the notion of aliens from pure imagination into emerging issues that span from conspiracy theories, and space colonization to planetary governance. How come the imaginary aliens can take on growing power to influence our beliefs in the unknown and the perceptions of other regions and planets? 


Aliens Meet Aliens is a design research that delves into the evolution of aliens, seeking to investigate the interweave between humans and aliens by looking into related literature, films, and case studies. By dissecting aliens in pop culture, media reports, and space science, this research seeks to take on the standpoints of philosophy and sociology, aiming to question how the belief in aliens was formed, what hidden connotations behind aliens can be revealed, and how we can re-approach the idea of aliens.


Alien Movements

Realness is nowhere, yet phantom is everywhere


Oumuamua is the first interstellar object detected passing through the Solar System.

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LIR, GOFAST, GIMBAL - The videos declassified by the Pentagon show "unidentified aerial phenomena" that baffled pilots.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, my morning routine involved reading news updates on my phone, primarily about vaccination and the American presidential election. However, a headline claiming a Harvard astrophysicist still believes an alien machine visited us caught my attention. The article referred to Oumuamua, a peculiar cigar-shaped object that passed through our solar system in 2017. Its unique density and velocity led Harvard's Avi Loeb to suggest it might be proof of alien technology, though few scientists support this idea for fear of challenging conventional scientific inquiry. Additionally, the alien community was intrigued by the Pentagon confirming three UFO videos and the sudden appearance of a metal monolith in Utah, reminiscent of the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. These incidents reinvigorated the long-standing debate about extraterrestrial visitors to Earth.


Elsewhere, humans continue to search for life beyond Earth. Instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Curiosity rover on Mars, along with efforts from Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and China's F.A.S.T, the largest radio telescope, focus on detecting signs of intelligent life. Despite no solid evidence of aliens, many people still believe in their existence.


In 2015, NASA's heliophysics director Jeffrey Newmark stated that discovering aliens is a matter of 'when' not 'if.' The 1995 ALH 84001 meteorite case, which might contain ancient microbial fossils from Mars, sparked much public excitement and controversy, particularly among religious groups. Jim Green, NASA's Director of Planetary Science, argues that we should challenge our stereotypes about aliens and prepare for their potential arrival. The question of humanity's readiness for alien contact involves complex issues, as demonstrated by the ALH 84001 case.


Humans have long fantasized about visiting extraterrestrial worlds, a theme dating back to stories from 200 AD about lunar visits. The reality caught up in 1959 when the Soviet Luna 2 spacecraft landed on the Moon. By the time of Neil Armstrong's moon landing, humans had essentially become the aliens depicted in our stories. Today, as we explore beyond the Moon to planets like Venus and Mars, our ongoing search for alien life redefines our own role as explorers in the universe. According to Jim Green, recognizing our own alien-like qualities now, amid these discoveries, is crucial for reevaluating our views on alien life and fiction's role in shaping our future interactions with the unknown.


An elongated structure resembling a fossil microbe (centre of image), revealed in a photomicrograph of a sample of the Martian meteorite ALH84001.


A Lunar Lander, a Lunar Roving Vehicle and an Apollo 11 astronaut .


The Utah monolith - a 3-meter tall metal pillar that stood in a red sandstone slot canyon in northern San Juan County, Utah.


Pop Culture of Aliens

In lexicology, "alien" is derived from the Latin "alius," which means other or else. Later, the word descended to "alienus," which means strange or foreign. Regarding "alien," the first use of the term to signify a being from beyond Earth appears in a letter written by Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish historian, in 1820. "I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors," he wrote to express his sense of aimlessness as he was about to move to Edinburgh. In general, the term is relatively more common in law and fiction. In law, "alien" is a term to describe a foreign-born resident who is not a citizen by parentage or naturalization and who is still a citizen or subject of another country. In science fiction, the meaning of "alien" with which most people agree indicates sentient beings from other worlds. Through the definitions of "alien" from three different perspectives, it can be seen that they all imply a nexus between the alien and the own. As Bernhard Waldenfels, a German philosopher, proposed in his book Phenomenology of the Alien Basic Concepts, " If the own is interwoven with the alien, this also means that the alien begins in ourselves and not outside ourselves, or rather, it means that we are never entirely at home with ourselves."


In order to understand the ambiguity of aliens, we need to analyze the aliens in fictional literature and film, extracting the hidden connotation behind their stereotypical appearances. In the following exploration, we will visit six aliens from three different themes: visitation, abduction, and invasion, and we will study their intentions and behaviors based on the time they were created.


Skepticism of Authenticity - A True Story

"A True Story" by Lucian of Samosata, written around 200 AD, is considered one of the earliest works of alien fiction, although Lucian himself might not have identified it as such since the genre of science fiction didn't exist during his time. The narrative recounts an adventurous voyage involving Lucian and his companions, where they encounter a series of fantastical islands and events. For instance, they visit an island with a wine river, where the local women can grow grapes from their fingertips and intoxication can come from a kiss. Other bizarre stops include a cheese island, a sea of milk, and being swallowed by a giant whale where they meet fish people.


The climax occurs when a hurricane propels them to the Moon, where they find themselves in the middle of a war between the lunar and solar kings over the Morning Star. The armies consist of outlandish hybrid creatures like three-headed vultures and gigantic fleas. Eventually, the solar forces triumph, leading to a peace treaty.


Lucian's tale is filled with whimsical and fantastical elements but it serves a deeper purpose as a satirical critique of the truthfulness in Greek literature. By presenting outlandish scenarios and creatures, he mocks the credibility of those who wrote of miracles and myths without question. Lucian himself points out the irony of his work by naming it "A True Story" and openly admitting to lying, underscoring his narrative as a critique rather than a mere recounting of fantastical events. His declaration, "My lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar," highlights his intention to provoke thought about authenticity and truth in storytelling. This makes the alien encounters in his story not just exotic lunar beings, but symbols of skepticism challenging the readers to discern truth from fiction.

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The humanoid alien with the giant robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still. 

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Elephant-sized flee in A True Story. 

illustration credit: EderNogueira

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Three-headed Vulture in A True Story.  

illustration credit: EderNogueira

Fear of the Unknown - The Day the Earth Stood Still

"The Day the Earth Stood Still," directed by Robert Wise in 1951, encapsulates the Atomic Age anxieties and the aftermath of two world wars. The plot centers on Klaatu, a humanoid alien, who arrives on Earth with a giant robot in a flying saucer, landing in Washington D.C. Despite his peaceful intentions and a request to speak with global representatives, Klaatu is immediately shot by a military soldier but survives. He hides with a benevolent family, whose son Bobby discovers his identity. Exposed, Klaatu uses his powers to cut the city's electricity, announcing he will deliver his message the next day. He tells the gathered scientists about an interplanetary police force with powerful robots that enforce peace, warning that humanity must choose peace or face destruction. After his plea, Klaatu leaves Earth.


The film reflects the era's longing for peace contrasted with the lingering fear of conflict. The instinctive military response to Klaatu’s arrival illustrates the prevailing fear and suspicion. This depiction of fear towards the unknown also critiques human arrogance about being the superior species, highlighting our vulnerability when faced with advanced beings. Klaatu's character, and the reactions to him, underscore the themes of fear and the potential for coexistence, themes that resonate in later alien-themed films like "Arrival" (2016) and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), which explore similar interactions with the unknown.

The humanoid alien is shot by the military due to human's fear of the unknown. 


Fusions of Monism and Pluralism - Aleriel, A Voyage to Other Worlds

During a holiday in France, an Oxford undergraduate student is caught in the Prussian siege of Paris. Luckily, a peculiar man he previously met helps him escape to Oxford. On their journey, the man shares deep historical insights, astonishing the student with his knowledge. Only years later, through a letter, the student learns that this man is actually Aleriel, an alien from Venus.


In the letter, Aleriel describes his travels to other planets in the solar system, detailing the unique beings of each. Venus is depicted as a spiritual realm of immortal, angel-like beings who worship God and know no pain or war. Mars, previously warlike, now hosts peaceful, giant beings with human faces and lion limbs after a divine visit. Jupiter is home to intelligent, fish-like beings, while Saturn, with its fungal and insectoid life, is deemed devoid of intelligent life.


Aleriel invites the student for a final meeting before returning to Venus, leading to the earliest fictional account of an abduction. Inside Aleriel's crystalline-decorated spacecraft, they discuss religion, politics, and the mysteries of nature. However, the lack of windows and fresh air panics the student, ending their conversation. Aleriel bids farewell with a song, a Venusian blessing, and lets the student leave.


The novel "Aleriel, A Voyage to Other Worlds" (1883) contrasts the interplanetary friendship and understanding with typical abduction narratives. Set in the Victorian era, the story reflects the period's religious conflicts and the rise of science, depicting aliens with a blend of spiritual and biological diversity. The author Lach-Szyrma's preface discusses the unity in diversity, suggesting that life in other worlds, influenced by their physical conditions, parallels Earth's but with distinct developments.


The map of Mars that the alien draws for the student in Aleriel. 

Surrogacy of Conspiracy Theory - Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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The alien mothership that appears in Close Encouners of the Third Kind. 

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The electrician is picked by the humanoid aliens to join the alien mothership.

The story begins with an investigation into WWII aircraft mysteriously reappearing without their pilots. An elderly witness claims "the sun came out at night and sang to him," a description echoed by other UFO witnesses globally. Ufologists replicate the sound, broadcasting it into space, and receive a mysterious numerical response. A cartographist deciphers these numbers into geographical coordinates, prompting a government evacuation of the area. Concurrently, two UFO sightings—one causing a citywide blackout, the other involving a child’s abduction—trigger paranormal experiences for an electrician and the abducted child’s mother, both of whom become fixated on subliminal images of a mountain-like shape.


These individual stories converge when a toxic gas leak near a distinctive tower is reported. The electrician and the child’s mother, suspecting a government cover-up, rush to the site and discover UFOs. The ufologists are there, using the decoded sound to communicate with the aliens. A massive mothership lands, releasing the missing pilots, the child, and other abductees from various eras. While the government plans to exchange a group of humans for the abductees, the aliens choose only the electrician to join them. He boards the mothership, which departs with a peaceful farewell.


"Close Encounters of the Third Kind," directed by Steven Spielberg in 1977, reflects the era's UFO fascination and distrust of government secrecy. The film portrays a benevolent alien race, emphasizing communication over conflict—a stark contrast to typical alien invasion narratives. Despite the aliens' peaceful nature, the story fuels conspiracy theories, such as comparisons to Project Serpo, suggesting Spielberg might have insider knowledge. This film not only highlights the societal divide between UFO believers and skeptics but also contributes to the lore of UFO conspiracies, fostering new theories while promoting a hopeful vision of future human-alien interactions.


Interconnection of worlds - The War of the Worlds

"The War of the Worlds," written by H.G. Wells in 1898, is a seminal alien invasion narrative set in the context of British imperialism. The story unfolds with meteorites, revealed as Martian cylinders, landing near London. The initial peaceful human approach is met with destruction as the Martians use heat-rays to incinerate onlookers. Quickly, the Martians deploy tripodal war machines, overpowering human military efforts with their advanced technology.


As the Martians ravage cities, the protagonist, engulfed in despair, prays for salvation. Unexpectedly, the Martians begin to succumb to Earth’s pathogens to which they have no immunity, ultimately saving humanity. The protagonist credits divine intervention, though it was common microorganisms that halted the invasion.


The novel critiques the era's British colonial exploits, paralleling the Martians' conquest with Britain’s own imperial actions. Wells uses the Martians to embody the consequences of imperialism, where an advanced invader, much like Britain in Africa, encounters unforeseen natural challenges. Wells also incorporates themes of natural selection, reflecting his biological background and the survival of the fittest concept, suggesting that the Martians' superior technology could not shield them from biological vulnerabilities.


Furthermore, the story explores the limitations of religious beliefs, portraying the protagonist's prayers as contrasted with the biological reality of the Martians' demise. The real "war of the worlds" isn't just between humans and Martians but involves a third, invisible player—microorganisms, mirroring historical incidents where diseases impacted colonial powers more than warfare. This twist not only challenges the characters’ expectations but also serves as a broader commentary on the often overlooked forces within our environment.

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Different interpretations of the Martians from The War of the Worlds in novel and movie. (1898, 1953, 2005, 2019) 

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Humans destroy the huge scared tree for the valuable resource. 

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The symbiotic relationship between the Na'vi and the nature on Pandora. 

Hope for Symbiosis - Avatar

In 2154, Earth faces a severe energy crisis, prompting humans to invade Pandora, a distant exoplanet's moon, to extract valuable minerals beneath a sacred tree worshiped by the Na'vi, indigenous blue-skinned giants with a unique connection to their planet's species through their long hair. Given Pandora's toxic atmosphere, humans use genetically engineered hybrids called Avatars, combining human and Na'vi DNA, to interact with the environment. Jake, initially sent as a spy within his Avatar, grows close to the Na'vi and decides to help them resist human oppression.


Despite their advanced weaponry, the humans' initial success in mining is thwarted when Pandora's wildlife, seemingly responding to Jake's prayers to the Na'vi's patron goddess, joins the battle against the invaders. Ultimately, the humans are defeated and forced to leave Pandora, while Jake permanently transfers his consciousness to his Avatar, fully integrating into Na'vi society.


Released in 2009, James Cameron's "Avatar" distinguishes itself not just with groundbreaking visual effects but by reversing traditional roles in alien invasion narratives, showcasing humans as invaders. Unlike typical stories where aliens are the aggressors with superior technology, "Avatar" critiques imperialism and environmental exploitation, drawing parallels between the film's plot and real-world conflicts, such as those in the Amazon rainforest where indigenous people face similar invasions. The film's portrayal of the Na'vi offers a vision of a more symbiotic and respectful coexistence with nature, contrasting sharply with human greed and destructiveness.

By dissecting the aliens that span from the early times and the most iconic fiction, many layers and facets of aliens are revealed. Aliens are a metaphor, which carries the message that the author wants to convey no matter if it is a satire or a true hope for the future. Aliens are a representation of the unknown, which embodies the otherness and beyond in our current understanding and knowledge. Aliens are a mirror of humanity, which reflects our internal fears, hopes, and biases toward the unknown. These connotations behind aliens also echo the idea proposed by Bernhard Waldenfels, that aliens begin inside ourselves. Even though no aliens have been found, the evolution of aliens never stops but continuously evolves along with human civilization, documenting the minds of human beings. If one day we need to show aliens who we really are, perhaps our imagination of aliens would be an well-appropriate option.


Media Reports of Aliens

Walking on a hillside in Portugal, three shepherd children were returning home with their sheep when a bright, oval-shaped cloud descended from the sky amid flashes of lightning. Drawn to the mysterious cloud, they found a female human-like being who emerged and imparted religious instructions, claiming to come from heaven and asking them to return monthly. Word quickly spread that the children had encountered the Virgin Mary, and soon thousands—including skeptics, journalists, and believers—gathered monthly at the site, hoping to witness the apparitions. Known as the Miracle of the Sun, this 1917 event is one of the most famous early alien-related incidents, notable for its 70,000 witnesses. Although the being was only visible to the children, who relayed her messages and prophecies, some onlookers reported seeing the sun dance and emit brilliant colors, adding to the event’s mystique.


Alien visitations and aerial phenomena, often considered sacred, have been familiar concepts throughout history. Reports of encounters with sacred beings date back well before events like the Miracle of the Sun, and were historically recorded as religious occurrences due to the lack of technological explanations. Diana W. Pasulka, a professor of philosophy and religion and author of "American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology," notes that major religions such as Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism document aerial phenomena involving significant figures meeting heavenly beings. In an interview, she states that by the late 19th century, interpretations of these unknown events shifted from religious to technological contexts, evolving into what we now recognize as alien encounters or UFO sightings. Additionally, Christopher Bader, a Professor of Sociology at Chapman University, identifies the iconic 1947 UFO reports as a key turning point in this shift. 

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Miracle of the Sun on the Portugese local newspaper in 1917 


Kenneth Arnold and unidentified flying objects he witnessed in 1947. 


A headline from the local paper in Roswell reports a flying saucer is captured in 1947. 

Besides the narrative reports about aliens, there were also quite a few influential reports on TV. A humanoid alien with large dark eyes and a big head lies motionless on an operating table, dissected by two individuals in medical gowns. The scene, captured in a slightly blurred black and white film, shows the alien with human-like features but distinct anomalies such as no belly button, six fingers, two stomachs, and oversized retinas. Rumors fueled by the film's realism suggest it was leaked from the Roswell incident investigation, with claims of it depicting a real alien. Despite its popularity, earning billions of views, British filmmaker Spyros Melaris revealed in 2017 that the footage is a mockumentary he created in 1995. He demonstrated this with sketches and a model used in production. In 2021, Melaris further elaborated on the hoax in a book, positioning it as a magic trick.


Additionally, a viral 2020 UFO sighting on TikTok showed a UFO in New Jersey's sky, attracting millions of views and shares across social media platforms. The next day, Goodyear clarified that the "UFO" was actually their blimp.


UFO sighting in New Jersey in 2020. 

With the evolving media, aliens have been introduced to the public through books, motion pictures, radio, and the internet. The media makes aliens emerge increasingly genuine, and sometimes even so real that it turns out to cause panic. Like one of the radio drama adaptations of the novel, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast by an American director, Orson Welles, in 1938. As the features of radio broadcasting, are also a flaw, the communication is always unilateral, and the content is unverifiable. Welles presented a story of the Martian invasion in the form of an emergency radio broadcast; unfortunately, this hoax caused not only a national panic but also a few heart attacks and suicide attempts.

In June 1947, Kenneth Arnold, an American aviator, reported the first modern UFO sighting during a flight, describing a series of "saucer-like" crafts flying behind a mountain. This account led to the coining of the term "flying saucer" in newspaper headlines. Shortly after, a ranch foreman named Mac Brazel found mysterious debris in a desert near Roswell, New Mexico. After he reported it to the police, the Roswell Army initially announced the recovery of a "flying disc," only to retract and declare it a "weather balloon" two days later. This incident cemented Roswell's status as a focal point of UFO lore.


One sociological research, the UFO contact movement, indicates that the origin of alien abduction incidents can be traced back to the two most iconic UFO reports in 1947. Endless rumors about alien abduction have happened since then, but the response from governments can not convince the public. In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill reported a mysterious encounter after seeing a strange object in the sky. Minutes later, as the object approached their car, they experienced a blackout, losing several hours of memory. Disturbed by this gap, the Hills underwent hypnosis with a psychiatrist, revealing a shocking narrative of their abduction. Under hypnosis, they described gray beings with large dark eyes who examined them aboard a saucer-shaped vessel. Although the authenticity of their account remains debated, it has become a quintessential example of alien abduction stories.


The sketch of an alien space ship drawn by Betty Hill. It is regarded as one of the first examples of the Flying Saucer alien spaceship archetype. 


The model of the alien in the Alien Autopsy film. 

Although neither of the viral videos is the real evidence of aliens, they still demonstrate how media technology, at a daily level, makes aliens compelling in real life. The media's impact on aliens is just like the brilliant comparison between media's power and schizophrenics that Jeffrey Sconce makes in the Haunted Media, "the media's awesome powers of animated living presence: the delusional viewer who believes the media is speaking directly to him or her. A common symptom among schizophrenics, this delusion also foregrounds in exaggerated but obviously compelling terms the powers of 'liveness' and 'immediacy' experienced by audiences of electronic media as a whole." Furthermore, apart from the technological perspective, Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher, also provided an additional perspective with the nervous system as a profound metaphor.  In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he stated, "Since our new electric technology is not an extension of our bodies but of our central nervous systems, we now see all technology, including language, as a means of processing experience, a means of storing and speeding information."

Following these events, reports of UFO sightings and alien contact surged, though skepticism remained high due to the absence of scientific proof.  In the public eye, aliens often fall into the realm of conspiracy or pseudoscience. Despite the scant evidence, belief in aliens persists. Diana W. Pasulka, in her book "American Cosmic," argues that aliens fulfill the criteria for a religion, suggesting that the question of their existence transcends scientific debate.


Space Science of Aliens

While pop culture and broadcast media are essential for making aliens widely recognized, blurring the lines between fiction and reality is also necessary to bring them to life in the real world. As such, science becomes a critical element alongside culture and media in the exploration of aliens. Typically part of the science fiction genre, alien narratives often draw inspiration from scientific advancements. Essentially, aliens are a product of science imagined, brought to life through creative speculation. However, with advancements in space technology, the approach has shifted. Since sending the first message to potential extraterrestrial life in 1974, scientists have begun to explore the concept of aliens through actual scientific methods. This time, we will critically explore these communications rather than the possibility of encountering aliens.

Anthropocentric Bias - Arecibo Message

Aiming at the globular star cluster M13, which is 21,000 lightyears away from Earth, SETI sent the first human message, the Arecibo Message, to the potential aliens on the edge of the Milky Way in 1947. Transmitted by the frequency of 10 bits per second, it takes about 168 seconds to emit the entire content consisting of 1679 binary digits. The message was designed with multiple ingenuity, such as the binary digit keeping the message simple for analysis, and a total of 1679 units can only be divided in a grid of 73 rows by 23 columns or vice versa. Supposing the message is deciphered in an expected way, a graphic will show the Earthly location in the solar system, basic atoms for terrestrial life, biological data of humanity, the mathematical numbers humans use, and the outline of the Arecibo Radio Telescope. As you can see in the picture, the white pixels on the top represent the number from one to ten, while the purple pixels stand for the atomic number of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus. Moving down to the green part, the pixels here show the complex sugar and chemical base for human DNA. Then, the blue and red pixels might be easier to recognize. They are the DNA double helix and the shape of the human body. The two parts on the left and right sides of the human figure are respectively the average height of a human and the total population of humans on Earth. And the yellow pixels show a map of the solar system, while the fourth pixel is offset toward the human figure, indicating the planet that humans dwell in. In the end, the purple M-shaped pixels represent the Arecibo Radio Telescope with its size underneath. Furthermore, based on the assumption that the intelligent aliens would also have a similar-sized radio antenna as Aecibo's, the message was transmitted with trillions of watts, powerful enough for the Arecibo Radio Telescope to detect anywhere in the galaxy.


Arecibo Message. 


The 305-metre (1,000-foot) radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico.


On December 1, 2020, the cables broke, and the central platform collapsed into the dish. In October 2022 the National Science Foundation announced that it would not rebuild the telescope but would instead build an educational centre at the site.

Forty-seven years after the transmission of the message, people today might think how unsafe it is that scientists make our biological data public to the vast universe like an open source. At the time when the Arecibo message was designed, the internet or social media did not exist yet, so people rarely had an awareness of data privacy. However, if we assume that aliens have already deciphered the mathematical matrix and are able to see the graphic, they still need to understand human culture in terms of Gestalt psychology and scientific convention to correctly comprehend the biological information. For example, without knowing Gestalt psychology, aliens could never realize the figure is a human body, especially from the front-or-back view; or the double helix could also be understood as a specific radio wave, which is more reasonable for a message found in space. Regarding the scientific convention, even if aliens successfully extrapolate that the purple pixels represent the chemical on Earth, they still need to know the custom that scientists use to match a number to a chemical, such as 12 stands for carbon. Although the Arecibo Message is well designed by scientists, the simple analysis mentioned above shows that the presumptions that scientists made for this alien receiver were mostly based on us, human beings. Unlike the typical alien fiction with abundant descriptions of aliens' looking or behavior, scientists did not specifically describe what kind of aliens they were sending to in the Arecibo Message. However, the content of the message has already clearly, or perhaps limitedly, indicated that this potential alien should be intelligent, especially in a homo sapien way - which knows radio, telescopes, numbers, the periodic table, pattern recognition, etc.  In the end, although radio travels as fast as light in space, the message still needs at least 21,000 years to arrive at the target cluster. By then, if the aliens reply immediately with radio, it will need another 21,000 years until humans receive the reply. Unfortunately, when the message was only traversed in the cosmos for 38 years, the Arecibo Radio Telescope collapsed in 2020, and it will be demolished very soon. Perhaps, it is also a signal for humans to re-contemplate the instruments for message sending and the message itself more sustainably and universally.

False Perfection - The Golden Records 

In order to put a message qualified to represent all humanity in the vast universe, NASA launched a mission to send a set of phonograph records that contains information about human culture to space in 1977. The Golden Records were carried by two space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. If one day, by any chance, aliens encounter one of the Voyagers, they will find two 12-inch copper records in the recordset along with needles and cartridges. One record demonstrates how to play the other one accurately and where this message is from. For example, in the picture, the graphic in the upper left corner shows the top view of the phonograph record and the correct position in which the stylus should be placed, while the binary code around the record represents the specific speed to play it right. The other record carries audio and images that can show the diversity of life and culture on Earth, including 115 images, 90 minutes of music, and different sounds from human greeting and the nature of Earth. Regarding the image part, it includes genes, humans, earthly species, architectures, landscapes, weather phenomena, Earth, other planets in the solar system, etc. In terms of the music part, it includes classical music, rock music, folk music, wedding songs, etc. For the sound part, it consists of sounds of Earth such as volcanoes, wind, birds, kisses, etc., and greetings in 55 languages. Contrary to the two Voyagers, which were designed to have a limited lifespan for exploring Jupiter and Saturn, the purpose of the Golden Records is to serve as an ambassador that represents humanity to the stars or aliens. Forty-one years after the launch, both of the Voyagers finished their planetary observational mission and left the solar system in 2018. The diplomatic journey for the Golden Records is just about to begin.


The process of decoding the message in the Golden Record. 


All 116 images embedded on Voyager 1’s Golden Record. 

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Voyager Golden Records. 


The Golden Records on the Voyager spacecraft. 

Unlike the human-focused message contained by Arecibo Message, the Golden Records includes more diverse earthly information in different media. Also, the content of the message upgrades from the biological level to the cultural level. Because any stars and aliens are welcome to be the receiver of the message, the Golden Record is relatively more artistic-oriented, and it leaves more space for people to imagine its encounter. However, the level of human knowledge and techniques that aliens require to merely understand the instruction on the Golden Record is even more complicated than the Arecibo Message. Knowing that it is unrealistic to expect any reply from aliens, Carl Sagan, the curator of the record content, stated in his book, Murmurs of Earth, "During the entire Voyager project, all decisions were based on the assumption that there were two audiences for whom the message was being prepared - those of us who inhabit Earth and those who exist on the planets of distant stars." So to speak, the Golden Record is also the message for humanity to reflect on. Concerned with the need for solidarity on Earth, Sagan and his team also embedded this message implicitly in the human greeting part. He shared his intention in the book, Murmurs of Earth, " We recorded messages from populations all over the globe, each representative speaking in the language of his or her people, instead of sending greetings in one or two languages accompanied by keys for their decipherment. We were aware that the latter alternative might have given the extraterrestrials a better chance of understanding the words precisely, though it would have raised the thorny question of which two languages to send. We felt it was fitting that Voyager greets the universe as a representative of one community, albeit a complex one consisting of many parts." However, to create a peaceful impression of humans for aliens, Sagan decided not to include the disreputable aspects of humanity such as wars, pollution, exploitation, etc. Although it is a nice intention to be a species that promotes peace in the universe, perhaps this hiding part of humanity that we dare not to show aliens indicates the core problem that needs to be tackled before discovering aliens.

The two messages we've examined are human efforts to reach out to aliens; yet, they also highlight a fundamental aspect of how we conceive aliens: Anthropocentrism. We tend to impose human traits on aliens, imagining them as reflections of ourselves. As media technologies evolve, the demonstration of aliens becomes even more vivid. Thus, humans are not just one type of alien; we also create the concept of aliens, setting new parameters for them based on our advancements in science. As our understanding expands, so too does our definition of what aliens are. As humans evolve, our imagined aliens evolve alongside us.


Reimagine from Within

To be continued...


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