Professor Chris Rose was recently interviewed on the nationally broadcasted weekly radio program, Are We Alone, for an episode entitled “Space Archeology.” Each episode is distributed around the country on the Public Radio Exchange network, the Public Radio Satellite System, and available globally via the iTunes podcast system. Supported, in part, by a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Are We Alone aims to explore with insight and humor the “origins, organization, behavior and future of life on Earth.”
Co-host Dr. Seth Shostak spoke with Professor Rose about his thoughts on the idea that the most energy efficient mode of communication with extraterrestrial life might be via a sort of cosmic letter, a material artifact packed full with a high volume of information and data. Professor Rose published a widely discussed paper on the topic in Nature magazine in the 90’s and has been an authority in the media on the subject since. In his discussion with Dr. Shostak, he posited that if speed of delivery is not a sender’s primary concern—that if information doesn’t have to be transmitted at or near the speed of light—then, he said, “it turns out to be really efficient from an energy stand point to write something down” and send it out into space. The transmission efficiency increases with the volume of the message. For a brief, Twitter-style message, a radio signal broadcast might be most efficient—but for any message with a larger amount of data, say a multi-volume textbook or even a long letter, a written artifact could be the most efficient mode of transmission.
As Professor Rose noted, “there’s so many different things you can write a message on.” The variety in artifact types ranges from the most basic to the most advanced technologies and methodologies. There is the rudimentary mode of laser printer paper; the more advanced mode afforded by atomic force microscopes; and then even something as sophisticated as RNA or DNA, both of which can contain a massive amount of information in a very small package, within their sequences of data bits. The artifact, whatever its type, can be propelled into and gravitationally captured by a target solar system.
One of the possible advantages with this kind of interstellar mail is that, unlike a radio signal which can end up undelivered to a recipient if that recipient isn’t equipped with the proper technology at the right time to receive a broadcasted signal, the material piece of mail, in whatever form it may be, could potentially linger about in space, “hanging around,” as Professor Rose said, “there to be found.” In other words, there’s potentially a greater possibility for interested parties to discover material artifacts because those artifacts have a longer communication shelf life, sort of speak, when compared to the more transient broadcasted radio signals.
Professor Rose, however, doesn’t want to discount attempts to pick up broadcasted radio signals all together. Both radio signals and composed matter, in his view, should be given weight as potential modes of communications. As he said, “These are two modalities that should be seriously considered.”
Dr. Chris Rose is a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Rutgers University, and holds a PhD in EECS from M.I.T. He has published widely and been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including most recently the 2010-2011 Rutgers Engineering Governing Council Best Teacher in Engineering.
By Sean Patrick Cooper