Inscribed matter as an energy-efficient means of communication with an extraterrestrial civilization

Abstract

It is well known that electromagnetic radiation—radio waves—can in principle be used to communicate over interstellar distances1,2. By contrast, sending physical artefacts has seemed extravagantly wasteful of energy, and imagining human travel between the stars even more so3,4. The key consideration in earlier work, however, was the perceived need for haste. If extraterrestrial civilizations existed within a few tens of light years, radio could be used for two-way communication on timescales comparable to human lifetimes (or at least the longevities of human institutions). Here we show that if haste is unimportant, sending messages inscribed on some material can be strikingly more energy efficient than communicating by electromagnetic waves. Because messages require protection from cosmic radiation and small messages could be difficult to find among the material clutter near a recipient, ‘inscribed matter’ is most effective for long archival messages (as opposed to potentially short “we exist” announcements). The results suggest that our initial contact with extraterrestrial civilizations may be more likely to occur through physical artefacts—essentially messages in a bottle—than via electromagnetic communication.

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Figure 1: Efficiency of inscribed matter compared to electromagnetic communication.

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. Foschini, G. Gonzalez, P. Herry, P. Morrison, P. Shor and S. Tournpis for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. This work was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Christopher Rose.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Rose, C., Wright, G. Inscribed matter as an energy-efficient means of communication with an extraterrestrial civilization. Nature 431, 47–49 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02884

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