Last week I went to Seattle’s new Science Fiction Museum because, you know, paying thirteen bucks to see Paul Allen’s dogeared copy of Starship Troopers seemed like a good idea at the time.
Honestly, the Museum was better than I expected (and I’ll write about it soon, either here or at The Morning News). Most of the exhibits were devoted to the various subgenres in the field — time travel, mars, robotics, etc. — along with prominent books on the subject and props from corresponding movies. They even had a few real (as opposed to fictional) artifacts on display. Tucked away in a display about communication, for instance, was a copy of the plaque that was affixed to the Pioneer 10 probe.
Click here to see a gi-normous version of the plaque. I’m not kidding, it’s huge.
The text accompanying the plaque said the densely illustrated message was designed to communicate to any aliens that might encounter the probe. What it failed to explain was how a venusian cephalopod was going to make sense of all the information presented when an average homo sapiens like me couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
So I decided to look it up. And the key to success, my research has uncovered, is for the aliens to be way, way smarter than I’ll ever be.
Here are the individual components on the plaque, and what they mean:
At the top of the plaque we have two hydrogen atoms, engaged in some activity called “hyperfine transition.” Why the word “hyperfine” never caught on as a superlative amongst teens is beyond me. As near as I can tell, this refers to the fact that hydrogen have two hyperfine states: either the magnetic field of the outermost electron points in the same direction as the magnetic field of the nucleus (i.e., they are “parallel”), or it points in the opposite direction (“antiparallel”). When a hydrogen atom flips from one state to another it is called the hyperfine transition, and the phenomenon releases a photon with a wavelength of 21 centimeters and a frequency of 1420 MHz.
Notice that, in the diagram, the hydrogen atom on the left has the electron (on the line bisecting top of the circle) pointing towards the nucleus (i.e, antiparallel), while the one on the right has the electron pointing away from the nucleus (parallel). The line between the two represents the transition, and the hash mark below symbolizes the change, both in terms of distance (21 centimeters) and time (1420 MHz). This hash mark is the standard unit of measurement — both for distance and time — used for the other elements on the plaque.
This is not an explosion, and we can only hope that our alien brethren do not interpret it as meaning “we’re gonna find you and blow you up real good.” This is, in fact, a map of 14 pulsars, with the length of each line showing the relative distance of each pulsar to our sun in the middle.
Now pulsars, you no doubt recall from 8th grade shop class, are “rapidly rotating neutron stars, whose electromagnetic radiation is observed in regularly spaced interval.” These regularly spaced intervals (a.k.a. “periods”) vary from pulsar to pulsar, giving each a distinct fingerprint. And the periods of the fourteen pulsars are therefore encoded on the map as binary numbers (which is why the rays emanating from the sun look like this: “–||-|—-|-|-|||–” — that’s binary, dude!). The alien need only figure out the binary number and then times it by 1420 MHz (the hyperfine whatever frequency, remember?) to calculate the period of each pulsars. Between the unique fingerprints of the pulsars and their relative distances from us, the critters should be able to triangulate the position of our sun. Could it be any more obvious? The only thing it’s missing is the phrase “Wish you were here!” emblazoned across it.
But once they get here, how will they know which planet to visit? That brings us to:
Hey, I know this one! It’s, like, the social system, right? With Saturn and Pluto and Dagobah and all the rest?
Yes. And what are those crazy “-||-|” things above each planet? Right again: binary numbers. Now the aliens can figure out how far each world is from the sun, by multiplying the binary number by the aforementioned 21 cm. So, for instance, Earth is ||-|- = 11010 = 26 * 21 cm = 546 cm. from the sun. Jesus, no wonder it’s been so freakin’ hot this summer.
No, no. Actually, the unit to multiply by is not 21 cm., but rather 1/10 of Mercury’s orbit. How they are going to know that is beyond me, but, remember: we are presupposing sooper dooper smart aliens. In any case, even without knowing the secret unit, they will at least know the distances of the planets to the sun relative to each other. They will also, from the depiction of the Pioneer probe fligh path, know on which planet we reside, so they can stop by for XBox and crumpets.
Okay, here we go: porn. Finally something I can comprehend.
In the background is a silhouette of the pioneer probe: in the foreground are some streakers. You’ll notice that there are height ticks at the top and the bottom of the woman, along with the (vertical) binary number |—. |— equals 8, which, when the aliens multiply it by 21 cm., will tell them that the woman is roughly 168 cm. (about 5 ft. 6 in.) in height. Either that or they’ll multiply 8 by 1/10 of Mercury’s orbit, conclude that we’re 4,632,8000 km tall, and decide to stay the fuck out of our neck of the woods.
Notice also that the man is making the universal sign for “stop by for some nude high-fiving.”
I was kinda of surprised to see how average the man and woman looked on the plaque. What, were Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch unavailable for modelling that week? As it turns out, the figures on the plaque are literally average: or, at least, as near as the human average that computer simulations could determine.
And frankly, I kinda like the fact that the guy on the plaque looks a little, you know, flabby. As I age and get more and more out of shape, it’s nice to know I can always say “hey, at least I don’t look any worse than the guy in the Pioneer 10 Plaque!”
Research Day Bonus: By the way, guess who designed the plaque. That’s right: world famous cosmologist and legendary pothead Carl Sagan, which no doubt explains why the first draft of the plaque also included the Grateful Dead “Dancing Bears.”