(UPDATE 26-Jun-2009: A fuller development of the Arecibo Ascii code is now available at http://hostilefork.com/uscii/)
Every programmer who knows English is aware of the ASCII code, which declares that 65 means “A” and 66 means “B”, etc. Yet there is nothing intrinsically “A-like” about the number 65 (binary: 1000001), nor anything B-like about the number 66 (binary: 1000010). To see that, just imagine living in the 1800s and this fell from the sky on a piece of paper:
Even if you knew it was supposed to represent text, I think it would be impossible to read that as “ABBA” with any degree of confidence. You might be able to get a clue that 7-bit sections were significant if you had a large body of data and realized they were always multiples of seven in length, but any single signal like this would not be enough. You’d be in an especially bad position if you didn’t know anything about alphabetical order (which isn’t a strict prerequisite of being able to read or write English successfully)!
To address this, I created something called “Arecibo ASCII”. It’s named after the infamous Arecibo message—a binary sequence transmitted into space that tried to explain some things about humanity. The goal was to make as few assumptions about the receiving aliens as possible…only that they had an understanding of physics and math (and obviously, the ability to detect electromagnetic waves).
When Carl Sagan and Frank Drake composed the message, they took it to Richard Feynman without explaining to him what it was. They figured if Feynman couldn’t decode it—given his upper hand of already knowing Earth science—then the aliens wouldn’t have a chance! Luckily, Feynman got pretty much all of it.
In the spirit of that test, I’ll send you an “Arecibo ASCII” message before I tell you how it works!
Want to test your alien-codebreaking-savvy? See if you can figure out what that says before you read the rest of the article! Otherwise, just read on as I spill the beans…