Hello? Anybody Out There?: Human Radio Broadcasts in the Vastness of Space
The opening scene of the 1997 film ‘Contact,’ based on the writings of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, is one of my very favorite opening scenes ever (you can watch it below if you’ve never seen it)… It starts with a shot of Earth, from a low orbit, with the soundtrack filled with the deafening wall of sound that is our modern technology-driven society. Through the din you can make out bits of radio broadcasts, hit songs (1997 hit songs, that is), newscasts, TV shows, and so on. It’s an amazing representation of just how much stuff we’re beaming out from Earth 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, non-stop, here in the late 20th/early 21st centuries. Since 1997, we’ve only multiplied the various kinds of signals we’re blasting into space and bouncing off of satellites and back down to earth; not just radio and TV signals, but cell phone calls, text messages, emails, photos, movies, music…
But the thing about all of these radio waves; they’re not just for us. Not just for the Earth. All those transmissions, they’re all waves on a spectrum, and once they’re transmitted, they shoot right through the atmosphere of our tiny little planet and head out into space at the speed of light. And the really crazy thing? They never stop.
That’s what the first couple of minutes of ‘Contact’ demonstrate so brilliantly. We start the movie right above the Earth, and the wall of sounds is new, it’s current. But then something amazing happens as the camera starts to pull back from Earth, past the moon, past Mars and the rest of the planets in the solar system, out into the vast emptiness of space at many times the speed of light…as we move ever farther from Earth, all those sounds, all that we broadcast, start to age. All of a sudden we’re hearing news and music from the 1980s…and the 1970s….60’s…50’s…40’s…It’s an audio history of our culture and our civilization moving in reverse as the camera takes us ever further into space. And not only are the broadcasts getting older, they’re gradually dwindling out,as the sheer number of broadcasters shrinks, from our current deafening levels back through time to the 1940’s, and 30’s, and 20’s, back to the very dawn of radio broadcasting. Until we reach a point way far out past the edge of our galaxy, light years away from Earth, when all of those signals finally peter out…to silence.
Everything we’ve ever transmitted, back to those very first weak radio experiments of the early 20th century, it’s all out there, traveling at the speed of light into the Cosmos. With our radio communications, humanity unwittingly created what amounts to a huge bullhorn of radio waves emanating from the Earth, and all of those signals, a century of radio waves, are screaming out, in a bubble expanding at the speed of light, “HERE WE ARE! WE ARE HUMANS FROM THE PLANET EARTH!”
A huge chunk of our collected knowledge and culture is crashing out into the void of space; the good, the bad, and the ugly. The question is: Is there anyone out there listening? And if there is, what do they possibly make of the ever-increasing cacophony of sounds,words, and images coming from the edge of an insignificant galaxy? And if there’s a species of aliens advanced enough to be able to comprehend even a tiny fraction of what we’re sending, are they communicating back to us?
For several decades scientists and engineers have been pointing the most sensitive radio wave-detecting sensors ever created out into space, searching the skies for any sign of the radio broadcasts of some distant alien race. The result so far? Nothing. While our bubble of radio waves expands ever outward, so far we’ve heard nothing in return. But I’m still convinced that there’s intelligent life out there, somewhere. I’m convinced that there’s not only life out there, but that it’s everywhere out there in the universe. We just haven’t heard from them. Not yet, anyway. It’s all about distances.
Take a look at this image I came across recently. Like the opening scene of ‘Contact,’ it too brilliantly demonstrates something about the Cosmos. It’s showing us just how damn big this place is, and why it should come as no surprise we haven’t heard from anyone yet. It’s a picture of our Milky Way Galaxy. It’s a handsome galaxy, don’t you think? Brilliant spirals of stars rotating out from a dense center (where astronomers tell us there’s probably a black hole or two lurking.)
All of those radio waves we’ve been sending out into space for a hundred years? As of now they’ve travelled about 200 light years out into space. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. PER SECOND. That’s fast. So if we do the math, 200 light years is about 1,176,000,000,000,000 miles. It’s far. It’s over a quadrillion miles. The mind boggles.
Wanna know the freaky part? The part that blows my mind? Look at the picture of the galaxy again. Look at the blown-up box of Earth’s vicinity. You see the blue dot in the box? The one with the arrow pointed at it. No, that’s not the Earth. From this distance Earth is not even close to being visible. That blue dot represents the 200 light years, the total distance, that our century of radio signals have crossed. That’s it. Just a tiny speck of distance in one arm of one galaxy. One tiny galaxy in the universe, a universe that’s full of countless billions of other galaxies, each containing millions upon millions of stars, and planets…and, I just have to think, from a purely statistical standpoint, massive amounts of life. Some of these life forms, again statistically speaking, must have the technology, the radio receivers, to hear us calling. But here’s the thing: As this image shows so convincingly, space is big. Like, BIG big. It’s too big for my simple primate brain to even begin to grasp. Anything we send out into it, and at this point the only thing we’ve got that’s as fast as light are our radio waves, is going to take one hell of a long time to even get out of our little neighborhood here in the outer arm of one little galaxy out of billions and billions of galaxies.
In the unimaginable scope of the universe, we are small. We’re insignificant. But we’re also the only thing going, at least in these parts. We’re doing our part to reach out to whoever, whatever, might be out there. We’re trying. And we’re listening. I’d like to think that in the billions of years this particular universe has been around, there have been countless life forms that managed, often despite their own misguided attempts to destroy themselves (I’m thinking of the human model here), to create civilizations technologically advanced enough to have been able stream their thoughts, their ideas, their collective everything, out into their own little corner of space, wondering to themselves, just as we do, is there anyone out there? I’d also like to think that there will be even more life forms not yet even created that will do the same in the billions of years to follow…Sooner or later, and it might not be us humans, probably won’t ever be us humans, but sooner or later fate or luck or whatever will intervene, and two of these streams in the vast darkness will cross, and contact will be made.
Here’s the opening scene from ‘Contact.’ I never tire of watching, and listening, as our radio communications, the very proof of our existence, fades away into silence. The whole movie is great. I highly recommend it.