The Atlantic

How the Internet Deciphered a Fake Alien Message

Dozens of people answered an astrophysicist’s call to decrypt a transmission from an imaginary civilization 50 light-years away.
Source: David Moir / Reuters

One evening last year, when his newborn daughter was small enough to hold with one arm, René Heller reached for a book to occupy his mind while he rocked her to sleep. Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institutes in Göttingen, Germany, picked up Is Anyone Out There? The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

The book is co-authored by Frank Drake, the renowned astrophysicist who came up with an equation to estimate the number of potential alien civilizations in the Milky Way. In it, Drake describes a fake alien transmission he composed in 1960, a series of ones and zeroes that encoded an image, and shared with his contemporaries in the field. Only one person eventually decoded it: a young electrical engineer from New

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