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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic6 min readPsychology
Dear Therapist: My Husband and I Don't Have Sex Anymore
Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com. Dear Therapist, My husband and I have been married for three years. It was l
The Atlantic6 min read
In Defense of Big Little Lies’ Second Season
This article contains spoilers through the second season of Big Little Lies. Just to put this out there first: No, the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies wasn’t as good as the first. The plotting was minimal, leading up to an underwhelming showdo
The Atlantic5 min readPolitics
The Stuff of Dystopian Nightmare
Commercial airliners are not usually restful environments, but February 2017 was a particularly fraught time for domestic air passengers. Donald Trump had become president a month earlier and had quickly issued his “travel ban” executive order, spark