by Joe Davis

Yesterday we followed Joe Davis’ adventures in Puerto Rico as he arranged for the transmission of a message to the stars near the 35th anniversary of the famous message to M13, sent from the same site in 1974. Today Davis concludes the story, with a look at how the ‘RuBisCo’ message was put together, and thoughts on the ins and outs of getting unusual projects approved in today’s scientific climate.

I had a sort of showdown with Arecibo’s interim Director, Dr. Michael C. Nolan at the last minute and Danielle Hofmans’ detailed notes have made it possible for me to recount that conversation here. Nolan’s main problem was about politics. Arecibo once received a “Golden Fleece” award from Senator Proxmire for its involvement with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, including its role in the Sagan-Drake transmission of 1974. That recollection has special resonance now since there are very serious ongoing concerns about future funding for the observatory.

Nolan argued that 35 years ago, the efforts of Carl Sagan and Frank Drake were carried out in a way that made “no sense”. I explained that projects concerned with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are really more about a search for ourselves; that they make us look much more intensely at ourselves than we look away into space and that nobody seems to see that part of it. I wanted to make clear to him that this was not really a project about “aliens”.


Nolan countered that “Now you’re being too rational.” He seemed amused because I think he actually understood what I was trying to tell him, but his concern was that of the operator of a federally funded organization. He knows that he can’t sell ideas like these to politicians and university funding officers. He complained about the Byzantine ins and outs of funding both at federal and university levels. He said he was afraid of doing “marginal” things because he felt that projects like mine might ultimately get in the way of “serious” science. In spite of these concerns, Nolan added, something like, “We’re still negotiating. I still want to do this.”

Image credits (all images): Ashley Clark.

I pointed out that CETI in general addresses fundamental questions like “Is this who we are?” and “Is this what we know?” I asked him point blank if Arecibo was actually ashamed of the Sagan-Drake CETI message. Nolan answered that Drake’s scientific reputation has indeed been called into question (I don’t know why). He wasn’t very positive about Sagan either, except to say that he helped to popularize astronomy. At one point, Nolan proposed that I enter into collaboration with local amateur (ham) radio operators (which involves the use of Arecibo Radar to bounce radio signals off the moon) because, he said, “I’m licensed to take pictures of asteroids, not to do things like this.”

Almost as a last line of defense, I was advised of Arecebo’s disabled “coder”. I knew that I had to solve this problem at once or the allotted time on Arecibo Radar would run out. I would miss the opportunity to transmit signals on the 35th anniversary and perhaps, miss the opportunity altogether.

I pulled out my laptop and brought up pictures of the band-pass filter and gate used to get analog signals interfaced with Millstone radar 25 years ago. Nolan acknowledged that something like that might be possible at Arecibo, but he still seemed to be backpedaling. He asked how fast I could get that apparatus to Puerto Rico, knowing full well that even if I had it air-freighted from Cambridge, there would be no way it would arrive before my access to the radar would end on Monday (09 Nov). He suggested that I should consider putting off the whole project until some indefinite future date.


I realized that whatever options remained, they would have to be produced immediately with no time even to go away and fabricate something in say, a local machine shop (which of course, would be closed on the following day, a Sunday). I started thinking about what I had in my bags and in my pockets. I had my iPhone (eureka!). I also had a funky television connector inadvertently left in my computer bag from some earlier episode of trash mining in Cambridge and as it turned out, that connector was a crucial component needed to connect my iPhone to the radar. I proposed creating a sound file from the RuBisCo sequence that could then be recorded on my iPhone and interfaced with the radar. At that point, a surprised and still amused Michael Nolan relented.

But there was one last problem: How could the gene be sent out as a coded signal? One way would be to prepare a binary map by assigning numerical values to DNA nucleotides based on molecular weight where C=00 T=01 A=10 and G=11. The result is a 2868-bit binary sequence that is less than twice as large as the 1679-bit Sagan-Drake CETI message. Like the Sagan-Drake message, a transmission containing the RuBisCo sequence could be transmitted in a very brief period of time owing to its relatively small size:


One problem with this strategy is that the gene encoded in binary lacks punctuation. Anyone receiving the signal would have to guess that four bases were being encoded as paired binary bits: 00, 01, 10 and 11, otherwise it would just be a meaningless jumble. So instead, I decided to create sound files with spoken syllables where “space-one syllable-space” = C and so on to “space-four syllables-space”=G

This phonetic encoding technique also allowed me to interpose another layer of meaning in the message. The syllables were:

C) space – “I” – space
T) space – “amthe” – space
A) space – “knowyourself” – space
G) space – “riddleoflife” – space

These coded phrases reiterate the edict of Apollo that is inscribed at the entrance to the temple at Delphi where it says, “Know yourself and you will know all of the secrets of the universe and the secrets of the gods”. I think Arecibo Observatory is somehow analogous to the temple at Delphi. Astronomers at Arecibo routinely glean the heavens to uncover such secrets. Do a little algebra and it’s obvious that they must also be learning something about ourselves.

We used Apple’s “Speak” option to vocalize the phonetic code which I then recorded on my iPhone. Here is a fragment of the total message, the whole of which can be decoded unambiguously into the gene for RuBisCo:

knowyourself amthe riddleoflife amthe I knowyourself I I knowyourself I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself I knowyourself riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife knowyourself I amthe knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife I knowyourself
knowyourself riddleoflife amthe riddleoflife amthe amthe riddleoflife riddleoflife knowyourself amthe amthe I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife I amthe riddleoflife riddleoflife amthe riddleoflife amthe amthe knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife amthe knowyourself I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself amthe amthe riddleoflife knowyourself I amthe amthe knowyourself amthe amthe knowyourself amthe knowyourself I amthe I I amthe riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife amthe knowyourself I I knowyourself knowyourself knowyourself I I knowyourself knowyourself riddleoflife riddleoflife knowyourself amthe knowyourself I amthe riddleoflife knowyourself amthe knowyourself amthe knowyourself amthe amthe riddleoflife riddleoflife I knowyourself riddleoflife I knowyourself amthe amthe I I riddleoflife knowyourself riddleoflife amthe knowyourself knowyourself I amthe I I amthe I knowyourself knowyourself

The Wunderlichs, Ashley Clark, Danielle Hofmans and I spent the next couple of hours creating sound files and hacking the connections with the iPhone, assorted cables and alligator clips. While setting up the iPhone connections, we conducted test transmissions using the song, “Run Come See Jerusalem” by Bahamian musician and songwriter, Andrew Jones (Spirit House Records). At the moment we hooked up the iPhone to the radar, the energy and excitement in the Arecibo control room was literally palpable. Everyone, including Arecibo staff and visiting scientists seemed to be infected by the effort. Then, we interfaced my iPhone with Arecibo’s powerful radar and transmitted from approximately 11:30 p.m. until 12:45 a.m. The duration of each transmission was approximately 5 times longer than the 1974 Sagan-Drake transmission. We spent that hour and 15 minutes transmitting messages to the three “RuBisCo Stars” listed in the text above (see yesterday’s post).


On Sunday, I was invited to help prepare an extremely sensitive set of microwave detectors for experiments scheduled for Monday to search for pulsars. The detectors happen to be located 500 ft above the Arecibo radar dish suspended in a steel truss platform. Ashley and Danielle and I all went up there early in the afternoon. There was a sudden torrential downpour while we were still “hanging out” on the truss. I have to say it was one of the scariest, most exciting moments I’ve had in the past several years. I loved it.

There are no bars (of any kind) out at Arecibo Observatory. In order to avoid RF interference with sensitive instruments, the use of cell phones, digital cameras and video recorders are all strictly prohibited on observatory grounds.

We were nevertheless granted unprecedented access to photograph the observatory and coordinated all of our video and digital photography with the Arecibo control room. Serendipitously, Ashley Clark’s 8 x 10 film camera was the only imaging device that we were permitted to use continuously since it contains no batteries or electronics. We are also grateful to Arecibo Observatory for making accommodations there available to us through the several days in which we pursued the project.

I delivered a talk on at 11:00 a.m. on Monday 09 Nov. for Arecibo staff and scientists. I think there was visible skepticism on the faces of my audience when they walked into the room and visible excitement when they left. At lunch Michael Nolan and I talked about coauthoring a journal article.

I imagined an article with Mike about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in general – 35 years on – and what it has meant to astronomy and to society as a whole (pros and cons). There, I would mention the RuBisCo transmission but not focus on it. Instead, I would want to show how SETI has helped to drive a broad spectrum of research, providing jobs for astronomers and others and motivated millions of lay enthusiasts to contribute in spite of the lack of federal funding. I would also want to point out that Arecibo Radar is actively contributing significant knowledge about the cosmos almost daily. Some of it is “save-the-world” knowledge, like profiling near-Earth asteroids that will one day pose a real threat. They are mapping the lunar surface and subsurface with unrivaled detail, finding heretofore undiscovered pulsars and more.


I’d like to say I’ve had enough adventures for one week, but it’s not really true. Now I will have to balance books. I applied for two small grants to help me do this. Both were denied. I was not funded by MIT, the government, or anyone else to carry out this project. It has been expensive, at least, from my point of view. I do have the coolest iPhone now, so how can I complain? Who knows who’s going to be calling back?


On Thursday evening (12 Nov) I learned that the journal Nature assigned the “rubisco stars” story to science writer Steve Nadis provided he could guarantee that Arecibo has not been used to send an “active SETI” message since 1974, which of course, is actually the case.

Then, according to Steve Nadis, Arecibo Director Mike Nolan told him there wasn’t any way he could write the story so that it could not potentially hurt him or Arecibo. So Nadis has put it on hold indefinitely… This has been especially poignant since Nadis, Nolan and myself remain uniformly committed to the importance of astronomy at Arecibo.

Funny, isn’t it? Aristotle knew that you have to reveal yourself to yourself before you can reveal yourself to anyone else (theory of tragedy in the Poetics). Tragically, it appears easier to transmit a signal to extraterrestrial intelligence than to transmit one to ourselves. It is tragic also that one of the most interesting items of knowledge about ourselves we can learn from our efforts to transmit messages to other stars is that most serious efforts to send messages to extraterrestrials have become mired in episodes of censorship.