What the Wow! message tells you about us
You may – in fact, I’m sure you will – gasp in wonder at how much information our message contains. Perhaps, amusingly enough, your reaction will simply be another ‘wow!’. But in order to ascertain that information, you will have to do some deep thinking. Indeed, that is part of the point of the message. It is to teach you, as much as anything else. Your Secretary General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim at the time, did indeed say in his opening greeting that you would be willing to learn, didn’t he?
So then, our message tells you the following about us:
1 We are far more evolved and intelligent than you, and possessing far greater technology; we have highly evolved abilities for metacognition, cognitive empathy, and game theoretical thinking
2 We know everything about you
3 We are not hostile; in fact, quite the opposite – we care about you
4 It tells you about our character – we are playful and mischievous, yet also childlike, but with very deep emotions; we are capable of great love
5 We have a highly developed sense of the aesthetic; we love harmony and symmetry; we see mathematics as an art; we are creative; we understand symbolism and semiotics
6 We love music
7 We are most likely a mammalian lifeform (although probably not hominid), evolved in a climate not too dissimilar to your own; it is possible for us to communicate intelligibly with each other
8 This is a message of friendship; it carries a great cultural gift
9 We are mistresses of the art of time travel
From these, a number of implications and consequences logically follow. Thus, if you learn to think in the right way, you will wonder at just how much we can tell you in such a short message. Like I said earlier, Paschat humour always has a purpose and a meaning to it, a gift for the receiver, a lesson to be learned. We just need you to think like we do, with metacognition, cognitive empathy, and game theory. By understanding this, our message, you will learn to think on the next highest level. Thus, not from our point of view, what do these ETs think about us, but what do the ETs think we are thinking about them.
So please, do bear all of this in mind as I talk you through the message.
The essential facts regarding the message, from your point of view
So then, this is what you know – or rather, think you know – about our message. All of this information is in your planetary archive (what you call the Internet), by the way. Try your Wikipedia, if that helps.
The message was received by your Ohio State University Radio Observatory on August 15th, 1977, at 22:16 EDT (Eastern time zone).
It was transmitted at around 1420 MHz (something to do with hydrogen – I’m a psychologist remember, not an engineer, so don’t ask me. It was actually one of our engineers who did the actual technical sending bit, according to our instructions). You chose to look at 1420 MHz because you thought if ET was going to communicate by radio signal that would be the most sensible frequency to use. Fair enough. It made it much easier for us, as it happens, to get the mathematics to fit, as you’ll see.
It lasted for 72 seconds.
This 72 seconds was actually recorded by you as six 10-second bursts of intensity, fed into your primitive 16 bit computer (an IBM 1130, whatever that is), which took a laborious 2 seconds to process and then print out on line printer paper. It was recorded using an alphanumeric notation system, such that you have the numbers 0 to 9, then A=10, B=11, C=12, and so on. Actually, one thing you need to bear in mind here is that each number/letter represents a range, thus A equals 10-11, if you see what I mean. This will be important when I start talking about the music. These numbers apparently represent the signal’s intensity variation over time (time is important, remember), measured as signal-to-noise ratio, with the number/letter representing a multiple of the signal’s standard deviation compared to the baseline (i.e. the natural background level).
So this left you with the alphanumeric readout 6EQUJ5. This so startled your SETI colleague, Jerry Ehman, that he wrote the famous ‘Wow!’ next to the readout in the margin, thus giving our message a name (we are pleased about this, by the way).
You believed, of course, that the signal had no modulation (and therefore contains no information). Well, like I said, you forgot to think about time, as you will see. It appeared to you to be an unmodulated continuous wave, and with regards to the 72 seconds, that, as we knew, was the very fortunate limit of your observation window. Fortunate, because it well suited our mathematics. Maybe this is another reason you failed to read our message. You were thinking too scientifically, perhaps. Too simply, I mean.
In terms of the celestial origin of the signal, the following is where you calculated the signal came from.
Your right ascension was uncertain because you had two horns, but taking an average, it’s about 19h, 25m.
Declination, about -27°. We couldn’t really get this one to fit as it happens, so we decided not to worry about it (although it is 9 x 3, however, which is nice).
So this means it’s about 19° towards the southeast of the galactic plane, and about 24°-25° east of the galactic centre.
This places it about 2.5° south of the fifth magnitude star group Chi Sagittarii, and about 3.5° south of the plane of the ecliptic. Again, we didn’t really worry about the latter.
With regards to Chi Sagittarii, this is quite important. It consists of three stars, χ1, χ2, and χ3. 1 and 3 are separated by 0.56°. Obviously you’ll notice the 5 and the 6 appearing in your alphanumeric code, but that was just a happy coincidence of course, isn’t it? Some of us would’ve preferred it to be 54 actually, but you can’t have everything when you have a limited amount of numbers.
Likewise all those 19s and 25s.
Anyway, it’s from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the archer. Centaurs are also sometimes depicted as archers, by the way. Just thought I’d throw that one in there for bedevilment.
Recently, however, thanks to your Gaia star mapping space probe, one of your clever amateur astronomers, a man called Alberto Caballero, has come up with a slightly new calculation, stating that the signal comes from the only star in that direction almost identical to your own about 1800 light years away, which has been given the name 2MASS 19281982-2640123 (it’s actually 1801 LY away, but the extra 1 doesn’t make much difference – it’s close enough for our purposes).
Now, you may like to be reminded here that this star was not catalogued until your ‘Two Micron All-Sky Survey’, which took place between 1997-2001, with the final data release in 2003. In other words, as far as you knew, this star didn’t even exist, or have a name, in August 1977.
And Alberto didn’t publish his paper until November 2020.
But like I said in number 9 above, we know time travel…
Decipherment of our Wow! message
So then, here’s where the fun begins. You may, I would suggest, like to get yourself a stiff drink to have by your side. Bet you any money you say ‘wow!’ at least once before you finish reading.
One thing to note straight away is that the source apparently comes from the Sagittarius area. There is a symbolism in this, of course – Sagittarius is the archer. The arrows can be seen as messages, with a specific target, purpose, and meaning. So, really, that was the most obvious area of the sky to use. Mind you, as scientists with limited horizons, you dismiss this kind of thing as primitive superstition, and so I guess this bit was completely lost on you. Well, sometimes the superstition element is irrelevant, it’s the symbolism which matters. That any of this didn’t occur to you didn’t bode well for your ability to interpret the rest of the message, because of your aversion to what you would see as mumbo-jumbo. So the first lesson, then, in this message, is to teach you to widen the horizons of your thinking. Again, that’s game theory and cognitive empathy for you. The trick is in the metadata.
Let’s start with the obvious. Like I said, I am really quite astounded, although not surprised, given that your scientific outlook is somewhat fixed in scope. Mind you, all advanced technology might look like magic to the uninitiated.
Here is the basic, initial indication that the signal is artificial in origin, and has an intention behind it.
First, let’s retrieve those numbers. 72 seconds long. 1420 MHz, 1800 lightyears distance.
Divide both of those last two numbers by 72. You get this:
1420/72 = 19.7222*
1800/72 = 25
Remind me what the location of the signal was again?
Right ascension 19h, 25m.
19° towards the southeast of the galactic plane.
24°-25° east of the galactic centre.
Obviously, at this stage we are still well within the limits of pure coincidence.
But it is curious, so let’s do some more numbers. We like numbers.
Let’s look at the date of the message.
August 15th, 1977. At 22:16 Ohio time.
Or at least, that’s what you thought. If you were to translate this into UTC (coordinated universal time, basically GMT), then the actual time of reception is the next day.
So it’s actually, as the English would write it (Americans write their dates the other way around of course, so they wouldn’t immediately see the harmonics here):
16 August 1977, 02:16.
August is the 8th month. 16th August also happens to be the 228th day of the year. 2+2+8=12. I think your Close encounters of the third kind visidrama was released exactly 3 months later. And your President wrote – sorry, dictated – his letter exactly two months earlier.
The date comes under the sign of Leo.
Now reduce and add the year numbers (yes, we do like numerology but forget about that, think of this as just fun decimal system playfulness) – so that’s 1+9+7+7 = 24.
So now we have 16-08-24 at 02:16.
16-08-24 reduces to 2:1:3. Harmonic ratios 2:1 and 1:3. 02:16 can reduce to 1:8 of course, which, we hope, might make you start thinking of music, and the magical octave.
2×16 is 32, which is also a nice number. It’s what my date of birth adds up to.
Also, of course, 16 is 24 – just read the numbers again and it’s another 24.
So you have 16+8=24, year 24, and time 24. 24×3=72.
216 is a cool number of course – ask any heavy metal fan and they’ll tell you that’s the number of the beast. 63, that is. 666. This is the point where you are supposed to feel a chill down your spine.
Another thing to note is that 2160 is the generally accepted duration of an age within the precession of the equinoxes. So much of this will be related to the Age of Aquarius, which, in my view, ‘officially’ began with the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius (combined with the winter solstice) on 21/12/2020.
So you now have 213 and 216. Remember these two numbers, as they will be returning a bit later for the denouement.
Ok, let’s do some more.
Take your alphanumeric sequence, 6EQUJ5. Now translate the letters into the numbers.
You end up with the sequence 6 14 26 30 19 5.
First of all you will notice that 6×5=30, which is nice and neat, I think.
Add them up and tell me what you get.
Yeah, that’s right. A nice round 100.
It gets even cooler when you do another round of number reduction. You get 6, (1+4=)5, (2+6=)8, (3+0=)3, (1+9=10; 1+0=)1, 5.
So that’s 658,315.
Subtract the last three digits from the first three.
I think you’ll find that’s 343, which, as any fool know, is warp factor 7.
I also believe, for all the heavy metal fans out there, that the infamous Aleister Crowley wrote a book called 777. Aren’t we devilish!
Now, I wonder what your best supercomputer would calculate as the probability that this is still all just coincidence?
By the way, you can also do the most basic substitution code with your alphanumerics. That’s essentially just A=1, B=2, C=3 and so on. If you do this you will get:
6 5 17 21 10 5
Add them up you get 64 (82, or 43).
Likewise, if you reduce them, you get 6, 5, (1+7=)8, (2+1=)3, (1+0=)1, and 5 again. So that’s also 658,315.
Someone should have them as their lottery numbers.
By the way, 2MASS 19281982-2640123 also has some nice mathematics in it. 1982-1928=54, which is one of those lovely numbers, like 108 (twice 54). 108 will be popping up later. I like it, as all its factors add up to 9 (108, 54×2, 36×3, 18×6, 12×9 etc.). It’s like the meeting point between 9 and the decimal system. It’s pretty. Obviously the fact that the 4 and the 6 aren’t the other way round is annoying, but you can’t have everything. At least the 64 is in there.
So now we come on to music, which we love.
After showing you those harmonic ratios, we wanted you to think about music. Specifically, you will note that the highest intensity, represented by your letter U, means an intensity between 30-31.
If you know your harmonic series you’ll know that 30-31 is the final note in that series.
If we were to take your 12TET musical scale with note C as the prime/fundamental, then 30-31 is a B note. There are, however, some cents variance, but you can approximate all of this on a piano, for example.
There is also some nice little mathematics in the intervals between these numbers. To wit, 6, +8, +12, +4, -11, -14. Maybe I’ll let you look into that for yourselves. The important thing, for bearing in mind when we get to the denouement, is to get you thinking about intervals, but in terms of time rather than space. We are hoping that by now we have got you looking at numbers in a somewhat different, more liberated way. A metadata way.
Anyway, this sequence of numbers, 6 14 26 30 19 5, which encompasses three octaves in the 5-octave harmonic series, can be put together within a single octave to give you a musical key. This, then, was intended as our gift to you.
Music is a universal language. Leaving aside the mathematics, it is a language of emotions and feelings. Different musical keys can have profoundly different emotional resonances, and we wanted to give you one which, we thought, best expresses our character, our history, our culture, our outlook, and our sensibilities.
For ears trained in your western musical tradition, this key is going to sound, well, shall we say alien? That’s the point, of course.
After all, were you expecting to hear some inane, shallow, instantly recognisable C major riff? Or something reflecting your silly thing in Close encounters?
I would suspect, as it happens, that you would ultimately have been very disappointed if we’d done that. It would be like telling you that you are not actually unique at all, not special. So by giving you a completely different key, we are celebrating our difference.
So then, transposed into your 12TET musical scale (where you separate the octave into 12 equal temperaments, each of a chromatic semitone), the notes you get are as follows:
G, A♯, Ab, B, D♯, E
This is actually a key with all the black notes on your pianos except there’s a G instead of an F♯. In fact, it’s that which gives it its – yes, let’s use the word ‘oddity’.
You may wish to ask a musicologist about this key. I’m sure they’d have a lot to say about it.
There is, he or she might say, one note missing, which, however, can be logically worked out with what sounds like it fits. It’s actually the C♯. A C note wouldn’t work, in my opinion. So there are several intervals in the (7 note) scale longer than your western musical scales.
We are also, in a way, almost giving you instructions for a musical instrument. Any of your skilled musicians should be able to come up with something. Lisa Gerrard, maybe – I’m sure she’d love this. Or at the very least, try out the key on an instrument precisely tuned to the actual notes within the harmonic series (dividing the octave up into a number other than twelve, essentially). Basically just play around with it. It’s a gift, it’s yours.
But certainly, instead of actually giving you just one piece of music, we are giving you an entire key with which you could create any lyrical songs you wanted, and learn about us empathically in the process.
And as I say, this key will tell you so much about our character and sensibilities.
The emotional sense of this key is of a constant search for one’s home, each note wants to go to the fundamental next, but it never really does. It is longing for something lost.
Perhaps you might like to close your eyes when you hear this and imagine yourself in some incense-filled, torchlit temple, or ancient palace. There is the pharaoh, and his queen – Nefertiti, perhaps – and there is the player. Can you see them? If not, perhaps look a bit harder.
We are also, if you think about it, telling you a lot about our biology. This is where the involved, deep thinking comes in.
First, if we like music, we must have ears. If we have ears, we almost certainly live in an environment not dissimilar to your own, within the liquid water habitable zone. Try making a musical instrument that functions in an environment permanently below freezing or above boiling point. Not really feasible.
This means we must have evolved in such an environment, in which case, alongside our ears, we most likely have all the other senses you also have.
Music, like emotions, are a shared phenomenon. it serves a social purpose. Therefore, we are social animals. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for a non-social lifeform to develop science, technology, and music, because that kind of thing requires collaboration.
This, naturally, tells you that we are a tool-making species, which means we have a conceptualisation/imagination function in our brains. Ditto memory. Furthermore, because we are social animals and have emotions, all of this should tell your neuroscientists a fair bit about our brain architecture.
The musical key expresses a real depth of emotion, and the sense of love for something that is lost. If we know love, then we are almost certainly a mammalian species. Why? Because for mammalian species, love, which comes from the mother, is not just a beneficial, but a necessary survival adaptation, because the young cannot fend for themselves (unlike egg-laying lifeforms, where after laying the mother is no longer necessary).
Consequently, if we are mammals, and your species has progressed to the level of science and technology where you can receive this message, then we don’t need to tell you about the mammalian reproductive cycle, since we can assume you already know about that, right? If you had thought about this you would have realised you didn’t need to put all that reproduction stuff on your golden disc. It’s that pesky cognitive empathy/game theory thing again.
We may also have given you some indication of precisely how sensitive our ears are. That the numbers add up to 100 is important with regards to the cents variance (which is a logarithmic thing as it happens). The smallest interval between that sequence of numbers is 1 (between 5 and 6), and on the 31 note harmonic series there are notes in this key right next to each other (e.g. 26 is also 13, right next to the 14, and 30/2 is 15). So this should tell you that we have exceptionally fine hearing. The human ear can just about tell the difference between notes up to about 5 cents variance. We are perhaps telling you that our ears are up to 5 times more sensitive than yours. Thus, we are unlikely to be a primate species, like you.
Now that I’ve suggested how to speculate in this way, I will leave the rest up to you. Enjoy.
By the way, just because we’ve been working in base 10 for most of this, doesn’t necessarily mean we have 5 digits on each paw like you do, although it is suggestive of that. We do though, as it happens.
3/ The sinister bit
Now this is where it all gets a little sinister. I strongly suspect that you will have believed your observation, taken what you saw for granted. And this is why you failed to understand our message. But the clue was in the metadata. Whether this was conscious or unconscious, perhaps only you can tell. Part of the provocation in the message is to influence you to think meta, raise your consciousness one level higher.
By this I mean you thought this message must have been beamed to you at 1420 MHz from somewhere in the vicinity of Chi Sagittarii, hundreds of light years away.
If that was so, then you are faced with the conundrum of how the ETs managed to time their message so well, down to the nearest minute, so that all these numbers harmonised perfectly. The date and time, in particular, and also the intensity variation. You presumably thought the intensity variation was simply due to the rotation of the planet.
Likewise, this message clearly shows we know everything about you. How, after all, could we get all this mathematical harmony into the metadata without being aware of your dating system?
So either we decided to go all the way to wherever the signal originated, 1801 light years, and travel back in time to the year 176, and send the message with pinpoint 4 dimensional accuracy so you’d receive it correctly, or… Well, that’s not likely. If we’re that advanced then there’s no point bothering to go to all that effort.
A better option would be to either hover one of our nanobots a short distance from your receiver (perhaps, for argument’s sake, 72 metres or so), moving in time with your receiver to remain in sync with the planet’s rotation, and get it to beam a signal at 1420 MHz at you with the intensity variations necessary to generate that specific alphanumeric sequence over a period of precisely 72 seconds at precisely the right date and time.
The other option might be to simply quantum entangle our computer with yours and just input all the data that way. Well, either way, clearly we were already here.
4/ The denouement – your Voyager probes
As I mentioned earlier, I analysed your Voyager 1 space probe. Our message is essentially a reply.
Furthermore, both your President Carter and your United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim both expressed greetings, together with a desire to become part of our civilisation. So then, we are going to assume they meant it. Or were they lying?
likewise, Kurt Waldheim said you would be willing to learn, or teach if called upon to. You may well be. That really depends on you.
Finally, your Voyager probe left your solar system recently. This heralds your entry into the spacefaring age. So whether you like it or not, you are no longer alone, and we have the absolute, diplomatic right to make contact. And given the state of things in your world right now, we thought you might like a little help from your friends.
Ah, yes, you will want some kind of proof that this is a specific reply to your Voyager. That’s perfectly fair enough. We expected as much.
So then, it’s actually quite simple. But first of all, I want you to recall those two numbers relating to the date and time – that’s to say 213 (16/8/24) and 216 (02:16 UTC). Just keep them in your head.
The information you are looking for is the dates and times of the launches of both your probes.
Voyager 2 was launched first, 20th August 1977 at 14:29:44 UTC.
Voyager 1 was launched 5th September 1977 at 12:56:01 UTC.
Voyager 1, by the way, was delayed by four days, because Voyager 2 had a few issues at the start of its odyssey. That was nothing to do with us, I can assure you. From our point of view, it had already happened, so we didn’t need to mess around with your launch sequences.
Those seconds are quite important, which is why I’ve included them.
What you need to think about is the intervals between our message, and those launch times (music has intervals between notes, as does time itself).
So the difference in time between the end of our message (16/08/1977, 02:17:12 UTC) and Voyager 2 is precisely 4 days, 12 hours, 12 minutes, and 32 seconds. That looks quite nice and neat to me. Change the days into hours and you get 108 hours – as I said earlier, we like that number.
Obviously that will not be sufficiently conclusive for you, so now let’s examine the interval with the start of our message (16/08/1977, 02:16:00 UTC) with Voyager 1, which, remember, was the one I analysed.
I’ll spare you having to do the mathematics yourselves. It was 20 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes, and 1 second.
Just remove those zeros and reduce it.
I think you’ll find that reads 214.
Obviously, to complete the sequence you can just add your 1 second remainder and get 215.
So that slots beautifully into our little sequence of 213 to 216.
And I do think the word beautiful is absolutely correct here. For us, this harmony is, indeed, aesthetically pleasing.
What do you think, my dearest SETI friends?
Perhaps you might like to pour yourself another drink now?