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Tweets In Space!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Tweets In Space (N. Stern and S. Kildall)

When the interplanetary missions Pioneer 10 and 11 launched in the late 1970s they each carried a metal plaque engraved with a set of pictorial messages from humanity. Eventually these extraordinary probes will traverse interstellar space, carrying these hopeful symbols towards anyone, or anything, that might one day find them. A few years later also saw the launch of the Voyager probes, this time carrying golden record platters filled with images and sounds of our homeworld and species. These were thoughtful and quietly speculative artifacts, cast to the stars for eternity.

Forty years later and our world has moved on considerably. We’re now a vastly more interconnected species, huge amounts of information flows around our planet on a daily basis, a torrent of articulate and inarticulate signals. We’re much more attuned to events as they occur anywhere on Earth, and much more likely to voice our opinion and to assume that our voice has a chance of being heard. It’s a tremendously interesting and exciting time, as well as an unsteady and often nerve-wracking one. And as this plays out we are also discovering that the universe is filled with other worlds, an enormous and terrifying number of planets around, and between, the stars. Some of these will almost certainly bear at least a passing resemblance to our own, perhaps never ‘Earth-like’, but conceivably ‘Earth-equivalent’, and we may have already found a few of them.

All of which makes a new art-meets-science project even more provocative and exciting. “Tweets In Space” is the creation of Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall and seeks to do nothing less than transmit a stream of your tweets towards one of the best current candidates for a planet capable of harboring life, the super-Earth GJ 667Cc – a roughly 5 Earth mass world orbiting an M-dwarf star only 22 light years away.

If all goes well then in September 2012 Tweets In Space will go live at the International Symposium on Electronic Art in New Mexico, and your Twitter account will become (as the creators suggest) your personal interstellar communications device. Tweets with the hashtag #tweetsinspace will be broadcast towards GJ 667Cc, as well as form part of an extraordinary live and web-available animated display (you really have to check out the video, below here). It’s tremendous fun, but it’s also a fascinating experiment. Stern and Kildall are no strangers to investigating the possibilities of human interaction and art brought about by the internet, their collaboration “Wikipedia Art” was a genuine phenomenon, making it to the hallowed pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post.

I asked them about the more technical aspects of the project – such as actually making an interstellar transmission, and they have an impressive technology road-map for trying to make this a reality (including making decisions about whether to send Tweets as digital data or as analog, pictorial representations, which is very clever). Right now they may have to build their own transmitter and so have a call out on the fund-raising site Rocket Hub to try to raise the approximately $8K needed to be confident that the Tweets have a chance of making it to GJ 667Cc. It’s also possible that an equipment option will be forthcoming from established commercial or federal organizations who can lend ‘big gun’ infrastructure to the transmission.

What I personally find very exciting about the whole concept is the unfiltered nature of it, and the fascinating mirror it will hold up to us all. We really are a different world from when the Pioneer and Voyager probes launched, and other deliberate radio transmissions to the stars have typically been sober and highly structured. The general radio noise we spew into the cosmos has also diminished as we’ve moved into the low-power digital age, so the well-worn adage of aliens coming across our dreadful TV shows may no longer be true. Is it safe to send thousands (millions!) of 140 character long missives to the stars? Older posts at Life, Unbounded have certainly considered the problems of interstellar memes (units of cultural information), but the bottom line is that we really have no idea.

So I think that anything which forces us to stop and consider what it is that we really feel represents humanity – good, bad, or indifferent, is an excellent opportunity. Tweets In Space is well worth our support – so go check it out, and consider helping build that transmitter! The icing on the cake is that Stern and Kildall will make all of their technical work open source, making one wonder how long it is before high-school kids forget about weather balloons carrying cameras to the upper atmosphere, and instead reach for the stars.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rlavallee 9:28 pm 05/2/2012

    Two possibilities exist: either there is someone there capable of receiving and understanding the messages or there isn’t. If there isn’t then this is a waste of time and resources. If there is then do we really want our internet behavior to speak for us as a species? This is either wasted effort or tragically misguided.

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  2. 2. caleb_scharf 12:31 pm 05/3/2012

    I think you miss the point, this is as much about what it means to be *us* and what constitutes art, performance, and science, as it is about sending a message into the cosmos. Perhaps we are as dreadful as our internet traffic would suggest, or perhaps there are some glimmers of hope in amongst all of that!

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  3. 3. InquiringConstructivist 2:50 pm 05/3/2012

    The wasted effort argument itself is a waste when accompanied by a as-yet undeterminable “if” statement.
    Similar useless arguments:
    “If there never was an ocean on Mars then a water sampling mission is a complete waste.”
    “If there is no cure for cancer, attempting to find one is a complete waste.”
    Stern and Kildall are artists and technologists whose mission here is not merely to ensure that life on GJ677Cc reads our tweets, if life on GJ677Cc exists.
    Killjoys need to watch or read Contact, or leave us scientists and artists alone, since our work benefits all eventually whether they see it or not. And anyone arguing that any human, social effort is a waste, needs to look around their house and see if there’s anything there that’s a waste. As long as they don’t see anything more than a simple, concrete or stainless steel box with a simple cot, they are a hypocrite.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 3:15 pm 05/3/2012

    caleb_scharf – I suspect that we are the actual intended audience of all this performance art…
    It is we who are inspired to contact angels and now extraterrestrials. There’s no one out there who can deliver us from ourselves except ourselves.

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