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Research Day: The Pioneer 10 Plaque

Last week I went to Seattle's new Science Fiction Museum because, you know, paying thirteen bucks to see Paul Allen's dogeared copy of Starship Troopers seemed like a good idea at the time.

Honestly, the Museum was better than I expected (and I'll write about it soon, either here or at The Morning News). Most of the exhibits were devoted to the various subgenres in the field -- time travel, mars, robotics, etc. -- along with prominent books on the subject and props from corresponding movies. They even had a few real (as opposed to fictional) artifacts on display. Tucked away in a display about communication, for instance, was a copy of the plaque that was affixed to the Pioneer 10 probe.

Click here to see a gi-normous version of the plaque. I'm not kidding, it's huge.

The text accompanying the plaque said the densely illustrated message was designed to communicate to any aliens that might encounter the probe. What it failed to explain was how a venusian cephalopod was going to make sense of all the information presented when an average homo sapiens like me couldn't make heads or tails of it.

So I decided to look it up. And the key to success, my research has uncovered, is for the aliens to be way, way smarter than I'll ever be.

Here are the individual components on the plaque, and what they mean:

At the top of the plaque we have two hydrogen atoms, engaged in some activity called "hyperfine transition." Why the word "hyperfine" never caught on as a superlative amongst teens is beyond me. As near as I can tell, this refers to the fact that hydrogen have two hyperfine states: either the magnetic field of the outermost electron points in the same direction as the magnetic field of the nucleus (i.e., they are "parallel"), or it points in the opposite direction ("antiparallel"). When a hydrogen atom flips from one state to another it is called the hyperfine transition, and the phenomenon releases a photon with a wavelength of 21 centimeters and a frequency of 1420 MHz.

Notice that, in the diagram, the hydrogen atom on the left has the electron (on the line bisecting top of the circle) pointing towards the nucleus (i.e, antiparallel), while the one on the right has the electron pointing away from the nucleus (parallel). The line between the two represents the transition, and the hash mark below symbolizes the change, both in terms of distance (21 centimeters) and time (1420 MHz). This hash mark is the standard unit of measurement -- both for distance and time -- used for the other elements on the plaque.

This is not an explosion, and we can only hope that our alien brethren do not interpret it as meaning "we're gonna find you and blow you up real good." This is, in fact, a map of 14 pulsars, with the length of each line showing the relative distance of each pulsar to our sun in the middle.

Now pulsars, you no doubt recall from 8th grade shop class, are "rapidly rotating neutron stars, whose electromagnetic radiation is observed in regularly spaced interval." These regularly spaced intervals (a.k.a. "periods") vary from pulsar to pulsar, giving each a distinct fingerprint. And the periods of the fourteen pulsars are therefore encoded on the map as binary numbers (which is why the rays emanating from the sun look like this: "--||-|----|-|-|||--" -- that's binary, dude!). The alien need only figure out the binary number and then times it by 1420 MHz (the hyperfine whatever frequency, remember?) to calculate the period of each pulsars. Between the unique fingerprints of the pulsars and their relative distances from us, the critters should be able to triangulate the position of our sun. Could it be any more obvious? The only thing it's missing is the phrase "Wish you were here!" emblazoned across it.

But once they get here, how will they know which planet to visit? That brings us to:

Hey, I know this one! It's, like, the social system, right? With Saturn and Pluto and Dagobah and all the rest?

Yes. And what are those crazy "-||-|" things above each planet? Right again: binary numbers. Now the aliens can figure out how far each world is from the sun, by multiplying the binary number by the aforementioned 21 cm. So, for instance, Earth is ||-|- = 11010 = 26 * 21 cm = 546 cm. from the sun. Jesus, no wonder it's been so freakin' hot this summer.

No, no. Actually, the unit to multiply by is not 21 cm., but rather 1/10 of Mercury's orbit. How they are going to know that is beyond me, but, remember: we are presupposing sooper dooper smart aliens. In any case, even without knowing the secret unit, they will at least know the distances of the planets to the sun relative to each other. They will also, from the depiction of the Pioneer probe fligh path, know on which planet we reside, so they can stop by for XBox and crumpets.

Okay, here we go: porn. Finally something I can comprehend.

In the background is a silhouette of the pioneer probe: in the foreground are some streakers. You'll notice that there are height ticks at the top and the bottom of the woman, along with the (vertical) binary number |---. |--- equals 8, which, when the aliens multiply it by 21 cm., will tell them that the woman is roughly 168 cm. (about 5 ft. 6 in.) in height. Either that or they'll multiply 8 by 1/10 of Mercury's orbit, conclude that we're 4,632,8000 km tall, and decide to stay the fuck out of our neck of the woods.

Notice also that the man is making the universal sign for "stop by for some nude high-fiving."

I was kinda of surprised to see how average the man and woman looked on the plaque. What, were Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch unavailable for modelling that week? As it turns out, the figures on the plaque are literally average: or, at least, as near as the human average that computer simulations could determine.

And frankly, I kinda like the fact that the guy on the plaque looks a little, you know, flabby. As I age and get more and more out of shape, it's nice to know I can always say "hey, at least I don't look any worse than the guy in the Pioneer 10 Plaque!"

Research Day Bonus: By the way, guess who designed the plaque. That's right: world famous cosmologist and legendary pothead Carl Sagan, which no doubt explains why the first draft of the plaque also included the Grateful Dead "Dancing Bears."

Posted on July 15, 2004 to Research Day


you are a genius. I hope you are passing this knowledge onto your offspring, in the hopes that he might lead the human race out of slavery from those venusian cephalopod's that are going to interpret the plaque.

Posted by: Dave on July 16, 2004 4:26 PM

I thought hyperfine transition was when a Nulecule and a Molecule come together....

Posted by: Duane on July 16, 2004 4:51 PM

Oy! Thank you! I love Research Day.

Posted by: Jack on July 16, 2004 5:16 PM

Consistently brilliant writing aside, I do have one small nit to pick (and I mean small: about a femtometer across). When you say the hyperfine transition results in the release of a proton, you mean photon. At least, most people would mean photon as proton is simply wrong. If a hydrogen atom released a proton there wouldn't be a whole hell of a lot left, given that the hydrogen atom is nothing more than a single proton and a single electron.

Posted by: Rory Parle on July 16, 2004 7:04 PM

I have to say, I've always wondered why we put our address on that thing. I mean, we are regularly told that putting home address, phone number, credit card, etc on a simple email that's going across town isn't a good idea, but somehow launching a probe with directions to our one-and-only home planet and what we look like naked on it half-way across the galaxy is okay? Geez, why not add some binary code that says "We're naive, vulnerable and severely lacking in cool lasergun technology", and just be done with it?

Posted by: DugSteen on July 16, 2004 8:14 PM

I don't know what scares me more; the threat of global annihilation by Venusian cephalopods, or the visual image of "nude high-fiving".

Posted by: Dave on July 16, 2004 8:18 PM

It will be funny when millions of years from now, some clever alien comes skipping through the atmosphere, plaque lying on the passenger seat, and parks his craft, opens the door and is greeted by talking apes dressed in black leather and strange helmets.

(Or maybe by hyperintelligent 7' cockroaches with telekinetic powers... It sure won't be anybody who looks like the schlubs on the plaque coming up the gangplank to shake tentacles.)

Posted by: Jamboney on July 16, 2004 8:30 PM

In your last one, love the reference to Miller... ohh soo good beer!

But you were missing a comment window at the bottom!

Posted by: Double_t on July 16, 2004 9:16 PM

Am I the only one to notice that the happy couple representing Earth are pasty white folk with period-correct 1970's haircuts? and are, er, shaved, to boot? What aliens are not going to think they could kick our butts?

Posted by: larry on July 16, 2004 10:55 PM

Carl Sagain was anticipating late 90's porn - thus the shaved pubis... but he should have given the guy a bigger schlong - at least 21 cm. That would be hyperfine.

Posted by: FritaMita on July 16, 2004 11:13 PM

Thanks for sharing your findings Matt. I really enjoyed this post.


Posted by: johnnyeng on July 17, 2004 7:39 AM

Hey! Good to hear you made it to the museum.

I think we should set some usability guys to work on this thing. I'd be curious as to how they would tackle it. ;) Though, I was thinking about it ... roman numerals could number a progression of steps logically from one to three (four wouldn't make much sense, though you could say IIII) ... so they could put the "key" in "I" and the map in "II" (then perhaps the key wouldn't be confused with a visual representation of, say, our solar system; because currently there is no way to determine if those are hydrogen atoms or planets). Regardless, the more I think about this, the more difficult it seems to be. I think they got some things right, but should have focussed more on something to "unlock" things ... good point: 21cm is a very poor and illogical choice. However, it's hard to find universal constants that are easy to represent; we can't say "this length of time multipled by the speed of light is our height" because even if we could represent the speed of light, arabic numbers would be even more useless than our naked friends. I thought perhaps showing the hydrogen atom with more detail (our best current knowledge of electron clouds, etc.) might help to distinguish between an atom and a planet, but more detail is more likely to wear off ... and it seems as if the plaque was designed to be as simple as possible (finer details would be easily lost due to abrasion). Beyond that, it is likely that aliens can see far below the atomic level of detail, and would certainly not consider the hydrogen atom to be any fundamental unit.

Sorry to dilute the humorous discourse with rather dry ramblings, but it did spark my imagination. I'm still laughing at the naked high-fives comment.

Posted by: Alexander Micek on July 17, 2004 8:20 PM

So are you next gonna tackle the golden records sent with the Voyager probes? (Explanation of the cover here, lots more info on NASA's page here.)

Posted by: Vidiot on July 17, 2004 9:14 PM

This reminds me of something from one of Laurie Anderson's performances: "I wonder if they'll think the man's arm is stuck in that position?"

Posted by: Uncle Mike on July 17, 2004 11:51 PM

i'm wondering why the woman has an absence of genitalia. she looks like a barbie down there. where is nude high-fiving guy going to put his tiny wiener when it comes time to make a baby?

Posted by: melanie on July 18, 2004 12:02 PM

maybe a barbie doll was all the science geeks had to work with...

Posted by: Anonymous on July 18, 2004 12:18 PM

First visit to your site, great stuff, love this post.

Posted by: Reevo on July 18, 2004 7:10 PM

I never understood why the man and woman are naked. Unless the aliens land at a nude beach are/or have x-ray vision, they're not going to initally recognize us. Then they'll constantly be asking/gesturing about boobies and penises, which will leave us to believe the aliens are perverts.

Posted by: amy on July 19, 2004 7:07 AM

Gee, I had been more impressed by the fact that the Genesis Device is just sitting there on the floor by the spacecraft exhibit. No case, no label. Don't push that button, mmkay? ;-)

Posted by: Bridget Magnus on July 19, 2004 3:36 PM

Wow, was Carl Sagan really a pothead? I can't support that, I'll have to take all those posters of him down.

Posted by: Davenport on July 20, 2004 4:15 AM

Well, here I am. I arrived here via AMAZON and their link to this site while I was doing research on the act of BLOGGING. To blog, or not to blog. I didn't even know what this meant, (hence the research). I am a college student, ferchrissakes, and I should know about this stuff. I have an IT degree! I am intelligent! Apparently I have been so into my book-larning that I forgot to open my peepers and look at the real world.

My thanks to Amazon, Carl Sagan, Yetis, venusian cephalopods and all others!

Welcome me to the world of BLOG!

Posted by: kayfour on July 20, 2004 9:08 AM

Oh, I so love research day.

I remember it from childhood and that was back in the days when I thought adults were these wise creatures. I would someday become an adult and understand things like this plaque. Well, at least those scientist adults. Oh, and I worshipped Carl Sagan.

Now I know that it was just silly. And very 1970s silly at that. And now I am an adult and realize that Carl Sagan had something to do with the movie 'Contact.' Where aliens come from Pensicola Florida. I miss the days when adults were wise and anyone on PBS was automatically assumed to be right.

Did you mention that it was gold? Or at least gold plate? That's how I remember it anyway.

Posted by: Miel on July 21, 2004 2:16 AM

I love the way the girl is standing so that her thighs look thinner and don't rub together.

Posted by: WindyLou on July 21, 2004 2:22 PM

Damn me and my research day-less youth! I'm going to make a postcard as you suggested ('Wish you were here!') and I'll send it to all of my friends :D

I'll post it when I have some time left.

Posted by: Rob Mientjes on July 22, 2004 2:06 PM

I, for one, welcome our new venusian cephalopod overlords.

Posted by: moominpapa on July 23, 2004 7:02 AM

Flabby? I think he looks pretty cut!

Posted by: Susan on July 23, 2004 12:02 PM

i just hope that if the Venusian cephalopods arrive bearing flowers and cases of their best beer we don't respond by frying them on the spot because we're so bent on war and destruction that we can't grasp the concept of strangers coming in actual peace...

hilarious article. thanks! :)

Posted by: the happy mr. pervert on July 26, 2004 2:36 AM

I think the cephalopods will be more worried about the alien trying to burst out of the guy's stomach (al la John Hurt). Now wonder his dick is a bit shrunken.

Posted by: Richard Bridgman on July 28, 2004 2:09 PM

This just scored a refferencing link in my blog- love it!

If you happen to come through California on your way to the Sci-Fi museum again, stop by and pick me up, will ya?

Posted by: Debra on July 30, 2004 12:50 PM

Thanks for making me nearly snort my lunch through my nose. Too, too funny.

Posted by: aquileia on August 3, 2004 12:32 PM

My daughter asked me "is there and end to the universe?" and in my effort to educate and inform my 5th grade daughter I said, "no they haven't found an end yet, but we sent out a postcard and it is out there floating in space". Then she wanted to see a picture.
Well my websurfing is poor and I had to enlist my all knowing brother.
He sent me this site. It is informative and entertaining.

A special note to Miel...I will overlook the spelling of Pensacola. But the UFO sitings were in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Actually the landing site of the infamous pictures is 10 miles east of Gulf Breeze on Soundside Drive. I travel this road on occasion and the landing spot is marked by a spiral bulleye and the person that took the pictures is marked by a solid spot the size of a plate.

I personally have not witnessed aliens or UFO's but my sister-law can recount a tale or two that will make your hair stand on end...

by the way...which way did they send the probe?

Posted by: elf of the northwoods on August 24, 2004 6:44 AM