Earthlings are bad mathematicians. That may be what aliens
think while deciphering the message that's being radioed to
them Monday, May 24th, from Ukraine. A 25-year old Dutch
computer game programmer discovered a sloppy mistake that
can't be repaired in time.
Astronomers Yvan Dutil and Stephane Dumas of the Defence
research establishment in Valcartier, Canada, must feel
embarrassed by the revelation of Paul Houx, programmer of kid's
computer games at IJspaleis, a small multimedia company based
in Amsterdam. In the most recent edition of Kijk, a Dutch
popular-scientific monthly magazine, Houx read an article on
contact with aliens. Along with the article, some pages were
printed of a radio message that will be sent into space next
monday, in the direction of four stars that resemble our Sun -
andĘ hopefully also are encircled by an inhabited planet.
One of the 23 pages was supposed to explain to the aliens that
people on Earth have mastered mathematics. In a kind of code
language, calculations of the circumference and surface area of a
circle were mentioned, as well as Pythagoras' theorem. Last
week, Houx decided to try and crack the code - and succeeded.
To his great surprise, he immediately ran into an error. The
equals to'-character next to the depicted circle was not similar
to the same character that appeared on a different page. There,
the character consisted of four horizontal lines with a vertical
line crossing it. In the calculation of the circle, the vertical
line was missing. That would be more than enough to drive an alien
"I couldn't believe it was true", Houx says. "But I had seen
it right. This is a remarkable piece of sloppiness." Joking:
"It will certainly earn mankind the distinction of a sloppy
people by the Union of Extraterrestrial Civilisations."
In an e-mail conversation with Houx, Dutil has admitted to his
fault. Something went wrong with the transition of the characters
into a different type, according to the astronomer. The error was
not noticed during any of the multiple checks that were made.
Dutil told Houx he would try to repair the damage and get the
missing vertical line back into the message. This, however, has
failed because he was unable to get in contact with the
'mailman', a Russian astronomer that will broadcast the message
from the Evpatoria observatory in Ukraine. The transmission will
now go ahead as planned, since the 'airtime' has already been
Ironically, the Canadian astronomers made headlines earlier this
year when they wrote an e-mail message to their prime minister,
asking for stricter regulation of messages to aliens. "If you want
to send something into space, the message should have to be
checked out", the astronomers wrote. "Messages carelessly
designed might put Earth at risk...so you have to be careful.
It is like playing with dynamite."
(published in Trouw daily newspaper, May 19, 1999) - reprinted
with permission of the author, Mark Traa, Trouw Daily