What Came Next, Why We Talk

Tappers and listeners

Forty-two years ago, on a balmy November evening in Puerto Rico, we sent a message to a star system 25,000 light years away. It consisted of 1,679 ones and zeros. Should you array the numbers into a 73×23 grid (and not a 23×73 grid), then one might see some patterns form. One pattern represents the numbers one through ten in binary notation. Another pattern lists the periodic table numbers of the elements in our DNA. Another pattern doesn’t represent numbers at all, but is a basic depiction of the human form. The final pattern is another crude drawing, this time of the telescope that sent the message.

This was our first transmission to any interstellar neighbors that might be listening.

Sixteen years after that transmission, a graduate student at Stanford performed a study where she organized two groups of people into tappers and listeners. The tappers tapped commonly known songs (e.g. ‘Happy Birthday,’) and the listeners had to guess which song was being tapped. Tappers estimated that the listeners would correctly guess the song 50% of the time. In actuality, listeners correctly guessed the song only 2% of the time.

We call this the curse of knowledge: once we know something, it’s difficult for us to imagine a different person not knowing it. Our own ambiguous messages sound clear to us because our experience automatically gives them form.

Twenty five thousand years after that transmission, an alien intelligence listens in from star cluster M13. She needs no mechanical equipment; her biology innately perceives and echolocates distant radio waves. She hears an incoherent tapping sound: the binary babbling of a dimwitted neighbor. It’s one of thousands she hears each day, and hardly worth a reply.

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