Decoding Alien Radio Transmission Messages: A Guide

In 1974, the Arecibo radio telescope transmitted a string of 1,679 bits into the depths of space, marking one of the most iconic attempts at communicating with potential extraterrestrial life. But if we were to receive an alien message, how could we Earthlings even begin to decode it? A novel mathematical approach may hold the key to unlocking the secrets of such messages.

Understanding the Arecibo Message

Arecibo Message

The Arecibo message, which included depictions of a person, the DNA double helix, the solar system, and the telescope itself, was initially a complex puzzle. The first challenge in deciphering it was recognizing that it was an image, specifically 23 pixels wide and 73 pixels tall. The message was encoded by rapidly alternating between two different frequencies, representing the binary digits one and zero. Any attempt to align these bits differently would result in a seemingly random pattern.

Challenges in Decoding Alien Messages

Decoding an alien message presents similar challenges. How would we know the number and size of its dimensions? Alien messages could take various forms and possess different dimensions. They might be databases with elements containing lists of values, or they could resemble physics simulations with measures for each point in spacetime.

The New Decoding Method

A breakthrough mathematical approach, developed by Hector Zenil and his colleagues, offers a solution. This method takes an incoming message, a string of bits, and explores every conceivable combination of dimension number and size. For example, with 100 bits, this method considers configurations like 1×100, 10×10 (two dimensions), 4x5x5 (three dimensions), 2x2x5x5 (four dimensions), and so on.

Measuring Orderliness

To evaluate each configuration, the method assesses its orderliness in two ways. It breaks the message into patches and searches a catalog of trillions of tiny computer programs to determine how many programs generate identical patches. This measure reveals the local order of the configuration. The more programs generating identical patches, the higher the local order score. Additionally, the researchers gauge global order by assessing how much an image compression algorithm can shrink the configuration without data loss.

Testing the Method

The new approach was put to the test using a version of the Arecibo message expanded to six times its original size. The results were promising, as the method accurately identified the correct dimensions. It also proved effective in deciphering other messages encoded as bits, including various images, an audio file, and a 3D MRI scan.

Handling Noise

The method demonstrated resilience to noise that might occur as a message travels through space. Even when a quarter of the bits in the original Arecibo message were flipped from 1 to 0 or vice versa, the method successfully identified the original dimensions.

Applications and Implications

Hector Zenil, the mastermind behind this mathematical approach, believes that the technique has potential applications on Earth, including deciphering intercellular signaling. This method can also help identify essential components in gene regulatory networks, offering insight into their functioning. Moreover, it opens the door to the development of artificial general intelligence, offering new ways to understand forms of intelligence that differ from our own.


Decoding alien messages may no longer be a daunting challenge. Thanks to this groundbreaking mathematical approach, we can not only detect the message’s dimensions but also interpret its content. This innovation holds great promise for the field of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and paves the way for more efficient and automated approaches to understanding messages from the cosmos.