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How to explain Earth to extraterrestrials, without using words

Posted on April 29th, 2016 by Aloha

 Under the Sea

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Photograph by David Doubilet. Launch Gallery


Sagan, [Frank] Drake and I are all enthusiastic scuba divers, and we wanted some good underwater shots. But as we were looking through pictures of reefs and fish, we realized there was no way one could tell for certain that the scene was underwater. The most unambiguous way of showing an underwater scene was to have a diver present, since the air bubbles rising from the regulator should furnish clear evidence of the aqueous medium. In addition, the presence of the diver would show that human beings were interested in exploring and adapting to various environments. It is no accident that many space buffs (including science-fiction writers and astronauts) are scuba divers. The weightlessness, the life-support system, and the complex and gorgeous world of the reef seem a preview of interstellar exploration. It’s as close as most of us can ever get. This photograph was taken in the reefs of the Red Sea off Na’ama Bay in Sinai.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth.

Scientists and Chimpanzees

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Photograph by VAnne Morris-Goodall. Launch Gallery


This picture shows our near relatives being observed by two scientists, one of them the famous Jane Goodall. From the point of view of an extraterrestrial, chimps and human beings may be nearly identical—it seems likely that pictures of chimps dressed in cowboy suits would pass unnoticed by extraterrestrials. More human beings, they’d probably think. The fact that the human beings in this picture are studying the chimps may be a weak clue that the latter aren’t members of the race that made Voyager. On the other hand, it might appear that the chimps are the masters because the human beings are toting the gear. But we couldn’t leave out the primates. Also, the background shows a kind of vegetation not seen elsewhere: jungle growth.

This photograph was taken by Jane Goodall’s mother, Vance Morris-Goodall. When we wrote her that we wanted to use the picture, she replied: “I am completely overawed by the knowledge that I once pressed the button for a photograph which is now on its way to outer space, and still more so because my daughter, Jane, has merited the unique honor of representing an area of study on the planet Earth.”—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

Fallen Leaves

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Photograph by Jodi Cobb. Launch Gallery.


The growth on the trees has fallen off, and a human being seems to be collecting or raking it. The fact that the fallen leaves have changed from the green color seen in the leaves of other trees might indicate to the recipients this tree’s deciduous nature, and perhaps even something about the existence of several different photosynthetic pigments.—Jon Lomberg, Murmurs of Earth

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