back to article We'll never get alien telly, says Zagreb boffin

A Croatian tech boffin has spoiled the party for those hoping to tune into TV signals broadcast by alien civilisations, publishing a pessimistic analysis (brain-ache pdf) of the subject. As the boffinry newshawks of New Scientist noted from Marko Horvat's paper: "If, for example, 10 civilisations, each with a lifespan of 250, …


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  1. English Bob

    There is another theory which states that this has already happened

    "'s a wonder we haven't already picked up some kind of eternal synthetic version of Big Brother already, pumped out from relic production machinery left running by a far-off, long extinct alien race..."

    Do you have any tips on how to tell the difference?

  2. Chris Morrison

    SETI @ Home

    Whats the estimated electric bill for SETI @ Home.

    ...anyone else think alot of people are wasting money...

    ...and how much money is spent looking for alien life...I bet you it would buy me a really nice HD tele connected to my cable box! -just so noone could detect me! :-)


  3. Francis Vaughan

    Chances worse than you think

    The chance of detecting an alien transmission are probably worse than anyone thinks for another favourite issue. DRM. We can recognise a conventional analog TV signal due to its very distinctive pattern. However once any form of digital signal is used our ability to even recognise, let alone decode it drops dramatically. Then we must contend with the desire of anyone transmitting to get best use of the bandwidth. They will of course compress the signal. A touchstone of a good compression algorithm is how much entropy is visible in the base channel. The better the compression, the more like random noise the signal becomes. Then clearly our alien friends will soon discover the need to protect their IP, and will encrypt the channel as well. Again, the better the encryption, the more like a pure noise source the signal appears. At the end of it the transmissions will appear as close to a pure noise as you might wish. Add to that any sort of spread spectrum techniques, and you smear the energy across the frequency space as well, and there is, for all intents, no hope whatsoever of finding it. After all, these techniques are used down here on little ol' Earth for essentially the same benefits.

  4. A J Stiles

    Alien telly

    An ordinary set is unlikely to be of much use for receiving extra-terrestrial broadcasts.

    There's precious little chance that aliens would use 625 lines and 25 frames every second, and as for what colour encoding scheme they might care to use -- well, let's just not go there.

    And who's to say these aliens aren't using some sort of sophisticated DRM on their broadcasts?

  5. amanfromMars Silver badge

    The Full Monty in PerlyGatesPython? Imagine....

    "In fact, taking the human race as a model, it's a wonder we haven't already picked up some kind of eternal synthetic version of Big Brother already, pumped out from relic production machinery left running by a far-off, long extinct alien race."

    Perhaps we have ..... and have just entered a New Phase with of Play.

    "Actually, a nine per cent chance of ever managing to pick up alien TV sounds wholly unacceptable to us at Vulture Central. The possible galacto-political implications of interstellar broadcast media reception is one of our favourite areas of speculation.

    In fact, the Reg assessment is that the four-year gap between the two series' of Fawlty Towers may very well lead aliens to develop faster-than-light star travel (in order to avoid waiting for their second helping of John Cleese tomfoolery). Indeed, an interstellar armada capable of destroying planet Earth - or perhaps the entire solar system - unless a third series is produced may already be on the way." ..... What a spiffing Good Cunning Plan for a Full House.

    Tele Vision in Deed? AI Quantum Leap akin to a Milligan Spike?

  6. Chris Miller

    In the words of Douglas Adams ...

    ... this is the Galactic News Channel broadcasting on the sub-ether waveband around the galaxy around the clock and before we move into the news we just want to say a big "hello" to all the intelligent lifeforms out there and to everybody else the secret is to keep banging the rocks together, guys!

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    ....has nothing to do with finding alien signal leakage. It's stated purpose is to find signals purposefully meant to be detected (i.e. it's a hobby, trying to find someone who has enough power to pursue an even grander hobby).

  8. Dave

    Chances are worse...

    Indeed, it has taken a civilisation nearby this computer I am using less than 70 years to go from 30-line "wobblyscope" rubbish (where the performers had to wear bizarre yellow and blue makeup) to all of: digital transmission, compression, crypto and spread-spectrum.

    V v v much less than the 25kyears in the research paper.

  9. Steve Browne

    Does this mean ...

    .. that the background radiation discovered by Penzias and Wilson is not actually left over from the Big Bang but is in fact DRM infested digital alien television signals.

  10. Mark Scorah


    the snow we get on untuned channels are the alien transmissions that Francis Vaughan tells us will appear to be random noise to us, and not the energy caused by the big bang after all.

  11. Dave

    Re: Steve Brown & Mark Scorah

    Two alternatives:

    1) Record thousands and thousands of hours of it and subject it to the most rigourous (rigorous) statistical tests for hours and hours to discover how not-random it is. If random => background rad, if not-so-random => probably alien comms

    2) Find a nice pub with a beer garden, relax and worry ye not

  12. chris

    Surely any civilisation with the technology for inter-stellar travel..

    ..will realise that a third series of Fawlty Towers wouldn't be any good. Have you seen any of John Cleese's recent output?

  13. umacf24

    Fibre Optics over Interstellar Distance?

    Did I read that right? Wouldn't it all get tangled up?

  14. Nano nano

    Next series

    Surely the best way of taking new shows out on your sublight spaceship is to have a store of quantum-entangled DVDs. Then they just have to burn the corresponding data onto the copy back on the home planet, and the entangled copy on board gets updated.

    Or is that too simple ;)

    [Yes, I have patented that, Blockbuster ...]

  15. peter Silver badge

    What a lousy paper.

    Horvat’s paper is a really infuriating read – he says things like, "An evolved alien civilization that would deliberately and constantly send radio messages toward solar systems potentially harboring intelligent life is really hard to imagine." No its not! That's exactly the kind of thing rich geeks (bearded or otherwise) might waste their money on, once they've got inflatable hotels in orbit and are looking for something else to busy themselves with. (Or, if you prefer, the sort of thing the pawns of the lizard army might attempt in order to guide their overlords into landing.) And anything which might make his calculation tricky he dismisses, with an appeal to "common sense".

    Plus, it includes my fave platitude of the week - "Therefore, it becomes obvious that the exact date of contacting aliens remains unknown." No, really? Give him an Ig Noble now.

    Oh, and his equation is piss poor, too. It doesn't reflect his own premises [He says "N_ac alien civilizations can occupy the same volume of space V_space", so his N_ac is actually N_ac(V_space).] A worthwhile paper might of wrestled with the uneven distribution of stars--and therefore, presumably, civilisations--in the galaxy. But this is mediocre A-level physics. And by far the worst paper I've read all year.

  16. Webster Phreaky

    Alien Radio Already Here with idiot George Noory and his liars club...

    .. of phony guests spinning whopping bullshit tails of UFO's, alien building Pyramids and Sphyx, Star Child hybrids, modeling human evolution, etc. all so they can pitch books, presentation and websites full of equivantent bullshit.

    Too bad Art Bell has "retired again" with his latest Flip child bride (conspiracy theory - he killed off Ramona with a faked Asthma attack with the the help Alpha Centauri agents), because at least Art was a good actor sounding like he was a real pretend authority on UFO crap. But George Noory just sounds like a country bumkin dope who'd happily buy swamp land as a retirement estate.

    * Tonight on Alpha Centauri Radio "rift to rift AM" - How a humanoid species from a distant planet, third from a star called Sol sent civilizations instructional seeds to our planet Putok in the form of I Love Lucy and The Three Stooges ...... Naw naw naw clunk, eye (two of five) poke.

  17. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Number crunching...

    'If, for example, 10 civilisations, each with a lifespan of 250,000 years, live within radio reach of Earth, the probability that one of them will be detected is about nine per cent.'

    Which is about a 8.9% higher probability than me being able to get a decent signal from Virgin cable.

  18. Chris Miller

    More number crunching

    "the probability that one of them will be detected is about nine per cent.

    Which is about a 8.9% higher probability than me being able to get a decent signal from Virgin cable."

    and about 8.999% higher than the chance of there being a prog worth watching.

  19. Chris Goodchild Silver badge


    If the drivel, soaps and other content free Tv I occasionally watch is anything to go by, there is no need to look beyond this planet for alien broadcasts. Big brother, Corry and the rubbish I get on my spanish Tv is all the proof you need to know that aliens are here and destroying earthlings minds even as you read this. Oh! What's that bright light outside the window? Hey don't point that thing at m.. AAARRRGGHH!!!

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    dumb aliens, dumb earthlings

    SETI is only looking for signals in a narrow band at 1100mhz that is not efficiently attenuated by water vapor in our atmosphere. So none of our TV is actually getting out anyway. The aliens would have to be making a big effort, with an omnidirectional transmitter approximately as powerful as Earth's total generating capacity (or a much smaller directional transmitter), and be less than 100 light years away, in order for us to hear them with anything SETI can build. At a range of 100 light years stars are pretty much uniformly distributed.

    If interstellar spaceflight is even possible, the very last thing we want is some alien race investigating whether our planet is pretty enough to visit and exploit. Any civilization thinking of putting serious resources into sending a message would have to have this thought. It just doesn't make sense to announce your presence.

    There goes another romantic notion from old science fiction. Unless we find something alive elsewhere in the solar system, we're effectively alone. Bummer.

  21. Andy Bright


    All this may be true - but I'll bet regardless of the quality of programming you don't receive from the other side of the galaxy, the DVD box sets will be littering store shelves by the end of the week.

  22. Steve Roper

    Fruitless fruit-loop!

    First of all, trying to detect an alien radio signal, unless they have a transmitter in the terawatt range, is fruitless when you consider the radio noise that would be emitted by the nearby sun and any gas giants in the system. Trying to pick out a coherent radio signal against this noise is akin to trying to spot a candle in front of a searchlight. It is true that our deep-space probes can communicate with us in only a few watts, but that's because they're on a very tight beam - which is thus not susceptible to interception by anyone outside of the line of transmission.

    Broadcast radio, on the other hand, is subject to the inverse square law, as is any form of EM emission. At interstellar distances, the signal strength per square metre of reception area is negligible, and most likely drowned out by other radio sources anyway. I would go so far to consider that this, and not the actual absence of alien civilisations, is the main reason SETI hasn't discovered anything, and probably never will.

    Even if we could, the chances of being able to decode the signal are near zero. For one thing, we're assuming the aliens' visual bandwidth is the same as ours - they might "see" in the infrared, or ultraviolet. Or they might communicate by smell rather than visually, and the signal may be describing various molecular combinations rather than graphical information. Even if they do see in the same EM band as we do, there are very many combinations of possible viewing resolutions and display patterns (e.g. they might have round screens with the scan beam spiraling in or out instead of left-right, top-bottom (or any other rectangular order). Further, they could use any combination of colours besides RGB to build their images. This would make decoding the signal all but impossible.

    As to DRM in the signals, well, I should hope that any enlightened civilisation would not operate under the same principles of greed, selfishness and megalomania as humans do. If the way humanity behaves is an indication of the behaviour of intelligent life in general, then the Universe is in a bad way. Given human nature, the prospect of meeting a race that thinks like us that might have superior firepower is one that would destroy humanity as surely as we would destroy a civilisation of Bronze-age or even Victorian-age creatures on contact. For profit, of course.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Surely Jeff Goldbloom would have noticed?

    After all, he did manage to decode (in a matter of hours) the encrypted signal of a fleet of super-advanced alien ships. He was so good at this he then managed to interpret their language, write a "computer virus" and use it to take down the entire fleet. Of a civilization capable of traveling through interstellar space, defying gravity, and building energy weapons.

    Come on guys, grab your laptops! It shouldn't take long...

  24. Mark Roome

    In the words of my favourite cartoon character, Calvin:

    "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."

  25. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Logic missing here

    "SETI is only looking for signals in a narrow band at 1100mhz that is not efficiently attenuated by water vapor in our atmosphere. So none of our TV is actually getting out anyway."

    I'm fine in learning that SETI is only looking in a given bandwidth, but how is that related to our TV signals ? And just what allows Mr. Anon to state that stars are evenly distributed in a 100 light-year range ?

    I believe out TV signals are getting out just fine and have been for past thirty years. I also believe that, 30 light-years from here, any alien civilization cruising by would have to have quite sensitive equipment to detect, decode, and analyze I Love Lucy., or The Price Is Right, or Dallas, or . . now I pray they don't have the possibility to do that.

  26. A J Stiles

    @Nano Nano: Quantum Entanglement

    It doesn't work like that. The nearest analogy for Quantum Entanglement is as follows. Suppose I have two playing cards, one red and one black. You select one of the cards and travel halfway around the universe. I look at my card, see it's red and can know instantaneously that your card must be black. In other words, information about the colour of a playing card half a universe away has apparently travelled to me faster than light!

    But if you then scratch the print off your card and paint a new red design on it, it won't have any effect on the redness of my card.

    So it is with quantum-entangled particles. If you deliberately alter the spin of one of the particles -- in fact, even if you so much as measure its spin -- you end up breaking the entanglement. This is because the act of observation itself changes the thing being observed.

    All you know is that wherever the other particle is in the universe, its spin was the opposite of what you just measured at the time when you measured it.

  27. the Jim bloke

    Jeff Goldbloom

    not only crashed the alien fleets defenses, he did it using a Mac.

    Its a good thing there arent more of them around.

  28. Matt


    all this recent bashing of poor old seti - in the grand scheme of things it gets sod all money, and yes we all know that it is almost impossible for it to ever find anything to do with aliens. It has however provided alot of useful R&D on distrobuted systems, radio telescopes, so on and so fourth.

    As to Jeff Goldbloom, he was using a mac, proving the long held belief that Macs were made by aliens in the first place.

    As to intersteller travel, without breaking Einsteins cage it's impossible, will someone break it? Who knows, science is strange like that.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Death of radio?

    Those who say that the Earth may become silent (or nearly so) in the radio spectrum some time in the future have ignored one thing. The radio spectrum is a resource and as long as it is available someone will exploit it. The chances of it being abandoned are extremely slight.

  30. Chris

    re: Well

    "As to intersteller travel, without breaking Einsteins cage it's impossible..."

    It's not impossible, it just takes a while... ;-)

  31. Steve Roper

    Re: re: Well

    "It's not impossible, it just takes a while... ;-)"

    For you perhaps, Chris. For ME in my nice shiny 0.9998*c capable starship, it takes me only a few months to get from here to Epsilon Eridani! And most of that time is getting up to speed and slowing down again... The fact that for you and anyone else left behind on Earth, it takes 11 years + acceleration/deceleration for me to get there doesn't affect my personal experience of the trip, does it? ;-P

    Hey, wanna come for a ride? So, your kids will have grandkids by the time we get back, but hey, you'll be able to say you've seen the planets of Eps Eri and you'll have the photos to prove it! ;-)

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