The Virus That Came From Outer Space

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An American website has published a warning of the possible appearance of a virus from outer space. No, it’s not a joke. The claim was made by Richard Carrigan, a physicist with the Fermi National Acceleration Laboratory in Batavia (Illinois).

From an early age, my parents taught me to be as open as possible to others’ ideas, however bizarre or unlikely these may seem. Nobody should be dismissed out of hand just because they think in a certain way – an attitude that I assume all my readers share. However, when I saw the item about extraterrestrial viruses, my hackles rose, particularly as it came from a scientist, or at least somebody who claimed to be one.

What surprised me was not the fact that it talked about Martians, I regard belief in the existence of life in outer space as a personal issue which I am prepared to respect. What really struck me was the almost non-existent scientific and logical basis for the claim. Instead, it is little more than an incoherent fantasy, the result of a conversation between friends at the end of an evening during which a few too many bottles of cheap wine had been consumed.

I accept that you can make up anything you want for the movies: not for nothing do we call it “science fiction” (or “invented science”). A close viewing of “Star Wars”, for example, will quickly reveal scientific errors which would leave any high school student flunking his exams, but the point of such movies is not to give the audience a physics lesson but to entertain them. This is why people pay their money, and may the force be with them. Or the movie “Independence Day”, where the earthlings halt an invasion by introducing a virus into the computers of the invading spaceships. Fine, it helped to pass an enjoyable few hours, but that was all.

Before making a statement like the one mentioned at the start of this article, one should think carefully, and doubly so if you work in a scientific institution. This is because the statement is likely to be read by lots of people who won’t have the faintest idea about the reality which underlies the statement, but who will nevertheless believe the statement if it comes from a scientist.

Let’s start at the beginning. What operating systems do we earthlings use, and what systems do Martians use? Suppose I had a lot of disks containing material recorded using operating systems which are completely obsolete (CP/M or Xenix) and I wanted to keep this information. The process of migrating this information onto current media would not be an easy job. And that’s without mentioning the technological challenge of retrieving the information which is stored on punch cards. Apart from the system with which these were created, who nowadays has a card reader of this sort in working condition?

Now, at the start of the 21st century, a fairly simple system for communicating between computer systems has been created, allowing information from different machines to be shared without too much difficulty: it is called TCP/IP. If you use an IBM AIX system with a RISC processor you can access the same content as an Apple user with OS/X and a Motorola processor, a Hewlett Packard Windows users with an Intel processor or other setups using an AMD Athlon processor and Linux. This allows you to send information and share data without any difficulty. However, it’s another matter if what we want to share is a virus: that is, executable code. Here, the problem is greater.

Executable code is intimately linked to the operating system on which it runs. As many readers will already know, it is impossible to execute a piece of Linux binary code on a Windows system, and it is every bit as difficult to launch an Apple executable file in AIX, or at least to do so natively, without using emulators. There have been attempts, of course: for example, Windows NT 4 was able to execute not just DOS but OS/2 programs. But only in character mode and with a 16-bit structure. So any Martian creating a computer virus for use on planet earth would face some very daunting obstacles.

But the problem doesn’t end there. How do Earth computers work? The most advanced users talk about binary logic, and data buses with a given number of bits and specific activation times for a signal to be recognized by a given device. How could an extra-terrestrial find out about this? It takes humans several years to understand it – basically, the length of a degree course in computer studies – and that’s assuming a knowledge of the language and writing system in which the information itself is communicated.

I also have one last doubt, which is surely the clincher. How do they know we’re here? If they use the same methods as we do (visual observation at the beginning, and radar now), they would need to have detected us in some way. We can rule out visual observation, as even astronauts in orbit are unable see human life from a few kilometres up, let alone from many light years away.

So the only hope is that they have detected us using the electromagnetic waves we send out. And the first signal of any intensity was sent on December 12, 1901 when Marconi received an “S” in Morse Code, sent from one side of the Atlantic to the other. This was just over 100 years ago, so even with a smooth journey the signal would only have travelled 100 light years, rather less than the distance of 900 years it is assumed that it would take to reach the nearest planetary system to Earth, the PSR 1257+12 pulsar.

Anyway, let’s assume that these aliens – Klingons, for example – have managed to intercept this signal and have learnt about the behaviour of Earth computers solely on the basis of Morse Code transmissions. Being Klingons, and because they are really bored, they focus all their efforts on introducing a virus into Earth’s computers. I’m sure they would have nothing better to do when encountering a life system and civilization very different from their own!

Fine. No doubt lots of hackers are pointing their satellite dishes towards Alpha Centauri, the nearest star, so that their viruses infect the IT systems of the extra-terrestrials. How best to compile the virus code? With Microsoft C++? Or maybe using a GNU compiler? And what system will the aliens use?