Eric Schulze, science communicator, explains why DNA is the closest thing we have to a "tangible, cosmic language." (Washington Post Live)

Eric Schulze spoke at The Post’s 2016 Transformers live journalism event May 18 in Washington, D.C. Below is a transcript of his remarks. Learn more here.

Eric Schulze
Scientist, television host and writer
Smithsonian

SCHULZE: So a beloved astronomer was faced with a task that would seem daunting to just about anyone, OK? If we humans were to announce our existence in this universe, how would you do it? And, more importantly, what would you say?

Now, I say “say” very lightly here because language is a very human construct. A concept that applies many living and nonliving things to help us understand communication. But if we’re being frank, what is communication?

Is it the words, the syntax, the grammar? In the narrowest sense, maybe. To understand what communication is, let’s just imagine it’s a hundred years hence and we’ve all uploaded our consciousness’s into some Reddit hive-mind, super computer, cloud based being managed by Watson.

And our minds have been reconstructed with complete fidelity. A 100 percent identical to the moments of your biological life. And let’s say that my mind wants to learn something. In this case, how to bake an apple pie. What to do?

Well, I go find my favorite baker in this computer and I ask his or her consciousness how to do it. Or do I? You see, in a post singularity world where our human minds co-nestle with other electronic minds, communication may be unnecessary. Forget asking, I just transferred the information from baker to me.

No loss in information, complete understanding and as fast as light can allow. You see, communication at its heart is a measure of information transfer efficiency. Increase the efficiency and decrease the chance of misunderstanding.

And much like that boot leg coffee of Beyonce’s lemonade that I really want, communication in real life is wrought with inaccuracies, leaving glitches in my hot sauce. We can never achieve 100 percent light speed travel in real life, communication in real life, too, never achieves 100 percent efficiency.

And we try to achieve that more and more.

You see, our intrepid astronomer faces a similar problem, how to preserve communication for eons of time to organisms that probably do not understand our languages or don’t speak at all. At the time, the answer chosen was to employ the universal language quote/unquote, “mathematics.”

If we encode the basics of language using mathematical concepts like the fundamental characteristics of atoms and elements, we can imply a common tongue. But how to send math? Well, in the past we’ve tried two methods. We send a thing or a thing-like thing.

Specifically we send a thing with mass, or we send a massless like thing like thing, like light. Currently the biggest bang for our buck is to send light. It’s the speed limit of causality in the universe and it makes a lot of sense. Our planet has been leaking our human electromagnetism for many years about information about us.

Blast as much as we can, and you get the message out all over the place. But this comes at a cost. Not far from earth and still within our stellar block, our sense like fiends with time and distance becoming harder and harder to hear within the cosmic chorus.

Eventually, the light we send will be no more detectable than the cosmic microwave background, the left over warmth from the big bang itself. Signal gone. OK, well let’s send a things. We send our satellites, our probes and our rovers to great success, and now we want to send ourselves.

OK. But water’s heavy and it’s expensive to send weight in space, so if majorities identity we’re just soupy water. Even if we send ourselves, we have to hope we’re sending it the right way. The stuff we send is just too little.

And that famous astronomer I mentioned, Dr. Carl Sagan. He tried to send both a thing and a signal. Radio waves in a golden record. So what to do? Well, the problem is with the premise. Math is the universal concept, not language.

It’s like light. A thing-like thing. Mathematics is our cosmic information storage, like the hidden storage unit of the universe.

Something stable, inert, with high information density that can be sent all over like light. And that thing is DNA. It’s the closes thing we have to a tangible cosmic language.

DNA is a tool. An encyclopedia. A scribe and a megaphone. The Internet’s data can currently fit in a data farm the size of the state of Delaware. A DNA based Internet could fit in a standard moving box with room to spare.

Instead of sending ourselves on cosmic fishing expeditions, we’d send fish with dynamite, increasing our chances of discovery. We send our basic operating system to both ends of the equations, increasing transfer efficiency. By transferring our universal instructions, the transfer loss could theoretically, be minimized.

How? Well, DNA and our many organic molecules are very stable and space is very empty, sending a pebble the size of a fist, soaked with various DNA could potentially hold, not only all representative life on this planet but also past life, potential future life, and encoded in the strands themselves, the math and instruction on how to use it.

DNA sent in all cosmic directions could theoretically make the interstellar journeys unscathed. And at least, from the organic basis to start self-replication again. And, at most be deciphered with ease.

Heck, synthetic venter DNA could be encoded with our entire planetary history and would be no larger than a shoe box. So, as a genetic engineer, I must be honest, DNA is a wonderful tool in our tool box. But DNA’s not a great predictor of what constitutes a person, a plant or a bacteria.

Rather DNA as a tool is a great language. Like the soup cans tied together with string, we send ourselves via our DNA, and in doing so we send a condensed message of this planet, this silent tangible language of our world.

Math may be the universal cosmic concept but DNA is the universal bio cosmic language. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an apple pie to make. Thank you.