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CosmicOS: a next-generation Contact message

Communicating programs and simulations into deep space.

Build Status

Communication through theater

It's a familiar problem. You've finally managed to contact that alien civilization. Things are going great. You feel like your world will never be the same, that whole new realms of possibilities are opening up before your eyes. Then, inevitably, a hint of strain starts to creep into your relationship. You find that you don't really have all that much in common. Heck, sometimes it feels like you're not even in the same galaxy. It's as if there is this vast gulf between you, making communication almost impossible. You're not even sure you'd understand each other no matter how physically close you became. What do you do?

You design a language for cosmic intercourse. Hans Freudenthal made a start at one in his book, Lincos, published in 1960.


One of the most interesting ideas in Lincos is to bootstrap up from mathematics and logic to conversations about mathematics and logic between imaginary characters Ha and Hb, and from there to statements about behavior of those characters. That's a pretty rich universe of shared ideas already.

In CosmicOS, we develop this idea of communicating through theater by introducing a new topic of conversation: programs and simulations. For example, if discussing logic circuits, we transmit a program for simulating the circuits, so the listener isn't restricted to the examples we show. If discussing movement through space, we transmit a simulation of a small adventure game, and show navigation from room to room. And so on.

Putting on a show

Here's the idea behind CosmicOS:

  • Communicate the usual math and logic basics ...
  • ... then use that to show how to run programs ...
  • ... then send interesting programs that demonstrate behaviors and interactions ...
  • and start communicating ideas through theater and theater commentary.

This is inspired by Freudenthal's idea of staging written conversations between his imaginary characters Ha and Hb.

What the message looks like

What would you like it to look like? A string of numbers?


Some kind of spidery scrawl?

spidery scrawl

Vaguely understandable symbols?

✉ ᚋ (+) | ✉ ᚌ 3 | ☯ 4 (ᚋ 1 (ᚌ))
☯ 2 | ✉ ᚋ 1 | + $ᚋ 1
☯ 1 | ✉ ᚋ 1 $ᚋ
☯ 14 | ✉ ᚋ 1 14
☯ 4 | ✉ ᚋ (✉ ᚌ 3 | + 1 $ᚌ) $ᚋ
☯ 4 | ✉ ᚋ (✉ ᚋ 3 | + 1 $ᚋ) $ᚋ
✉ ᚋ 1 | ☯ (ᚋ) 1
✉ ᚋ 1 | ☯ $ᚋ 1

Logic gates?

A D latch

Audio? You can listen to one rendering of the message at

Building the message

I recommend you use docker to build the message. Install docker (see, then do:

./ tiny

You should find a message saved as build/tiny/index.txt and build/tiny/index.json.

There is a tool for browsing parts of the message in:

node ./build/tiny/bin/cosmsg.js

There will be a simple console for playing with Fritz in:

node ./build/tiny/bin/cosh.js

If you don't want to use docker, you can see all the steps needed in docker/Dockerfile and src/

By default, ./ will compile the message in json form. There are specific targets if you want other forms of the message. Do ./ help to list all targets.

Message source code

The CosmicOS message is assembled from a series of "chapters". Each chapter is written in one of several languages, which are then compiled into a common language called Fritz. This is a low-level language that is suitable for further conversion into a number of forms for transmission.

Supported languages and how they are treated are:

  • *.scm: These files are incorporated into the message verbatim. They are written in a lisp-like language called Fritz.

  • *.js: These scripts are executed using node, and their output is incorporated into the message.

  • *.java: These files are compiled to bytecode, and that bytecode is then converted into Fritz statements, using elements introduced in the message itself. Not all Java constructs are supported, don't get carried away here.

  • *.pl: These scripts are executed using perl, and their output is incorporated into the message. CosmicOS is so old that its original source is was written in perl, and some of it is still lying around. I can feel you judging me, please stop.

  • *.gate: These files are interpreted as a specification for a kind of circuit. You can find a simulator on the CosmicOS website. The circuit specifications are converted into a form that can be incorporated into the message. Rules for evaluating a circuit are given in the message.


The core language of the message is a stripped-down Lisp called Fritz. Here's an example statement:

= 42 (+ 20 22);

If you've coded in scheme or lisp, this should feel familiar, except we've stripped a pair of parentheses around the whole expression, and added a semicolon. In general, Fritz takes every opportunity to reduce nesting, since it seems a cognitive burden. The above would typically be written as:

= 42 | + 20 22;

The | means: nest everything from here to the end of the current expression.

We can define new symbols with @ symbol value, and create functions with ? symbol body:

@ square | ? x | * (x) (x);
= 100 | square 10;

Note the parentheses in * (x) (x), which multiplies an argument stored in x by itself. To get the value of x, you evaluate it like an expression (this makes writing self-referential messages so much easier). A shorthand for (x) is $x, so the above can be written as:

@ square | ? x | * $x $x;
= 100 | square 10;

There's nothing special about symbols in Fritz, this code would work just as well with square and x replaced by arbitrary integers:

@ 9999 | ? 88 | * $88 $88;
= 100 | 9999 10;

The message can be encoded in lots of ways. Originally, CosmicOS was encoded in a four-symbol message, with symbols corresponding to:

  • 0: binary digit zero
  • 1: binary digit one
  • (: open parenthesis
  • ): close parenthesis

Fritz messages can still be encoded this way by expanding out all references to | and $, ignoring ;s, and replacing symbols with arbitrary integers. This does not seem very kind to the reader though, so other encodings are used today. There is a lot of scope for imaginative renderings of the same message.

Variant messages

Perhaps you'd like to work on a somewhat different message without disturbing the main message. You can do that. Take a look in the variant directory. Each file there defines a different message. For example, variant/tiny.cmake contains:


This means to build the message by concatenating msg/COS_Intro.* and msg/COS_Compare.*. You can make your own file, mine.cmake, and then build it using:

./ mine

You can optionally add this line:


If you think the $ and | message symbols should be converted to parentheses in the message.

Code quality

Oh my goodness what can I say except you're welcome sorry.



Copyright (C) 2018 Paul Fitzpatrick

CosmicOS is released under the GNU General Public Licence -- See COPYING.txt for license information.

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