Monalien Lisa

By Phil Plait | August 7, 2006 9:58 pm

I am not an artist, though I appreciate art. I like some types, I don’t like others, just like most humans. There’s a great deal of art I don’t understand, which itself is understandable: art is a way of expressing what is happening inside one’s mind.

We all have different experiences, making a complete understanding of a piece of artwork impossible. But we have enough similar experiences that the work will translate– it will just touch us all in a different way. It may even invoke a reaction totally unanticipated by the artist, but this is part and parcel of what makes art, well, art.

So when an artist says something like this, I have to react:

If I were [ET] trying to communicate with beings elsewhere in the universe…I’d try to express something about myself in the most universal language I could imagine: I’d send art.

My reaction? This guy is a goofball.

Art is the least universal communication method there is. It changes from person to person. Heck, it changes even in one person; I listen to Tchaikovsky as well as ABBA. It’s difficult to understand art from another culture without first knowing something about that culture — scholars still argue over the meaning of cave art from tens of thousands of years ago, and those guys were still human. This pretty much precludes understanding alien art, especially if it is sent via radio from another star without any sort of lesson in alien sociology. And even if it does invoke a reaction in us humans, it almost certainly won’t be what the aliens had in mind.

Have no doubt, art is part of what it is to be human. That cave art I mentioned indicates that there was something different about the creatures who drew it over their ancient ancestors. Animals, it seems likely, don’t grasp metaphors, and seeing the Universe metaphorically is what art is.

Metaphors depend on their context. I suspect that even if aliens had art, we wouldn’t even recognize it as such.

The Universal language, if there is such a thing, is the language the Universe itself speaks: math. The symbols might change, but the relationships (like gravity dropping off with the square of the distance, and the peak wavelength emitted by a star depending linearly on temperature) are true everywhere.

I’m not trying to be a soulless scientist stereotype here; like I said, I have my own eye for art (I recently discovered Leonardo Nierman, and if anyone wants to buy me one of his paintings, there was a version of "Firebird" I saw in a gallery in New Orleans for only $15,000). Art is a way of expressing our desires, our fears, our human qualities… which is precisely what makes it such a terrible way to try to communicate with aliens.

There’s a poetry in the idea of using art to communicate that appeals to our emotion, but poetry just won’t work as a way to initiate contact. Binary streams of ones and zeros may seem cold and heartless… but aliens may in fact have lower body temperatures and no hearts.

Tip o’ the paint-spattered beret to The Huge Entity.


Comments (39)

  1. Yes, he is nuts.

    I wonder how an alien culture would express numbers or equalities and could that even be communicated? I guess if they have circles somehow or other they have pi. We could try to start there.

  2. Evolving Squid

    You don’t even have to go back to cave paintings. Most people… even most artists, I think, can’t separate art from “trash that some yahoo with piercings and a gloomy demeanor welds together from a landfill”. I can’t imagine that we could understand alien art, although I’m sure that somewhere, there’s some aliens looking over a piece of mangled meteorite and thinking the alien translation of “Xog should get a real job”.

    They’d probably launch that “art” into space, and the first alien art we’ll see will be a bit of junk that their culture rejected. Sort of like us beaming “Three’s Company” reruns into space.

  3. That’s why this artist is learning math. I want to know the TRUE language.

  4. Jamie

    This is also discounting differences in physiology of aforementioned aliens that would result in differences in perception. Say, for example, an alien could see beyond our visual spectrum, there could be parts of their visual art then that wouldn’t even register with our own eyes. This is all, of course, working off the assumption that there are aliens in the first place.

  5. Christian Burnham

    Let me play the devil’s advocate here!

    We all recognize the Mandelbrot set as a piece of art before we comprehend that it comes from a little equation. The Mandelbrot may as well be alien art- it’s certainly not a human construction.

    The abstract ‘fractality’ of things is probably something that would be admired by any conceivable alien civilization. It suggests an inherent complexity balanced with simplicity that arises from natural patterns. Somewhere in our brains we are associating these patterns with flowing streams and leaves- suggesting fertile pastures and hence good places to explore. The appreciation of such patterns may be as universal as civilizations that have evolved in leafy-watery conditions.

    I would also find it hard to believe that any advanced alien civilization would not appreciate the beauty of galactic formations- or the swirls on the surface of gaseous giant planets. Again- there seems to be a sort of inherent beauty to these things that is not specific to humanity.

    I even find it conceivable that an alien could perceive a deep and creative intelligence at work behind the recordings of Tchaikovsky or Britney Spears. A Tchaikovsky recording might be a reasonable way of signaling that our civilization has exerted great effort to create patterns for the sake of pattern creation.

  6. So, this guy gets radio signals, feed those in some whacky algorithm and says it’s genunine alien art? I hope he’s saying that just for the attention.

    By the way, I laughed at grey Mona Lisa, and I thought that last sentence in the post was utterly brilliant.

  7. Christian Burnham

    Actually, dance is the universal language.

  8. Chip

    I think the BA is right about math as the best method of communication, though many of us have also heard the phrase “the art of math.” This brings to mind that if we ever communicate with distant life forms, art, or any concept of it would likely take care of itself and possibly even emerge if communication ever rose to a high level of sophistication. At any rate, math is likely the best the way to go if they contacted us.

  9. PK

    Christian Burnham, your examples of the Mandelbrot set, fractal structures in plants, and galactic formations are still based on mathematics. On top of that, you should not restric alien life forms to carbon-based life with trees, water, etc. If there is one thing we can count on, it is that Nature will surprise us. As for music, go ahead and listen to some Chinese classics.

    As for your afterthought: dance is a non-verbal way of expressing oneself, and is therefore deeply connected with the human anatomy, and the collective history of human evolution. There is nothing universal about that.

  10. Kaptain K

    scholars still argue over the meaning of cave art from tens of thousands of years ago…
    I just read a “new” interpretation of cave paintings. Rather than being religious or shamanistic calls to the Gods for a good hunt (or whatever), they are the work of teenagers (mostly boys). Yep, that’s right…GRAFFITTI!!! ūüėČ

  11. Christian Burnham

    PK: my previous post regarding dance was humor.

    I’m willing to bet that flowing streams of water and frond-like plants will be present wherever civilization exists in the universe- but even if I’m wrong- it’s still a pretty good bet that nature will always have that fractal – well – natural look that is so appealing to us on this planet.

    Of course fractals are mathematical- as you point out, but not all fractals arise from simple equations. A tree’s beauty is the outcome of billions of years of evolution. We don’t speak ‘tree’ but we still find them interesting in some oddly defined way. Likewise- I suspect that much art would be of interest to our alien cousins even if they had no knowledge of ‘human’, though I agree that a Picasso wouldn’t necessarily be the first message I’d send across the galaxy in the hope of attracting a response.

    If nothing else- aliens would presumably be intrigued as to why some people buy David Hasselhoff CDs.

  12. Evolving Squid

    Actually, dance is the universal language.

    Well, I’m pretty language-impaired then. To me, dance is naught but wanton flailing around that people do when they don’t have anything better to do. I know that some people consider dance to be artistic interpretation, but to put it in a single sentence: I just don’t get it.

    I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone in that feeling, very much not alone, and that tells me that dance is NOT a universal language.

  13. Christian Burnham

    Uh, sorry I seem to have confused everyone. I was playing on the common saying ‘the universal language of dance’. Obviously we’ve discovered that my humor is not a universal language.

  14. Why should we assume that aliens even have art?

    As a mathematician Im surprised at the whole “fractal art” discussion. The “art” in the Mandelbrot set comes from people who add color to enhance the image – possibly to aid comprehension, but also for esthetics.

    Human beings are very visual. We often make sketches and draw pictures of abstract things to help us comprehend a situation. For example, we advise students to “draw a picture” when solving calculus and physics problems. Are these drawings art?

    Suppose aliens have other senses upon which they depend? Perhaps they would manufacture tastes to aid in comprehension. Perhaps they sense nearby changes in the magnetic field as their primary sense, thus create magnetic art. Perhaps they would have some yet unknown sense that we cannot imagine.

  15. Kaptain K

    Dance is the vertical expression of horizontal desire! ūüėČ

  16. “…the peak wavelength emitted by a star depending linearly on temperature”

    This is a misleading wording, Phil. Usually when we talk about a linear dependency, it means a direct proportion. However, the peak wavelength emitted is inversely proportional to the temperature, not directly proportional.

  17. As an example of the kind of art which is incredibly meaningful and bust-a-gut funny to me but maybe nobody else in the world, check out Centrifugal Force from the webcomic Xkcd (which I just found via Pharyngula).

    “How do you like my centrifuge, Mr. Bond? When I throw this lever, you will feel centrifugal force crush every bone in your body.”

    “You mean centripetal force. There’s no such thing as centrifugal force.”

    “A laughable claim, Mr. Bond, perpetuated by overzealous teachers of science. . . .”

    OK, so it’s completely irrelevant to the subject at hand, but I figured it would make a nice link the next time Prof. BA brings up the point.

  18. Hmmm, yes, inversely proportional. But it’s still a linear relationship, which is what I meant. Feel free to substitute frequency then. :-)

  19. Chip

    “You mean centripetal force. There√Ę‚ā¨‚ĄĘs no such thing as centrifugal force.”

    Schoenberg, (one of the 20th century’s greatest composers,) said there is actually no such thing as “atonal” music. (The term “atonal” is often applied to his compositions – even the “tonal” ones.) He is technically correct though musicians still use the term to describe music that doesn’t seem to have an immediately consistent functional key center.

    Likewise, “centrifugal force” is a misleading term but still widely used by engineers.

  20. I plan to communicate with aliens via the (truely) universal language of love.

    Where can I apply for a grant?

  21. Evolving Squid

    I plan to communicate with aliens via the (truely) universal language of love.

    Where can I apply for a grant?

    James T. Kirk Foundation
    c/o William T. Riker
    Paramount Studios
    Los Angeles, California

  22. George

    ABBA comes in binary now, right? :) Was “What About Livingston” the last cool song praising discoverers?

  23. bearcub

    Here is what I assume is an example of the “Alien Art”. I’ll echo what others have said, I don’t get it.

  24. bearcub

    Oops! forgot to add, it’s the second exhibit down. It runs from July 31 – January 14.

  25. Sean M.

    Phil, have you read H. Beam Piper’s short story “Omnilingual”? It discusses the first archaeological expedition to a Mars of canals, a few remaining plants and animals, and the sand-buried ruins which reached early-twentieth-century Western levels of technology before collapsing. One of the themes is the problem of deciphering the plentiful Martian writings. There is and will be no source giving a text in both a known and a Martian language, so will humans ever be able to read the writings of the lost Martian intelligent species? They work out some things like numbers and the dating system from things like magazines and lists, but further progress seems unlikely although the heroine persists in the attempt.

    The solution comes when some of the characters are exploring a ruined university and find an odd chart painted on the wall. It looks familiar to one of the explorers, so he gets the heroine to translate the numbers, and they realize that they are looking at the periodic table for the natural elements. Now, of course, they have a hook into the Martian languages- science and math, which express universal truths or close approximations thereof. They may one day translate a Martian Shakespeare, but will have to start with math and science textbooks from the university library.

  26. Pro Libertate

    Minor threadjack: Phil, I e-mailed you earlier about Reason’s Hit & Run blog discussing the Koran-as-science-reference-guide theory now making the rounds (shudder). Well, they went further and posted an item (tongue in cheek, I’m sure) about the “fake” moon landings. You’ll be happy to know that it took about six comments for someone (not me) to link to one Bad Astronomer’s rebuttal of such nonsense. Be sure to use your fame and powers only for good :)

  27. Bruce M.

    Music is probably the closest we have to a universal art form, in that virtually all cultures have some form of it. But we can’t even agree on which scale to use, and how many notes are in the scale (among others).
    You may recall that the Voyager spacecraft were outfitted with record albums including spoken greetings in several languages, the music of various cultures, and even whale sounds to tell any would-be discoverer something about us. I only hope they realize that we prefer the subtlety and technical excellence of Bach to the caterwauling of, say, Yoko Ono.

    BTW another great story about alien art is History Lesson, by Arthur C. Clarke. Creatures from Venus develop space flight around the time that lift on Earth ceases to exist due to a massive Ice Age. Only a few artifacts are left in a stone enclosure on a high mountain. They eventually figure out that one of these artifacts is a film, a graphic representation of what life on Earth must have been like.
    I won’t spoil the surprise ending for you because – well, it would spoil it…

    Love the blog, keep up the good work.

  28. Of course the centrifugal force is real. Seethe footnote on this blog entry, for one.

  29. The Science Pundit


    When I first saw that article, I had the same reaction you did. One man’s art is another man’s trash. There may be some works of art that people seem to find universally pleasing, but I chalk that up to an appreciation of beauty and asthetics. You find beauty and asthetics in nature. As a matter of fact, some people have real problems distinguishing beauty in art from beauty in nature.

    That’s when it hit me! I realized where the Discovery Institute had screwed up. They should have gone with the “artistic designer” (AD)–a designer who speaks the universal language. While IDiots and classical creationists have trouble explaining things like disease, parasites and junk DNA, the artistic designer is just expressing himself.

    ps — Phil, it seems we have a similar taste in music. But as I sit here listening to Serenade for Strings, I can’t help but notice that both my CD and mp3 collections are heavily skewed against the Swedish quartet.

    pps — I just read an article in the NYT today that attributes the shape of the Moon to “centrifugal force.”

  30. Although there are different scales, it is noteworthy that the pentatonic scale, the diatonic scale, and the chromatic scale are all generated by a simple mathematical algorithm (they represent powers of 3 that are successively closer to the nearest power of 2 than any previous power of 3), and that the next scale generated has 53 notes, which is probably just too many (though experiments have been tried as far back as the Renaissance).

    To illustrate the point, 3^5 is 243, close to 256 (0.9492), 3^7 is 2187, even closer to 2048 (1.0678), 3^12 is 531,441, closer still to 524,288 (1.0136), and 3^53 is 19,383,245,667,680,019,896,796,723 which is very close to 19.342,813,113,834,066,795,298,816 (1.0021).

    I realize that this all sounds very much like pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo (and pseudo-mystics have made much of it, for thousands of years), but the fact remains that, in terms of human music, these relationships pragmatically keep turning up, across many cultures, including cultures to which the underlying mathematical theory is foreign.

  31. Elyk

    I think we would much rather recieve some math from aliens than their idea of art as well. We have to put ourselves in their shoes when we try to think of ways to communicate with them. Math is probably the only thing everyone in the universe has in common.

  32. Chip

    I would not ride in an airplane where the stresses of centrifugal force were not a consideration of the design.

  33. > Math is probably the only thing everyone in the universe has in common.

    Carl Sagan asserted that, as well. Is there any empirical evidence that shows this?

    Let’s take another life form that’s closer to home: my cat. She sure seems to enjoy singing along with me, much more than solving differential equations with me. And cats have been known to paint.

    Of course my experiment could be skewed by the fact that I sing much better than I solve differential equations.


  34. we can’t even communicate with one another on THIS planet using art… I can’t imagine how someone from another world would interpret it.

  35. I think it is good.( you are interesting,please look this website.

  36. ljk

    As any good archaeologist will tell you, much more is learned about
    a society via its trash than its monuments and official statements.

    So while we may lament the electromagnetic junk being spewed into
    the galaxy every second of every day since the early 20th Century,
    the ETI equivalent of an anthropologist may be thrilled with the data.

    Of course this may also explain why they haven’t contacted us yet,
    either. :^)

    I also like the idea of art and music being broadcast across the
    galaxy like some kind of interstellar musac. It may not be the
    most scientifically logical way to introduce oneself to an alien
    culture, but at least it would hopefully seem a non-threatening
    one – unless you transmit your work to a world full of art critics.

  37. I’d start off with some Escher.

  38. nadine

    Has anyone seen Close Encounters? :)
    I think math is a language that attempts to solve mystery, but art is a language that communicates that same mystery we all feel a part of.


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