First Contact: How to Avoid Threatening to Slap the Aliens Senseless

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 24, 2009 6:22 pm

Codex Futurius LogoWelcome back to the Codex Futurius project, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the ineffable scientific ideas raised by science fiction. In an earlier entry in the Codex, Jill Tarter of SETI talked about whether we and intelligent-alien species X would recognize each other’s transmissions as such. Now Kevin Grazier–JPL physicist, Hollywood sci-fi adviser, and official friend of Science Not Fiction–looks at the next big question: how we could communicate with any aliens we encounter.

My heroes are in a first-contact situation, meeting an alien face-to-face for the first time. How could my heroes and the alien learn to communicate with each other?
Both knowingly and unwittingly, humans have been broadcasting their presence to the Universe since the 1920s—when coherent transmissions in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum became widespread. Our radio and television broadcasts do not stop at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere; rather they propagate into space at the speed of light. While these signals attenuate with distance, they are detectable nevertheless: NASA still regularly communicates with the twin Voyager spacecraft despite the fact that they are over 100 times further from the Sun than Earth and that each of which transmit data to Earth with less power than a common household light bulb. This means that an alien civilization as far away as 58 light-years could potentially be trying to make sense of “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” (There are 105 G-type stars—ones like our own lovable Sol—within this I Love Lucy-sphere.)

Thirty-five years ago humans make the first and only significant attempt to say “Hello” to extraterrestrial civilizations. On November 16, 1974 the newly remodeled Arecibo radio telescope beamed a message into space. The signal was beamed into space only once, and it was aimed in the direction of the globular cluster M13, a collection of hundreds of thousands of stars 25,000 light-years away in the constellation Hercules. Because of proper motion, M13 will no longer be in position to receive that message 25,000 years from now, but another star system might.

The Arecibo message was beamed into space less because it was a legitimate attempt to make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, and more as a test of new capabilities of the telescope. The message was 1679 bits of binary information. Presumably any alien species capable of telecommunication would figure out that 1679 is the product of 73 and 23, both of which are prime numbers, hinting at the intended interpretation of the broadcast: that it is actually is a matrix with 73 rows and 23 columns. One assumption behind the message is that any alien race receiving it will orient the matrix vertically instead of horizontally (23 by 73), which produces gibberish—or at least that they’ll examine both representations before giving up on it.

Contained in the Arecibo transmission are representations of the numbers one through ten in binary; the atomic numbers of the elements that form organic compounds which, in turn, form human beings; formulae of a few basic organic compounds; and graphical representations of a human, the Solar System, and the Arecibo antenna. All of the depictions were crude, at best. Even the binary digits one through ten were represented in such a way as to be non-obvious even to human beings familiar with binary. If an alien race actually receives that transmission, it will be easy to determine that it is of intelligent origin (omitting the obligatory gag about Earth not having intelligent life), but challenging to determine the actual intent of the message. The Arecibo message was unique: Although our radio and TV broadcasts “leak” into space, nobody is actively broadcasting signals with the idea of contacting extraterrestrial civilizations. Today we simply listen.

What if somebody responded?
What if one day aliens received a signal that we had transmitted into space, intentionally or otherwise? What if they decided to invite themselves over for a visit? What if they decided not to land on the front lawn of the White House, instead landing on the front lawn of your house? Assuming that the aliens did not know your language, how would you attempt communication? Should you attempt communication?

In movies and on television first contact scenarios often seem so… easy. That’s usually, at least in part, because the heroes in science fiction stories have access to some device that functions as a universal translator—that translates between most known (and previously unknown) languages. Even if the translator is of biological origin like a fish (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or a colony of bacteria (Farscape), it’s still a device—a plot device that we generally accept in sci-fi like FTL travel or artificial gravity. It makes sense from a storytelling standpoint.

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard must learn to communicate with the captain of an alien vessel who speaks entirely in cultural references. While this can be compelling for a lone episode, in series like Star Trek or Stargate it would be dramatically unfulfilling if we had to wait, week after week, while our heroes attempt to communicate with yet another new alien race.

It’s an obvious understatement to say that language is complex—what is startling is how difficult it is to convey even the most basic of concepts to somebody with no known reference points. Everything that you say is fraught with assumptions. Imagine that you walk up to a random stranger on a street corner and say, “Hello. How are you?” What assumption could lie behind such an innocuous greeting? Perhaps it’s more obvious if we rephrase the question. If you walked up to the very same person and said, “Guten Tag. Wie geht’s?” You have made the obvious assumption that the person speaks German which may or may not be a good one. The assumption that other humans with whom we’d like to communicate have shared experiences is a good one. With an alien race, it is not an assumption you can make.

It gets worse. Most language has cultural colloquialisms that make accurate translation even more difficult. Even though a universal translator might function well on a word-by-word basis, it’s still doubtful that meaningful dialogue between humans and alien races would rapidly ensue when we consider even the most common cultural influences upon language. For example if somebody who spoke German as a native language spoke into a universal translator and said, “Er is sehr blau” in reference to your mutual friend, you may think that your friend is feeling depressed—the literal translation is “He is very blue.” You wouldn’t figure out, other than perhaps by visual observation, that your mutual friend is drunk, which was the actual implication of the statement in German. “Blue” means depressed in English, inebriated in German, and in neither case would the connotation of that sentence be, “He is reflecting short-wavelength visible light.”

When the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were launched in 1972 and 1973, they carried human greetings to any alien civilization who may find the craft one day. Each craft carries a plaque that has diagrams of, among other things, a human male and female, the Solar System, and the spacecraft’s origin. The man has his hand raised in what is supposed to be a friendly gesture, but even this has a cultural bias. It could equally be interpreted as hostile: “You want a piece of this? Come to my planet and I’m going to slap you senseless.” In fact, one argument against affixing the plaques to the Pioneer spacecraft was that it sends the very clear message, “Here are the directions to the restaurant, and here’s what’s on the menu.”

Which brings us back to the spacecraft sitting in your front yard, and the alien beings who have exited the craft and who are now standing before you. If Earth’s history can be used as a template, first-contact scenarios between cultures possessing drastically different levels of technology often end badly for those in the low-tech population. It would, however, probably be reasonable to assume that if the aliens wanted you for dinner, you’d already be in their oven. Or on their plate. Or in their equivalent of a stomach. If they wanted you as slave labor, given the proximity, it’s probably too late for you on that score as well. Nevertheless, the first goal in any such encounter should be, first and foremost, your survival. It might be a good assumption that the aliens are on a heightened state of alert—that they are wary of what you may do simply out of a fear response. Waving “Hello” like the man on the Pioneer plaque is perhaps not a wise move. Slowly turning your hands so that your open palms face the aliens might be a better choice. Presumably if the aliens can get all the way to Earth from their home, they are intelligent enough to look beyond any cultural insult this gesture may cause, and recognize that what you mean is that you are not carrying a weapon. Making all motions and gestures slow and deliberate would not be a bad idea.

If the aliens did, in fact, wish to achieve any meaningful dialogue, the goal in any interplanetary communications, then, would be to find a common ground with a minimum of assumptions and colloquialisms. Whether or not this is an attainable goal is another question. If the situation were reversed, and it was human beings who had just landed at an alien being’s home, presumably we would have done our homework first—doing either remote or in situ observations to smooth over a first-contact scenario. They may have also have experience, having done this once or twice before. So the best communication strategy might simply be to let the culture with the highest level of technology take the lead while the low-tech participants concentrate on staying alive. In the end, it’s probably best to let the alien initiate communication, even if it is simply, “Take me to your leader.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Codex Futurius

Comments (17)

Links to this Post

  1. The I-Love-Lucy Sphere | BitLizard's Blog | June 25, 2009
  1. Spain in the New World, “To Serve Man.” If they discover you, you are dog meat, if you discover them, they are dog meat. One should worry less about slaughter than evangelism – especially if Earth is disputed sales territory,

  2. amphiox

    Interesting side-note regarding the Arecibo transmission. Most of the time we equate the last variable in the Drake Equation, L, with the lifetime of a putative alien civilization, but it actually represents the length of time such a civilization is detectable, and this will vary not only with regards to their technology, but ours as well. And as we currently cannot detect undirected signals, a beamed transmission like the Arecibo transmission is the only thing we can detect.

    Which means that for our current technology level, L for earth’s human civilization is not 10000 years, or 100 years, but for the length of time of that one transmission, whatever it was. (A couple seconds? A couple hours?)

  3. Do your homework, there are companies that still send messages to space all the time for a price..

  4. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Alex: Yes, but are those messages scientifically “significant”? I think Kevin was trying to get across that there was a lot of thought and planning and science that went into Arecibo — it wasn’t just a paid-for vanity project. And it was the only one of its kind.

  5. Great article Amos! I think the communication issue is a huge one for SETI but perhaps not so much for direct First Contact. In my blog I often take on the perspective of an extraterrestrial visitor interested in saying hello to the humans. What would I do? Well, first I would spend a lot of time analyzing us, especially communications, and international political issues. I would probably study us for many years before I ever tried to make First Contact. Given the technology I would need to already be here in the solar system in person, I would probably be able to crack the language issue pretty quickly. The big issue I would have is how to handle the rather complex political and cultural issues that would arise with First Contact. How do I say hello without causing violent unrest on Earth? Do I say hello to a government or a small group? I think aliens would spend a bunch of time analyzing the internet for help from us. It’s a ready made research library with everything they would need to plan First Contact. I’ll go further and suggest that I wouldn’t contact a civilization until they had a content platform like the Internet. That, combined with satellite communications would be important for First Contact planning and execution. And hey, we have both of those things now. Perhaps they’re even reading your article! Thanks for the rational and thoughtful discussion. The sane people are not paying enough attention to this topic. If it happens we are in for some hard times.

  6. This is an interesting topic that would make a great science fair project. The project can examine what type of information “should” be included in transmissions into to space that are designed to “make contact.” Another question that may be posed is “should we be giving away secrets about our genetics, biology and weaknesses?” Students, you need to think about this question when designing your transmission.

  7. While it’s likely that a visiting alien species would have technology vastly superior to ours, that’s not an automatic. It’s likely that we currently have the technology to send a person to another star system. The cost and the time frame of such a journey make it impractical but they do not make it impossible.

    There is certainly the possibility that a species with 1970’s level technology but possessing a different value set might not make the same determination about such a mission’s feasibility.

    It’s also possible that their technological development may have been fundamentally different from ours and that our devices are simply not analogous to one another and thus any discussion of which is more advanced might, itself, be meaningless.

    Point being, any alien species that we are likely to meet will probably be so different that communication will be slow and probably mathematical in nature, if it’s possible at all.

  8. Thomas, that’s an interesting perspective. But why would aliens bother discovering new worlds? It would seem some investigative based science would have to drive such a mission. Anyone capable of traveling those distances, whether with 1970’s technology or 2700 technology, would understand a careful process of observation and study. After all, that’s the process that allowed them to find us in the first place. Science, whether human or alien, has a basic premise of observation and testing. It seems unlikely anyone would manage to travel immense distances without a scientific process of some sort. If you did understand observation and study, why would you just go barging in as soon as you found another intelligent life form? Wouldn’t you spend some time to study this new life form and truly understand them? That would mean learning the language or languages. If you could find a way to park yourself in the solar system, but outside of detection, you could observe and analyze radio and television communications for many years. Television would be especially helpful, in that you could find visual representations of how people use and react to speech. I think communication would be the least of the problems for a visiting extraterrestrial civilization. After all, it’s merely a form of code based on a set of rules and constants. The tougher part, in my estimation, would be the complex social and political interactions of humans. Whom do the extraterrestrials approach first on planet Earth? What would be the consequences of such contact? How would they be received? How would they ensure a warm reception? I think an understanding of our math, sciences and communication would be the easiest task for a visiting extraterrestrial delegation. Deciding when and how to contact us would be the tough part.

  9. Tony: while you’re essentially correct when you say that language is merely a form of code based on a set of rules and constants, that statement really does oversimplify the issue.

    Even within our own species languages differ greatly. Concepts exist in one language that are difficult, nigh impossible to translate into others. One language draws differentiations between concepts, even between physical realities that others do not. Not all cultures recognize the same spectrum of colors, for instance. Don’t forget that it is hugely difficult for an adult person to gain fluency in a language with which they were previously unfamiliar, even given total immersion.

    Remember also that these linguistic incongruities persist even though we all share a common brain chemistry. While there are certain universals, like a distinction between nouns, verbs and adjectives that make intra-human language learning possible, we cannot take it as a given that an extra-terrestrial species would have any commonality with us in terms of communication. Their language might not make the same distinctions between parts of speech. Their language might be entirely non-verbal: a series of bio-luminecent flashes, hyper-sonic sounds or they may have a biological means of producing and hearing radio waves.

    Regarding your point about careful observation and study of a civilization, I will fully concede that Science, whether human or alien, has a basic premise of observation and testing. However, a first contact situation is much more akin to a work of social science or diplomacy than to discrete science. Today’s anthropologists continue to debate on the best means to observe a culture. While there are many that favor viewing from afar, a larger number favor interaction with or immersion in that culture. Remember that those conflicting opinions are all held by human scientists that share a common frame of reference. Aliens might make an entirely novel estimation of the issue that we would never, nay, could never have thought of.

    The point is that, while speculating about communication with aliens is an excellent thought exercise, it really doesn’t tell us anything concrete about how an alien civilization might actually communicate. Any such discussion is predicated on our own understanding of communication which is, in turn, defined by our biology and our experiences on this planet. A species with differing biology that emerged on a different planet might not be compatible with us at all. On the other hand, they may be very much like us indeed. We simply don’t know with any certainty.

  10. Thomas: Agreed…uncertainty is at the heart of this entire discussion. The idea of extraterrestrials taking different approaches to observing humans is an interesting one. It could certainly explain the alleged contact situations in history. It would be an especially acute problem if there are multiple civilizations out there, with many different approaches in the study of humans. I find the issue of extraterrestrial social politics intriguing because it just expands the complications in any First Contact situation. Not only do they have to figure out our society, but we have to deal with their social complexities. Of course none of this is even possible unless they can understand our languages. I would suppose it really comes down to the purpose of an extraterrestrial visit. Are they here as part of a scientific expedition or for commerce? Are they on a religious quest or staking out new territory? Or are they so hard for us to understand that we have trouble even fathoming their reasons?

  11. vel

    is it really true that someone say 50 LY from earth could receive television broadcasts of Lucy? They weren’t using satellites much in those days so it would be station to station broadcasts. Where any of these ever pointed “up”? And aren’t the signals sent to Voyager very tight beam to compensate for the diffusion at the point of contact? Could we receive such signals in Arecibo? It always seems that these claims are nice little stories but are they true at all?

  12. Brian

    I personally think that the issues of communication are probably quite solvable, even considering different cultures and world views. There are hundreds (thousands? millions?) of examples of people who, with little in common, slowly develop a linguistic connection. You start with the nouns and the proper names of things. The desire to communicate is the key and all other matters are secondary and solvable.

    Am I oversimplifying? Well of course that’s possible. However with 2 motivated parties I think they’ll find a way. The development of various creoles and pidgin languages is a pretty good indicator of how far an intelligence motivated to speak will go. And that includes if “speaking” is done with electromagnetic wavelengths, sound waves, motions or whatever.

    The hard problem is that of differing technological achievements and the motivations of the species involved. It’s difficult to overstate that within Earth societies, the more technologically advanced societies have dominated the less advanced societies. That’s socially, economically, politically, militarily, religiously, biologically, and in every other way (except perhaps morally, which is a profoundly muddy situation).

    Star Trek spent a lot of time of the issue of first contact and I think they identified some of the key issues. Learn the language and culture, observe your alien, try to understand their culture. Only then proceed to make contact. Lots can still go wrong.

    However when the more advanced civilization has an agenda of domination (even if it’s phrased as “helping” or “educating”), then there’s little hope for the weaker species. They may survive and even prosper in the long run but the short and medium term holds only tragedy for them.

    In Brazil, I understand that the government has been following a novel policy regarding contact with remote & isolated tribes. If the tribal peoples act like they don’t want to communicate, trade, or even meet, then respect their wishes and forbid contact with them within your own society.

  13. Whats up, You write some good blogs. I always check back here often to see if you have updated. I thought you might want to know, as soon as I click your RSS feed it re-directs me to another website.

  14. Finally a Posting, that even I understand.

  15. Greetings from Ohio! I’m bored to death at work so I decided to browse your site on my iphone during lunch break. I really like the information you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised at how fast your blog loaded on my phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, amazing site!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar