Welcome 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.”
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- The I-Love-Lucy Sphere | BitLizard's Blog | June 25, 2009