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How Do You Talk to an Alien?

With SETI's search for extraterrestrial life running on all cylinders again, two questions must be raised: How do we make contact? And how do we make meaningful contact? Big Think asked Bill Nye, aka, 'The Science Guy,' who heads The Planetary Society. 

“And I’ll know my song well before I start singing”
-Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall

What’s the Big Idea?

With SETI’s search for extraterrestrial life getting a second lease on life, two questions must be raised: How do we make contact? And how do we make meaningful contact? 

That is to say, if we happen to discover signs of life on any one of the billions of candidates in our Milky Way galaxy, and we happen to be able to reach them with a message — which may take tens of thousands of years until it is received — are we all agreed on what message to send?

Hardly. The first radio transmission powerful enough to reach space was Hitler’s message during the 1936 Olympics, which doesn’t exactly show humanity in our best light. (In the 1997 film Contact this message is received by ETs and returned to Earth interlaced with data). While radio astronomy might be light years ahead today, there is still no universal agreement on how to represent the human race to extraterrestrial civilizations, let alone a protocol for what to do in the case a contact is made. 

So Big Think turned to Bill Nye, aka, ‘The Science Guy,’ who heads The Planetary Society, an organization that fosters ways for the public to be actively involved in space exploration, including the search for extraterrestrial life

Watch the video here:

“In an era when bureaucrats produce contingency plans for every eventuality,” writes Sam Roberts in The New York Times, “it strains credulity to imagine that no protocol exists to carry on a conversation that may already have begun.” 

And yet, SETI director Jill Tarter cites the following protocol: if you hear from an alien, “let the whole world know, but don’t reply until there’s been international consultation.” In other words, do what Tarter’s fictional character portrayed by Jodie Foster does in the 1997 film Contact: call everyone. The fictional government in this film — as we can imagine a real government would — has problems with Foster’s character “breaching national security.” And yet, it is quite humorous to imagine that ETs would be contacting one nation, the U.S., in particular, out of all the nations on Earth. 

In fact, the ETs’ message to Earth in Contact (N.B., I don’t mind relying on science fiction so much as long as it is Carl Sagan’s science fiction) gestures at universal truth: they send a message that contains the first 100 prime numbers. Any intelligent civilization would recognize such a communication. Math, moreover, the so-called “universal language,” allows us the opportunity to reduce a complex idea into a simple formula. So a pure communication to aliens might look like this:


And yet, if you are an ET, without a so-called “primer” on human symbols, that equation might just be all Greek to you. That is why we must consider, when communicating with an ET, that we need a starting point of patterns and concepts that they might recognize. Note, for instance, how Bill Nye corrected himself in the video above, translating the word “years” into “orbits.” All language is based on pattern recognition, and Nye’s translation is faithful to that concept.

But don’t be mistaken, interstellar communication is no easy business even here on Earth, says David Bellos, director of Princeton’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. Bellos recently told Big Think:

If we could imagine communicating with an alien species and then turning around and saying to our own species I can communicate with them, but I can’t tell you what they’re saying you would be taken off by many white coats I should think because I mean that is a mad proposition that you can understand something, but you can’t say what it is you understood. The inter-translatability is the precondition for recognizing something as a language, as a meaningful form of behavior. I think it would be fascinating if aliens did land on this planet and we had to sit down like those Jesuit missionaries in China three, four hundred years ago and just listen to them and work out what the language was. That would be a real big mind job and who knows whether it could be done or not? 

Another consideration is that in order to communicate, we have to go back to what our definition of what intelligent life is. Brian McConnell, in his book Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizationsdefines intelligent life as “life with the ability to interact with other animals, to communicate with and learn from other animals, and to relate learned experiences to peers and offspring.” The capacity for technology and making tools, of course, is a more advanced criteria. Dolphins, for instance, do not have this ability. Some primates do. 

What’s the Significance?

In whatever form it may come (mathematical formulas, Bach fugues, Shakespeare sonnets or engineering designs), our first contact with an ET might be the most important human communication ever made. After all, considering the risks, do we want to show off our power to ward off would-be invaders? Do we want to show off our great intellect to impress them?

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My Place Or Yours?

On the other hand, unless the ETs have discovered some sort of high-speed worm hole, we’ll be asking them to make quite a travel commitment. We will have to present a pretty optimistic view of our planet and our species to convince them to come. This will require putting all of our seductive powers on display. So what is your best alien pickup line? Let us know in the comments below. 

If you have further questions for Nye, check out the Toshiba Innovation Bill Nye: Consider the Following Facebook app. 

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter: @DanielHonan


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