Saturday, March 27, 2010

First Contact

For those of us interested in science fiction, I wrote in a previous post about the problems of talking to aliens. How could we communicate with beings so vastly different from us? Most of us have enough problems understanding someone from France or Russia.

A lot of people seem to think that drawing and maths are key. I recently came across this article which makes some interesting suggestions.

I'm not convinced that even simple drawings would be understood across such a vast cultural gulf. Suppose the aliens "see" by echolocation? But if we're writing stories we have to assume a lot of commonalities or there would be nothing to tell. Or would there?


Adam Heine said...

See, I was thinking that drawing wouldn't work because, hey, we're flipping them off!

Seriously, even if they are humanoid, who's to say their body language is anything like ours? How would they understand a drawing any more than the real thing? I guess we'll know when we meet them, eh?

fairyhedgehog said...

Adam, that's the trouble of course. I thought the people in the drawing looked like an angry mob - not the intention at all!

Old Kitty said...


Being rather optmistic, I'm hoping that any non-earth peoples are so vastly superior they'd come to us with their version of a "universal translator" and be able to morph into humanoids because they know that if they show us their real forms and speak their real language we may be liable to shoot first ask questions later!

That's just too cynical even for me!

But seriously - they need to complain to earth people about the debris we litter the space with at the moment!


Take care

fairyhedgehog said...

Kitty, I like your optimistic take on it. I think I'm a lot more cynical than you are!

David F. Weisman said...

Is that the intergalactic symbol for 'we thumb our noses at you' or 'we want to hitchhike to Andromeda'?

I tend to think we understand line drawings partly because of the way our brains work, and partly because of a lifetimes exposure to them. You have a great point about echolocation, but even apart from that, if they didn't specialize in seeing certain narrow frequencies of light which make it through out atmosphere ...

I wonder how much the color of a sheet of blank paper varies in the frequencies we don't see?

fairyhedgehog said...

David, you make the point better than I did. You're right that it wouldn't take much of a difference even in visual abilities to make our drawings incomprehensible to aliens. I wonder if we'd be able to understand each other at all.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Is it Voyager that has the recorded disc of all of us saying hello in as many languages as they could find?

In Contact, the aliens intercepted our first TV signal - which was Hitler at the Olympic games.

Assuming any alien we meet will be humanoid is about our only chance at some level of communication. Ohterwise we get lost in the 'what ifs'.

My assumption is I don't want to get anywhere near that mob of angry people. Let's send up some Keith Haring instead.

fairyhedgehog said...

Sarah, I hadn't seen Keith Haring's work until I googled him. His pictures do look like fun.

I'm not sure if we should hope for humanoid aliens, or hope never to meet any! Not that hoping will make any difference.

Wings in the Night said...

I'm sorry. I thought it was the Junior High Kazoo Band preparing to welcome visitors.

The whole idea of communication is hard. It can only be done when both parties want it to happen.

At the start I imagine there's a lot of pointing going on.

raine said...

Not sure a drawing of humanoid shapes doing something that might seem ambiguous to another form would do the trick either. Music, perhaps, or geometric shapes, or something similar to crop circles might make for a good beginning?
And hopefully, if they think we're worth contacting, they've already done their homework on the weird neighbors down the block.

fairyhedgehog said...

Wings,that made me laugh! Pointing is good, as long as it means the same to the aliens. Have you ever tried to point for a cat?

raine, a lot of people think maths is the way to go but I'm not convinced that our way of doing maths isn't culturally based. Your idea that the aliens will have done their homework about us may be our best bet!

writtenwyrdd said...

I've always found it rather egotistical of the scientists who presume that drawings would convey any sort of message to aliens. Why would our gesture of friendliness (a smile or a wave or a hug) be interpreted the same way by an alien race?

Even terrestrial species don't communicate the same way. In chimps, our closest relative species, a 'grin' is a baring of teeth and is a threat.

And if you look at dogs vs cats, you can see that their physical behaviors are problemmatic. My dog 'bows' and barks when he wants to play. The cat sees the 'bow' as a preparation for an attack and responded accordingly when unused to the dog's ways.

fairyhedgehog said...

ww, people seem to find it hard to get their heads round how very different other species can be. The examples you give are telling, and those are all terrestrial species!

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