Since I was a young boy and looked up at the Milky Way at night with my father, it was clear to me that life must abound in the Universe. So much space, so much deep time, and a strong impression that humans are not the centre of anything. Truly one of many in an ocean of possibilities. The true nature of an alien life form that has had possibly millions of years headstart, and not to mention a completely separate evolutionary line will not speak any language us hairless monkeys grunt at each other. How can we communicate with a true alien?
We already know that space generates its own deeply beautiful music. But back in 1977, as mankind thought about its place among the stars and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, NASA decided to add to the cosmic symphony with the launch of the Voyager I probe. There among all the radio gear and high-end cameras is The Golden Record, a disc containing a ginormous auditory archive representing our planet’s menagerie of sounds.
From music to greetings in every language and even sorted animal grunts, the disc was created as a means of communicating with alien life, unseen individuals who are “coming to grips with the same laws of physics and chemistry and astronomy,” wrote project head and famed astronomer Carl Sagan. He added, “The greatest interest might be in communicating information on music, say, or social conventions.”
Musically, the bulk of the disc is comprised of European classical and World music, with just three songs from Western culture: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and the blues standard “Dark Was the Night”. Sure, it’s missing profound songs that were released at that time, and there have been a billion more songs released since Voyager’s launch. Still, the Golden Record remains a romantic representation of Earth reaching out with our most powerful agent, music, and hoping someone reaches back. On the plus side, at least there wasn’t any Justin Bieber.
Based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and various studies mapping the brains of music listeners, we already know that music speaks to humans on a fundamental emotional level that more closely resembles language than anything else. We process music as if it were an emotionally charged conversation. The thought here is that music would appeal to aliens, too. But that is something we can never know for sure. What us humans interpret as a beauty in music may be perceived as an act of war, or a grave insult to the legitimacy of the aliens parentage. A cosmic “Your Momma”.
As this is all intelligent speculation, I will add my own two cents worth. Many people believe that should aliens try to communicate it will be using maths and depending on that message it appears that only the smartest and brightest will be able to decipher it. There is this idea that maths must be the universal language, but what if it isn’t?
Take the Comb Jellyfish for instance.
It’s able to float around deep under the waters, probably hasn’t the slightest idea of what E=MC2 means, yet appears to communicate through flashing its colours so it’s visually based communication for all we know. It really is a spectacular find in the sea as it is completely different than any other living thing on the planet and can regenerate and heal itself within hours with its two neuro-systems.
So next would be another sense of ours, sound. It’s something we can hear and even feel. I don’t think this should be excluded at all as it would be rather pompous of our human race to presume that if something is going to talk to us it’s going to require a mathematician to make first contact. If such an alien race is communicating to us (or can communicate to us) through music or basic sound waves I don’t see much use of a mathematician but more of a group of abstract thinkers to figure out what the message is.
Basically, we have to take this as a language where the pitch of a sound had linguistic content, rather than the sound. Obviously, a human can ‘On the table darling’ in any number of different tonal ways, and it means the same thing (ignoring irony, sarcasm, etc., which can be implied by pitch changes). A musical language would be one where 440hz, 214hz, 1258hz, 339hz meant (for example) ‘dog’, even if the sound came out as bubelafa or votetede.
Well, if we take an animal that uses music for communication (well, to us it’s musical), i.e., birds, slowed down birdsong is far more complex than the human ear can detect.
So a 10-second burst of song from the alien rather than containing 10-20 notes could contain far more notes. Add in other possible means of encoding linguistic information into music like tremolo, attack, decay, note duration, etc., and there’s no reason a species using music to communicate would not have a ‘language’ as efficient in terms of time to say ‘on the table darling’ as a human language.
But, and here where the actual answer comes, it would not be possible for most phrases to be deciphered by most humans. So learning their language would involve technical aids (slowed down recordings, etc.), and speaking their language would require a programmable electronic instrument. One could see the development of an electronic translator which would provide human language output from alien song language input, and vice versa.
We can communicate non-verbally with each other already, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to exclude the idea that something might try to contact us through our senses as that is more general and fundamental than our maths so it would reach more people instead.
If you ponder on all this long enough it comes clear that colours may work better than sounds. Especially those with a frequency in the area near ultra-violet, say the Indigo and Purple colour wavelengths. And you need to arrange them in a certain order. Look up the UFO reports from the pilots in Australia many years ago – the videos online show their distinct pattern, and you can even see the signal from one craft to the other. You need to slow this down to a frame by frame shot, but it is clear enough to see. Think to rotate them to a vertical position, and they used the red lights to indicate a break or spacing in the messages.
In time we may find out how to speak E.T. But at this time no one knows for sure, no one can know for sure. Keep an open mind.
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