An archeological dig has uncovered evidence of a massive cosmic airburst event approximately 3,600 years ago that destroyed an entire city near the Dead Sea in the Middle East. The event was larger than the famous Tunguska airburst event in Russia in 1908, with a blast 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The event flattened the thriving city of Tall el-Hammam, located in what is now Jordan.Continue reading “3,600 Years ago, a 50-Meter-Wide Meteor Exploded in the Sky and Destroyed a City Near the Dead Sea”
On television and in the movies, it’s so easy. Aliens almost always speak English (at least in America they do). If it’s explained at all, we are typically told that they learned it by intercepting communications with our astronauts, or tapping into our television broadcasts. A universal translator device instantly abolishes communication difficulties. Hollywood aliens are, of course, human beings in costumes (these days augmented by computer graphics). They are equipped, as are we all, with a human brain, a human larynx, and human vocal cords; all singular products of the distinctive evolutionary history of our species.
Real extraterrestrials, if they exist, will be the product of a different evolutionary history, played out on another world.
They will know no human language, and be unfamiliar with the typical activities of human beings. Here on Earth no archeologist has ever deciphered an ancient script without knowing the language it corresponds to, even though such scripts deal with recognizable human activities. How could we ever devise a message that aliens could understand? Could we ever understand a message they sent to us? Communicating with alien minds may be one of the most daunting challenges the human intellect has ever faced.
In mid-November, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California sponsored an academic conference on the problem interstellar communication ‘Communicating across the Cosmos’. The conference drew 17 speakers from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, mathematics, cognitive science, radio astronomy, and art. In this final installment, we will search for clues to a solution to the daunting problem of making ourselves understood to an extraterrestrial civilization.
Conference presenter and archeologist Paul Wason believes that the history of archeology provides an important lesson for how we might devise a message that can be deciphered by extraterrestrials. In the early 19th century the French archeologist Jean-Francois Champollion solved one of the great riddles of his field by deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The critical clue was provided by an artifact discovered in 1799 in an Egyptian town that Europeans called Rosetta. It became known as the Rosetta stone.
The stone contained the same inscription in three different scripts. One of them was Egyptian hieroglyphics, and another was Greek, which Champollion knew how to read. Champollion used the Greek to decipher the hieroglyphics. Could we use the same strategy to create a cosmic Rosetta stone? Like Wason, Carl Sagan also grasped the importance of the Rosetta stone, and discussed it extensively in his 1980’s book and television series Cosmos. To create a cosmic Rosetta stone, we would need a language to stand in the role of Greek. It would need to be known both to us, and to the aliens. Could there possibly be such a thing?
Many mathematicians and physical scientists involved in SETI believe that mathematical and physical concepts could play the needed role. According to mathematician and conference speaker Carl DeVito, the natural numbers (0, 1, 2, 3 …) are useful to humans in dealing with the cyclical processes that are a everywhere in nature, and probably arise universally in the minds of intelligent beings. Astronomers have strong evidence that the laws of physics and chemistry worked out in laboratories here on Earth hold everywhere in the universe. That being the case, they hope that humans and aliens share a common understanding of basic concepts in these fields. If this is so, then such concepts might play the same role that Greek did for Champollion. SETI pioneers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, along with their collaborators, employed a rudimentary version of this strategy when they constructed the message encoded on the phonographic record launched into space in 1977 aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. These spacecraft hurtled into interstellar space following the completion of their missions to explore the outer solar system.
Sagan, Drake, and their collaborators first used symbols in an attempt to communicate how humans represent the natural numbers using binary and base ten numerals. They used another set of symbols to depict some properties of the hydrogen atom, which they used to establish standards of distance and time. The distance and time standards were used repeatedly throughout the digital image portion of the message to specify the sizes and time scales depicted. The Voyager record included a greeting from then President Carter encoded as English text. Sagan, Drake, and their collaborators didn’t even attempt the monumental, and perhaps impossible, task of explaining President Carter’s text statement using their Rosetta stone.
Much like Wason and Sagan, computer scientist and conference presenter Kim Binsted, felt that the solution to interstellar communication lies in constructing a pidgin, a simplified version of a language developed to communicate between groups that share no language in common. She was doubtful though, that a cosmic Rosetta stone based on physics and math would let humans and aliens communicate about anything other than physics and math. It might never, for example, provide a way to convey the President’s good wishes. The hieroglyphics of the Rosetta stone were decipherable, in part, because they described the familiar human activities of an Egyptian pharaoh. Humans are clueless about what sorts of activities aliens typically engage in, and aliens are equally clueless about us. It’s hard to see how a Rosetta stone based on physics could bridge this sort of gap.
Philosophers Nicholas Rescher and Andre Kukla, neither of whom presented at the conference, have raised a more fundamental objection. They question whether extraterrestrials would use the same concepts to understand the physical and chemical world that we do. The concepts that modern western science uses to understand the physical world surely reflect the structure of that world. But they also reflect the history of our culture and the structure of our minds. Since aliens would differ from humans on both counts, it’s at least possible that their physical, and even their mathematical concepts might be different from ours. If that’s so, then physics can’t play the role that Greek did for Champollion. Every path forward is full of unknowns and difficulties, and Kim Binsted doubts a solution is possible.
There is a glimmering of hope for another kind of Rosetta stone based on another sort of “Greek”. Given the central role that visual images played in the Voyager message, it’s surprising that image based communication strategies didn’t receive greater emphasis at the conference. It’s true that here on Earth; animals have evolved a wide variety of non-visual ways to sense their surroundings. Some fishes can sense their environments by generating and detecting electric fields in the water. Many fish can use fields of water flow around their bodies to detect nearby objects. Bats, along with dolphins and whales, have evolved a sonar system, emitting sounds and analyzing their returning echoes. Scorpions can sense ground vibrations, elephants can hear sounds below the range of human hearing, and dogs have a remarkably acute sense of smell, to name just a few examples. Still, almost every Earthly animal has eyes of some sort.
Earthly evolution has invented vision several times, in different animal lineages. Vision is especially important for larger animals that live on land. This is because larger bodies can make larger eyes and larger eyes can give sharper vision and better light gathering abilities. Land environments are typically better lit than aquatic ones. Birds and mammals are the Earthly animals with the biggest and most sophisticated brains, and they also have the most acute vision.
Are alien environments likely to be well lit? Exoplanet hunters have focused their efforts on finding planets like the Earth, rocky terrestrial planets at the right distance from their star for temperatures to be in the range where water is a liquid. They have shown us that such worlds are fairly commonplace in the cosmos. The daytime surfaces of these exoplanets are likely to be flooded with visible light, just as is Earth. This light may be necessary for life on such a world, because most life on Earth depends on the energy of sunlight as trapped by green plants. For large, land dwelling animals in this kind of environment, vision provides more information, at a distance, than any other sense can. Since it evolved numerous times on Earth, it’s likely to do so elsewhere as well.
The human visual system gathers information about a three dimensional world of objects and surfaces, partly by using motion cues. We have the ability to represent that world in two dimensions, using images. Kim Binsted worried that an alien visual system might not be capable of making sense of pictures made by humans. This worry was a potent one for the stick figures and line drawings that played such a prominent role in the pioneering interstellar messages of the 70’s. Those kinds of depictions use abstract visual conventions that an alien viewer might find impossible to figure out. Today, though, we needn’t worry about stick figures, because the information revolution gives us the ability to send high definition video. Still, we can’t be sure what an alien visual system would make of imagery encoded with the human visual system in mind.
Video imagery may provide a promising complement or alternative to the abstractions of physics and chemistry as the “Greek” for a cosmic Rosetta stone. If the aliens live on a planet like Earth, with liquid water on its surface, then we will share a mutual familiarity with water’s many manifestations. Just like us, aliens will have seen rain and snow, oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, clouds, fog, and rainbows. If they have a sense of hearing, over a range of sound frequencies at least somewhat similar to ours, they will have heard waves crashing on beaches, rain hitting the ground, gurgling brooks, and the splash of a pebble dropped into a pond. When the senses work together to confirm one another, the certainty of perceptual recognition is even greater.
An audio-video movie depicting the mutually familiar phenomena of water could be just the bridge we need to cross the gulf of mutual incomprehension. This splashy, gurgling “Greek” could be the key to helping the aliens understand our audio-visual and still images, and ultimately, our symbols. As with the Voyager record, a simpler symbol system would first be needed to communicate to the aliens about how to view and listen to the presentation. That might be a big stumbling block. In the case of Voyager, a stylus head for playing the record was included on the spacecraft, which made it simpler to explain how to play it. A Rosetta stone that led the extraterrestrials to an understanding of our images could provide a means of communication extending well beyond the topics of physics, chemistry, and math. Several conference participants felt that imagery might help to convey things about human altruism, cooperation, morality, and aesthetic sensibilities.
The main message of the ‘Communicating across the Cosmos’ conference is a recognition of just how hard the problem of making ourselves understood to aliens will be. Kim Binsted ended her talk on a faint note of optimism. Even if all else fails, she supposed, there is something we can still communicate to the aliens. She showed a slide of her home doorbell. When it rings, she said, it conveys the message that someone is there, and where they are. It shows intent to communicate, and a benign willingness to reveal one’s presence. Even if it can’t be interpreted, an interstellar message conveys the information that a doorbell conveys. That message, the message that someone is there, would still be of monumental importance.
References and Further Reading:
Communicating across the Cosmos: How can we make ourselves understood by other civilizations in the galaxy (2014), SETI Institute Conference Website.
F. Cain (2013) How Could We Find Aliens? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), Universe Today.
F. Cain (2013) Where Are All The Aliens? The Fermi Paradox, Universe Today.
A. Kukla (2010) Extraterrestrials: A Philosophical Perspective, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc. Plymouth, UK.
M. F. Land and D-E. Nilsson (2002), Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press.
N. Rescher (1985) Extraterrestrial Science, in Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence, Edited by E. Regis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
C. Sagan, F. D. Drake, A. Druyan, T. Ferris, J. Lomberg, L. S. Sagan, (1978) Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. Random House, New York.
C. Sagan (1980) Cosmos, Random House, New York.
J. J. Vitti (2013) Cephalopod cognition in an evolutionary context: Implications for ethology, Biosemiotics, 6:393-401.
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If extraterrestrial civilizations exist, the nearest is probably at least hundreds or thousands of light years away. Still, the greatest gulf that we will have to bridge to communicate with extraterrestrials is not such distances, but the gulf between human and alien minds.
In mid-November, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California sponsored an academic conference on interstellar communication, “Communicating across the Cosmos“. The conference drew 17 speakers from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, mathematics, cognitive science, radio astronomy, and art. In this installment we will explore some of the formidable difficulties that humans and extraterrestrials might face in constructing mutually comprehensible interstellar messages.
If we knew where they were, and we wanted to, the information revolution has given us the capability to send an extraterrestrial civilization a truly vast amount of information. According to SETI Institute radio astronomer Seth Shostak, with broadband microwave radio we could transmit the Library of Congress, or the contents of the World Wide Web in 3 days; with broadband optical (a laser beam for space transmission) we could transmit this same amount of information in 20 minutes. This transmission would, of course, take decades or centuries to cross the light years and reach its destination. These truly remarkable capabilities give us the ability to send almost any message we want to the extraterrestrials. But transmitting capabilities aren’t the hard part of the problem. If the aliens can’t interpret it, the entire content of the World Wide Web is just a mountain of gibberish.
Many conference participants felt that the problems involved in devising a message that could be understood by a non-human mind were extremely formidable, and quite possibly insurmountable.
Having its own separate origin, extraterrestrial life could be different from Earthly life all the way down to its biochemical foundations. The vast diversity of life on Earth gives us little reason to think that aliens will look like us. Given the different conditions of another planet, and the contingencies of a different history, evolution will have produced a different set of results. For interstellar messaging to be possible at all, these results must include an alien creature capable of language, culture, and tool-making. But if these abilities are founded on a different biology and different perceptual systems, they might differ from their human counterparts in ways that we would find hard to even imagine. Looking to our own possible future development, we can’t even be sure that extraterrestrials will be biological creatures. They might be intelligent machines.
According to cognitive scientist Dominique Lestel, who presented at the conference, understanding extraterrestrials poses an unprecedented set of problems. We face all of the problems that ethologists (scientists who study animal behavior) face when they study perception and signaling in other animal species. These are compounded with all of the problems that ethnologists face when they study other human cultures. Lestel worries that humans might not be smart enough to do it. He wasn’t alone in that opinion.
Linguist and conference presenter Sheri-Wells Jensen said that humans have created more than 7,000 different spoken and signed languages. No one knows whether all human languages sprung from a single instance of the invention of language or whether several human groups invented language independently. Given the ease with which children learn a language, many linguists think that our brain has a specialized language “module” underlying the “universal” grammar of human languages. These special features of the human brain might pose a formidable barrier to learning the language of a creature with a different brain produced by a different evolutionary history. An alien language might make demands on our short term memory or other cognitive abilities that humans would find impossible to meet.
When human beings talk to one another, they rely on a system of mutually understood conventions. Often gestures and body language are essential to conveying meaning. Conference presenter Klara Anna Capova, a cultural anthropologist, noted that interstellar messaging poses unique problems because the conventions to be followed in the message can’t be mutually arranged. We must formulate them ourselves, without knowing anything about the recipients. The intended recipients are distant in both time and space. The finite speed of light ensures that query and response will be separated by decades or centuries. With so little to go on, the message will inevitably reflect our cultural biases and motives. In 1962, the Soviet Union transmitted a message towards the planet Venus. It was in Morse code, and consisted of the Cyrillic characters “Lenin”, “CCCP” (USSR), and “MIR” (the Russian word for “peace”). But the posited Venusians couldn’t possibly have known the conventions of Morse code, the Cyrillic alphabet, human names, countries, or possible relationships between them, no matter how intimately familiar these things would have seemed to the Soviets. Whether they are meant to build national prestige, sell a product, or cause humans to think deeply about their place in the universe, interstellar messages play to a human audience.
Given the long timescales involved in interstellar messaging, many conference participants noted the parallels with archeology. Archeologists have learned quite a lot about past human cultures by studying the artifacts and symbols they have left for us. Still, archeological methodologies have their limits. According to conference presenter and archeologist Paul Wason, these limits have much to teach us about interstellar messaging. Certain meanings are accessible to archeological analysis and others aren’t, because we lack the contextual knowledge needed to interpret them. Neolithic cave paintings speak to modern investigators about the skill and abilities of the painters. But, because we don’t have the needed contextual knowledge, they don’t tell us what the paintings meant to their creators.
To interpret symbols used in the past, we need to know the conventions that related the symbols to the things they symbolized. Linguistic symbols pose special problems. To understand them, we need to know two different sets of conventions. First, we need to know the conventions that relate the script to the words of the spoken language. Second, we need to know how the words of the spoken language relate to the things and situations it refers to. It is a sobering thought for would-be exolinguists that no one has ever succeeded in deciphering an ancient script without knowing the language it was written in.
What does all this tell us about our fledgling attempts to devise messages for aliens? The phonograph record carried on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft includes a moving message from then President Carter, encoded as English text. It reads in part: “We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.”
Human archeologists have never deciphered linear A, the writing system of the ancient Minoan civilization, due to its apparent lack of association with any known language. Unfortunately, since extraterrestrials likewise lack contextual knowledge of any human language, it is almost certain that they could never discern the meaning of President Carter’s text. The team that developed the Voyager message, which included astronomers and SETI pioneers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, were well aware of the problem. Carter was, most likely, made aware. Interstellar messages play to a human audience.
Is it possible for us to do better? Some off-beat ideas were proposed. Both astronomer Seth Shostak and designer Marek Kultys thought we might consider sending the sequence of the human genome. This idea was quickly shot down by a comment from the audience. Why send them a key, they said, if the aliens don’t have a lock. The metaphor is apt. DNA can only do its job as a constituent part of a living cell. Reading and implementing the genetic code involves numerous highly specialized enzymes and other cellular parts. Even if alien biochemistry and cell structure are generally similar to their Earthly counterparts, there are many features of Earthly biochemistry that appear to be quirky products of the history of life on Earth. The probability that they would repeat themselves precisely on another world are, for all practical purposes, nil. Without the context of an Earthly cell, the sequence of the human genome would be meaningless gibberish.
In the twenty first century, our ability to transmit and process information has become astounding, but we still don’t know how information conveys meaning. Is there even a glimmering of a hope that we can reach beyond the limitations of our humanity to convey meaning to an alien mind? In the final installment of this report, we’ll consider some possibilities.
References and further reading:
Communicating across the Cosmos, How can we make ourselves understood by other civilizations in the galaxy?, SETI Institute
E. Howell (2014) How Do Aliens Think? We Need to Learn About Their Biology First, Analyst Argues. Universe Today.
J. Minor (2014) Will We Find Alien Life in 20 Years? You can bet on it. Universe Today.
C. Sagan, F. D. Drake, A. Druyan, T. Ferris, J. Lomberg, L. S. Sagan, (1978) Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. Random House, New York.
So much for the world ending on December 21, 2012. We’ve been saying it for years, but a new find by archaeologists confirms the Mayan calendar indeed does not end this year but keeps going, just like turning a page to a new calendar.
“It’s very clear that the 2012 date, while important as Baktun 13, was turning the page,” David Stuart, quoted by Alan Boyle on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log. “Baktun 14 was going to be coming, and Baktun 15 and Baktun 16. … The Maya calendar is going to keep going, and keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future.”
A team of archaeologists found a small room in Mayan ruins where royal scribes wrote on the walls — apparently like a blackboard — to keep track of astronomical records and details of the complex Mayan calendar. The writings date to about 1,200 years ago.
These are the oldest known astronomical tables from the Maya. They were found at the Xultun archaeological site in Guatemala’s Peten region. Scientists already knew the Mayans must have been keeping such records during that time period, but until now the oldest known examples dated from about 600 years later.
The room, about 2 meters (6-feet) square, contains walls decorated with images of a king and some other notable figures, as well as astronomical numbers and writings, the scientists said. The room had a stone roof rather than a thatched one, which may indicate the importance of the room.
Why did they write on walls, as opposed to other Mayan texts that have been found on bark paper?
The time period of the early 9th century was not a stable time for the Mayans, as there was political turmoil between the various city-states of the time, and the researchers said that perhaps the Xultun scribes wished to make a more permanent record of their data related to the calendar.
By some supposed “researchers,” Dec. 21, 2012 has been correlated to the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar, which was based on a cycle of 13 intervals known as baktuns, each lasting 144,000 days.
But the newly found writing on walls of the ancient room shows wide ranges of accumulated time, including a 17-baktun period. “There was a lot more to the Maya calendar than just 13 baktuns,” said Stuart, talking with reporters. Seventeen baktuns would stand for about 6,700 years, which is much longer than the 13-baktun cycle of 5,125 years. However, Stuart cautioned that the time notation shouldn’t be read as specifying a date that’s farther in the future than Dec. 21.
“It may just be that this is a mathematical number that’s kind of interesting,” he said. “We’re not sure what the base of the calendar is.”
William Saturno, an archaeologist at Boston University who led the team of archaeologists said many different scientists have been trying to get the word out that the end of the Maya culture’s 13-baktun Long Count calendar doesn’t signify the end of the world, but merely a turnover to the next cycle in a potentially infinite series — like going from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 on a modern calendar.
“If someone is a hard-core believer that the world is going to end in 2012, no painting is going to convince them otherwise,” he said. “The only thing that can convince them otherwise is waiting until Dec. 22, 2012 — which fortunately for all of us isn’t that far away.”