Language in the Cosmos II: Hello There GJ273b

Ramfjordmoen Facility EISCAT

The ‘Language in the Cosmos’ symposium

Three times in October, 2017 researchers turned a powerful radar telescope near Tromsø, Norway towards an invisibly faint star in the constellation Canis Minor (the small dog) and beamed a coded message into space in an attempt to signal an alien civilization. This new attempt to find other intelligent life in the universe was reported in a presentation at the ‘Language in the Cosmos’ symposium held on May 26 in Los Angeles, California.

METI International sponsored the symposium. This organization was founded to promote messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) as a new approach to in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It also supports other aspects of SETI research and astrobiology. The symposium was held as part of the International Space Development Conference sponsored by the National Space Society. It brought together linguists and other scientists for a daylong program of 11 presentations. Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, who is a linguist from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, was the organizer.

METI International
METI International

This is the second of a two part series about METI International’s symposium. It will focus on a presentation given at the symposium by the president of METI International, Dr. Douglas Vakoch. He spoke about a project that hasn’t previously gotten much attention: the first attempt to send a message to a nearby potentially habitable exoplanet, GJ273b. Vakoch led the team that constructed the tutorial portion of the message.

Douglas Vakoch interstellar message
Dr. Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International. (Credit: Per Bifrost public domain)

Message to the stars

The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence began in 1960. This is when astronomer Frank Drake used a radio telescope in West Virginia to listen for signals from two nearby stars. Astronomers have sporadically mounted increasingly sophisticated searches, when funding has been available. The largest current project is Breakthrough Listen, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner. Searches have been made for laser as well as radio signals. Researchers have also looked for the megastructures that advanced aliens might create in space near their stars. METI International advocates an entirely new approach in which messages are transmitted to nearby stars in hopes of eliciting a reply.

The project to send a message to GJ273b was a collaboration between artists and scientists. It was initiated by the organizers of the Sónar Music, Creativity, and Technology Festival. The Sónar festival has been held every year since 1994 in Barcelona, Spain. The organizers wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the festival. To implement the project, the festival organizers sought the help of the Catalonia Institute of Space Studies (IEEC), and METI International.

Sónar music festival and interstellar message
The Sónar Music, Creativity, and Technology Festival of Barcelona, Spain was a sponsor of the message to GJ273b.

To transmit the message, the team turned to The European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) which operates a network of radio and radar telescopes in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. This network is primarily used to study interactions between the sun and Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic field from a vantage point north of the arctic circle. The message was transmitted from a 32 meter diameter steerable dish at EISCAT’s Ramfjordmoen facility near Tromso, Norway, with a peak power of 2 megawatts. It is the first interstellar message ever to be sent towards a known potentially habitable exoplanet.

The target system

The obscure star known by the catalogue designation GJ273 caught the attention of the Dutch-American astronomer Willem J. Luyten in 1935. Luyten was researching the motions of the star. The star caught his attention because it was moving through Earth’s sky at the surprising rate of 3.7 arc seconds per year. Later study showed that this fast apparent motion is due to the fact that GJ273 is one of the sun’s nearest neighbors, just 12.4 light years away. It is the 24th closest star to the sun. Because of Luyten’s discovery it is sometimes known as Luyten’s star.

Luyten’s star is a faint red dwarf star with only a quarter of the sun’s mass. It caught astronomers’ attention again in March 2017. That’s when an exoplanet, GJ273b, was discovered in it’s habitable zone. The habitable zone is the range of distances where a planet with an atmosphere similar to Earth’s would, theoretically, have a range of temperatures suitable to have liquid water on its surface. The planet is a super Earth, with a mass 2.89 times that of our homeworld. It orbits just 800,000 miles from its faint sun, which it circles every 18 Earth days.

habitable exoplanet interstellar message
Artist’s impression of a habitable exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star. The habitability of the planets of red dwarf stars is conjectural (Credit ESO/M. Kornmesser public domain)

This exoplanet was chosen because of its proximity to Earth, and because it is visible in the sky from the transmitter’s northerly location. Because GJ273b is relatively nearby, and radio messages travel at the speed of light, a reply from the aliens could come as early as the middle of this century.

The Message

Comparisons with Voyager

The GJ273b transmission is not the first time a message intended for extraterrestrials has been sent into space. Probably the most familiar interstellar message is the one carried on board the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. NASA launched these interplanetary robots in 1977. They traveled on trajectories that hurtled them into interstellar space after they completed their missions to explore the outer solar system.

The message carried aboard each Voyager spacecraft was encoded digitally on a phonographic record. It was largely pictorial, and attempted to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. It also included a selection of music from various Earthly cultures. These spacecraft will take tens of thousands of years to reach the stars. So, no reply can be expected on a timescale relevant to our society.

In some ways the GJ273b message is very different from the Voyager message. Unlike the Voyager record, it isn’t pictorial and doesn’t attempt to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. This is perhaps because, unlike the Voyager message, it is intended to initiate a dialog on a timescale of decades. It resembles the Voyager message in that it contains music from Earth, namely, music from the artists that performed at the Sónar music festival.

Saying hello

For the human reader, understanding the message is a bit more of a challenge than looking at the pictures encoded on the Voyager record. You can try your hand at decoding the message yourself, because the organizers posted the whole thing on their website. Be forewarned that if you continue reading here, there are spoilers (or helpful clues, depending on how you look at it).

The message consists of a string of binary digits—ones and zeros. These are represented in the signal by a shift between two slightly different radio frequencies. The ‘hello’ section is designed to catch the attention of alien listeners. It consists of a string of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by themselves and one). They are represented with binary digits like this:

01001100011100000111110000000000011111111111

The message continues the sequence up to 193. A signal like this almost certainly can’t be produced by natural processes, and can only be the designed handiwork of beings who know math.

The tutorial

After the ‘hello’ section comes the tutorial. This, and all the rest of the message, uses eight bit blocks of binary digits as the basis for its symbols. The tutorial begins by introducing number symbols by counting. It uses base two numbers like this:

10000000 (0) 10000001 (1) 10000010 (2) 10000011 (3)
10000100 (4) 10000101 (5) 10000110 (6) 10000111 (7)
10001000 (8) 10001001 (9) 10001010 (10)

The leading ‘1’ allows numbers to be distinguished from other 8 bit symbols that don’t represent numbers.

After counting, the tutorial introduces symbols for the operations of arithmetic by showing sample problems. Here’s a sampling of some of the symbols for math operations:

00000110 (+) 00000111 (-) 00001000 (×) 00001001 (÷)
00111100 (=)

The tutorial then proceeds to geometry using combinations of numbers and symbols to illustrate the Pythagorean theorem. It eventually progresses to sine waves, thereby describing the radio wave carrying the signal itself. Finally the tutorial describes the physics of sound waves and the relationships between musical notes.

Besides the numbers, the tutorial introduces 55 8-bit symbols in all. It provides the instructions that aliens would need to properly reproduce a series of digitally encoded musical selections from the Sónar Festival.

During its journey of 70 trillion miles, the message is sure to become corrupted with noise. To compensate, the tutorial was transmitted three times during each transmission, requiring a total of 33 minutes to transmit. The entire transmission was repeated on three separate days, October 16, 17, and 18, 2017. A second block of three transmissions was made on May 14, 15, and 16, 2018.

The music

Each transmission included a different selection of music, with the works of 38 different musicians included in all. You can hear recordings of all this music at the Sónar Calling GJ273b website.

The rationale behind the message

Current and past SETI projects conducted by astronomers here on Earth assume that advanced aliens would make things easy for newly emerging civilizations by establishing powerful beacons that would broadcast in all directions at all times. Thus, SETI searchers generally use the same sort of highly directional dish antennae often used for other research in radio astronomy. They listen to any one star for only a few minutes, searching each one in turn for the beacon.

Unlike the always-on beacons imagined as the objects of Earth’ SETI searches, the Sónar message was only transmitted for 33 minutes on each of three days, and on only two occasions. Vakoch admits that “our message would likely be undetected by a civilization on GJ273b using the same strategy” favored by beacon searching SETI researchers on Earth.

However, some researchers have called traditional SETI assumptions and strategy into question, and studies of alternative search technologies have already been conducted. Vakoch notes that “we humans already have the technological capacity, and need only the funding, to conduct an all-sky survey that would detect intermittent transmission like ours”.

A larger problem is that the message was directed at just one planet. Although GJ273b orbits within its star’s habitable zone, we really know little what that means for whether the planet is actually habitable, or whether it has life or intelligence. Earth itself has been habitable for billions of years. But it has only had a civilization capable of radio transmissions for a century.

Vakoch conceded that “The only way we will get a reply back from GJ273b is if the galaxy is chock full of intelligent life, and it is out there just waiting for us to take the initiative. More realistically, we may need to replicate this process with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of stars before we reach one with an advanced civilization that can detect our signal”. METI International aims to conduct a design study for such a large scale METI project in hopes that funding will materialize from governmental or other sources.

References and further reading:

Sónar Calling GJ273b

Cain F. (2013) How could we find aliens, Universe today.

Patton, P. E. (2018) Language in the Cosmos I: Is universal grammar really universal?, Universe Today.

Patton P. E. (2016) Alien Minds, I. Are extraterrestrial civilizations likely to evolve, II. Do aliens think big brains are sexy too?, III. The octopus’s garden and the country of the blind, Universe Today

Patton, P. E. (2015) Who speaks for Earth? The controversy over interstellar messaging, Universe Today.

Patton P. E. (2014) Communicating across the cosmos. Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the stars, Part 3: Bridging the vast gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Vakoch D. A. (2017) New keys to help extraterrestrials unlock our messages, Scientific American, Observations.

Vakoch D. A. (2011) Responsibility, capability and Active SETI: Policy, law, ethics, and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, Acta Astronautica, 68:512-519

Vakoch D. A. (2010) An iconic approach to communicating musical concepts in interstellar messages, Acta Astronautica, 67:1406-1409

If We Receive a Message From Aliens, Should We Delete it Without Reading it?

Roughly half a century ago, Cornell astronomer Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma, the first systematic SETI survey at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Since that time, scientists have conducted multiple surveys in the hopes of find indications of “technosignatures” – i.e. evidence of technologically-advanced life (such as radio communications).

To put it plainly, if humanity were to receive a message from an extra-terrestrial civilization right now, it would be the single-greatest event in the history of civilization. But according to a new study, such a message could also pose a serious risk to humanity. Drawing on multiple possibilities that have been explored in detail, they consider how humanity could shield itself from malicious spam and viruses.

The study, titled “Interstellar communication. IX. Message decontamination is impossible“, recently appeared online. The study was conducted by Michael Hippke, a independent scientist from the Sonneberg Observatory in Germany; and John G. Learned, a professor with the High Energy Physics Group at the University of Hawaii. Together, they examine some of the foregone conclusions about SETI and what is more likely to be the case.

Frank Drake writing his famous equation on a white board. Credit: SETI.org

To be fair, the notion that an extra-terrestrial civilization could pose a threat to humanity is not just a well-worn science fiction trope. For decades, scientists have treated it as a distinct possibility and considered whether or not the risks outweigh the possible benefits. As a result, some theorists have suggested that humans should not engage in SETI at all, or that we should take measures to hide our planet.

As Professor Learned told Universe Today via email, there has never been a consensus among SETI researchers about whether or not ETI would be benevolent:

“There is no compelling reason at all to assume benevolence (for example that ETI are wise and kind due to their ancient civilization’s experience). I find much more compelling the analogy to what we know from our history… Is there any society anywhere which has had a good experience after meeting up with a technologically advanced invader? Of course it would go either way, but I think often of the movie Alien… a credible notion it seems to me.”

In addition, assuming that an alien message could pose a threat to humanity makes practical sense. Given the sheer size of the Universe and the limitations imposed by Special Relativity (i.e. no known means of FTL), it would always be cheaper and easier to send a malicious message to eradicate a civilization compared to an invasion fleet. As a result, Hippke and Learned advise that SETI signals be vetted and/or “decontaminated” beforehand.

The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico was the site of NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey, a search for extraterrestrial radio messages. Credit: US NSF

In terms of how a SETI signal could constitute a threat, the researchers outline a number of possibilities. Beyond the likelihood that a message could convey misinformation designed to cause a panic or self-destructive behavior, there is also the possibility that it could contain viruses or other embedded technical issues (i.e. the format could cause our computers to crash).

They also note that, when it comes to SETI, a major complication arises from the fact that no message is likely to received in only one place (thus making containment possible). This is unlikely because of the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, which was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1989 (and revised in 2010).

Article 6 of this declaration states the following:

“The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.”

Voyager included a golden record with images and sounds of Earthly life recorded on it… just in case. Credit: NASA

As such, a message that is confirmed to have originated from an ETI would most likely be made available to the entire scientific community before it could be deemed to be threatening in nature. Even if there was only one recipient, and they attempted to keep the message under strict lock and key, it’s a safe bet that other parties would find a way to access it before long.

The question naturally arises then, what can be done? One possibility that Hippke and Learned suggest is to take a analog approach to interpreting these messages, which they illustrate using the 2017 SETI Decrypt Challenge as an example. This challenge, which was issued by René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, consisted of a sequence of about two million binary digits and related information being posted to social media.

In addition to being a fascinating exercise that gave the public a taste of what SETI research means, the challenge also sough to address some central questions when it came to communicating with an ETI. Foremost among these was whether or not humanity would be bale to understand a message from an alien civilization, and how we might be able to make a message comprehensible (if we sent one first). As they state:

“As an example, the message from the “SETI Decrypt Challenge” (Heller 2017) was a stream of 1,902,341 bits, which is the product of prime numbers. Like the Arecibo message (Staff At The National Astronomy Ionosphere Center 1975) and Evpatoria’s “Cosmic Calls” (Shuch 2011), the bits represent the X/Y black/white pixel map of an image. When this is understood, further analysis could be done off-line by printing on paper. Any harm would then come from the meaning of the message, and not from embedded viruses or other technical issues.”

The Wow! signal represented as “6EQUJ5”. Credit: Big Ear Radio Observatory/NAAPO

However, where messages are made up of complex codes or even a self-contained AI, the need for sophisticated computers may be unavoidable. In this case, the authors explore another popular recommendation, which is the use on quarantined machines to conduct the analysis – i.e. a message prison. Unfortunately, they also acknowledge that no prison would be 100% effective and containment could eventually fail.

“This scenario resembles the Oracle-AI, or AI box, of an isolated computer system where a possibly dangerous AI is ‘imprisoned’ with only minimalist communication channels,” they write. “Current research indicates that even well-designed boxes are useless, and a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to persuade or trick its human keepers into releasing it.”

In the end, it appears that the only real solution is to maintain a vigilant attitude and ensure that any messages we send are as benign as possible. As Hippke summarized: “I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that a message will be positive, but you can not be sure. Would you take a 1% chance of death for a 99% chance of a cure for all diseases? One learning from our paper is how to design own message, in case we decide to send any: Keep it simple, don’t send computer code.”

Basically, when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the rules of internet safety may apply. If we begin to receive messages, we shouldn’t trust those that come with big attachments and send any suspicious looking ones to our spam folder. Oh, and if a sender is promising the cure for all known diseases, or claims to be the deposed monarch of Andromeda in need of some cash, we should just hit delete!

Further Reading: arXiv

Alien Minds Part III: The Octopus’s Garden and the Country of the Blind

METI logo

In our galaxy, there may be, at least, tens of billions of habitable planets, with conditions suitable for liquid water on their surfaces. There may be habitable moons as well. On an unknown number of those worlds, life may have arisen. On an unknown fraction of life-bearing worlds, life may have evolved into complex multicellular, sexually reproducing forms.

During its habitable period, a world with complex life might produce hundreds of millions of evolutionary lineages. One or a few of them might fortuitously encounter special circumstances that triggered runaway growth of their intelligence. These favored few, if they exist, might have built technological civilizations capable of signaling their presence across interstellar distances, or detecting and deciphering a message we send their way. What might such alien minds be like? What senses might they use? How might we communicate with them?

METI International
METI International

The purposes of the newly created METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International include fostering multidisciplinary research in the design and transmission of interstellar messages, and building a global community of scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts concerned with the origin, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

On May 18 the organization sponsored a workshop which included presentations by biologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and linguists. This is the third and final installment of a series of articles about the workshop.

In previous installments, we’ve discussed some ideas about the evolution of intelligence that were featured at the workshop. Here we’ll see whether our Earthly experience can provide us with any clues about how we might communicate with aliens.

Many of the animals that we are most familiar with from daily life, like humans, cats, dogs, birds, fishes, and frogs are vertebrates, or animals with backbones. They are all descended from a common ancestor and share a nervous system organized according to the same basic plan.

Molluscs are another major group of animals that have been evolving separately from vertebrates for more than 600 million years. Although most molluscs, like slugs, snails, and shellfish, have fairly simple nervous systems, one group; the cephalopods, have evolved a much more sophisticated one.

the common octopus
The common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, Is a cephalopod mollusc, has evolved sophisticated cognition and perception along a very different evolutionary path than have human beings and our relatives. The brain is located between the eyes. The large bulbous structure below the eyes is the mantle, a muscular organ involved in swimming. Public domain.

Cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefishes. They show cognitive and perceptual abilities rivaling those of our close vertebrate kin. Since this nervous system has a different evolutionary history than of the vertebrates, it is organized in a way completely different from our own. It can give us a glimpse of the similarities and differences we might expect between aliens and ourselves.

David Gire, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and researcher Dominic Sivitilli gave a presentation on cephalopods at the Puerto Rico workshop. Although these animals have a sophisticated brain, their nervous systems are much more decentralized than that of familiar animals. In the octopus, sensing and moving are controlled locally in the arms, which together contain as many nerve cells, or neurons, as the brain.

David Gire
Dr. David Gire is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington and a behavioral neuroscientist. He presented at the Puerto Rico workshop on cephalopod intelligence.

The animal’s eight arms are extraordinarily sensitive. Each containing hundreds of suckers, with thousands of sensory receptors on each one. By comparison, the human finger has only 241 sensory receptors per square centimeter. Many of these receptors sense chemicals, corresponding roughly to our senses of taste and smell. Much of this sensory information is processed locally in the arms. When an arm is severed from an octopus’s body, it continues to show simple behaviors on its own, and can even avoid threats. The octopus’s brain simply acts to coordinate the behaviors of its arms.

Cephalopods have acute vision. Although their eyes evolved separately from those of vertebrates, they nonetheless bear an eerie resemblance. They have a unique ability to change the pattern and color of their skin using pigment cells that are under direct control of their nervous systems. This provides them with the most sophisticated camouflage system of any animal on Earth, and is also used for social signaling.

Despite the sophisticated cognitive abilities it exhibits in the lab, the octopus is largely solitary.
Cephalopod groups exchange useful information by observing one another, but otherwise exhibit only limited social cooperation. Many current theories of the evolution of sophisticated intelligence, like Miller’s sapiosexual hypothesis, which was featured in the second installment, assume that social cooperation and competition play a central role in the evolution of complicated brains. Since cephalopods have evolved much more impressive cognitive abilities than other molluscs, their limited social behavior is surprising.

Dominic Sivitilli
Dominic Sivitilli is a post-baccalaureate researcher in the laboratory of David Gire, studying responses to chemical signals by the octopus. He is the co-presenter of a talk on cephalopod cogntition at the METI International Puerto Rico conference. METI International used with permission.

Maybe the limited social behavior of cephalopods really does set limits on their intelligence. However, Gire and Sivitilli speculate that perhaps “an intelligence capable of technological development could exist with minimum social acuity”, and the cephalopod ability to socially share information is enough. The individuals of such an alien collective, they suppose, might possess no sense of self or other.

Besides Gire and Sivitilli, Anna Dornhaus, whose ideas were featured in the first installment, also thinks that alien creatures might function together as a collective mind. Social insects, in some respects, actually do. She doubts, though, that such an entities could evolve human-like technological intelligence without something like Miller’s sapiosexuality to trigger a runaway explosion of intelligence.

But if non-sapiosexual alien technological civilizations do exist, we might find them impossible to comprehend. Given this possible gulf of incomprehension about social structure, Gire and Stivitilli suppose that the most we might aspire to accomplish in terms of interstellar communication is an exchange of mutually useful and comprehensible astronomical information.

Workshop presenter Alfred Kracher, a retired staff scientist at the Ames Laboratory of the University of Iowa, supposes that “the mental giants of the Milky Way are probably artificially intelligent machines… It would be interesting to find evidence of them, if they exist”, he writes, “but then what?” Kracher supposes that if they have emancipated themselves and evolved away from their makers, “they will have nothing in common with organic life forms, human or extraterrestrial. There is no chance of mutual understanding”. We will be able to understand aliens, he maintains, only if “it turns out that the evolution of extraterrestrial life forms is highly convergent with our own”.

Peter Todd, a professor of psychology from Indiana University, holds out hope that such convergence may actually occur. Earthly animals must solve a variety of basic problems that are presented by the physical and biological world that they inhabit.

They must effectively navigate through a world of surfaces, barriers and objects, finding food and shelter, and avoiding predators, parasites, toxins. Extraterrestrial organisms, if they evolve in an Earth-like environment, would face a generally similar set of problems. They may well arrive at similar solutions, just as the octopus evolved eyes similar to ours.

In evolution here on Earth, Todd notes, brain systems originally evolved to solve these basic physical and biological problems appear to have been re-purposed to solve new and more difficult problems, as some animals evolved to solve the problems of living and finding mates as members of societies, and then as one particular ape species went on to evolve conceptual reasoning and language. For example, disgust at bad food, useful for avoiding disease, may have been become the foundation for sexual disgust to avoid bad mates, moral disgust to avoid bad clan mates, and intellectual disgust to avoid dubious ideas.

If alien brains evolved solutions similar to the ones our brains did for negotiating the physical and biological world, they they might also have been re-purposed in similar ways. Alien minds might not be wholly different from ours, and thus hope exists for a degree of mutual understanding.

In the early 1970’s the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were launched on the first exploratory missions to the planet Jupiter and beyond. When their missions were completed, these two probes became the first objects made by humans to escape the sun’s gravitational pull and hurtle into interstellar space.

Because of the remote possibility that the spacecraft might someday be found by extraterrestrials, a team of scientists and scholars lead by Carl Sagan emplaced a message on the vehicle, etched on a metal plaque. The message consisted, in part, of a line drawing of a man and a woman. Later, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft carried a message that consisted, in part, of a series of 116 digital images encoded on a phonographic record.

Use of images in interstellar messages
The use of images in interstellar communication. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft on a mission to explore the outer solar system. Destined to wander interstellar space forever following the completion of their mission, each spacecraft carried an interstellar message encoded on a phonographic record. The message, designed by SETI pioneers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake and their collaborators, included 116 digital images. This image is intended to show extraterrestrials how human beings eat and drink. Will extraterrestrials understand such images? The limited quality of the image reflects the state of digital imaging technology in the 70’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, public domain.

The assumption that aliens would see and understand images seems reasonable, since the octopus evolved an eye so similar to our own. And that’s not all. The evolutionary biologists Luitfried Von Salvini-Plawen and Ernst Mayr showed that eyes, of various sorts, have evolved forty separate times on Earth, and vision is typically a dominant sense for large, land dwelling animals. Still, there are animals that function without it, and our earliest mammalian ancestors were nocturnal. Could it be that there are aliens that lack vision, and could not understand a message based on images?

In his short story, The Country of the Blind, the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells imagined an isolated mountain village whose inhabitants had been blind for fifteen generations after a disease destroyed their vision.

A lost mountain climber, finding the village, imagines that with his power of vision, he can easily become their king. But the villagers have adapted thoroughly to a life based on touch, hearing, and smell. Instead of being impressed by their visitor’s claim that he can ‘see’, they find it incomprehensible. They begin to believe he is insane. And when they seek to ‘cure’ him by removing two strange globular growths from the front of his head, he flees.

Mexican blind cavefish
The Mexican blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) has lived in the total darkness of a cave system in central Mexico for more than a million years, and has evolved the loss of its eyes. Astyanax possess a sense that land dwelling animals lack. The lateral line sense, which is present in all fishes, allows these animals to sense their near surroundings based on pressure differences in fields of water flow around their bodies. They also have an acute sense of taste, with taste receptors on their bodies as well as in their mouths. The evolution of cave dwelling intelligent life is probably unlikely, since large brains are metabolically expensive, and food is scarce in caves. On the surface, plants capture energy from sunlight and form the base of the food chain. State Museum of Natural History, Karlsruhe.

Could their really be an alien country of the blind whose inhabitants function without vision? Workshop presenter Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, an associate professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University, doesn’t need to imagine the country of the blind, because, in a sense, she lives there. She is blind, and believes that creatures without vision could achieve a level of technology sufficient to send interstellar messages. “Sighted people”, she writes, “tend to overestimate the amount and quality of information gathered by vision alone”.
Sheri Wells Jensen
Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen is an associate professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University. She presented at talk at the Puerto Rico workshop on alternative perceptual systems and interstellar communications. METI International, used with permission.

Bats and dolphins image their dimly lit environments with a kind of naturally occurring sonar called echolocation. Blind human beings can also learn to echolocate, using tongue clicks or claps as emitted signals and analyzing the returning echoes by hearing. Some can do so well enough to ride a bicycle at a moderate pace through an unfamiliar neighborhood. A human can develop the touch sensitivity needed to read braille in four months. A blind marine biologist can proficiently distinguish the species of mollusc shells by touch.

Wells-Jensen posits a hypothetical civilization which she calls the Krikkits, who lack vision but possess sensory abilities otherwise similar to those of human beings. Could such beings build a technological society? Drawing on her knowledge of the blind community and a series of experiments, she thinks they could.

Finding food would present few special difficulties, since blind naturalists can identify many plant species by touch. Agriculture could be conducted as modern blind gardeners do it, by marking crops using stakes and piles of rock, and harvesting by feel. The combination of a stick used as a cane to probe the path ahead and echolocation make traveling by foot effective and safe. A loadstone compass would further aid navigational abilities. The Krikkits might use snares rather than spears or arrows to trap animals, making tools by touch.

Mathematics is vital to building a technological society. For most human beings, with our limited memory, a paper and pencil or a blackboard are essential for doing math. Krikkits would need to find other such aids, such as tactual symbols on clay tablets, abacus-like devices, or patterns sewn on hides or fabric.

Successful blind mathematicians often have prodigious memories, and can perform complex calculations in their heads. One of history’s greatest mathematicians, Leonard Euler, was blind for the last 17 years of his life, but remained mathematically productive through the use of his memory.

The obstacles to a blind society developing technology may not be insurmountable. Blind people are capable of handling fire and even working with molten glass. Krikkits might therefore use fire for cooking, warmth, to bake clay vessels, and smelt metal ores. Initially there only astronomical knowledge would be of the sun as a source of heat. Experiments with loadstones and metals would lead to a knowledge of electricity.

Eventually, the Krikkits might imitate their sonar with radio waves, inventing radar. If their planet possessed a moon or moons, radar reflections from them might provide their first knowledge of astronomical objects other than their sun. Radar would also enable them to learn for the first time that their planet is round.

The Krikkits might learn to detect other forms of radiation like X-rays and ‘light’. The ability to detect this second mysterious form of radiation might allow them to discover the existence of the stars and develop an interest in interstellar communication.

What sorts of messages might they send or understand? Well-Jensen believes that line drawings, like the drawing of the man and the woman on the Pioneer plaque, and other such pictorial representations might be an impenetrable mystery to them. On the other hand, she speculates that Krikkits might represent large data sets through sound, and that their counterpart to charts and graphs might be equally incomprehensible to us.

Images might pose a challenge for the Krikkits, but perhaps, Wells-Jensen concedes, not an impossible one. There is evidence that bats image their world using echolocation. Kikkits might be likely to evolve similar abilities, though Wells-Jensen believes they would not be essential for making tools or handling objects.

Perhaps humans and Krikkits could find common ground by transmitting instructions for three dimensional printed objects that could be explored tactually. Wells-Jensen thinks they might also understand mathematical or logical languages proposed for interstellar communication.

The diversity of cognition and perception that we find here on Earth teaches us that if extraterrestrial intelligence exists, it is likely to be much more alien than much of science fiction has prepared us to expect. In our attempt to communicate with aliens, the gulf of mutual incomprehension may yawn as wide as the gulf of interstellar space. Yet this is a gulf we must somehow cross, if we wish ever to become citizens of the galaxy.

For further reading:

Cain, F. (2008) Is Our Universe Ruled by Artificial Intelligence, Universe Today.

Kaufmann G. (2005) Spineless smarts, NOVA

Land, M. F., and Nilsson, D-E. (2002) Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press.

Mather, J. A. (2008) Cephalopod consciousness: Behavioral evidence, Cognition and Consciousness 17(1): 37-48.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve? Universe Today.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds II: Do Aliens Think Big Brains are Sexy Too? Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Wells, H. G. (1904) The Country of the Blind, The literature network.