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

Language in the Cosmos I: Is Universal Grammar Really Universal?

Chomsky (right), octopus (left), universal grammar

The METI Symposium

The symposium

How could you devise a message for intelligent creatures from another planet? They wouldn’t know any human language. Their ‘speech’ might be as different from ours as the eerie cries of whales or the twinkling lights of fireflies. Their cultural and scientific history would have followed its own path. Their minds might not even work like ours. Would the deep structure of language, its so called ‘universal grammar’ be the same for aliens as for us? A group of linguists and other scientists gathered on May 26 to discuss the challenging problems posed by devising a message that extraterrestrial beings could understand. There are growing hopes that such beings might be out there among the billions of habitable planets that we now think exist in our galaxy. The symposium, called ‘Language in the Cosmos’ was organized by METI International. It took place as part of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles. The Chair of the workshop was Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguist from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

What is METI International?

‘METI’ stands for messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence. METI International is an organization of scientists and scholars that aims to foster an entirely new approach in our search for alien civilizations. Since 1960, researchers have been looking for extraterrestrials by searching for possible messages they might send to us by radio or laser beams. They have sought the giant megastructures that advanced alien societies might build in space. METI International wants to move beyond this purely passive search strategy. They want to construct and transmit messages to the planets of relatively nearby stars, hoping for a response.

One of the organization’s central goals is to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds. More generally, it works internationally to promote research in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and astrobiology, and to understand the evolution of intelligence here on Earth. The daylong symposium featured eleven presentations. It main theme was the role of linguistics in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence.

METI International
METI International

This article

This article is the first in a two part series. It will focus on one of the most fundamental issues addressed at the conference. This is the question of whether the deep underlying structure of language would likely be the same for extraterrestrials as for us. Linguists understand the deep structure of language using the theory of ‘universal grammar’. The eminent Linguist Noam Chomsky developed this theory in the middle of the twentieth century.

Two interrelated presentations at the symposium addressed the issue of universal grammar. The first was by Dr. Jeffery Punske of Southern Illinois University and Dr. Bridget Samuels of the University of Southern California. The second was given by Dr. Jeffrey Watumull of Oceanit, whose coauthors were Dr. Ian Roberts of the University of Cambridge, and Dr. Noam Chomsky himself, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chomsky’s universal grammar-For humans only?

Universal grammar

Despite its name, Chomsky originally took his ‘universal grammar’ theory to imply that there are major, and maybe insuperable barriers to mutual understanding between humans and extraterrestrials. Let’s first consider why Chomsky’s theories seemed to make interstellar communication virtually hopeless. Then we’ll examine why Chomsky’s colleagues who presented at the symposium, and Chomsky himself, now think differently.

Before the second half of the twentieth century, linguists believed that the human mind was a blank slate, and that we learned language entirely by experience. These beliefs dated to the seventeenth century philosopher John Locke and were elaborated in the laboratories of behaviorist psychologists in the early twentieth century. Beginning in the 1950’s, Noam Chomsky challenged this view. He argued that learning a language couldn’t simply be a matter of learning to associate stimuli with responses. He saw that young children, even before the age of 5, can consistently produce and interpret original sentences that they had never heard before. He spoke of a “poverty of the stimulus”. Children couldn’t possibly be exposed to enough examples to learn the rules of language from scratch.

Chomsky posited instead that the human brain contained a “language organ”. This language organ was already pre-organized at birth for the basic rules of language, which he called “universal grammar”. It made human infants primed and ready to learn whatever language they were exposed to using only a limited number of examples. He proposed that the language organ arose in human evolution, maybe as recently of 50,000 years ago. Chomsky’s powerful arguments were accepted by other linguists. He came to be regarded as one of the great linguists and cognitive scientists of the twentieth century.

Universal grammar and ‘Martians’

Human beings speak more than 6000 different languages. Chomsky defined his “universal grammar” as “the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages”. He said it could be taken to express “the essence of human language”. But he wasn’t convinced that this ‘essence of human language’ was the essence of all theoretically possible languages. When Chomsky was asked by an interviewer from Omni Magazine in 1983 whether he thought that it would be possible for humans to learn an alien language, he replied:

“Not if their language violated the principles of our universal grammar, which, given the myriad ways that languages can be organized, strikes me as highly likely…The same structures that make it possible to learn a human language make it impossible for us to learn a language that violates the principles of universal grammar. If a Martian landed from outer space and spoke a language that violated universal grammar, we simply would not be able to learn that language the way that we learn a human language like English or Swahili. We should have to approach the alien’s language slowly and laboriously — the way that scientists study physics, where it takes generation after generation of labor to gain new understanding and to make significant progress. We’re designed by nature for English, Chinese, and every other possible human language. But we’re not designed to learn perfectly usable languages that violate universal grammar. These languages would simply not be within the range of our abilities.”

If intelligent, language-using life exists on another planet, Chomsky knew, it would necessarily have arisen by a different series of evolutionary changes than the uniquely improbable path that produced human beings. A different history of climate changes, geological events, asteroid and comet impacts, random genetic mutations, and other events would have produced a different set of life forms. These would have interacted with one another in a different ways over the history of life on the planet. The “Martian” language organ, with its different and unique history, could, Chomsky surmised, be entirely different from its human counterpart, making communication monumentally difficult, if not impossible.

Convergent evolution and alien minds

The tree of life

Why did Chomsky think that the human and ‘Martian‘ language organ would likely be fundamentally different? How come he and his colleagues now hold different views? To find out, we first need to explore some basic principles of evolutionary theory.

Originally formulated by the naturalist Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, the theory of evolution is the central principle of modern biology. It is our best tool for predicting what life might be like on other planets. The theory maintains that living species evolved from previous species. It asserts that all life on Earth is descended from an initial Earthly life form that lived more than 3.8 billion years ago.

You can think of these relationships as like a tree with many branches. The base of the trunk of the tree represents the first life on Earth 3.8 billion years ago. The tip of each branch represents now, and a modern species. The diverging branches connecting each branch tip with the trunk represent the evolutionary history of each species. Each branch point in the tree is where two species diverged from a common ancestor.

Evolution, brains, and contingency

To understand Chomsky’s thinking, we’ll start with a familiar group of animals; the vertebrates, or animals with backbones. This group includes fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including humans.

We’ll compare the vertebrates with a less familiar, and distantly related group; the cephalopod molluscs. This group includes octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. These two groups have been evolving along separate evolutionary paths-different branches of our tree-for more than 600 million years. I’ve chosen them because, as they’ve traveled along their separate branch of our evolutionary tree, each has evolved it own sort of complex brains and complex sense organs.

The brains of all vertebrates have the same basic plan. This is because they all evolved from a common ancestor that already had a brain with that basic plan. The octopus’s brain, by contrast, has an utterly different organization. This is because the common ancestor of cephalopods and vertebrates lies much further back in evolutionary time, on a lower branch of our tree. It probably had only the simplest of brains, if any at all.

With no common plan to inherit, the two kinds of brains evolved independently of one another. They are different because evolutionary change is contingent. That is, it involves varying combinations of influences, including chance. Those contingent influences were different along the path that produced cephalopod brains, than along the one that led to vertebrate brains.

Chomsky believed that many languages might be theoretically possible that violated the seemingly arbitrary constraints of human universal grammar. There didn’t seem to be anything that made our actual universal grammar something special. So, because of the contingent nature of evolution, Chomsky assumed that the ‘Martian’ language organ would arrive at one of these other possibilities, making it fundamentally different from its human counterpart.

This sort of evolution-based pessimism about the likelihood that humans and aliens could communicate is widespread. At the symposium, Dr. Gonzalo Munévar of Lawrence Technological University argued that intelligent creatures that evolved sensory systems and cognitive structures different from ours would not develop similar scientific theories or even similar mathematics.

Evolution, eyes, and convergence

Now lets consider another feature of the octopus and other cephalopods; their eyes. Surprisingly, the eyes of octopuses resemble those of vertebrates in intricate detail. This uncanny resemblance can’t be explained in the same way as the general resemblance of vertebrate brains to one another. It’s almost certainly not due to inheritance of the traits from a common ancestor. It’s true that some of the genes involved in the building of eyes are the same in most animals, appearing far down towards the trunk of our evolutionary tree. But, biologists are almost certain that the common ancestor of cephalopods and vertebrates was much too simple to have any eyes at all.

Biologists think eyes evolved separately more than forty times on Earth, each on its own branch of the evolutionary tree. There are many different kinds of eyes. Some are so strangely different from our own that even a science fiction writer would be surprised by them. So, if evolutionary change is contingent, why do octopus eyes bear a striking and detailed similarity to our own? The answer lies outside of evolutionary theory, with the laws of optics. Many large animals, like the octopus, need acute vision. There is only one good way, under the laws of optics, to make an eye that meets the needed requirements. Whenever such an eye is needed, evolution finds this same best solution. This phenomenon is called convergent evolution.

Life on another planet would have its own separate evolutionary tree, with the base of the trunk representing the appearance of life on that planet. Because of the contingency of evolutionary change, the pattern of branches might be quite different from our Earthly evolutionary tree. But because the laws of optics are the same everywhere in the universe, we can expect that large animals under similar conditions will evolve an eye that looks a lot like that of a vertebrate or a cephalopod. Convergent evolution is potentially a universal phenomenon.

eye evolution universal grammar
The eye of a fish (left), which is an aquatic vertebrate, and that of a cephalopod mollusc like the octopus (right) are almost identical, but the two evolved independently. Their remarkable similarity is due to convergent evolution. The common ancestor of fishes and cephalopods did not have a well developed eye, nor do some molluscs that are not cephalopods. This sort of eye is called a camera eye, because its layout is similar to a camera with the lens at the front, and the light sensing retina at the back (Credit: Jerry Crimson Mann public domain, evolution diagram is by the author).

Not just for humans anymore?

Taking apart the language organ

Jeff Punske universal grammar
Jeffrey Punske, Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Southern Illinois University

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Chomsky and some of his colleagues started to look at the language organ and universal grammar in a new way. This new view made it seem like the properties of universal grammar were inevitable, much as the laws of optics made many features of the octopus’s eye inevitable.

In a 2002 review, Chomsky and his colleagues Marc Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch argued that the language organ can be decomposed into a number of distinct parts. The sensory-motor, or externalization, system is involved in the mechanics of expressing language through methods like vocal speech, writing, typing, or sign language. The conceptual-intentional system relates language to concepts.

Bridget Samuels universal grammar
Bridget Samuels, Center for Craniofacial Anatomy, University of Southern California

The core of the system, the trio proposed, consists of what they called the narrow faculty of language. It is a system for applying the rules of language recursively, over and over, thereby allowing the construction of an almost endless range of meaningful utterances. Jeffrey Punske and Bridget Samuels similarly spoke of a ‘syntactic spine’ of all human languages. Syntax is the set of rules that govern the grammatical structure of sentences.

The inevitability of universal grammar

Chomsky and his colleagues made a careful analysis of what computations a nervous system might need to perform in order to make this recursion possible. As an abstract description of how the narrow faculty works, the researchers turned to a mathematical model called the Turing machine. The mathematician Alan Turing developed this model early in the twentieth century. This theoretical ‘machine’ led to the development of electronic computers.

Their analysis led to a striking and unexpected conclusion. In a book chapter currently in press, Watumull and Chomsky write that “Recent work demonstrating the simplicity and optimality of language increases the cogency of a conjecture that at one time would have been summarily dismissed as absurd: the basic principles of language are drawn from the domain of (virtual) conceptual necessity”. Jeffrey Watumull wrote that this strong minimalist thesis posits that “there exist constraints in the structure of the universe itself such that systems cannot but conform”. Our universal grammar is something special, and not just one among many theoretical possibilities.

Ian Roberts universal grammar
Ian Roberts, Professor of Linguistics, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, Cambridge University

Plato and the strong minimalist thesis

The constraints of mathematical and computational necessity shape the narrow faculty to be as it is, just like the laws of optics shape both the vertebrate and the octopus eye. ‘Martian’ languages, then, might follow the same universal grammar as human languages because there is only one best way to make the recursive core of the language organ.

Through the process of convergent evolution, nature would be compelled to find this one best way wherever and whenever in the universe that language evolves. Watumull supposed that the brain mechanisms of arithmetic might reflect a similarly inevitable convergence. That would mean that the basics of arithmetic would also be the same for humans and aliens. We must, Watumull and Chomsky wrote “rethink any presumptions that extraterrestrial intelligence or artificial intelligence would really be all that different from human intelligence”.

This is the striking conclusion that Watumull, and in a complementary way, Punske and Samuels presented at the symposium. Universal grammar may actually be universal, after all. Watumull compared this thesis to a modern, computer age version of the beliefs of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who maintained that mathematical and logical relationships are real things that exist in the world apart from us, and are merely discovered by the human mind. As a novel contribution to a difficult ages-old philosophical problem, these new ideas are sure to stir controversy. They illustrate the depth of new knowledge that awaits us as we reach out to other worlds and other minds.

universal grammar
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato as imagined by the Renaissance painter Raphael. Plato maintained that mathematical and logical truths existed objectively, apart from our mind and were merely discovered by humans. Jeffrey Watumull, Ian Roberts, and Noam Chomsky’s view of the narrow faculty of language are a modern day version of Plato’s views, in which necessary mathematical, logical, and computational relationships determine the structure of the language faculty, and universal grammar. Since the same necessary relationships would influence the evolution of the language faculty of aliens, alien languages, they contend, are likely to have the same universal grammar as human languages.

Universal grammar and messages for aliens

What are the consequences of this new way of thinking about the structure of language for practical attempts to create interstellar messages? Watumull thinks the new thinking is a challenge to “the pessimistic relativism of those who think it overwhelmingly likely that terrestrial (i.e. human) intelligence and extraterrestrial intelligence would be (perhaps in principle) mutually unintelligible”. Punske and Samuels agree, and think that “math and physics likely represent the best bet for common concepts that could be used as a starting point”.

Watumull supposes that while the minds of aliens or artificial intelligences may be qualitatively similar to ours, they may differ quantitatively in having bigger memories, or the ability to think much faster than us. He is confident that an alien language would likely include nouns, verbs, and clauses. That means they could probably understand an artificial message containing such things. Such a message, he thinks, might also profitably include the structure and syntax of natural human languages, because this would likely be shared by alien languages.

Punske and Samuels seem more cautious. They note that “There are some linguists who don’t believe nouns and verbs are universal human language categories”. Still, they suspect that “alien languages would be built of discrete meaningful units that can combine into larger meaningful units”. Human speech consists of a linear sequence of words, but, Punske and Samuels note that “Some of the linearity imposed on human language may be due to the constraints of our vocal anatomy, and already starts to break down when we think about signed languages”.

Overall, the findings foster new hope that devising a message comprehensible to extraterrestrials is feasible. In the next installment, we will look at a new example of such a message. It was transmitted in 2017 towards a star 12 light years from our sun.

References and further reading

Allman J. (2000) Evolving Brains, Scientific American Library

Chomsky, N. (2017) The language capacity: Architecture and evolution, Psychonomics Bulletin Review, 24:200-203.

Gliedman J. (1983) Things no amount of learning can teach, Omni Magazine, chomsky.info

Hauser, M. D. , Chomsky, N. , and Fitch W. T. (2002) The faculty of language: What is it, Who has it, and How did it evolve? Science, 298: 1569-1579.

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

Noam Chomsky’s theories on language, Study.com

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.

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

Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve?

The face of a jumping spider

Is it likely that human level intelligence and technological civilization has evolved on other worlds? If so, what kinds of sensory and cognitive systems might extraterrestrials have? This was the subject of the workshop ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ held in Puerto Rico on May 18, 2016. The conference was sponsored by the newly founded METI International (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). One of the organization’s central goals is to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars concerned with designing interstellar messages that can be understood by non-human minds.

METI International
METI International


At present, the only clues we have to the nature of extraterrestrial minds and perception are those that can be garnered by a careful study of the evolution of mind and perception here on Earth. The workshop included nine speakers from universities in the United States and Sweden, specializing in biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics. It had sessions on the evolution of cognition and the likely communicative and cognitive abilities of extraterrestrials.

Doug Vakoch, a psychologist and the founder and president of METI International, notes that astronomers and physicists properly concern themselves largely with the technologies needed to detect alien intelligence. However, finding and successfully communicating with aliens may require attention to the evolution and possible nature of alien intelligence. “The exciting thing about this workshop”, Vakoch writes, “is that the speakers are giving concrete guidelines about how to apply insights from basic research in biology and linguistics to constructing interstellar messages”. In this, the first installment dealing with the conference, we’ll focus on the question of whether the evolution of technological societies on other planets is likely to be common, or rare.

Doug Vakoch, President METI Institute
Dr. Douglas Vakoch is a Professor of clinical psychology and the founder and president of METI International. Photo by Mara Lavitt, used with permission.

We now know that most stars have planets, and rocky planets similar to or somewhat larger than the Earth or Venus are commonplace. Within this abundant class of worlds, there are likely to be tens of billions with conditions suitable for sustaining liquid water on their surfaces in our galaxy. We don’t yet know how likely it is that life will arise on such worlds. But suppose, as many scientists suspect, that simple life is abundant. How likely is it that alien civilizations will appear; civilizations with which we could communicate and exchange ideas, and which could make their presence known to us by signaling into space? This was a central question explored at the conference.

In addressing such questions, scientists have two main sets of clues to draw on. The first comes from the study of the enormous diversity of behavior and nervous and sensory systems of the animal species that inhabit our Earth; an endeavor that has been called cognitive ecology. The second set of clues come from modern biology’s central principle; the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory can provide scientific explanations of how and why various senses and cognitive systems have come to exist here on Earth, and can guide our expectations about what might exist elsewhere.

Artist's impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
Artist’s impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
The basics of the electrochemical signalling that make animal nervous systems possible have deep evolutionary roots. Even plants and bacteria have electrochemical signalling systems that share some basic features with those in our brains. Conference presenter Dr. Anna Dornhaus studies how social insects make decisions collectively as an associate professor at the University of Arizona. She defines cognitive ability as the ability to solve problems with a nervous system, and sometimes also by social cooperation. An animal is more ‘intelligent’ if its problem solving abilities are more generalized. Defined this way, intelligence is widespread among animals. Skills traditionally thought to be the sole province of primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have now been shown to be surprisingly common.
Dr. Anna Dornhaus
Dr. Anna Dornhaus is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, and a presenter at the Puerto Rico conference

For example, cognitive skills like social learning and teaching, generalizing from examples, using tools, recognizing individuals of one’s species, making plans, and understanding spatial relationships have all been shown to exist in arthropods (an animal group consisting of insects, spiders, and crustaceans). The evidence shows the surprising power of the diminutive brains of insects, and indicates that we know little of the relationship between brain size and cognitive ability.

But different animals often have different sets of cognitive skills, and if a species is good at one cognitive skill, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good at others. Human beings are special, not because we have some specific cognitive ability that other animals lack, but because we possess a wide range of cognitive abilities that are more exaggerated and highly developed than in other animals.

The cathedral termite mound
Termite mounds demonstrate that architecture and agriculture are not unique to humans. Housing one to two million inhabitants, they can reach 5 meters (17 feet) or more in height, and also extend beneath the surface of the ground. They are organized to ensure that appropriate levels of oxygen, moisture, and temperature are maintained. Although the inhabitants of a termite mound collectively weigh only 15 kilograms (33 lb), a typical mound will, in an average year, move a quarter of a metric ton (550 lb) of soil, and several tons of water. Using carefully prepared plant materials, termites “farm” a species of fungus that occupies eight times more space in the mound than they do. Photo taken by Brain Voon Yee Yap of cathedral termite mounds in the Northern Territories of Australia for open use.

Although the Earth, as a planet, has existed for 4.6 billion years, complex animals with hard body parts don’t appear in the fossil record until 600 million years ago, and complex life didn’t appear on land until about 400 million years ago. Looking across the animal kingdom as a whole, three groups of animals, following separate evolutionary paths, have evolved especially complex nervous systems and behaviors. We’ve already mentioned arthropods, and the sophisticated behaviors mediated by their diminutive yet powerful brains.

Molluscs, a group of animals that includes slugs and shellfish, have also produced a group of brainy animals; the cephalopods. The cephalopods include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The octopus has the most complex nervous system of any animal without a backbone. As the product of a different evolutionary path, the octopus’s sophisticated brain has a plan of organization that is completely alien to that of more familiar animals with backbones.

The third group to have produced sophisticated brains are the vertebrates; animals with backbones. They include fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including human beings. Although all vertebrate brains bear a family resemblance, complex brains have evolved from simpler brains many separate times along different paths of vertebrate evolution, and each such brain has its own unique characteristics.

Along one path, birds have evolved a sophisticated forebrain, and with it, a flexible and creative capacity to make and use tools, an ability to classify and categorize objects, and even a rudimentary understanding of numbers. Following a different path, and based on a different plan of forebrain organization, mammals have also evolved sophisticated intelligence. Three groups of mammals; elephants, cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals including dophins, porpoises, and whales), and primates (monkeys and apes, including human beings) have evolved the most complex brains on Earth.

Given the evidence that intelligent problem solving skills of various sorts have evolved many times over, along many different evolutionary pathways, in an amazing range of animal groups, one might suspect that Dornhaus believes that human-style cognitive abilities and civilizations are widespread in the universe. In fact, she doesn’t. She thinks that humans with their exaggerated cognitive abilities and unique ability to use language to express complex and novel sorts of information are a quirky and unusual fluke of evolution, and might, for all we know, be wildly improbable. Her argument that alien civilizations probably aren’t widespread resembles one stated by the imminent and influential American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his 1988 book Towards a New Philosophy of Biology.

There are currently more than 10 million different species of animals on Earth. All but one have failed to evolve the human level of intelligence. This makes the chance of evolving human intelligence less than one in 10 million. Over the last six hundred million years since complex life has appeared on Earth, there have been tens of million different animal species, each existing for roughly 1-10 million years. But, so far as we know, only one of them, Homo sapiens, ever produced a technological society. The human lineage diverged from that of other great ape species about 8 million years ago, but we don’t see evidence of distinctly human innovation until about 50,000 years ago, which is, perhaps, another indication of its rarity.

Despite the apparent improbability of human level intelligence evolving in any one lineage, Earth, as a whole, with its vast array of evolutionary lineages, has nonetheless produced a technological civilization. But that still doesn’t tell us very much. For the present, Earth is the only habitable planet that we know much of anything about. And, since Earth produced us, we are working with a biased sample. So we can’t be at all confident that the presence of human civilization on Earth implies that similar civilizations are likely to occur elsewhere.

For all we know, the quirky set of events that produced human beings might be so wildly improbable that human civilization is unique in a hundred billion galaxies. But, we don’t know for sure that alien civilizations are wildly improbable either. Dornhaus freely concedes that neither she nor anybody has a good idea of just how improbable human intelligence might be, since the evolution of intelligence is still so poorly understood.

Most current evolutionary thinking, following in the footsteps of Mayr and others, holds that human civilization was not the inevitable product of a long-term evolutionary trend, but rather the quirky consequence of a particular and improbable set of evolutionary events. What sort of events might those have been, and just how improbable were they? Dornhaus supports a popular theory proposed by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico and who also spoke at the METI institute workshop.

In our next installment we’ll explore Miller’s theories in a bit more detail, and see why the abundance of extraterrestrial civilizations might depend on whether or not aliens think big brains are sexy.

For further reading:
Baluska, F. and Mancuso, S. (2009) Deep evolutionary origins of neurobiology. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2:1, 60-65.

Chittka, L. and Niven, J. (2009) Are bigger brains better?, Current Biology. 19:21 p. R995-R1008.

Margonelli, L. (2014) Collective mind in the mound: How do termites build their huge structures. National Geographic.

Mayr, E. (1988) The probability of extraterrestrial intelligent life. In Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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

Tonn, S. (2015) Termites are teaching architects to design super-efficient skyscrapers. Wired Magazine.

Who Speaks for Earth? The Controversy over Interstellar Messaging

War of the Worlds

Should we beam messages into deep space, announcing our presence to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might be out there? Or, should we just listen? Since the beginnings of the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), radio astronomers have, for the most part, followed the listening strategy.

In 1999, that consensus was shattered. Without consulting with other members of the community of scientists involved in SETI, a team of radio astronomers at the Evpatoria Radar Telescope in Crimea, led by Alexander Zaitsev, beamed an interstellar message called ‘Cosmic Call’ to four nearby sun-like stars. The project was funded by an American company called Team Encounter and used proceeds obtained by allowing members of the general public to submit text and images for the message in exchange for a fee.

Similar additional transmissions were made from Evpatoria in 2001, 2003, and 2008. In all, transmissions were sent towards twenty stars within less than 100 light years of the sun. The new strategy was called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). Although Zaitsev was not the first to transmit an interstellar message, he and his associates where the first to systematically broadcast to nearby stars. The 70 meter radar telescope at Evpatoria is the second largest radar telescope in the world.

In the wake of the Evpatoria transmissions a number of smaller former NASA tracking and research stations collected revenue by making METI transmissions as commercially funded publicity stunts. These included a transmission in the fictional Klingon language from Star Trek to promote the premier of an opera, a Dorito’s commercial, and the entirety of the 2008 remake of the classic science fiction movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. The specifications of these commercial signals have not been made public, but they were most likely much too faint to be detectable at interstellar distances with instruments comparable to those possessed by humans.

Zaitsev’s actions stirred divisive controversy among the community of scientists and scholars concerned with the field. The two sides of the debate faced off in a recent special issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, resulting from a live debate sponsored in 2010 by the Royal Society at Buckinghamshire, north of London, England.

Alexander L. Zaitsev- Chief scientist of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, and head of the group that transmitted interstellar messages using the Evpatoria Planetary Radar telescope. (credit: Rumin)
Alexander L. Zaitsev- Chief scientist of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, and head of the group that transmitted interstellar messages using the Evpatoria Planetary Radar telescope. (credit: Rumin)

Modern SETI got its start in 1959, when astrophysicists Giuseppe Cocconi and Phillip Morrison published a paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, in which they showed that the radio telescopes of the time were capable of receiving signals transmitted by similar counterparts at the distances of nearby stars. Just months later, radio astronomer Frank Drake turned an 85 foot radio telescope dish towards two nearby sun-like stars and conducted Project Ozma, the first SETI listening experiment. Morrison, Drake, and the young Carl Sagan supposed that extraterrestrial civilizations would “do the heavy lifting” of establishing powerful and expensive radio beacons announcing their presence. Humans, as cosmic newcomers that had just invented radio telescopes, should search and listen. There was no need to take the risk, however small, of revealing our presence to potentially hostile aliens.

Drake and Sagan did indulge in one seeming exception to their own moratorium. In 1974, the pair devised a brief 1679 bit message that was transmitted from the giant Arecibo Radar Telescope in Puerto Rico. But the transmission was not a serious attempt at interstellar messaging. By intent, it was aimed at a vastly distant star cluster 25,000 light years away. It merely served to demonstrate the new capabilities of the telescope at a rededication ceremony after a major upgrade.

In the 1980’s and 90’s SETI researchers and scholars sought to formulate a set of informal rules for the conduct of their research. The First SETI Protocol specified that any reply to a confirmed alien message must be preceded by international consultations, and an agreement on the content of the reply. It was silent on the issue of transmissions sent prior to the discovery of an extraterrestrial signal.

David Brin- Space scientist, futurist consultant, and science fiction writer (credit: Glogger)
David Brin- Space scientist, futurist consultant, and science fiction writer (credit: Glogger)
A Second SETI Protocol was to have addressed the issue, but, somewhere along the way, critics charge, something went wrong. David Brin, a space scientist, futurist consultant, and science fiction writer was a participant in the protocol discussion. He charged that “collegial discussion started falling apart” and “drastic alterations of earlier consensus agreements were rubber-stamped, with the blatant goal of removing all obstacles from the path of those pursuing METI”.

Brin accuses “the core community that clusters around the SETI Institute in Silicon Valley, California”, including astronomers Jill Tartar and Seth Shostak of “running interference for and enabling others around the world- such as Russian radio astronomer Dr. Alexander Zaitsev” to engage in METI efforts. Shostak denies this, and claims he simply sees no clear criteria for regulating such transmissions.

Brin, along with Michael A. G. Michaud, a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and diplomat who chaired the committee that formulated the first and second protocol, and John Billingham, the former head of NASA’s short lived SETI effort, resigned their memberships in SETI related committees to protest the alterations to the second protocol.

The founders of SETI felt that extraterrestrial intelligence was likely to be benign. Carl Sagan speculated that extraterrestrial civilizations (ETCs) older than ours would, under the pressure of necessity, become peaceful and environmentally responsible, because those that didn’t would self-destruct. Extraterrestrials, they supposed, would engage in interstellar messaging because of a wish to share their knowledge and learn from others. They supposed that ETCs would establish powerful omnidirectional beacons in order to assist others in finding them and joining a communications network that might span the galaxy. Most SETI searches have been optimized for detecting such steady constantly transmitting beacons.

Over the fifty years since the beginnings of SETI, searches have been sporadic and plagued with constant funding problems. The space of possible directions, frequencies, and coding strategies has only barely been sampled so far. Still, David Brin contends that whole swaths of possibilities have been eliminated “including gaudy tutorial beacons that advanced ETCs would supposedly erect, blaring helpful insights to aid all newcomers along the rocky paths”. The absence of obvious, easily detectable evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence has led some to speak of the “Great Silence”. Something, Brin notes, “has kept the prevalence and visibility of ETCs below our threshold of observation”. If alien civilizations are being quiet, could it be that they know something that we don’t know about some danger?

Alexander Zaitsev thinks that such fears are unfounded, but that other civilizations might suffer from the same reluctance to transmit that he sees as plaguing humanity. Humanity, he thinks, should break the silence by beaming messages to its possible neighbors. He compares the current state of humanity to that of a man trapped in a one-man prison cell. “We”, he writes “do not want to live in a cocoon, in a ‘one –man cell’, without any rights to send a message outside, because such a life is not INTERESTING! Civilizations forced to hide and tremble because of farfetched fears are doomed to extinction”. He notes that in the ‘60’s astronomer Sebastian von Hoerner speculated that civilizations that don’t engage in interstellar communication eventually decline through “loss of interest”.

METI critics maintain that questions of whether or not to send powerful, targeted, narrowly beamed interstellar transmissions, and of what the content of those transmissions should be needs to be the subject of broad international and public discussion. Until such discussion has taken place, they want a temporary moratorium on such transmissions.

Seth Shostak- SETI Institute radio astronomer (credit: B D Engler)
Seth Shostak- SETI Institute radio astronomer (credit: B D Engler)
On the other hand, SETI Institute radio astronomer Seth Shostak thinks that such deliberations would be pointless. Signals already leak into space from radio and television broadcasting, and from civilian and military radar. Although these signals are too faint to be detected at interstellar distances with current human technology, Shostak contends that with the rapid growth in radio telescope technology, ETCs with technology even a few centuries in advance of ours could detect this radio leakage. Billingham and Benford counter that to collect enough energy to tune in on such leakage; an antenna with a surface area of more than 20,000 square kilometers would be needed. This is larger than the city of Chicago. If humans tried to construct such a telescope with current technology it would cost 60 trillion dollars.

Shostak argues that exotic possibilities might be available to a very technologically advanced society. If a telescope were placed at a distance of 550 times the Earth’s distance from the sun, it would be in a position to use the sun’s gravitational field as a gigantic lens. This would give it an effective collecting area vastly larger than the city of Chicago, for free. If advanced extraterrestrials made use of their star’s gravitational field in this way, Shostak maintains “that would give them the capacity to observe many varieties of terrestrial transmissions, and in the optical they would have adequate sensitivity to pick up the glow of street lamps”. Even Brin conceded that this idea was “intriguing”.

Civilizations in a position to do us potential harm through interstellar travel, Shostak contends, would necessarily be technologically advanced enough to have such capabilities. “We cannot pretend that our present level of activity with respect to broadcasting or radar usage is ‘safe’. If danger exists, we’re already vulnerable” he concludes. With no clear means to say what extraterrestrials can or can’t detect, Shostak feels the SETI community has nothing concrete to contribute to the regulation of radio transmissions.

Could extraterrestrials harm us? In 1897 H. G. Wells published his science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds” in which Earth was invaded by Martians fleeing their arid, dying world. Besides being scientifically plausible in terms of its times, Wells’ novel had a political message. An opponent of British colonialism, he wanted his countrymen to imagine what imperialism was like from the other side. Tales of alien invasion have been a staple of science fiction ever since. Some still regard European colonialism as a possible model for how extraterrestrials might treat humanity. The eminent physicist Steven Hawking thinks very advanced civilizations might have mastered interstellar travel. Hawking warned that “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans”.

Though dismissing Hawking’s fears of alien invasion as an “unlikely speculation”, David Brin notes that interstellar travel by small automated probes is quite feasible, and that such a probe could potentially do harm to us in many ways. It might, for example, steer an asteroid onto a collision course with Earth. A relatively small projectile traveling at one tenth the speed of light could wreak terrible damage by simply colliding with our planet. “The list of unlikely, but physically quite possible scenarios is very long” he warns.

Diplomat Michael Michaud warns that “We can all understand the frustration of not finding any signals after fifty years of intermittent searching” but “Impatience with the search is not a sufficient justification for introducing a new level of potential risk for our entire species”.

METI critics David Brin, James Benford, and James Billingham think that the current lack of results from SETI warrants a different sort of response than METI. They call for a reassessment of the search strategy. From the outset, SETI researchers have assumed that extraterrestrials will use steady beacons transmitting constantly in all directions to attract our attention. Recent studies of interstellar radio propagation and the economics of signaling show that such a beacon, which would need to operate on a vast timescale, is not an efficient way to signal.

Instead, an alien civilization might compile a list of potentially habitable worlds in its neighborhood and train a narrowly beamed signal on each member of the list in succession. Such brief “ping” messages might be repeated, in sequence, once a year, once a decade, or once a millennium. Benford and Billingham note that most SETI searches would miss this sort of signal.

The SETI Institute’s Allen telescope array, for example, is designed to target narrow patches of sky (such as the space around a sun-like star) and search those patches in sequence, for the presence of continuously transmitting beacons. It would miss a transient “ping” signal, because it would be unlikely to be looking in the right place at the right time. Ironically, the Evpatoria messages, transmitted for less than a day, are examples of such transient signals.

Benford and Billingham propose the construction of a new radio telescope array designed to constantly monitor the galactic plane (where stars are most abundant) for transient signals. Such a telescope array, they estimate, would cost about 12 million dollars, whereas a serious, sustained METI program would cost billions.

The METI controversy continues. On February 13, the two camps debated each other at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Jose, California. At that conference David Brin commented “It’s an area where opinion rules, and everyone has a fierce opinion”. In the wake of the meeting a group of 28 scientists, scholars, and business leaders issued a statement that “We feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based on a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based on the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment”.

References and Further Reading:

J. Benford, J. Billingham, D. Brin, S. Dumas, M. Michaud, S. Shostak, A. Zaitsev, (2014) Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence special section, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 67, p. 5-43.

The SETI Institute

D. Brin, Shouting at the cosmos: How SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory.

F. Cain (2013) How could we find aliens? The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), Universe Today.

E. Hand (2015), Researchers call for interstellar messages to alien civilizations, Science Insider, Science Magazine.

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.