Alien talk: We will be light years apart, in many ways


Pahranagat Man at Shaman Knob on Mount Irish in Lincoln County. (KLAS-TV)

MYSTERY WIRE — Communicating with an alien race poses challenges you might never have stopped to consider.

Daniel Oberhaus, a journalist for Wired covering space exploration and the future of energy, takes on the topic in a new book titled, “Extraterrestrial Languages.”

To be clear, it’s not just a language barrier. Thanks to The Economist, we have a tour through some of the other communication barriers:

  • Distance — the inherent delays when the conversation takes place at locations light years apart
  • Physiology and language — how we communicate relies on our unique physical abilities — eyes, ears, touch. Who’s to say aliens would be anything like us?
  • Language structure — even hieroglyphics posed a monumental translation problem. Imagine the disconnect with alien communication.

New grammar? Symbols? Telepathy? It’s all very daunting, and imagine the urgency to communicate precisely if there is any hostility involved.

Early efforts at “universal” symbols gave us a glimpse of the difficulty of communicating concepts independent of the 7,000 languages on Earth, but even simple messages are not always clear. Just think of traffic signs, or warnings about fire, electricity or other hazards. Add to that: radioactivity hazards.

A great look at how we tried to simplify the presentation of humanity is in the artifacts NASA sent into space on the Voyager I probe:

Clearly, without a common frame of reference, communicating concepts like these is a difficult prospect.

One possible road through: Math.

Mathematics is seen as a universal language. So when you meet E.T., you might have a lot of math “conversations” until we start to recognize common references. Exciting, eh? Music is another possibility.

In a separate article for Wired, Olberhaus wrote about how the development of artificial intelligence is a kind of “template” for the creating a common language. Teaching a machine a language is similar to the challenges of communication with aliens.

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