If you’re lucky enough to live in a universe with precursors, however negligent they may be, then the aliens you encounter might have more in common with you than you’d expect. But what happens when the life among the stars is so different that even basic communication is difficult? How can you hope to strike up a peace agreement, or a trade deal, or simply acknowledge each others’ right to exist, when their way of thinking is totally incompatible with us? Just imagine how much we could learn from people whose perspective is that different from ours!
As long as the guns aren’t blazing, there’s nothing to fear. With enough time and effort, communication will become possible, so stick with it. Peace is attainable, and we can reach it together by using these 4 tips for extraterrestrial communication.
4. Determining Biology
The first thing we gotta figure out if we’re going to talk to these guys is how they communicate with each other. What are their senses? Do they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste, or do they have something we don’t? And just because they do have a sense in common with us, doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to use that as our medium for communication. After all, our eyes can only see a certain range of frequencies of light (so-called “visible light”); but even here on Earth, we have other species which can detect infrared or ultraviolet light, beyond a human’s visible spectrum. These aliens might be able to “see” radio waves, or microwaves. There’s also the potential that their senses include not just what we can recognize, but also exceed it. In the same way that a color-blindness test can contain a message which the colorblind can’t see, it’s possible the aliens could create a message which we can only partially detect.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially if we’re unable to meet face-to-face, for whatever reason. Some information will be gleaned from any incoming attempts at communication, but we have to be careful not to misinterpret the intent; after all, the broadcasted message of peace over all radio waves might look an awful lot like an attempt at jamming our signals before an assault. Patience and caution are the heroes of the day here.
3. Constructing the Interface
Once we’ve got their medium of extraterrestrial communication figured out, we can start to formulate an approach through which we can get information across. Humans communicate primarily through sound (speech), but we can also use visual means (such as writing or sign language), and for particularly simple information, even touch can suffice (Braille, or, say, tapping out Morse code in your palm). Let’s remember that these are aliens, and they might have radically different environmental needs. Light and sound can be refracted or distorted as they pass through different mediums, and we can’t touch a being that lives in a 90% sulfur dioxide atmosphere at 750 degrees Celsius. What we’re going to need is an interface–some kind of machine that enables us to transmit messages in a way they understand, and through which they, hopefully, will be able to reciprocate.
The interface is likely to be indirect, and very limited in its capabilities at first; it’s important to remember that this isn’t a translator we’re talking about, but instead simply a way getting our message to them in a form they can potentially interpret. However, it can (and should) be flexible, capable of being modified to accommodate breakthroughs and facilitate more complex forms of dialog over time.
2. The Universal Language
With the how discovered and an interface in place, it’s time to send the first message–but what should that be? It needs to be simple and unmistakable, a clear pattern that couldn’t arise randomly and signals intelligence and intent. The best, most common choice is mathematics; after all, math is the most basic means of describing the world around you. To measure time, distance, or perform simple arithmetic, any species that has reached a point that you’re trying to communicating with them should have mastered these things. The simplicity of numbers make them perfect for conveying in any medium. You could flash lights, display images, make beeps, create raised patterns… and things like, say, a series of prime numbers are obvious indicators of intelligence. Once that’s down, you can apply these techniques to more complicated ideas, such as natural laws (e=mc2, or f=ma) or geometric proofs (a2+b2=c2).
Math isn’t the only option, however; you could potentially convey your intent to communicate through chemistry, also, signaling your understanding of molecular structure and atomic-level interactions. This is the kind of thing you can only decide once you know how difficult this instance of extraterrestrial communication will be, but sometimes these alternatives can really advance the level of discourse, so give them proper consideration.
1. Two-Way Interpretation
We’ve proven to the aliens that we are intelligent, and that we understand they are as well. We agree on the basic descriptions of the universe around us, as far as natural laws go. That kind of common ground is nothing to sneeze at, and now that we have that basis we can attempt to get across more complex ideas. One might try, for example, binary mathematics, as with a computer. If that were to work, we could potentially start “programming” the interface together. Math is also the basis for encryption, and can be used to teach the aliens how to decode our message. Alternatively, the mere act of mathematical communication could teach us a lot about how they structure whatever their equivalent of sentences is. If we can learn their symbols for numbers, then perhaps we can begin to pick up on other such symbols, like words, as well.
I’m not gonna lie–this really is the hardest part. But it’s important to remember as you’re banging your head against this problem that you’re not working on this alone. Even if you can’t talk to them, you can rest assured that the aliens are working on this just as diligently from the other side. Even when it seems like you’re not making much progress, your counterparts might be on the verge of a breakthrough. Keep working, keep struggling, and first contact will soon be yours.
So there we have it, secret government scientists. Get to nailing down that treaty and let the alien tech flow! If you have any other suggestions, you can leave them for our researchers in the comments, or on Twitter, since that’s apparently the best way to get in touch with government officials now, @RetroPhaseShift. The mailing list, with some news on book 3, goes out this weekend, so sign up today!
And if you’re looking for a movie that explores these themes, recent Oscar nominee Arrival (source of #1’s image) is exactly the thing you need.