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Navin J Antony
Navin J Antony


Have tea, ET

45-Arrival A linguist tries to communicate with an alien in Arrival.

Some 500 years ago, an alien vessel landed on the shores of what is now known as

  • “Starting with math and science provides us with a foundation to describe much more than simply how the universe works.” - Douglas Vakoch, SETI researcher

Some 500 years ago, an alien vessel landed on the shores of what is now known as Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean archipelago. The visitors, about 40 of them, were all dressed in outlandish clothes, had pale skin and light eyes, and were bigger than the native people—the sturdy, olive-skinned Arawaks.

The Arawaks at first marvelled at the white men and the strange tongue in which they spoke. Their wonder didn’t last. Because Christopher Columbus and crew had not crossed the Atlantic on a cultural mission. They were there for gold, spices and women. Soon after he landed, Columbus took some Arawaks as prisoners and forced them to reveal the source of the gold ornaments they wore. And thus began the colonisation of the Americas, or what historian Kenneth C. Davis described as the “beginning of one of the cruellest episodes in human history”.

We could all be Arawaks in waiting, according to the world’s most well-known physicist. “If aliens ever visit us,” said Stephen Hawking in 2010, “I think the outcome would be much as when Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Over the years, Hawking has poked fun at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) for trying to frame protocols to communicate with aliens. “That would be like the indigenous people of Australia seeing Captain Cook coming over the horizon in his ship, and then saying, ‘We’re going to have a couple of conferences to discuss what we are going to talk to these guys, and what language we will use,” he said recently.

In Hawking’s opinion, the chances of a mutually beneficial meeting of humans and aliens are rather slim. The upside is that we needn’t worry about the communication aspect. After all, the Europeans had not bothered to shake hands and say hello before they ‘civilised’ the hell out of Native Americans with guns and crosses.

But, what if aliens who make contact turn out be benevolent? What if they just wanted to say hi, have chai and strike up a conversation? What language should we use then?

In that case, say linguists, we have to first consider what type of language to pick. Humans largely depend on three modes of communication: visual, audible and tactile. The third option is highly risky, especially so if the aliens are not humanoid. To shake hands, for instance, you need to know which part of their anatomy to grab hold of.

46-Douglas-Vakoch Douglas Vakoch | Alexander Ryneus

The sign language, too, is unsafe. Aliens may have a different kind of brain, one that is evolved under circumstances that are totally different from those on our planet. Extending one’s hand in goodwill could well be construed as giving them the finger.

That leaves us with two options—employing a spoken or a written language. Our existing languages may not be of any use, though. According to the linguist Noam Chomsky, all human languages follow a “universal grammar”, an amorphous set of mental and syntactical rules that are innate to humans (and humans only). Aliens may find it difficult to wrap their heads around the English lexicon. And rightly so, considering that even the US president has had to grapple with its “unpresidented” complexity.

What else then? One way is to create a language based on something that binds humans and aliens together. Which is to say science. To be precise, mathematics and physics.

It is reasonable to expect that a civilisation that has achieved the technological wherewithal to travel thousands of light years must be familiar with the principles of science. Say, for instance, one is able to convey to an alien that, in the decimal system, 1+1=2. The alien replies with its own mathematically equivalent equation. The comparison of the equations could give both parties an understanding of each other. Now, that is a proper handshake.

But, how do we actually convey that 1+1=2? Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal found a way in the late 1950s. He suggested using radio bursts—or “peeps”, as he called them—to introduce human numerals to extraterrestrials. The number of peeps will correspond to the value of each numeral. A peep for 1, peep-pause-peep for 2, and so on. The peeps would then be modulated to introduce + (plus), - (minus), > (greater than) and < (less than). As the broadcast goes on, the messages would become more and more complex, touching upon nearly everything from elaborate formulas to human emotions.

“The beauty of starting with math and science is that it provides us with a foundation to describe much more than simply how the universe works,” Douglas Vakoch, a SETI researcher, told THE WEEK. “Music, for example, can be described at its most fundamental level using the same concepts that physicists use: frequency, amplitude, and duration. Similarly, the musical notes within chords are related to one another by precise mathematical ratios.”

Vakoch, 56, leads a group that is known as Active SETI, as opposed to Passive SETI, which focuses on listening to interstellar signals than transmitting them. He is the founder president of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which recently announced its plans to draft and transmit a message next year targeting earth-like planets outside the solar system. That announcement ruffled many a boffin feathers, including Hawking’s. But, contrary to what Hawking says, Vakoch insists that active transmission projects do not increase the risk of an alien invasion.

“Anyone who is afraid that METI’s transmissions will alert aliens of our existence, leading to an invasion, overlooks the reality that any civilisation that can do us harm can already pick up I Love Lucy and the BBC,” Vakoch told THE WEEK. That is, aliens, if they so chose, could well pick up our television signals.

If that is so, why take pains to transmit another message? “[There is the] Zoo Hypothesis, [that says] extraterrestrials may already know of our existence, but are treating us like animals in a zoo—watching us from afar, but not saying anything,” Vakoch said. “As humans, we experience something similar when we go to the zoo and see a bunch of giraffes communicating with one another. That’s a usual experience. But, what if one of those giraffes turned directly toward us, looked us in the eye, and pounded out a series of prime numbers with its hoof. That would establish a very different relationship; it might provoke us to engage. That’s the goal of METI—letting other civilisations know that we want to make contact.”

But what exactly is METI planning to do? “Our first transmissions will be at radio frequencies, relying on existing transmitters,” said Vakoch. To decide on the message should be, METI will hold a workshop with the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru in February next year. It will also start building a dedicated laser transmitter, which will let researchers send more and more information to galaxies far, far away. “When we shift from radio to laser communications, we’ll make a quantum leap in the complexity and depth of messages,” said Vakoch.

And, if that leap results in an alien invasion, what would be our best defence? No, nuclear arms would kill us, too. Perhaps, the best weapon would be microbes. In H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Martians plunder the earth, but die fighting earthly microbial infections. “Slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth,” wrote Wells. After discovering the New World, Columbus, too, fell prey to a deadly infection. He brought the then incurable syphilis to Europe, which killed more colonisers than the bows and arrows of Native Americans did.


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