How Would We Talk to Aliens?

You don’t need to leave our planet to find people who you can’t understand. For some people, you don’t even need to leave your own house; you’re still trying to understand why your mum has suddenly outlawed gluten and why your dad thinks video games are the devil’s work but spent his whole life playing with a model train set. But, with some pointing and shouting at them, you can at least manage to communicate on a basic level. But what about if we really came into contact with an alien species; is it realistic to think we could communicate and what form would that take; speaking, writing, emojis? We can look to the early explorers of our planet, seeing how cultures collided, when they met for the first time. But at least they were of the same species, things might not be so easy when you’re trying to communicate with a creature that has nipples for eyes and eyes where its nipples should be. Obviously our first problem is actually finding some aliens to talk to us because it’s a big old universe out there and I’m not sure that Earth has made it into the galactic guidebook yet, despite Ford Prefect’s best efforts. It’s often said that the opening ceremony to the 1936 Olympics was the first message broadcast into space and there is some truth to it. It was at a high enough frequency that it may have escaped the ionosphere and headed off out the solar system. But the likelihood that anyone would be able to pick it up would be incredibly small because it doesn’t have the power and concentrated direction to get noticed, it would be lost in the noise of the universe. So thankfully, Hitler won’t be the first face of mankind that the aliens see, you could say, they will Nazi him coming. We have made many intentional attempts both to send messages and to listen out for them. In August 1924, Mars was going to be closer to Earth than at any point in the past century. So, the US decided to have a good listen and declared National Radio Silence Day where all radios were silent for five minutes on the hour, every hour. They used an airship to lift a radio receiver 3 kilometres off the ground. In 1962, the Soviets used the Pluton complex in Ukraine to broadcast a Morse code message towards Venus. It was just three words; MIR, LENIN, SSSR. ‘Mir’ means both peace and world and SSSR is the Russian for USSR. Lenin was a good choice at the time but will be unavailable to comment if the Venusians do arrive. So, let’s say we do get a message back, it’s likely to be in the form of radio waves. What do we do then? The first thing is to try work out what each part relates to. If it’s mathematics then hopefully we will know what to look out for; things like the universal constants such as Pi, e, numbers that occur throughout the universe. If it’s language then it becomes much more problematic since we don’t have some kind of Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone was a carved rock found in the town of Rosetta, Egypt, in 1799. It was of incredible importance to our understanding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs since it had a trilingual inscription; hieroglyphs, Egyptian script and Greek. And this highlights our problem; without the comparison to base our work off, it can be impossible to ever make a translation of a new language. We don’t even need alien languages to test this theory; there are plenty of untranslated texts here on earth. The Liber Linteus is a manuscript from around 250 BC, that was found wrapped around a mummy. It’s one of the few examples of the Etruscan language, from ancient Italy, and we’ve barely managed to suss any of it out. There’s also a language called Linear A, from ancient Greek, that we’re struggling with, despite it sounding like a Microsoft Typeface from the 90s. And there’s Proto-Elamite, used for a brief 200-year window in ancient Iran - we’ve still no idea what they were up to and what secrets these scripts hold. Some linguists have thought that perhaps letting language evolve naturally, with all it’s weird quirks and local idiosyncrasies, is not the best way to go about things. English is taking over as the international language, thanks largely to its dominance over the internet, but attempts have been made to create a universal language; which would hopefully make life easier when aliens join the action. Kenneth Searight created Sona in 1935, in response to some of the new constructed languages, or conlangs as they are known, that were appearing; like Esperanto. His issue was that these new conlangs were all very European focussed, which was not truly global. Sona was also agglutinative. This basically means that when you connect parts together, you don’t change the form or sound or spelling – which is what most languages do and all this fusing things together makes them much more complicated. Charles K Bliss, a Jewish concentration camp survivor, tried to create a written pictogram language, one that would be universal and one that evil politicians could not manipulate, leading to the horrors that he’d witnessed. Although Blissymbols never spread around the world, their logical structure was found to be very useful in teaching disabled children to communicate. But we don’t know whether we will be speaking or listening first when it comes to alien communication. So, in order to have our ears prepared for alien arrival, Dr John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University in England has designed a piece of software that he hopes will be able to tell what is and isn’t a language and, if it is, what patterns it contains. Finding out what form the message is in will be the key. If you get a jpeg from the stars but you think it’s music, it’s going to be difficult to decipher the message, although you will probably make a fortune as a pioneering new techno artist. You can just see hipsters lapping that up. The voyager probes, that we sent out into the depths of our solar system, both carry a gold disc which plays like a record. The back cover dedicates a lot of space to explaining how to play the record and how to extract the information; since there is music, sounds and images. We used pictures of hydrogen atoms to define the time scale since they are the most common element and their state change is a universal constant. There was also a diagram of how to play the record. But, given the fact that half a page of Ikea instruction drives most of us to madness, I’m not holding out too much hope for the aliens.

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