Astronomy magazine – If Aliens Contact Us, We Won’t Understand | Astronomy Magazine

The cynics’ case for why we may never understand extraterrestrial communication by William Herkewitz2016 gave us a fair number of false SETI detections. But lets imagine that this year it’s the year.Maybe it’s first detected at a radio telescope in Russia, or perhaps an optical telescope in California. But in 2017, somewhere someone picks up a signal. Skeptical astronomers alert their colleagues, yet sure enough, they’re reading it out in telescopes around the world. It’s too specific or too weird to be a known natural phenomenon, and it repeats itself with suspiciously high fidelity over some interval. Cautiously, but excitedly, the news gets out. We’ve received a message from the stars.It’s worth wondering: what would happen next?Well, if you follow the logic of the renowned Polish philosopher and science fiction writer Stanisław Lem, after a lot of hubbub and frustration: absolutely nothing. According to Lem’s logic, our species may never be able to read or understand a message from extraterrestrials.Lem outlined this argument in his 1968 masterwork novel, His Master’s Voice. The novel recounts the trials and failure of a massive, Manhattan Project-like effort to decipher an extraterrestrial transmission. And as the book delves into discussion of philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, information theory and more, Lem slowly crystallizes the cynics’ case on why long-distance communication with aliens is almost surely doomed to failure.In its simplest form, Lem’s concludes that there are two insurmountable barriers to communication that will naturally exist between alien species. They are the linguistic gap, and the intelligence gap.Big Ear Radio Observatory / Ohio State UniversityThe Linguistic GapLet’s give humanity a little bit of undeserved credit, and assume that 2017’s hypothetical extraterrestrial message is not utterly beyond our mammalian intellect. Lem argues that even so, a theoretically understandable message would still likely be unreadable.Reason #1: We almost certainly won’t share any of the reference points we rely on for language.In His Master’s Voice, Lem brings up the point that, in every known human language, from Latin to Basque to Kinyarwanda, we can translate the message, “grandmother dead, funeral Wednesday,” and it will be understood.But this translation is only possible because, biologically and culturally, we all already share the same reference points needed to understand the words. We all die. We all reproduce between two sexes, and have grandmothers. Despite vast species-wide cultural disparities, we all ceremonialize the act of death. And, last but not least, we are all bound to Earth’s gravity and mark the passing of time in terms of the dark and light periods caused by the rotation of our planet.But imagine an alien, Lem posts, that reproduces asexually—like an amoeba. A unisex being would have no grandmother, nor the diction to describe one. Likewise, beings that divided at the end of their life, rather than decomposing, could also be “unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals,” writes Lem. All these concepts would require explanation. Yet the only tool in our toolbox to explain them, well, is more language, which will be fraught with its own unexplained concepts.Language, Lem argues, requires shared reference points between communicators. And unless intelligent life looks and acts frighteningly similar to us, any alien species will differ from us in a conceivably endless number of ways. Lining the bedrock of human language is our perceptions of the world around us, and there is no guarantee alien life will be able to communicate a message that we understand, or in a way we understand. And hell, even if they do, who knows if we could ever parse the diction of something as strange as a hive-minded creature with an arsenic-based biology.Dmytro Ivashchenko / Wikimedia Commons  Reason #2: An extraterrestrial communication could take a number of different, unintelligible forms.Here’s an interesting conundrum examined by last year’s Oscar-nominated blockbuster, Arrival. Who knows what form a message from a being with an entirely alien biology would take?In His Master’s Voice, Lem brings up four examples as just a sample of the different possibilities an alien communication could take. Each has its own pitfalls to confuse and bewilder us.The first possibility is that the message could be written in the way we humans communicate with one another, says Lem, in some “declarative-transactional language like our own” with individual units of meaning, like words refer to objects and concepts. While the vocabulary and grammar of that language itself might be beyond our grasp, at least might know how to start our efforts at translation.But the communication could also “be a system of ‘modeling’ signals, such as television,” or radio, says Lem. This would mean the communication we’re receiving isn’t just the message itself, such as a message in binary code. Rather, the signal w

Sorgente: Astronomy magazine – If Aliens Contact Us, We Won’t Understand | Astronomy Magazine

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