Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pictish This

I'm not big on worrying about communicating with life on other planets. While I feel that it's important that someone else worry about it (as for example the people at SETI do), I think that it's such a high-risk enterprise that I'd rather spend my days doing something else. That being said, there are still some intriguing ideas that crop up in relation to the idea of talking to an utterly alien civilization. Not least of these are the questions surrounding what might constitute common ground for communication. I'll confess that as a kid I  chuckled at the Pioneer spacecraft plaque - here on the left - not because I knew better, but because I imagined that nude humans with a raised hand might constitute a declaration of extreme hostility to any decent alien life. Here's what I think of you, alien !

Of course many serious people have applied careful logic and reasoning to figuring out such communications. The problem I see is that it's incredibly difficult to decipher even a deliberate message between humans - when separated by the gulf of time or space. I was reminded of this  when reading about the effort to decode the carvings made by an Iron-Age Celtic people known as the Picts. The Picts were around between 300 and 800 A.D. The rather wonderful stone patterns and images could be either just that - nice pictures with symbolic importance - or possibly a real, complex, written language. No one knows, but a careful statistical analysis of the arrangement of the Pictish pictures now suggests that they are consistent with a real writing system. That only leaves one problem - how to decipher it ! At the risk of sounding like a naysayer, if it's this hard to interpret the handiwork of our own species, just imagine how hard it will be to deal with an unknown alien species.

Of course, the Picts didn't (as far as we know) use complex mathematics, or have a detailed knowledge of the physics of nature. Those could indeed serve as a common ground, although one wonders how easy that would be - does an alien description of atoms or quantum mechanics look like ours ?


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