Monday, December 22, 2003
Profiles of the Future: Extraterrestrial Contact
"From the background of cosmic noise, the hiss and crackle of exploding stars and colliding galaxies, we will some day filter out the faint, rhythmic pulses which are the voice of intelligence. At first we will know only (only!) that there are other minds than ours in the universe; later we will learn to interpret these signals. Some of them, it is fair to assume, will carry images - the equivalent of picture telegraphy, or even television. It will be fairly easy to deduce the coding and reconstruct these images."
Here Mr. Clarke is discussing the apparent eventuality that man will receive contact with life from outside of earth (and that, presumably, did not originate here). I'd like to point out a couple of things on this topic/
If the universe is infinite, or even just as exceedingly large as it appears to be, the odds, such as they can be calculated, certainly suggest that life has evolved elsewhere many times over (there appears to be nothing special about our corner of the universe). True though that may be, it is certainly not a given that signals from these other life forms will ever be intercepted by a human. It could be that few life forms ever get to the point that they have electronic, or other galaxy-spanning communication forms. It could be that we went down a particular technology path that will lead us incapable of recognizing signals from what most other life forms develop (I have reasons to doubt this, but it is a consideration nonetheless).
More likely, however, is the simple fact that the universe is a vast place (the very reason that the odds are good that there is life out there somewhere). It is most likely that we are unfortunately positioned in both space and time such that signals from other life forms don't reach us for another million years or longer. Innumerable things could happen during the intervening years to remove humans, if not all life, from our planet. It is not enough that the odds favor life existing, but they must favor an alignment in technology and time for humans to acquire the knowledge that we are not alone.
More complicated yet, given another life that has developed a communications technology that we can intercept, what are the odds that they are broadcasting sound or pictures? And if they did (rather than some other sort of communication like chemical signals, or minute pressure differences), how on Earth (like that pun?) will we decode it, especially if it is based on entirely different technology than we possess? It is not clear to me, who has pondered xeno-linguistics a fair amount, how we can assume that this would be "fairly easy" as Mr. Clarke appears to think it will be. If they don't intend to send signals, rather we intercept the equivalent of their sitcoms, we can't expect any kind of decoding script. Consider how difficult it was for us to decode hieroglyphs before the Rosetta Stone was discovered. And we share significant portions of anatomy, geography, and history with the ancient Egyptians.
I'm sure others have pondered this much more deeply than I, and I admit to not being particularly well versed on the topic of xeno-linguistics even though the topic interests me (so much to do, so little time). Please feel free to set me straight on all of this.