Imagine that an intelligent alien species has discovered us, and that they have the ability to journey to Earth to make first contact.
It may sound like a fantastical scenario better suited to fiction than to science, and for more than two centuries this has largely been the case, but over the last few years a number of scientists have begun to debate first contact scenarios, both in scholarly domains and in the mass media.
What do you think first contact would be like?
I’ve had a few ideas of my own, inspired heavily by sci-fi I admit, and in previous posts I’ve looked at scenarios in which the aliens may not even be interested in us, or that they may make first contact with us, but covertly. In this post I’ll look at the idea that they do try to make an overt first contact, but that we may have a mutual problem in understanding each other.
If we make first contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial then a certain degree of confusion will likely abound.
Understanding stems from empathy, which is founded in shared beliefs, attitudes and experiences. But there’s no guarantee that we would have any of these in common with an extraterrestrial. After all, different cultures on Earth can vary markedly in these areas and confusion between people from different nationalities is common (just think how different the English and the Welsh are!) Thus I’d hypothesise that the more like us a hypothetical alien visitor was, the more likely we’d be able to understand each other.
If an alien race evolved on a similar planet to Earth, orbiting a similar star to our Sun, and were also derived from carbon and water chemistry then this would be a good start, as a shared biology would give us some important areas of commonality and may provide similar foundations to our cultures.
But even if an alien race was biologically similar to us, they will likely be far in advance of our own civilisation, and this may cause problems.
If an alien race has managed to traverse the great distances of space to make contact with us then they will likely be hundreds to billions of years more technologically and intellectually advanced than us. Although they may once have been culturally similar to us in their past, they may have since developed to become so different that any degree of understanding may prove extremely difficult. Advanced biotechnology for instance may have allowed them to adapt their own biology to fantastical ends, resulting in them having a very different experience of the world around us than we do.
I’d suggest that in this situation understanding might be easier for the aliens than for us. If they were our intellectual superiors then they may be able to fathom our motivations, languages and culture more easily than we could theirs. To us, such as species could be so advanced that their science, technology and civilisation may be utterly unintelligible, just as our society today would probably be largely unintelligible to a human from 200,000 years ago.
And what if the hypothetical alien species wasn’t biologically similar to us? The confusion would then likely be magnified exponentially.
All life on Earth today has a common ancestor, we’re all offshoots from this original biology, so although life on Earth may look wonderfully diverse, at its most basic level its built on the same building blocks; carbon molecules, liquid water and DNA as the code of life.
Life may not necessarily have to be like this though; we only know of this one kind of life on Earth, so we can’t know either way, but life could be based on alternative chemicals, such as silicon rather than carbon, could use a different code, such as RNA, or could use a polarising liquid other than water.
For instance, Saturn’s moon Titan could potentially house a biosphere based on carbon, but with liquid methane rather than liquid water. Its unlikely, but not impossible, that Titan has any life, let alone advanced life, but organisms based on different bio-chemistry from ours could be possible, and would likely have substantially different life processes and life histories from ours, making mutual understanding even more difficult.
I’ve read of a beautiful fictional account of intelligent life living on Europa in the ocean under its icy surface (I’m trying to find it again!) In the story the Europans were intelligent and had levels of science and technology comparable to our own, but couldn’t see the night sky above them because their world was trapped under kilometres of ice. Consequently they didn’t realise that they lived on a moon, and didn’t realise that there was an entire Universe existing outside of their own world, thus they were inward-looking and parochial. Of course, this is unlikely, but is a great reminder that we shouldn’t assume that all intelligent life views the world as we do, especially if they originate from a world that’s different from our own.
There is of course the possibility that life could be much more exotic than this.
Life could potentially evolve in any pattern of matter and energy that is capable of encoding information and passing it on to subsequent generations. One of the commenters’ from a previous post mentioned the possibility of life existing among the rings of Saturn as “information encoded in the twisting spirals of electrically charged dust creating self-replicating patterns which could evolve and progress in response to changes in either the electromagnetic environment or the physical composition of the ring material itself”.
It could be even more exotic still, how about photino ecosystems living within the hearts of stars, quark biospheres within black holes, or even an entire unseen world-of-life existing within the dark matter component of our Universe? It may sound unlikely, but I’d hesitate to say it’s impossible.
Such exotic life forms could have wildly different conceptions of consciousness and the world to us. An alien species could exist as a colonial organism, or could have hive identities rather than single personalities, could experience time differently or could even exist in different/more dimensions to us. Communication with such bizarre forms of life may be extremely difficult and we may not even recognise the very existence of each other as forms of life.
This all may sound a little far-fetched and fanciful, but our conception of life has been challenged a number of times on Earth, with the discovery of microscopic life and the discovery of extremophile ecosystems, so I’d argue that trying to put limits on the possible boundaries of life may be a foolish exercise.
So far I’ve sounded a bit glass half-empty. Alien life could be completely beyond our comprehension, they may be way too advanced for us to understand, or could be so different from us that any mutual comprehension could be impossible, but there is a beacon of hope though, a mutual understanding of mathematics.
Maths (or math if you’re American) is the basic language of our Universe. Wherever you go, scientists are pretty sure that maths will be there waiting for you us. Maths isn’t a human creation, it exists outside of us, it appears to be a logic that underpins the Universe. If you have two of something, and then add two more, you will always have four. If you take one of these away, then you will always have three, you won’t have five if you’re on Mars, or you want have two if you’re on a space station orbiting Proxima Centauri. Sure, the actual words and symbols we use to describe maths are human inventions, and will differ between cultures and civilisations, but the underlying maths isn’t a human invention, its something we’ve discovered, it’s an inherent feature of our Universe.
So it may take time to initially learn the different symbols used to represent mathematical concepts, but maths should provide a basis for communication with any intelligent alien life, as long as communication is actually possible. From this initial foundation mutual understanding may develop and maths may become the shared language our two species.
It’s hard to know how to judge this scenario. As it all depends on how similar the hypothetical alien visitors are to us. But whilst I do think its possible that many different styles of life may exist in our Galaxy, some like us and some far more exotic, I think that if an extraterrestrial civilisation is interested in examining life on a terrestrial planet orbiting a G-type star, then they probably will be relatively similar to us.
If they seek to find and contact life on a planet such as Earth, then its likely that they may also have evolved on a similar planet, and if they are curious enough to explore the Galaxy and to search for other intelligent species then we may share a similar psychology and culture too. I’m sure such a race would be far more advanced than ours, but hopefully we’d be able to forge a mutual understanding based on mathematics.