Ask Hackaday: If Aliens Came By, Would We Even Notice?

A few years ago we talked about the chance that the first known extrasolar visitor — Oumuamua — might be a derelict solar sail. That notion has been picking up steam in the popular press lately, and it made us think again about the chances that the supposed rock was really a solar sail discarded or maybe even a probe flying with a solar sail. At the same time, Mars is as close as it ever gets so there is a gaggle of our probes searching the red planet, some of them looking for signs of past life.

All this makes us think: if we did find life or even artifacts of intelligent life, would we realize it? Sure, we can usually figure out what’s alive here on Earth. But to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “We know it when we see it.” Defining life turns out to be surprisingly tricky, recognizing alien technology would be even harder.

Failure to Communicate

Let’s start with messages. Dolphins and primates are closer to us than any alien we can imagine, and yet although we have known for a while that dolphins talk to each other, we have no idea what they are saying. It won’t be easier with the aliens.

Drake’s Arecibo message was similar to the test message that few people could decode.

Recently I read Extraterrestrial Languages by [Daniel Oberhaus]. The book tackles the question: can we communicate with ET? There have been many serious attempts to send things to aliens that they could interpret, but some of the efforts have been little more than stunts. After all, it would be tricky to decode an unknown audio or video format from Earth, and you have some idea what it ought to sound or look like. Only on Star Trek does your video from an alien spacecraft come out perfect on your viewing screen.

The more you think about the problem, the thornier it gets. For example, do aliens use sound to communicate? Can they hear the same range of sounds we hear? Do they see more colors, fewer colors, or do they not have vision as we understand it? Moles are blind, after all, and they seem to do fine. Maybe our alien neighbor sees radio waves or senses electric charges, who knows?

Then there’s the frame of reference. If you’ve ever traveled to a land where you don’t speak the native language, you know how frustrating that can be, and yet we have a lot of common ground with the typical Earth resident. [Oberhaus] points to papers that question if even math is universal — a supposition made by many attempts at alien communication. Personally, I think math has to be universal but apparently some smart people say that it could just be something we make up so aliens might have a different reality of math. [Oberhaus] even has a chapter suggesting art might be a more suitable universal language. Given that I only understand about half of human art, I’m not sure I agree.

In any case, it is a difficult task. [Frank Drake] a well-known name in searching for extraterrestrials, created a test message of 551 bits that you could arrange as an image. The number 551 is semiprime, so that’s a clue as to the layout of the bits. Upon sending the message to nine prominent researchers, only one seemed to have any idea it was an image and replied with an image of a martini glass. Some Nobel laureates did no better. One decided the string was an approximation of the number describing the position of electrons in an iron atom. And these were fellow humans.

Thought Experiment

What if you found an alien artifact or stumbled onto an alien transmission. Would you know? After all, if you found, say, a calculator made in another country that didn’t speak your language, you’ll still expect it to have many identifiable components and you could probably figure out its operation. An alien calculator might look like anything, and there’s no telling what a resistor, a capacitor, or an IC would look like even assuming it uses analogs of those. The same goes for a transmission. Even though there are many types of digital and analog modulation in use by humans, you have some idea of what you are looking for and what the result will look like or sound like when you are done.

Our challenge to you, then, is twofold. If an alien artifact dropped from the sky, what would you do with it? This would be the most amazing reverse engineering job ever. You could assume nothing and you probably only have one priceless copy to experiment on. A 20 cm gray cube (or large black monolith or a giant solar sail) lands on your desk. Do you open it? How? What if it is full of some gas that is essential for its operation? What if it is extremely radioactive inside? What if it is made to detonate if tampered with? None of those things are terribly far-fetched. What’s more is, how do you know the cube isn’t the alien itself or its spacesuit or vessel? Opening it could be considered quite unfriendly!

The second challenge: A signal comes in and you are pretty sure it is from an intelligent alien. How do you decode it and what would you do to respond to it? Turns out that [Drake’s] test message was eventually published to the public and an electrical engineer in Brooklyn successfully decoded it. So we expect Hackaday readers could do well at this task.

Tell us your approach to either or both in the comments.

112 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: If Aliens Came By, Would We Even Notice?

  1. Maths as we commonly use it is definitely entirely made up, its a set of rules that allow us to do things like count big batches and communicate values conveniently. Just have to look at say base 8 maths to see how far from our normal everything becomes, while remaining mathematically perfect. So even if we take the view logic is universally applicable, and mathematics is part of pure logic so must also be universal the way you represent it may be nonsensical to others.

    Then there is the fact a vast amount of the maths we rely on isn’t actually proven mathematically from the base principles to be correct, we just have many many years using and refining these often logically and experimentally derived but unproven estimation methods.

    Number theory is for me perhaps the most interesting branch of mathematics, really eye opening how much is taken for fact with weak or no proof but that it has worked well enough in human settings, and actually stepping up the proof chains from the most basic principles is a really frustrating but satisfying thing. Though still only proves that x is entirely consistent within the set rules we invented to define the obvious logic of basic arithmetic…

    So if we would notice alien life is a very good question, to which I would have to say yes and no. If we take the currently most respected assumptions/estimates about the size/age of the universe /required complexity chemically for the evolution of life/evolution as a concept itself, etc then it is a mathematical certainly somewhere out there conditions will be similar enough to produce (or have produced) life we would immediately realise is life, being very like our own.

    But the odds of encountering life we won’t notice exists are far greater I would suggest (though you also have to really nail down how you define life, as in human context something could be clearly sentient but perhaps not considered alive, or as lacking in individual thought processes as an ant yet considered definitely alive) – heck we may well already have missed the obvious in hindsight evidence of such life. Just have to look at how many new species and unusual lifecycles we have started to find in the oceans in recent years for example, and how little we understand many of the lifecycles of creatures on the surface of our own planet, despite their familiarity and similarity to us…

    1. “mathematics is part of pure logic so must also be universal the way you represent it may be nonsensical to others.” maybe they will know if this is true. Bertrand Russell nearly destroyed the fundamentals of Math by going down this rabbit hole. His massive book takes a couple hundred pages to get to 1+1 =2.

      But yes. Comparing notes with aliens capable of space travel would be fascinating and should not be difficult. For example expressing the period of a planet in terms of masses and distances will be a universal. Could they have something completely different from matrix math and complex numbers yet get the same conclusions? So many questions.

    2. > Then there is the fact a vast amount of the maths we rely on isn’t actually proven mathematically from the base principles to be correct, we just have many many years using and refining these often logically and experimentally derived but unproven estimation methods.

      Sounds more to me like you’re talking about physics.

        1. Or vice-versa. Look at the oldest Greek geometry where everything is in terms of relationships and balance and harmony, perfection and infinities. But no numbers. When a person is tasked with building a structure, the required lengths and sizes of materials can be determined with the tool of geometry (through ratios) more quickly and better than making everything oversize then chipping into shape. What cabinet makers call “kerfing it in”. Would finding a relation between the position of a beam balanced on a fulcrum versus how many chickens are roosted on each end be physics or math?

          Anyway, to fundamental a subject to be described in a HaD lead-in. I wish they could leave off the authoritative sounding claims in these stories.

        2. Not really, actually. Physics runs *ahead* of mathematics quite often – handwaving things that aren’t rigorously correct (renormalization, the Dirac delta function, even more recently the double copy methods) because even if it doesn’t entirely make mathematical sense, it leads to the right experimental answer anyway. Usually takes a number of years for math to catch up.

          I mean, it’s a heckuva lot more accurate to call math theoretical physics (which… is both hilarious and so, so true) than the reverse.

          In terms of relative solidity of the two branches, math is *miles* ahead of physics. And, I mean, the basic idea that physics requires math is… not particularly well grounded. There’s a *huge* amount of physics you can generalize purely by the results of an experiment, with no referent to math at all.

          1. But you cant draw any meaningful information from an experiment without mathematics, the pure number theory/theoretical physics to prove an observed result is correct, and should always be correct under any condition is completely different from the other elements of maths, which must be applied to generate meaningful experimental data, and fit that data to a model for later use.

          2. “pure number theory/theoretical physics to prove an observed result is correct, and should always be correct under any condition”

            But you can’t say that. A law (which is what you described) is only correct to the limit of you ability to measure, which can never be perfect. Which is why the infinities in math are useful, but are limited in the real world.

          3. That is coming at it from different sides, the pure theory work builds step by step of pure logic, the experimentals jam results into a mathmatical model that seems to match. Both involve maths, but of very different sorts.

            Now that model can and has in some cases been proven to match with the pure logic steps, or been proven to be correct under x conditions with y extra details. And if the pure logic side gets said result than currently we have to consider it correct, and always correct – until we discover that pure logic we built this all from actually has no relation to the universe we live in…

          4. “But you cant draw any meaningful information from an experiment without mathematics,”

            I literally have no idea why you would think this. It almost sounds like you’re confusing “mathematics” with “language.”

            But I don’t need *math* to get information from an experiment, because I can *encode* the math in the experiment, because – obviously – the universe can do math. I mean, this is actually how most precision experiments work – instead of trying to measure some quantity to extreme precision, you design the experiment to null out the constant, just giving you the remainder. I don’t need to teach someone the concept of “subtract,” because I let the experiment do it for me.

            What about the basic concepts of say, counting? Again, the Universe has done that for us perfectly fine via quantum mechanics: elements, absorption lines, etc. *are* quantized in counting intervals. So you could easily design and deliver an experiment which, for instance, communicates the basics of a number system via, for instance, spectroscopy.

            As an example, there’s the famous example of Feynman describing the construction of an experiment to allow a distant alien civilization to figure out the human concepts of “left/right” and “matter/antimatter.”

          5. > I literally have no idea why you would think this [that experiments depend on math]

            Because it’s true. You can’t detect electrons directly, you use tools that depend upon mathematical transforms to translate signals from outside of your sensory range into your sensory range.

  2. It’s been pointed out before that we are unlikely to recognise alien transmissions because they would almost certainly use a modulation / encoding that is indistinguishable from noise. In only a couple of centuries of human signalling development, we’ve gone from painfully inefficient methods to today where a large fraction of communications is encrypted and wideband code division encodings are becoming increasingly common. Both (good) encryption and code division multiple access schemes have the property that, unless you have the key to decode a transmission, it is indistinguishable from background noise. Optimal compression methods also have this property, because it optimises the information density of a message.

    It is likely that alien civilisations would adopt these technologies for similar reasons that we do; especially something like wideband CDMA, because it has properties such as resilience in the presence of interference and gradual degradation as the spectrum becomes more crowded that make it superior to earlier methods, and also compression, because it improves spectrum utilisation.

    We are therefore likely to dismiss any alien message as random noise.

    1. That’s not entirely true. Neither CDMA or encryption mask a transmission in the background noise. If it were true there would be no need for the Billions spent on SIGINT every year by the US and it’s allies or its adversaries for that matter.

      If you were unaware of encryption or various forms of encoding/modulation/multiplexing a signal might not be distinguishable from other signals or even the noise floor, but once you are aware of the concept, there are means to observe signals that utilize these methods.

      I think a decent framing assumption for alien life in general would be that any civilization that has mastered a technology would be familiar with the iterative steps required to achieve mastery. Presume that they will have mastered BLOS communication in some form and therefore will recognize the concept in action.

      1. At interstellar distances, SSFH, for instance, would be so far below the background noise as to be unrecognizable and undetectable. And quantum comm anyone? Or something we haven’t even thought of?

        An authority in RF SETI said years ago that with our RX technology we would only be able to hear our own RF leakage from a puny ONE light year away and another scientist, an RF SETI skeptic like me, pointed out that with fiber optics and our progressively lower power, more efficient comm, we’d eventually not be able to hear ourselves at all.

        Then, there’s the different civilization technology status curves, they have to be close to each other. A civilization 1000 years behind us couldn’t hear us and one 1000, 1 million, 1 billion years ahead might be able to hear us, but not us them and if they are smart, they aren’t intentionally high power directional beaming their presence into an “unknown neighborhood.”

        So, the fact that we haven’t “heard” anything using RF SETI doesn’t surprise me at all and does not prove in any way that no one else is out there. I think the best way to detect carbon based ET life is via atmospheric analysis. Detecting intelligent life in that way is another technology curve timing problem since advanced, highly efficient civilizations using fusion power for instance may not be putting anything unnatural at detectable levels into their atmosphere.

        1. If a signal is way under background noise and you know nothing about it, the modulation scheme it has doesn’t matter. It’s undetectable anyway.

          “And quantum comm anyone?”

          I don’t think this phrase means what you think it means. A quantum communications link wouldn’t offer anything to an alien civilization in terms of undetectability. A quantum link just means it’s not decipherable, not undetectable.

          “they aren’t intentionally high power directional beaming their presence into an “unknown neighborhood.””

          We’re farther on the technology curve than you think – for instance, we know enough to know that while of course you *could* hide your civilization, it would seriously limit what you’re able to do. Period. No way around it. For instance, if your civilization spans a solar system, it would take *serious* effort to hide your communications over that scale, just because of diffraction. Yeah, you could pepper your system with relays, but the amount you’d need on a solar system scale means you’d be exposing yourself in different ways. And yeah, you could imagine transmitting via something other than electromagnetism, but that’s a *massive* energy cost to pay (again, enough that you’d similarly be exposing yourself).

          I could definitely believe that we wouldn’t be able to *interpret* any alien civilization’s signals, but if they’re way up the Kardashev scale (and actually *using* it) we’d be able to tell they’re there.

          “I think the best way to detect carbon based ET life is via atmospheric analysis.”

          If you’ve got a super advanced civilization terrified of discovery why in the world wouldn’t you think they’d be able to block atmospheric analysis of the planet?

          1. I think there are possibilities in areas we have not been able to explore yet. For example large arrays of small receivers and transmitters spread out in space that work like synthetic aperture. transmitting power is very low and below the noise except at the destination where all the phases align.

            Basically if you can make solar system spanning instrumentation, many things become possible. Including highly detailed views of your stellar neighbors.

          2. ” For example large arrays of small receivers and transmitters”

            Yeah, that’s why I mentioned peppering the system with relays (which is *far* easier than ludicrously large apertures everywhere in the system). In that case you’d still be putting yourself at risk due to detection via, say, light scattering or dimming. Hence the “alien megastructure” idea with Tabby’s Star.

            I’m not saying that a civilization couldn’t *do* it. It’s just that they’d have to undertake a massive concerted effort to *avoid* detection, whereas it’s, well, just easier to splat power out. So a civilization would have to be quite concerned about being detected – which would limit what they *could* do.

          3. Yes, I agree. The precaution of avoiding detection seems natural for any life that evolved due to competion. As well as very stealthy exploration. Otherwise one can expect to see the Von Neumann Machine style of exploration and resource extraction that visits ever star in the galaxy in a couple hundred thousand years. All an aggressor does is follow one home and jackpot. (I thought Carl Sagan was insane.)

  3. I honestly don’t know.
    Assumption A) The device is a bomb. Therefor, it must be analyzed somewhere “safe”…like the desert
    Assumption B) The device may be biological. In this case, using X-Ray or something may yield insight on what it is, but may destroy it in the process
    Therefore, I would put it on my nightstand and not tamper with it until it does something…maybe.

  4. With a sample size of one world it is difficult to say with any certainty what might be out there. How might aliens differ from us?

    But… they evolved in the same universe where the same laws of physics and logic apply.

    Read up on artificial life simulations. When the rules are set up such that predation and or parasitism are possible those things evolve quickly. It stands to reason that any alien biosphere will have the same concepts of competition for resources, predation and parasitism driving evolution very similar to on Earth.

    I’ve read that it is believed the human eye evolved to find a venomous snake in the grass before it’s owner gets bitten. No doubt species that are specifically snake or grass exist only on Earth but the same concepts that make that body design work here would apply elsewhere.

    The article offers an example that an alien “eye” might see in radio waves. Radio waves are just really low frequency light. We have animals on Earth that can see in different wavelengths than ourselves such as infrared or ultraviolet. But might something be THAT different?

    To see in radio waves one would need light sensitive structures that are resonant at much longer wavelengths. That would mean structures that on humans are microscopic would need to be from centimeters to several meters long to be efficient. And even if this can be worked around imagine processing a radiowave image. With all the standing waves and reflection effects. This would be a much more complicated image than what our eyes present to our brains. They would need to evolve a more complex brain requiring more calories just to see.

    Or they could go the other way and see in X-rays. But those do damage to us. Likewise they would probably do damage to many of the other sorts of molecules that alien life might develop from.

    So perhaps vision with a range of wavelengths similar to if not entirely identical to our own is a universal limitation that physics applies to all life in the universe.

    And that’s just vision. If other aspects of Earth life are evaluated in the same way we might find that much of how we developed was because that was how we had to, not a random choice among infinite possibilities. In that case maybe alien life at least in some ways won’t turn out to be as alien as we might expect.

    Not to say we are going to discover a universe of English speaking humans with funny foreheads. I mean, just look at Octopuses. Certainly some things can vary greatly.

    1. I think the writer was more considering: what if this proposed alien life form evolved in a place with an opaque atmosphere, and has nothing like a visual apparatus? Maybe they communicate by sound like bats, or by transmitting electrical pictures the way that many fish receive electrical pictures? Or puffs of whatever fluid is available, or by rapidly moving a working fluid to produce schlieren that illustrate their ideas? We might not even have a suitable expression medium for a communicator if our air density is several orders of magnitude off what their equipment is expecting for its attempts at communication.

      (It’s unlikely that they’d communicate or use what we consider ionizing radiation precisely because it’s ionizing: violet/near-UV is about the shortest wavelength that’s likely to be viable, because anything shorter than that destroys the receiving system. But maybe they have a way around that. Our eyes detect photons when they briefly strip an electron out of a double bond, which alters a molecule as it rearranges into a more thermodynamically stable form. Maybe they could do something similar with deep UV?)

      1. “I think the writer was more considering: what if this proposed alien life form evolved in a place with an opaque atmosphere, and has nothing like a visual apparatus?”

        Follow the consequences through. If the planet has an opaque atmosphere, that means the surface receives no energy from its sun in optical wavelengths (well, infrared-ish to ultraviolet-ish). Those wavelengths are “special” because 1) they’re where most of the energy from a long-lived, stable star is located and 2) they’re the size of molecular bonds.

        Yes, you *could* have a chemosynthetic life setup, but the energy available there is tiny compared to that from the star. So now imagine what happens if a life form evolves to utilize whatever’s in the atmosphere that’s making it opaque. Suddenly the atmosphere becomes *less* opaque, more energy is available, those life forms take over, and within a few million years the atmosphere’s not opaque anymore.

        Visual, auditory, olfactory, and pressure-sensitive senses are going to be universal. If you think about it, they’re the basic consequences of life needing energy, a gaseous atmosphere for heat retention, and chemistry.

        Sure, you can *imagine* wacko situations like goop evolving in a rogue planet with no star. But any reasonable estimate of the time it’d take to randomly get active complex molecules forming by accident is going to be ~billions of years, which implies nuclear fuel, which implies stars. Life on Earth evolved using the 4 most common reactive elements in the Universe, using the simplest polar molecule as a solvent. It’s not that you can’t imagine “life” in other configurations – it’s that in all likelihood, Earth-like life would outcompete them in a heartbeat, because it’s simpler.

    2. Interesting, but you are caught up in scale arguments as well – what does it matter if for efficient catching of the radio waves they see by the structures in their ‘eye’ has to be bigger, they could dwarf blue whales in the right environmental conditions. Heck there is no reason lifeforms in space couldn’t dwarf stars, lots of reasons its improbable, but its far from impossible… Also just because you perceive a certain wavelength usefully doesn’t mean you have to catch more than a tiny fraction of it – our eyes are garbage compared to a cat’s at that for instance, so a much smaller sub optimal for the frequencies used ‘eye’ is quite possible, maybe even desirable if there is such an abundance of the input frequencies catching them all would just mean extra signal processing needed…

      Also standing waves and reflections happen in regular ol’ light too, its not a problem if that is your normal and suited to the environment you live in. Heck one of the things that makes some (particularly older) CGI look fake is that we don’t see enough or the right reflections in the less reflective objects. Then consider things like Moire patterns, or any optical illusion really – no impact on our ability to exist with our current sight at all.

  5. It depends on what the aliens are here for and how much more advanced they were than us (or not!) at the time they sent their signal / robot / expedition / invasion force.

    Sending a signal for others to find would probably be using the crudest modulation / encoding possible, probably something similar to a CW transmission. If the goal is for others to decode it, even if humans don’t decode it correctly, a nonrandom CW signal would be something where it would be obvious that it’s a transmission of some sort. Picking up accidentally radiated transmissions is a longer shot.

    If they’re exploring, presumably aliens would have some sort of resource limitations even if it’s a “post scarcity” society. So it would make sense for them to send some sort of robot. The main question is how big the robot would be. If it’s the size of a van and needs to orbit the earth, that would probably be pretty obvious. If it’s the size of a Hot Wheels van, maybe not – but I’d wonder how something that small would have enough power to transmit a signal across light years. The robot might also be designed to deliberately make contact – it would take some pretty serious resources to just establish contact in person, unless the aliens have some sort of cheap FTL travel.

    It’s hard to imagine the aliens wanting to trade. The cost of shipping is just so high that it’s hard to imagine this making economic sense, unless again they have ridiculously cheap FTL travel.

    The remaining case is if they wanted to conquer our planet for themselves because it meets some specific need for their habitat. Unless the aliens were the size of paramecia (hard to imagine intelligent life being that small, not enough room for brains) – we’d definitely notice that.

    1. to be honest, some apps on my phone are so non-logical in the way they work. And the fact that I need to “press” on buttons that aren’t actually there or swipe from left to right with or without touching the edges . But only if the damn thing registers my fingers, which is a problem on a very cold day. So even with technology that is considered normal I’m struggling to make use of it.

      Though, considering that a phone (and it’s apps) do not come with a decent manual at all. So the fact that you need to figure out everything yourself (because if you ask, people laugh and make fun of you), makes is a perfect training device for anything that “alien” or “new” that is to come. Or… it could backfire and makes us hesitate in trying anything new and just shoot the aliens as soon as they attempt to say hello creating an intergalactic war of some kind.

      Maybe I’m just getting old…

    2. Well, yes. They had already seen them on Dick Tracy’s wrist watch radio and then his wrist watch 2-way TV set. “What is that?” “This? It is a smart phone.” “Oh, like Dick Tracy. Kinda big isn’t it?”

    3. They would say its a very pretty display, how did you make a CRT that small, or a battery so light, but what does it do exactly? As in 1950 a smartphone would be almost entirely unusable, there is nothing to connect it to, and the thing is designed, its sole purpose really is to be forever connected…

      Even with having a magical Dr Who style connection to the infrastructure of today it wouldn’t I don’t think phase most people of the 1950’s… Shock at how small and powerful it is, how superfluous libraries now are etc. But it is only really that, most of the concepts of electronic displays, wireless data have been around and in the common understanding for decades, its just a very much more compact version of logic they are using day to day. Go back to 1900ish maybe the average person would be completely lost with it, as pre WW1 radio’s are not exactly cheap and common, and the idea of capturing moving images exists but is also far beyond the normal folk’s pocket, and computers/calculators are generally made of grey matter and paper…

  6. Ok. Whoever makes it all the way to our planet has solved all the problems our current knowledge about physics limits us to solve such a task. So it is save to assume that that live form is far beyond our abilities.

    And this ends in only one conclusion: if they want us to do something with them, we will be allowed to do it by them.

    OTOH, which sane live form would want to come to us? I mean, look at our population. We are on the best way to commit suicide simultaneously denying it. On a social level, well, were are we as a whole planet? I think: We get an F.

    Oh well. Whisky.

    1. “Ok. Whoever makes it all the way to our planet has solved all the problems our current knowledge about physics limits us to solve such a task. So it is save to assume that that live form is far beyond our abilities.”

      Rather monodirectional thinking. Turn it around and we are the alien visiting. Are we still behind whatever is out there?

      1. It’s *incredibly* unlikely we’d be able to build something that would survive a trip of thousands of years and be anything other than an inert lump of metal when it got there.

        1. So don’t design it to survive a trip of thousands of years, design it to be maintained and send some maintenance crew. If you’re long enough lived a few thousand years could be on the same scale as exploration by sail boat was for medieval and renaissance ‘explorers’.

          1. How is the effort to maintain a technological maintenance staff any different than building technology to last thousands of years? It’s literally the same problem.

            I should note I never said it was impossible for anyone. It’s just way beyond what humans can do now, which is what the original comment was.

        2. I think you underestimate our capabilities. It would be a challenge similar to the space race for the moon, or lofting of the ISS. But we have come a very long way in that time, enough that with the political will and some co-operation internationally it would I think be very possible to do so. Mostly because of recent improvements in computers and robotics making long term maintenance and reprocessing of nuclear fuel very possible.

          Just stupendously expensive, many years in the construction, and probably, with the constant improvements in space telescopes and the like rather likely to be almost pointless by the time it arrived..

          1. The Moon and the ISS would be *nothing* compared to this. You’re talking about designing something to last decades-to-centuries with essentially no human involvement. Nothing we have is comparable to that. Building electronics just to *survive* that long on their own is hard enough – building them to survive for that long in a heavy radiation environment is something we have absolutely no experience with.

            I’m not saying it’s *impossible*. Far from it. It’s just way beyond anything we’ve ever done at the moment. We haven’t even been *doing* long-term radiation testing on things that long.

          2. Not really, the scope of the moon landings or ISS when they were first started is just as much reaching beyond the established comfort zone of engineering. Nothing with the intended lifespan or scale or ISS in orbit had ever been done, and the moon landings, humans hadn’t even touched space meaningfully when they started, and the number of successful humans in space by the time they first succeeded was still bugger all…

            The knowledge was there, or at least well on the way to sufficiently developed by the time the projects were underway, but its still completely beyond anything done before. This isn’t really any different, long term radiation and computer/robotics has been researched for decades now, the nuclear reactor combinations we would need to use to for longevity a few decades more, big old launch capacity and assembly in orbit has been done for ages too, and looks to be getting both bigger capacity and cheaper very rapidly at the moment, ion based thrusters to make the journey quicker with sustained thrust, and of longer endurance with long term vector control is more of a sticking point, but still working builds exists.

            Absolutely nothing about the concept is beyond our proven technology level, its just having the money/time/political will to actually do the combining and refining of these technologies, for a project that won’t really do anything useful for decades minimum, and will be so far beyond a maintenance call it has to be done right first time. Sure in 20 years time having a really high end space telescope and radio receiver at ever increasing range will be useful enough and that increased range will help for many observeations even as local telescopes improve for some decades to come, but with 100 years or more being the expected transit time the real crux of scientific gains we may hope for find are so far in the future nobody is going to bother funding it now…

          3. “Nothing with the intended lifespan or scale or ISS in orbit had ever been done,”

            Not really. Intended lifespan of the ISS was 15 years, which scale-wise is only a minor step up from previous stations. And, well, by mass, the ISS is about a 3-fold jump over Mir. That’s an evolutionary jump, not revolutionary.

            The moon shot was similar, and of course, it was an evolutionary program to begin with. It was “Apollo 11” after all, not “Apollo 1.”

            “Absolutely nothing about the concept is beyond our proven technology level,”

            I don’t even know what you’re talking about here. Are you talking about sending a probe to another star that takes 100 years to make the trip? Nope. Accelerating something to 4% light speed is way beyond proven technology, and then having it survive being bombarded by dust grains travelling at 4% speed of light for 100 years is obviously not proven (hence the reason there were studies about it for Starshot!). Even the power situation is awkward – you’d obviously need a different RTG design. Conceptual, sure, but not proven. Or something that takes 10k years to make the trip? Definitely not.

            I think we’re just disagreeing on “can we conceive of it” and “can we build it right now.” We do not need a *revolutionary* leap in technology to do it, no. But we would need several *evolutionary* leaps. And from a “time” standpoint it wouldn’t make sense – something like Starshot is far more likely to reach another system first, just because we *suck* as a species at just going ahead and building some massive project straight from the go. We’re much better at evolutionary engineering, and so something that’s got a 100-year timescale will take forever to develop, whereas a 20-year timescale is much more practical.

  7. “there’s no telling what a resistor, a capacitor, or an IC would look like even assuming it uses analogs of those”

    Good luck getting to low earth orbit without electricity. Where’s there’s electricity there are resistors and capacitors.

    The poster talking about base 8 is confusing arithmetic and mathematics. Mathematics doesn’t care about base.

    This is one of HaD’s most childish articles.

    1. Just because you have some device that exhibits resistance or capacitance doesn’t mean it looks like our resistors are capacitors. In the 1940s a resistor looked a lot different than an SMD resistor today and even more different than a integrated resistor on a piece of silicon. We also assume that they would use electricity and not something else that we don’t even think of using or perhaps they have a technology based on biological or light. Who knows? I guess it depends on the limit of your imagination.

      1. The article said “analogs” of resistors and capacitors, and you bow to my point by talking about resistors and capacitors, not “analogs” of them, whatever that might be.

        Math still doesn’t care about base. Arithmetic does.

        Again, good luck getting to low earth orbit without electricity. Navigating a spacecraft with gravity driven water computers? C’est pour rire, n’est-ce pa?

        Star Wars is not real.

        1. Why should an alien species need use of electricity? Maybe they can do all the math in their thought nodules and control their craft with their thing manipulators.

          1. @Pat
            Who says it’s faster? I can stand up and balance myself on my toes, I can use those toes to cross uneven terrain, have you seen what ‘faster’ has given us so far? Doesn’t seem very fast to me.

          2. What are you talking about? Your body uses electricity for all of those things. Your nervous system reacts to changes in milliseconds. Chemical signalling is *much* slower.

          3. @Pat, no one is suggesting aliens evolved without one of the fundamental forces of the universe, only that they may have become space faring without exploiting it in the way we have.

          4. And what I’m saying is that would never happen, because the first time anyone in the civilization *developed* electrical signalling it’d outstrip everything else. And you couldn’t *not* discover it, because it’s already used in the biology.

            There isn’t some weird alternative tech tree out there that avoids electricity. Even if you developed everything as biological analogs, it’d still be using electrical signalling, and you’d obviously accelerate that with direct signal paths

      2. Presumably they still have two ends and the impedance is between those ends? But maybe they could look weird, like resistor packs with 9 pins and 2k between any two pins unless one of the pins under test is the last (common) pin. Maybe make that three-dimensional if aliens are not limited to making their circuits in flat planes connected in only a few places. Or make components that deliberately incorporate both impedance and inductance rather than trying to make discrete components as ideal as possible. See what happens when you give human circuits to an A-Life to optimize. There are examples of the A-Life using electromagnetic effects to co-ordinate two otherwise isolated circuits in order to achieve stability. Humans aren’t clever enough for that sort of nonsense, no disrespect to the people who make our lovely technology work at such small scale today.

      3. How do they look different? I can measure the potential drop across them and the current flow, and hey look, they’re proportional, so it’s a resistance.

        “We also assume that they would use electricity and not something else”

        The only likely alternative would be optical processing or something like spintronics, both of which would still resemble electronics in some way (because both of them still involve electrons, after all). Anything else (like chemical) would just get murdered on a speed basis. I mean, our nervous system’s electrical because biological (chemical) signaling would be way the hell too slow.

        “I guess it depends on the limit of your imagination.”

        No, human imaginations are *way* more insane than physics allows for. Totally *wish* it were true that there was this possibility out there of magic new technology that’d look totally different than now, but… there just isn’t. We’re *much* farther along the “ultimate technology curve of the Universe” than people think, at least in terms of the “fundamental hardware” portion.

        Now, design and software wise, we’re still infants. If someone hands me an alien computer, the surprising part isn’t going to be the technology itself. It’s going to be the software – you’re going to have a system that’s *massively* reconfigurable, robust, and redundant. That’s the big frontier left for us, not the fundamental technology.

    2. As Al says you may not recognise them, and why would they have to have electricity? We have built completely functional gravity powered marble/water computers, clockwork mechanical computers, and maybe they would just be better mental mathematicians than any human and never have needed to invent the slide rule even… With all their ‘mechanised’ tasks performed organically – “program” the ants to do your bidding!

      There really is no requirement for electronics. You are expecting electronics because that is what we do… Assuming our fundamental understanding of the universe is correct they will have undoubtedly have experienced electricity in some form or other, doesn’t mean they have to have harnessed it, or harnessed it in a way at all similar to ours…

      Also I in no way confused arithmetic for mathematics, very clearly stated our commonly used – as in the base we all do basically everything in (though being HAD bound to be some very familiar with binary and a few other bases), that we generally call and teach to our children as ‘Maths’ looks completely different to a different base, while remaining “mathematically perfect”. Just because its mathematically correct doesn’t mean you can see that, if I throw a long string of basic orbital approximations at you, in a language you can directly understand but in the wrong base even knowing its an orbital approximation you might never work out which one of the many trajectories or orbital objects I was trying to point you to. Or even more simply what value does the “13” received actually have? well its obviously not base 2 etc, but you have no idea if its base 5, or 4, or even base 8 billion, in which case its one heck of a big number by our reckoning having gotten to the ‘tens’ column at all.. And anything we detect won’t (or at least is stupendously unlikely to be) in a language we can understand anyway. So that “13” would just be random wingdings characters lost in the rest of the white noise most likely, we wouldn’t even notice it was there…

      1. And don’t forget that both Newton and Leibniz invented Calculus electricity. However, I do doubt that launch to orbit could be accomplished without electricity.

  8. And what can we say to them that they don’t already know?

    And what if we think 10X slowly than they?

    I don’t think they will be very interested in talking to morons…

    Don’t forget that our “rationality” works by… making us do exactly the same thinks as any other animal in planet Earth (mating, fighting, killing, having children and dying) Oh! And trying to delude ourselves in the process. Not very interesting, in the end.

    We are no much more than chimpazes who talk.

    1. If they have become electronic versions of themselves, then they might think a million or more times faster – and better. This will certainly be true for humans. A million times faster is about 12 days per second. You can certainly multi-task and throttle up and down depending on the situation. Living for one year in real-time will be over a million years in “head time” (probably much more) at full speed. I hope the games and sims are good.

      If they are cybernetic I would expect them to appear to evaluate and act instantly. During an instant’s hesitation they can have done research and simulations and held conferences and meetings and decided you are a potential threat or hindrance and launched the Menschenjaggers.

      Or they might be hitching rides on Von Neumann Machines and not even know how they work.

      So far, it looks like there just are not any out there who can travel.

      1. You can speed up your brain, but you can’t speed up the universe. Chemistry, manufacturing, etc. will all still happen at seconds/minutes/hours scale. You can simulate something all you want, but it would still take them macroscopic time to analyze DNA, for instance.

    2. “And what if we think 10X slowly than they?” Or what is they think 10X slower than us? Sentient plants whose brains work strictly chemically, day and night seem like a strobe light and they live for thousands of years. To creatures like this we would seem like a flash in the night.

      1. Can we even really be sure the plants on this planet are not sentient now? We have seen signals propagate through root networks of multiple plants, and many other interesting phenomena around them, perhaps the entire forest really is/was before we ruined it a sentient entity that was just too slow for us to notice… Heck maybe even individual plants are, just because we haven’t ever found something we comprehend as a thinking organ in them doesn’t mean for sure it doesn’t exist..

        1. It really could be, the networks of fungi and plants in a forest are pretty complex, and can send signals all through it, who knows what the forest is “thinking”.

          1. Indeed, I doubt its sentient by any measure we would comprehend, but the complexity of the networks we have seen demonstrated mean its quite possible it does ‘think’..

    1. I don’t necessarily agree with “If the aliens are capable of visiting us, they are so far ahead of us”, but let’s set that aside. Insects are fascinating, and if we would find alien insects that would be even more fascinating.

    2. I see where G’kar is coming from but I’m not sure I fully buy into that reasoning. I can see how that might apply to an entity like in the clip that is just plodding through space minding its own business but I think a species that is deliberately visiting Earth would be different. Plenty of humans enjoy studying insects and I’m sure if we found a load of insects on another planet plenty more would be lining up for an expedition (if we had the technology to do so).

      Humans in general have a natural curiosity that encourages us to explore and learn, I think it’s reasonable to assume in most cases that any Alien that has gone to the effort of leaving there own solar system will also have a natural curiosity. It might be possible that they are only leaving to escape some disaster in their own system but if that is the case then why come to Earth? It is only really special in that it has life, if you are just after material resource then the universe is an abundant place with plenty available where you don’t have to risk coming in contact with an alien species.

      I also think there is an augment to say that curiosity is necessary to evolve intelligence but I’m not sure I have enough information to adequately communicate that.

    1. Almost all of Lem’s work revolves around the idea of impossible communication between too-much-alien entities.

      The man was one of the cleverest writers on this planet. It surprises me that, except perhaps for his “Solaris”, he remains almost unknown.

  9. Well if I was an alien species I would just fire a plutonium cube, a cube of Pi, at another planet, when it got there it would be pretty obvious, a cube measured in Pi made of a material that doesn’t occur in nature, not insightful but pretty obviously made by something made by an intelligence.

  10. “Dolphins and primates are closer to us than any alien we can imagine.”

    Perhaps, if aliens really existed, that might be true physically. But it is a statement that is unproven (if not unprovable) regarding the ability of some yet-to-occur scenario of an “alien” communicating with Earthiings.

  11. study our own first; keep studying as many people as it takes,
    when you find an anomoly; you know there has been some visitors,
    visitors with the same re-productive compatibility andor desires as us, (possibly) generations ago.

    or you could just take an ancient history course…
    those ancient greek “deities” had many of the social andor mental deformities andor deliquincies as we are just starting to foster now, due to the prevalence of (and excess use of) social-media and excess life-style altering convienences, eg “hubris” has never been more front-and-center ever; its trending!

    i think the ancient greek history courses imply that there may be more then one type or category, and they might not “like” each other…

    we are just going to have to wait a few more months before the start of the learning process, marked by a declassification of documents authorised and ordered by the current presedent.

  12. This article kind of annoys me. Let me go through the main points:

    “How would we even communicate? Is their primary communication even using pressure waves?! We can’t even communicate with higher intelligence animals on earth!”

    Well, certainly aliens would exist in the same universe as us. And certainly they would evolve rather than spontaneously exist. What would drive their evolution? Because the answer to that would tell you what kind of sensory apparatus are likely on any living being.

    For something equivalent to multi-cellular life, those living beings would probably be able to sense anything calorically easy, at their scale of living, and beneficial for day-to-day living that is available to sense in their environment. Are they near a star emitting a particular electromagnetic spectrum? They can probably “see,” to a certain extent, to take advantage of that omnipresent radiation. Do they move? They probably have some manner of sensing pressure, so they don’t bump into things or move off of cliffs. Do they fuel their energy consumption by chemical means? They probably have some manner of differentiating chemicals, to sort the good ones from the bad or useless ones.

    Any of these senses can also convey information. From the above examples, they could communicate using combinations of electromagnetic radiation (“color” language, like some cephalopods), or by varying pressure on a surface (tactile language, like Braille), or by varying chemicals (chemical trail language, like ant communication). And there’s always an option for a structural language (like a sign language), assuming literally any means of sensing a structure.

    And that’s not even considering non-volatile secondary language. Surely, to become space-faring, these aliens would need to be able to protect the information they create from the ravages of time and space. And yes, this could take many forms. Yes, if they communicated using something like electromagnetic radiation, it would be hard to decipher. But there has to be some analog, mechanical structure changing version that they used before they invented computers, back in the early days of their civilization. Markings, dye, physical sculpture, physical groupings of objects; something obvious. Yes, even “art,” although it would probably be optimized to something more like an ideographic system rather than be akin to walking through an art gallery, since the latter would be stupidly inefficient.

    (And to the last point of the original question/statement, while we haven’t built a Google Translate for dolphins, primates, or dogs, it’s not like we haven’t communicated with them in other ways, more suitable to us silly humans. Like sign language, or a sequence of simple buttons on a floor. Just because we can’t use their own language doesn’t mean we can’t use one of ours!)

    “But then there’s the frame of reference! Their culture could be incomprehensible.”

    Sure. But, to use tools and create civilization, you transform natural environments into artificial ones. The universe is based on entropy, and artificial creations tend to defy entropy – they are not random in sensory appearance, material construction, or time behavior. We may not understand the mechanism by which alien technology works in an abstract, general kind of way, but we should be able to at least differentiate signal from noise in this circumstance. So, an alien calculator would probably not be built on a board of FR4 with color-as-value-marked through-hole resistors and a rectangular, plastic shell. But certainly it would still have a user interface that would let you add two numbers.

    Which brings me to mathematics. Mathematics are universal. Yes, if you try to think about arbitrarily complex mathematics, it might be extremely difficult to reconcile mathematics between two arbitrary sapient inventors of math. But the historic reasons for math – counting, abstractly representing objects and changes between them – make sense as a likely basis for math among other sapient species. So look not at reconciling their differential calculus with ours, but reconciling simple things like unit-based values and mathematical constants. And yeah, Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem is annoying from a provability-of-math standpoint. But you don’t need to prove second-order arithmatic to count or render a specific value.

    And yes, representation of mathematics might change. Base-8 and Base-16 look weird compared to Base-10 if you count up the distinct abstract markings. But that’s a problem of notation, not a problem of the underlying logic. The operator of “addition,” even in abstract algebra, has the same base meaning, to combine members of two sets of numeric ideas.

    “So, if a definitely alien artifact fell on Earth, what would you do?”

    I would observe the artifact for obvious signs of communication. I can’t help it an alien inside gets sick from the UV rays from our sun, or can’t breathe our air (sorry, hypothetical alien). But regardless of the fate of these hapless aliens, I’d stick to non-destructive senses. I’d prioritize looking for static, secondary, non-volatile language – markings of any kind that defy entropy. I’d really hope for a manned mission, so that we could help direct one another in the learning process.

    And I would really expect that any safe, manned mission to have done some prior research on us. Why fly all the way here from some distant part of the galaxy (or further), land safely, hope the inhabitants of this planet don’t shoot you, and then stand there until someone does something?

    Yeah, they could be here to blow us up, but if they are space-faring to the point of planet conquering, why would they give us fair warning before killing us all (without damaging the planet’s merchandise) from orbit?

    And to close, let me ask the reverse question. What do you think an alien would do if the Voyager probe non-destructively crashed on their planet?

  13. There is no evidence that Oumuamua is the shape that is commonly claimed. There are other ways that the recorded signal could have been generated, a combination of geometry and surface albedo, and they are more likely.

  14. “I know it when I see it” in Jacobellis v. Ohio shows the exact problem. The definition of obscenity has certainly shifted since 1964, as has our consideration of what “life” really is.

    What would we think of being contacted by sentient prions? Self-replicating machinery (now a lot more likely than it was then)?

  15. The second challenge, I’ll use the assumption that with advanced communication transmission comes advanced technology, on the back of advanced intelligence. With that advanced intelligence, I would suspect a message in multiple formats, if the right word. This is assuming they wanted to communicate to a lesser species, in intelligence beyond a certain point. In the end, if we received a message, we are likely intended to receive it. I think we would decode it, not for our, but from their brilliance of the group sending said message, whatever form that would be in.

  16. What, EXACTLY, is so hard about understanding the all-encompassing, over-riding truth of the the deep but elegantly simple reasoning put forth by Calvin in one of Bill Watterson’s more famous works:

    “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us”

    It is strictly hubris which makes one even think that it would be possible to detect a life-form capable of inter-stellar travel, or its artifacts, unless that creature wanted us to. In which case, we would, quite possibly, be in deep trouble.

    It was Carl Sagan who pointed out that the inexorable flow of evolution contains one undeniable message: that all higher-intelligence creatures use all lower-intelligence creatures as food. He suggested that, based on this one simple fact, we should perhaps temper our desires to make contact with a species so much more intelligent than we that they have conquered interstellar travel.

    This fact (intelligence; and the related predator-prey relationship) was not lost on H.G. Wells; he was a highly intelligent, deep-thinking individual. Do you not remember that, far in advance of Dr Sagan, H.G. Wells’ Martian creatures, in the 1897 book War of the Worlds, were using us earthlings as their source of food?

    Sleep well.

    1. I disagree for a number of reasons despite respecting most of the people you quote. First of all, not every interstellar traveler is guaranteed to be super advanced or stealthy or malevolent. Those are all assumptions based on nothing. We’ve never interacted with interstellar life, so any assumptions on the results of such an interaction are all equally unlikely. After we make a single first contact, we establish a history against which we can frame assumptions, but until then, all such assumptions are based on human interactions with humans and earth based life.

      Humanity has considered interstellar travel based on blowing up nukes. Try to hide that! Anyone who’s taken the step to make it reality will be flying around out in the open. It isn’t super advanced by our own standards and imaginations either.

      Predator-prey is a relationship on earth due to resource competition and conversion of nutrients. There’s a cat’s chance in a radioactive box that they’ll have the same or different motivations. Furthermore, despite our reality of predator-prey relationships, I for one would love to go exploring the universe just to see it’s beauty and mystery. Any alien would be just as likely or unlikely to do the same. Why assume the worst? If I am willing to travel around while not stomping on local life, there’s a chance an alien which also overcame nature and its harsh indifference might be willing to do the same, or not. I’m not going to make bets on bad results simply because most of humanity has historically made bad decisions.

      1. Not necesarilly “malevolent” of “predatory-prey”: perhaps more like “indifferent” or “ant-foot”, in the sense that they don’t matter at all if they make excessive presure over a bunch of animals like us.

      2. …First of all, not every interstellar traveler is guaranteed to be super advanced or stealthy or malevolent…

        I am completely unaware of ANY GUARANTEES regarding the dispositions, or predispositions, of interstellar travelers (if such exist).

        Your entire train of logic is fatally flawed, to wit:

        Those are all assumptions based on nothing…”
        So, the very fact of having mastered interstellar travel is not proof enough (of any technical superiority) for you? What does it take? (in Latin, (and legalese), there’s a phrase, and concept, called prima facie (evidence). I suggest you familiarize yourself with it.

        We’ve never interacted with interstellar life, so any assumptions on the results of such an interaction are all equally unlikely…”
        (1) I’ve never picked up a red-hot horseshoe straight off the anvil, so I can’t make any assumptions. But, based on the flawless logic offered here. ONCE I HAVE picked up a red-hot horseshoe, perhaps…
        (2) That the sun will rise tomorrow morning is strictly an assumption (forget the precise physics), based on the fact that it always has, within recent memory. Any ASSUMPTION–now, based on science, that it WILL, absolutely rise tomorrow is unlilkely.

        Humanity has considered interstellar travel based on blowing up nukes. Try to hide that! Anyone who’s taken the step to make it reality will be flying around out in the open. It isn’t super advanced by our own standards and imaginations either.”
        WHAT ? ! ‽ THIS is some form of logical argument ‽

        Predator-prey is a relationship on earth due to resource competition and conversion of nutrients…
        And, of course, one can hear your argument–as surely as if you had stated it explicitly (you all but did)–this predator-prey relationship is STRICTLY, and ONLY a phenomenon confined to our terrestrial environment. Once one discards the shackles of this tainted orb, all bets are off as regards what we think we know of the evolutionary process. What’s next? The Theory of Evolution is wrong across the entire universe, and only pertains to the Earth?

        Big clue for you: the Theory of Evolution is just as valid for the entire universe as are all the theories of mathematics and physics.

  17. A foreign space probe or any thing sent to us from another galaxy , or far away place would more than likely work on Einstein’s spooky action at a distance or quantum entanglement. Our technology as we know it now would not be of any hackable ability.

  18. Perhaps they’ll have a policy of non-interference, in which case if they’re advanced enough to get here then they could presumably already be here and we’d not notice because they choose not to reveal themselves to us.

  19. I think there are some relatively safe assumptions that can be made based on any alien’s ability to travel the cosmos. First of all, they’ll have to be able to sense radioactivity, electro-magnetism, x-rays, etc because these are all things that occur naturally across the universe. You can’t get very far (relatively) in space if you stumble into stars and blackholes because you can’t detect them. So whether they can see with eyes or not doesn’t matter. They must have developed such abilities to navigate one way or another or we’d never meet them. These same abilities will mean that when we eventually do meet them, our ability to interact with one another will be pretty much a foregone conclusion. We just have to watch, listen, and try some similar responses to actions. Movement, light, sound, quantum entanglement, these and more can all be observed and analyzed.

    Once we do meet an alien, it will simply be a matter of identifying shared knowledge and then choosing a medium for communication. I think something simple like 1+1=2 is a good start regardless of mathematical theory and its universality because any time you need to survive in natural situations, resource collection becomes a thing. If not for harsh conditions, then at least immediately prior to consumption. Identifying the concept of starting with one portion and increasing it by the same portion results in having twice the portion: I feel like that’s just going to translate. Once we can translate a couple of basic notions, we begin establishing a vocabulary. Once we have enough of an established vocabulary, we can analyze grammar and syntax in whatever form it comes for much more in depth communication.

    We could encounter life so alien that eating and drinking are not requirements of life or sentience, but we live in the same universe with the same laws of matter and conservation of energy (our descriptions of these laws matter less than their actual occurrences in nature), and certain characteristics of nature and life occur simply because of the chemical reactions involved with the constituent elements. Even in lifeforms with different basic building blocks, we can probably model certain chemical interactions to figure out if that blob with 6 appendages is likely to be something that developed or if it’s just a bit of goo that fell into that shape.

    I don’t think this problem is as difficult to solve as everyone wants it to be.

    Now, what would I do with an alien box? I’d watch it. I’d look at it in every spectrum I can, I’d listen to it, I’d feel it for vibrations. I’d check it for any changes I can measure. Then I’d attempt recreating similar changes in something nearby, perhaps the table it is sitting on. Mimicry tends to be something life is more adept at than inanimate objects. Make that first connection then start building vocabulary.

    Alien message? First, re-transmit. Mimicry. That would keep them looking in our direction once they rule out natural reflections. Then I’d start sending my own message using the same method as retransmitting, only I’d append my message to the end of the copied message. Start simple. Something that repeats and grows in complexity: Pi, primes, local pulsar signals, mathematical and naturally occurring things they can see in space around us and them seem most obvious to me.

    1. ” First of all, they’ll have to be able to sense radioactivity, electro-magnetism, x-rays, etc because these are all things that occur naturally across the universe. You can’t get very far (relatively) in space if you stumble into stars and blackholes because you can’t detect them. ”

      Considering how big space is (a hard idea to wrap one’s mind around) “stumbling” may be harder than one thinks.

      1. Calvin–

        “I’ve been reading about the beginning of the universe. They call it ‘The Big Bang’.
        Isn’t it weird how scientists can imagine all the matter of the universe exploding out of a dot smaller than the head of a pin, but they can’t come up with a more evocative name for it than’“The Big Bang’.
        That’s the whole problem with science. You’ve got a bunch of empiricists trying to describe things of unimaginable wonder.”


        “What would you call the creation of the universe?”


        “The Horrendous SPACE KABLOOIE!”

  20. Would we notice them – have we not seen how war of the worlds ends? Will they bring a new plague? More the point, coming all this way not to be noticed seems silly. Expect aliens arriving would be more obvious than the 80’s suddenly happening again.

    Would I open the cube? Hand me the tin opener, or for more robust alien space tech, the blunt screwdriver and club hammer.

    How to decode? Publish on web and sit back.

    1. “…have we not seen [I assume you are referring to some Hollywood hack writer’s very bad movie interpretation of Wells’ very good novel] of how war of the worlds ends? Will they bring a new plague?…”

      No, I haven’t. But I have read how it ends. The original novel did not include the extraterrestrials’ bringing of a plague to us.

      For you enlightenment, try this–

      War of the Worlds
      HG Wells
      ISBN-10 : 1953649165
      ISBN-13 : 978-1953649164

  21. Aliens that can built spaceship =/= aliens that show up here. The ones that we might encounter might be their equivalent version of a space dogs, chimps, robots or telephone santizers. Even if the aliens actually show up, given the travel time the ones that show up here won’t be the same generation that built the ships. Would they have at least the same level of education/experience/knowledge if they all lived on the ship for generations? They could be smarter or dumber.

  22. Allright, here is my thinking about space messaging, not space travel (applies to aliens as much as to us):

    1) Sending anything out there has barely any chances of reaching any intelligent life anywhere, let alone the chances of a response coming back at the exact point of origin, the distances being so big (and expanding), but let’s assume the chances are not null for a minute.

    2) The time scales are so gigantic that expecting a response of any kind doesn’t actually make sense for the sender. It is therefore possible that all messages flying out there (signals or objects) are one way messages and that’s it. And they are not necessarily aimed at other intelligent beings in case the chances of 1) are actually zero.

    3) The most basic one way message is just a “Hello” but that isn’t really useful, it just says: you were not alone, though that is extremely cool already and we probably all want to hear that, though still the chances are nobody else is there to hear it.

    A better message is “Hey I found something and here it is: … ” but is unlikely as probably way too altruistic or not even safe to send out in the wild.

    An even better message is “Hey I am something and that’s what I am: … ” but how does that help anyone, really, in addition to the above concerns.

    And finally “Hey here is how to ‘make’ me: … “… “and by the way I don’t care you can’t decode me, I’ll just land there and replicate myself using and adapting to your environment; and too bad if it doesn’t work, I’m trying elsewhere anyway; but bear in mind that the more and more I do this, the better I get at adapting to just about anything, … so I may even come back one day and thrive on your planet”.

    Whether that thing gives rise to biological life (like we know it) or mechanical (self-replicating machines) doesn’t matter too much as long as it evolves to sentient beings, in the end that’s almost the same.

    Isn’t that the ultimate goal for anyone on the long run (us, the trees, or them), and if it is, why not go for it right away rather than attempting some unlikely chat. They may be asking themselves the same question. Ok, not the trees…

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