Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Music to an Alien's Ears?

Interstellar Message Composition

The SETI Institute has an interesting (but not unexpected if you think about it) department: Interstellar Message Composition. Is Director, presently Dr. Douglas Vakoch, a psychologist, is charged with figuring out how to create a message that would communicate, inform, aliens about Earth and humanity. It is a most challenging task. To help him with this task, he is gathering mathematicians, scientists, and artists.

Mathematically Speaking?

Mathematics is considered, at least by mathematicians, to be a universal language. After all, it seems logical that all higher order intelligent sentient species would need to devellop an understanding of mathematics if they are to explore and apply the physical laws of the universe. If physical laws are constant in the universe, or at least in our region, then the mathematics would be the same as well.

Of course, there are some limitations to communication via mathematics. Sure, we can establish that we are both burdened with trying to solve differential equations. We can show each other that we all know the Fibonacci sequence (though the aliens will, undoubtedly, call it by a different name), but how do we use mathematics to communicate a smell of coffee in the morning, the beauty of a butterfly fluttering between flowers, or the incredible delicious taste of Mochi cream (the best Japanese sweet ever made).

Making Sense With Different Senses

There is a connection between music and mathematics. As explained in the Exploratorium article on the SETI mission to craft a message to the stars
Music is largely rooted in math, a quality that makes it a good candidate as a form of interstellar communication. Aesthetically, humans seem to seek patterns, and many of the melodies we find pleasing often contain some sort of mathematical pattern.
I grant you that music is largely rooted in math. Bach's music, which I love, is very mathematical. Humans are pattern seekers, and it could be argued that most intelligent sentient beings would be likewise. Also, I understand that since a love for music is inherent in humans, generally speaking, informing aliens about music is helping to inform them of what it is to be human. However, what is music to our ears, may be just a strange mish-mash of mathematical patterns to an alien's. To them, at best it could be a strange noise.

What if  the aliens communicate with each other through light - changing colors as well as intensity, or, if they have several light producing organs, via changing the number of lights visible as well as pulse lengths. The mathematical patterns for what passes as music to them - a light symphony - could be very different from the mathematical patterns produced by human musical instruments, or the human voice.  These human produced sounds may not translate well, and have the aliens pondering the meaning behind the weird signal they were receiving. Would they think to convert the radio pulses into light pulses? But how to convert? Which radio frequency or pulse should be three lights blinking twice, and which should be two lights blinking three times and changing color? It would be a meaningless message - a failed message.

And what of the possibility that some aliens may communicate through their version of a sense of smell? As some languages have a limited syllabary which still yields a large number of meaningful words created from combining different syllables in different orders, so could a olfactory language be made up of a limited "syllabary" of orders or chemical signals. Such signals would be difficult to overlap, and so there would be no equivalent for chords, or harmonies. How would our music translate to them? Would they have anything equivalent to music, something they could see our music as an analogy to of theirs, or would our music leave them utterly confused?

Lost in Translation

If there is difficulty in translating between two Earth languages, how much more so would there be between an Earth language and an alien language? Different Earth languages have different rhythms, different patterns, and different idioms. It is difficult enough to translate technical manual (as comedians like to poke fun at from time to time), but to translate poetry can sometimes be nearly impossible. It may very well be the same with sending music out as a way to communicate the Earth and humanity to the aliens. They may find what we send the mathematical equivalent of a babbling fool, or dismiss what they "hear" as mysterious noise that may, or may not, have an artificial origin.

And then there is cultural differences. What if music is only used as a means of communicating aggression, or to mate, or to mark territory? They may see the mathematical roots, and realize it is a message sent by another sentient species, but they may have quite a different interpretation of what it means.

Pardon My Alien Faux Pas.

Maybe that is why aliens have been silent. If some of the reports of UFO are authentic, and there are aliens observing us, they have been rather quiet and evidence has been fleeting - maybe it is because there are such differences between them and us that observation of culture is first needed - so that dangerous faux pas are avoided. Alien cultures can be, and most likely are, extremely different from ours. If communication problems have caused painful faux pas between Earth cultures then it is highly likely that communication problems between us and aliens would be astronomically more difficult and fraught with faux pas.

The desire to communicate with aliens is understandable. It is in our nature to explore. And any aliens venturing out into the stars will be explorers themselves. The thirst for knowledge is hard to resist. However, communicating with aliens is something we should approach with much caution and patience.

Freshman Interstellar Message Composition 101

But if we could communicate, what new and exciting classes would be taught at college!

Interesting stuff, this.


"Douglas Vakoch and Interstellar Message-Making." Origins: Astrobiology: The Search for Life.n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2009. <> Exploratorium.

Image credits: 1. Lynette Cook.  2. Animation Factory

1 comment:

Kitty Lane said...

Aliens would love our music