If you’ve followed this blog since the beginning, we have covered just about everything we intended to. From ways to better increase, preserve and share our knowledge; to leaving planet Earth and settling elsewhere in the Universe. Imagining all these things happening is mind-boggling, and I hope it’ll inspire people to take action and actually try to make all of these happen. There’s one last thing we should now consider, and that is perhaps the ultimate question. Are we alone? And, as it’s widely believed that we are not, where’s everyone?
That’s the Fermi Paradox. If you’re not familiar with it and aren’t satisfied with the following summary, I recommend you read this article. Basically, people studying the Fermi Paradox are trying to explain why, if as we believe the Universe could be teeming with life, we haven’t found other civilizations yet. Maybe we don’t know how to search – perhaps listening to the cosmos with radio telescopes isn’t the right way -. Maybe extraterrestrial civilizations don’t want us to notice them and they’re doing their best to live unnoticed.
Or we haven’t found any other civilization because there is none. Perhaps there are millions of planets out there harboring complex life, but just a single one with intelligent life, ours. Perhaps we’re alone. An article cited in my previous essay described this possibility: “Life’s early emergence on Earth, only half a billion years after the planet coalesced and cooled, suggests that microbes will arise wherever Earthlike conditions obtain. But even if every rocky planet were slick with unicellular slime, it wouldn’t follow that intelligent life is ubiquitous. Evolution is endlessly inventive, but it seems to feel its way toward certain features, like wings and eyes, which evolved independently on several branches of life’s tree. So far, technological intelligence has sprouted only from one twig. It’s possible that we are merely the first in a great wave of species that will take up tool-making and language. But it’s also possible that intelligence just isn’t one of natural selection’s preferred modules. We might think of ourselves as nature’s pinnacle, the inevitable endpoint of evolution, but beings like us could be too rare to ever encounter one another. Or we could be the ultimate cosmic outliers, lone minds in a Universe that stretches to infinity.”
Quite a depressing thought right? Thankfully, this is just one hypothesis amongst many others, and the probability that we’ll one day encounter intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe is pretty great considering how little we know about our cosmic surroundings.
I think the most probable cause for us not to have find intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe yet is that we just haven’t looked well and/or long enough. We’ve only been searching with radio-telescopes targeting very narrow regions of the visible Universe for the last 50 years or so! The SETI program, which has been running this search, is now considering looking for light messages too; laser pulses for example, signaling some kind of extraterrestrial Morse code. But until we have really done a thorougher search, we can set the Fermi Paradox aside and assume there might be intelligent life elsewhere.
So let’s just do that. Now, if we detect another civilization, how could we establish contact? It’s terribly difficult to imagine how alien our ways of communicating could be to another species which has evolved in a totally different environment; so the biological means of communication will have to be determined in order to be able to “talk” with them. A civilization more advanced than ours would probably figure this out for us, but we might one day have to figure this too if we encounter a technologically inferior civilization.
There’s also one important thing to consider: our safety. Could we survive contact with another civilization? That’s a terrible philosophical question, but unfortunately, I’m not sure we can answer it before finding out for ourselves. So we’re probably better off observing, listening, and keeping our mouths shut so that we don’t attract too much attention. I want to believe we are hopefully the only species capable of “inventing” slavery and genocide, but who knows…
Anyway, if there are other civilizations out there, contact will one day occur. This will either be the end of us (which would be quite sad), or the start of a very complicated interspecies chat. Let’s focus on the latter outcome, since we can’t really do anything about the former.
Right now we base our search on radio signals. There aren’t many other technologies (except light beams) to communicate through the emptiness of space. So we assume that in order to become an advanced civilization capable of interstellar communication, you have to master radio waves. That’s pretty reasonable. We assume that at least some civilizations use radio waves to communicate and that we could listen to these communications if they are “loud enough”. That’s a much wilder assumption, but it seems pretty logical – there aren’t a lot of ways for individuals to communicate over long distances to the best of our knowledge – especially if the civilizations in question are multiplanetary.
Based on these hypotheses, we could communicate with some civilizations provided we find a common language after our initial contact. But what would such a language look like? There are two different approaches to this: you either create a “neutral” language, based on universals such as basic maths; or you use existing languages but you provide an enormous corpus of texts and figures so that the recipient might find sense in it.
A NASA publication looked at the first approach recently: “One way out of this dilemma of deciphering absolutely alien languages that is commonly suggested in the SETI literature revolves around two assumptions: first, that advanced intelligent beings capable of communicating by radio must share with us the same basic logical processes and employ numbers and understand physics at least as well as we do; and, second, that those extraterrestrials anxious to establish interstellar radio contact would deliberately avoid natural languages and develop artificial ones based on presumably shared reasoning processes and scientific knowledge. In 1960 Hans Freudenthal composed a Lingua Cosmica (Lincos) that was, he said, based solely on pure logic and was therefore decipherable by other intelligent beings. Mathematician C. L. DeVito and linguist R. T. Oehrle subsequently proposed that beings from different star systems who have developed radio telescopes, and who therefore must share a basic understanding of mathematics and science, could begin to communicate in an artificial language built on such fundamental scientific facts as the nature of chemical elements, the melting and boiling points of pure substances, and the properties of gases. They asserted that these putative interstellar interlocutors could then progress to such basic physical units as grams, calories, kelvins, and so on, after which, as DeVito and Oehrle put it, “more interesting information can be exchanged.” ”
Carl Sagan, for example, argued that “there is a common language that all technical civilizations, no matter how different, must have. That common language is science and mathematics. The laws of Nature are the same everywhere.”
Indeed, scientific universals such as these would be the only knowledge we have in common with alien civilizations when we first contact them, making those basic facts a good starting point for further communications.
Using natural language, on the other hand, could also be a viable option, as researchers such as Seth Shostak of SETI and Nick Bostrom, head of the Institute for the Future of Humanity at Oxford, have argued. Bostrom said he believes “practically any record that we could create that we could also read would be intelligible to an advanced future civilization provided only that we preserve a sufficient amount of text”.
The two options will probably have to be tested to see what works best, but the “scientific universals” method could be the best one to begin a conversation with an extraterrestrial civilization, before eventually moving on to more complex “natural” language.
So let’s recap: we made contact, survived, and established some kind of communication with another civilization. No small feat.
A mutual interest in discussion could lead to the creation of an Encyclopedia Galactica, a compendium of all knowledge available to our two (or more, if we make contact with other civilizations) species. Coined by Asimov, the term has been used extensively by Sagan, who imagined a network of civilizations compiling all the accumulated knowledge from each species and putting it at the disposal of emerging civilizations as well as to themselves.
Our part of the Encyclopedia Galactica would be the Universal Library I described here. That’s the ultimate philosophical goal of creating a Universal Library: being able to share it with other intelligent species.
Objective knowledge would take a whole new meaning with the Encyclopedia Galactica, since we would have multiple species “fact-checking” for us – and we would be fact-checking for them – by processing our knowledge with entirely different sensory and mind apparatus.
Of course the creation of such a work of art implies the adoption of a common language, or the creation of a translation device to navigate from one civilization’s language(s) to another.
The amount of knowledge stored in the Encyclopedia Galactica would obviously depend on the number of civilizations contributing to it, but would be enormous from the start, even when composed of “just” our knowledge and another civilization’s. Indeed, Steven J. Dick stated that after extraterrestrial contact, “a major task over the next millennium will be to synthesize the knowledge of many worlds.”
And trying to imagine the Encyclopedia Galactica’s sheer size is a profound thought experiment. A character from Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s novel Rama II, delivers this awe inspiring quote: “Just think, the sum of everything all human beings know or have ever known might be nothing more than an infinitesimal fraction of the Encyclopedia Galactica.”
Crucially, shared knowledge and communication with other civilizations would allow a new level of scientific cooperation.
We humans can discuss and meet very easily. Regular air travel allows us to go anywhere on Earth for a rather small amount of money in less than 24 hours, and the internet makes possible instantaneous discussions with basically any other human being. But these are recent revolutions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, you had to wait weeks or even months to get a letter to its recipient and back if he was unfortunate enough not to live in Western Europe. Travel used to be slow and expensive. But as railway networks spread across Europe and transatlantic travel became cheaper, international correspondence and gatherings were made easy and quick, spurring the creation of less geographically limited communities of scientists.
In short each major innovation in communication and transport allowed the scientific community to become larger and thus to make and share discoveries faster. We went from local scientific “hotspots”, like Western Europe during the Renaissance, to a global scientific community today, which any human being can theoretically join. And it’s pretty amazing when you think about it. I’m working on a paper right now with a Japanese colleague; we’re able to chat for free with messaging apps and we can meet anytime we want for relatively little money. We take all of this for granted, but it’s a rather recent and remarquable development.
The same could happen with regular space travel and communications with other civilizations. If we work on building the Encyclopedia Galactica together, why not do research too? It would be the advent of an interspecies and interstellar scientific community, of which the Encyclopedia Galactica would be the embodiment.
The Encyclopedia’s impact would be huge. Knowledge flowing both ways, from us to them and from them to us, would surely make it beneficial for both of our species. Again that’s a topic Sagan’s works explored in some detail. Guillermo Lemarchand from the Universidad de Buenos Aires wrote a great paper which looked into Sagan and his colleague Iosif Shklovsky’s hopes for an Encyclopedia Galactica’s impact: “[Sagan & Shklovsky] speculated about all sorts of scientific and technological results, ranging from a valid picture of the past and future of the universe through theories of fundamental particles to whole new biologies. They also made conjectures that we might learn from the views of distant and venerable thinkers of the deepest values of conscious beings and their societies.”
The arts and science lovers know what it’s like to be awed by the small part of the Universe we live in or by some of Man’s realizations. But it’s hard to imagine how soul-shaking contact and later communications with another civilization, leading among other things to the creation of an Encyclopedia Galactica, could be. We’re talking about a profound change in how we see ourselves and our place in the Universe – a change for the better, I think.
The SETI program is the only one we have in place right now to look for other civilizations. Expanding it seems sound, and isn’t difficult, since it’s a fairly limited approach. Anyway, we have to search harder.
We could also send probes with copies of our Universal Library onboard to interstellar space. Like Voyager’s Golden Records, but on a much larger scale: an up-to-date (via communications with Earth) Universal Library, by definition containing all our knowledge. We could build a kind of ultra-durable (radiation hardened, etc…) iPad for potential extraterrestrials to interact with our Universal Library if they are to encounter one of our emissary probes. They would be great ambassadors for our civilization.
In any case, we’ll have to wait. We’ll likely become a multiplanetary, or even a multistellar species before we detect another civilization.
It’s worth the wait. The possibilities for science after that, not to mention everything else, are endless. It is high time to look for our Encyclopedia Galactica’s coauthors.