11 October 2010


Fernando J. Ballesteros. ET Talk: How Will We Communicate with Intelligent Life on Other Worlds? Springer, 2010.

After looking at the prospects for life in the solar system, and examining the various strategies used to search for extraterrestrial signals, and their success or lack of same (a number of isolated anomalies such as the famous 'Wow' signal but no actual sustained signal) Ballesteros goes into the meat of the book, how to communicate.
This involves looking at the development of language and looking at various non human 'languages' here on earth, and a deeper discussion of the very nature of language, and how it might be encoded.

Of the communication strategies, Ballesteros considers music, as portrayed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind but is forced to dismiss it as being too terrestrial. Instead a plumps for mathematics, and a number of mathematically based artificial languages are looked at. Looking at some of these, one suspects that aliens would have to be very intelligent indeed to be able to decipher them.

Like most writers in these fields, I suspect that Ballesteros underestimates just how alien real aliens would be, and just how alien their 'languages' could be also. Aliens who communicate with a mixture of auditory, visual and olfactory signals for example, or who have working vocabularies of a trillion words. Much of what they might communicate may revolve around aspects of physics and mathematics which are quite beyond us (what would Aristotle have made of the equations of quantum mechanics for example), or aspects of their own lives which would seem obvious and even puerile to them, but which would mean nothing to us (what would Shakespeare have made of Facebook?).

Indeed, as I have argued before, there is no reason to believe that Hertzian radio is common place as seems to be assumed. Marconi's radio telegraphy won the interest of the British government because it was seen as an excellent way of communicating with the ships that sailed from one part of the Empire to another, and not as a means of public broadcasting. Places looking for overland communication were looking at alternative strategies, such as broadcasting through the telephone network, or ground induction wireless telephony, were actually ahead of Marconi's system based on the telegraph's Morse code. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10.1.11

    I read the book and I think Ballesteros do not underestimates how alien aliens can be. I understood that communication can be very hard, maybe even impossible. BUT if there is any chance is thru maths. Otherways, just forget it.