Ever since the fall of the Tower of Babel, people have been struggling to understand each other. Obviously, that's most likely the reason why you are studying at our department. But if the communication between us, earthlings is already so complicated that it requires this immense involvement of the academia, what are our chances at understanding someone from a different star?
The invention of the radio and the dawn of space flights gave this question a spur. Pioneer 10 and both Voyager spacecrafts that have already reached the very border of our Solar system both carry basic information regarding their origin, engraved on metal plates, as well as a record with sounds representing all the elements on earth. Strangely enough, a significant portion of those records is devoted to a speech given by the Un Secretary.
Representation of the message engraved on the Pioneer spacecraft (source: cosmology.net )
Science fiction teaches us that in space you can easily get by with English meekly adopted by all galactic civilizations. But would our real extraterrestrial brothers share the views of the earthbound popular media? And if they did, would it be enough to prove that indeed there exists no intelligent life in space? Most probably neither.
Let's complicate the matter a bit more. Sound has shown to be the best means of communication around, but it's far from being the only one. You're employing another of your senses at this precise moment – vision. Ever wondered why your dog is so eager to smell every blade of grass? That's communication via smells. Even touch is essentially meant to convey messages. Hell, structuralism teaches that basically everything functions as a language, even your breakfast.
To make matters worse, the range of perception may vary greatly among individual species. The wavelengths recognizable by an eye, sound frequencies or receptiveness may all work on completely different levels. Is there anything to be done to at least narrow down the vast array of possibilities?
Luckily, the answer is yes. There is one language that doesn't work on conventions and therefore it is universally understood. Unfortunately for most of us, it's Math. You are free to feel cheated. After all, wasn't your weak understanding of math one of the reasons why you ended up at the faculty of arts? And now someone comes and claims that it is the universal language. Were all those sleepless nights spent over curious volumes of English grammar really for naught? Probably. But only if you wanted to talk to actual aliens, which, to the best of our knowledge, haven't been discovered yet. So yay! Another proof that math is useless. But the possibility of alien intelligence keeps hovering eerily somewhere in the back of the magnificent minds of times past and present. As it is the habit of magnificent minds, naturally, they wanted to be prepared.
If you can still fall back on some vague high school memories, you may remember math classes where you had to decide whether a statement was true or false. What’s important is that through math we are capable of making statements.
In 1960, Hans Freudenthal proposed an artificial language in his book Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse. It was designed to be understood by intelligent life throughout the galaxy and transmitted via radio signals without the necessity of interaction. Teaching someone lightyears away a language would otherwise become truly tedious.
Radio pulses create patterns that establish notions in simple arithmetics such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, equality and propositional logic. Since our neighbors with 13 fingers on each hand could have a hard time finding out what we mean by our silly decimal system, this all goes on in base two, a numeral system consisting of two numbers (0 and 1), which is more likely to be understood, or at least, more straightforward (even the light switch in your room speaks it).
The proposed communication consists of four chapters: Math, which functions as a Lincos dictionary describing patterns by which it functions. Those would be the first to be transmitted. Time, describing concepts such as the past and the future. Behavior, using examples to create language necessary for conversation between individuals. And the last chapter is devoted to space, mass and motion.
Lincos was designed for communication of any kind of information, from simple accounts of the appearance of humans all the way to Shakespeare. Although Lincos remained largely theoretical, in recent years, it has been employed on several occasions to send messages aimed at communicating with extraterrestrial civilizations. Below is an example of how such a message may actually look like.
Love and kisses! (Source: library.thinkquest.org)
Whether this information would help in case you got abducted, remains unresolved. Be the first to report on its success if you ever get the chance! After all, one puny rectal probe and lost dignity is a small price to pay compared to the enormous scientific advance it would generate.
Ollongren, A. Processes in Lingua Cosmica. Sciencedirect.com.
Sakuler, W. LINCOS – Lingua Cosmica. Univie.ac.at
Lincos (Artificial Language). Wikipedia.