Extraterrestrial Languages Brian Dillon

Earth to E.T. . . . ? Daniel Oberhaus’s book investigates the history of human efforts to communicate with alien intelligence.

Extraterrestrial Languages, Daniel Oberhaus,
MIT Press, 252 pages, $22.95

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“It seems they’re trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,” says a shirtsleeved technician in a key scene of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), as a volley of sound and light blasts from an alien mothership. The epochal encounter of extraterrestrial and human is here imagined as a spacey stop-start rock-concert rehearsal, as if we’ve snuck in early to see Pink Floyd or Tangerine Dream warming up their Moogs. Each era gets its own imagined version of this meeting, based on its particular tech clichés and visions of the sublime. Forty years later, in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), the visitors’ script is a series of tasteful squid-ink motifs on a smoky glass ground—as if the aliens were pitching a new Sigur Rós album cover. Some care had gone into designing these languages, but they could only ever be fantasies about communication, metaphors for metaphor.

On the other hand, Daniel Oberhaus’s Extraterrestrial Languages is a mostly sober study of real—scientific, mathematical, artistic, and philosophical—efforts to enact this linguistic rendezvous. He starts with religion, the original program to commune with extraterrestrial beings. Science fiction’s positing of alien tongues goes back at least as far as 1638, to the English bishop Francis Godwin’s novel Man in the Moone, whose protagonist is flown by geese to the lunar surface, where he hears a language close to music. But in the absence of otherworldly interlocutors arriving on terra firma, actual ideas for interplanetary communication have mostly focused on sending our own messages out among the stars. The first schemes were pharaonic in scale. In 1820, the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss proposed a vast drawing, executed in Siberia using fields of wheat and rows of pine trees, of the triangle and squares of the Pythagorean theorem—large enough to be seen from the Moon. The French inventor Charles Cros, in the 1870s, wanted to build huge mirrors and burn messages onto the surface of Mars or Venus.

The modern era of Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) begins with the advent of radio, which inevitably is also caught up in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). (Early on, Nikola Tesla thought he heard a memo from the red planet: “It reads: one . . . two . . . three.”) A halo of signals has been swelling inadvertently from our world since the late nineteenth century, comprising by the middle of the twentieth a potentially bewildering array of radio communications and entertainment, TV shows and radar signals. In 1973, Carl Sagan lamented that the only signs of intelligent life on Earth might be “housewives’ daytime serials, the rock-and-roll end of the AM broadcast band, and the semi-paranoid defense networks.” A suspicion unexplored by Oberhaus: that the whole METI/SETI field is itself wildly paranoid about appearing smarter than any aliens who might be riding the wavebands.

Extraterrestrial Languages is fascinating, if necessarily dryly written, on the variables involved in finding the right frequencies to hail our distant neighbors. The linguistic challenges are technically complex—but also introduce more profound philosophical questions. Is it reasonable to assume that extraterrestrials will have developed language? And if so, why should it in any way (structurally, never mind sonically or graphically) resemble our own? If a lion could speak, would we understand him? Likewise dolphins: in the early 1960s, Sagan and colleagues engaged as part of their METI research the notorious cetacean specialist John Lilly, who was trying to teach dolphins English—among his several errors was to believe that language is for communicating, when it’s mostly for thinking with. Oberhaus makes an interesting case, following Noam Chomsky, that the deep structures of language are innate and so might be shared by aliens; but if they’re not, we may never be able to understand each other. The answer to this problem has frequently, among METI researchers, been a recourse to mathematics as a supposedly universal language, or to invented systems that operate somewhere between formal logic and natural language. One of these, Lincos, was even for a time tested out on Soviet schoolchildren.

But what of the Spielberg and Villeneuve solutions—are they entirely fanciful? Oberhaus devotes a chapter to music and art as possible “languages” that might speak directly to the alien’s intellect, or even to whatever it has for a heart. “As a system whose features include melody, rhythm, pitch, and harmony, music has been identified in every culture on Earth.” But would a sample of music tell much about our species except that we sense the world in specific ways, or structure musical sound according to, say, twelve tones or twenty-four? Oberhaus lets the subject fade once such questions have been broached. He is far more interested in technical matters than he is in the motivations for sending music into space, or the specific choices made for the famous gold-plated LPs that accompanied the Voyager probes in 1977, which featured J. S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky, Blind Willie Johnson, gamelan and guqin, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

The romance of a spaceborne voice has a certain lineage in pop music itself, though few have properly pursued the METI theme, as the Carpenters did with their cover of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” “We are your friends”—what if they’re not ours? In November 1974, at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, hundreds of astronomers gathered as Frank Drake, a METI pioneer, delivered the first targeted message across the cosmos. Within days, the British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Ryle, wrote to Drake to express his fears. It was, he said, “very hazardous to reveal our existence and location to the Galaxy; for all we know, any creatures out there might be malevolent—or hungry.” METI is a kind of unauthorized diplomacy, a “shouting in the jungle” that risks the disasters attendant on encounters between more and less technologically developed cultures. In recent decades, scientists in this field have sounded again their disquiet at being unelected representatives of the human race and Earth’s other inhabitants. Just like sci-fi narratives about conversing with aliens, the story of extraterrestrial communication turns out to be how we speak to each other.

Brian Dillon’s Affinities, Suppose a Sentence, and Essayism are published by New York Review Books. He is working on a book about Kate Bush, and another on aesthetic education.

Earth to E.T. . . . ? Daniel Oberhaus’s book investigates the history of human efforts to communicate with alien intelligence.
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