If anything, cinema has trained us to be suspicious of aliens: When a ship turns up from outer space, you can bet that it is going to end up with someone getting hurt. And this is what makes Arrival such a remarkably different film. Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, the film is proper grown-up science fiction, in which a linguist (Adams) and a physicist (Renner) must work together in order to learn how to communicate with the alien lifeforms.
And this made us wonder: What would happen if Arrival happened in real life? How would we go about opening a dialogue with them? To find out, I got in touch with Douglas Vakoch, who is perhaps the closest real-life equivalent we have to Amy Adams’ character. He used to work for SETI - the organisation working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, but last year he was the founder of METI, a new organisation dedicated not just to listening to the stars - but sending something back. METI stands for Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Douglas has now started the process of figuring out how we should start the conversation with whatever is out there.
I started by asking him about the challenge that Adams faces at the start of film: Where do you start? How would you even begin to talk to an alien species with no common frame of reference?
“The thing I like about the movie is the characters - you'd ideally like to team up someone like Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Here we have a linguist who deals with communication in its most complex, most human form - language. and a theoretical physicist who is used to looking for universals, that any civilisation that can travel between the stars should know”, Douglas explains. Though he suspects that in real life, the first words exchanged between us and the aliens might be a little different.
“Actually the traditional way we think of making contact in SETI is by focusing on those fundamental mathematical concepts. If you can build a spaceship, you probably know that two plus two equals four, and some more complicated maths.”
As Easy As Pi?
I suggested to him that pi might be a good starting point - as it will enable the aliens to learn something about us, such as the fact we use Base 10 implying that we have ten fingers. Douglas agreed:
“By identifying something fundamental like pi we suggest we know something about geometry, the importance of this constant for understanding the relationship between the radius of a circle and its area. And if there is an intelligence out there that also knows geometry they may also be able to recognise those constants.”
Sadly though, pi isn’t the magic bullet - as there are still a lot of ambiguities, even with what we currently consider universal constants.
“The challenge is that even though we see our maths and science as tapping into something universal, that doesn't automatically mean an alien's maths and science will be the same as ours. We only need to look at our own history to see what radically different conceptions of the universe we can have if we change one fundamental assumption. For 2500 years Euclid's fundamental postulates of geometry reigned supreme - it was taken as a given that two parallel lines will never meet. But in the 19th century some geometers relaxed that postulate and asked: What if at some point they do meet? That provided the foundation for a geometry that let us understand the possibility of a universe in which space itself is curved. Each [type of geometry] - the Euclidean and Non-Euclidean are internally consistent, they make sense, but the outcome is radically different. An alien may well know something about chemistry or physics but it could be very different from the understanding we have.”
So how about going completely back to basics? “So I think the challenge is always to start with the most basic. You might start with something as fundamental as counting - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, but there are a lot of ways to count too.”
For example, Douglas explains, the fibonacci sequence - 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 etc (c’mon, we’ve all seen or read The Da Vinci Code) - could be a good option, as the sequence is often found in nature, including the proportions of the arms of spiral galaxies, which you might expect a spacefaring civilisation to be familiar with. If we’re lucky - the universality of maths could be used to unlock a deeper connection with the extraterrestrials.
“We see [the fibonacci sequence] in constructions of humankind too: the facade of the Parthenon in Greece can be described in those same proportions, so maybe it is a mathematics that's tied into our sense of aesthetics that will be the connection. Or music, which is mathematical but also physical. The same concepts that are at the core of music are physical notions of frequency and time and amplitude. Music means much more [than maths] just as words mean much more than describing an object, but if we can get a recognition of anything, that's the foundation. If we can describe the periodic table of elements and an alien says ‘a ha they're talking about chemistry’, that's the fundamental breakthrough. It doesn't matter what they understand - if they understand anything, that's when they've finally taken hold”.
Hitting this deeper connection though is going to be hugely challenging - but this is a challenge that Douglas thought the film portrayed rather well.
“I think the thing that the movie nicely portrays is that communication isn't just about talking about objects - there’s a lot about our intention too. So what's the difference between a weapon and a tool if you have a knife, which can be used for either purpose? So if you give a pure scientific description of something - what it's made of, what its proportions are - that's only part of the story. We've also got to look at how we use objects, what they mean to us, what we intend to do with them. That’s where Amy Adams’ character comes in.”
In the film, the aliens communicate with the humans using a written language made up of circles - with different markings at different point to denote words and the like. So if Douglas was confronted with something like this, how would he go about decoding the symbols in front of him? His thinking echoed a scene in the film in which Amy Adams breaks down how language works in front of a whiteboard.
“Well, first you look at the basic characteristics of it. So is there a regularity? Is there a pattern? Is there something mathematical in nature? Can you quantify this? I think that’s Jeremy Renner's approach. But the real challenge is figuring out [the broader meaning]. Even if you know it's an example of their language, is it a word? Is it a sentence? How do you even parse it? How do you break it up?”
And this is a good example of what appears to be one of the most important points: the dialogue with the aliens is going to be a conversation.
“What you need to do is have some sort of back and forth. When we talk to another human being all of the time we are needing to correct and check to make sure we understand what the other one is trying to say, and that's even if we have a shared language. You need to throw out an initial interpretation and see if you get a response that's consistent with it”, Douglas explains. “Language is messy and the thing that we should expect of another intelligence is an understanding of how messy language is, so that if we do misunderstand them we should expect a certain amount of patience with that. I think one of the things the film nicely shows is that we humans aren't very good at being patient.”
And this lack of patience could have consequences. “If we don't understand then it is easy to get very defensive and very scared, and soon the military is saying that if we can't understand these folks it's time to make a preemptive strike and that's exactly what we need to guard against”, Douglas warns.
Starting A Conversation
Arrival is probably not a realistic reflection of what our real first encounter will be like. Instead of alien crafts mysterious descending from the clouds above, chances are the first indication we’ll get that we’re not alone in the universe will be in the form a signal - probably received by METI or SETI, from outer space. And this means that communication may not be as freely flowing as we’d like it to be.
“I’m so jealous of Amy Adams”, Douglas jokes, “because she gets to have face to face contact with these aliens - in the real world it's probably going to be a delay of decades, even centuries, for that 'here’s what I think you said, did I get it right?' message, and then [the wait] to get a response back.”
So what happens in reality if we pick up a signal? The good news is that scientists have already thought about this.
“There are two protocols that have been developed through the International Academy of Astronautics”, Douglas explains. “There are a lot of ‘wherefores’ and ‘thou shalts’ but really [the first protocol] boils down to two basic rules: First, if you find a signal that looks promising, double check, make sure it's not just a glitch in your own system or someone perpetuating a hoax, and make sure that other astronomers can detect it as well with an independent observatory. Second, if it really looks promising, tell the whole world.”
“That’s the protocol for what to do to ensure that there is a global awareness of a signal because if a team in the United States or Russia or China detects a signal, it wasn't directed towards that nation but was directed towards the world as a whole, so it doesn't belong to any one nation.”
And the good news is that if we do ever detect aliens, it is basically impossible for any government to cover it up - whatever the conspiracy theorists may prefer to think.
“The reality is that even if a particular nation wanted to keep it a secret that's impossible but by the nature of confirming that we have a signal, word is going to come out anyway. We’ve seen it during the last year there were a couple of instances where astronomers announced they found something interesting and before there could even be a completion of that first step, of confirmation, it's in the media.”
“That first protocol in a sense will take care of itself - there will be an open communication”, Douglas says. “The one point I would warn against is that I think it won't be so clear if we've discovered a signal. There will be a lot of interpretations.”
Teach The Controversy
In other words, amazingly, we might not even realise that we’ve been visited by aliens until decades after the event. Scientists will inevitably try to explain away any mysterious signals with terrestrial explanations - and it is only when these have been ruled out will scientific consensus begin to agree that yes, this message is actually extraterrestrial in origin. Could it be like the consensus over global warming, I wondered? Presumably that started out as a theory posited by a small group of scientists, before the rigour of the scientific method led to the theory becoming part of the scientific consensus.
“I think that’s a very nice analogy”, Douglas says. “In fact you can see one case that happened just about a month ago. A couple of Canadian astronomers announced that they had used the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and that they looked at the dataset of 2.5 million stars and from 234 of those stars they say they saw the same repetitive pulsing, about once every trillionth of a second - every 1.65 picoseconds. They saw this same pulsing, so the question is was that a glitch of their data analysis or of the database? Their argument is they’ve ruled out those sort of internal errors and they believe that they actually represent 234 civilisations out there that are transmitting.”
“Now when I hear that I'm initially sceptical of any explanation but you know it's worth following up. The challenge of that scenario is that what that requires is that all of those civilisations are in coordination, if they're sending exactly the same message that means that widely disparate stars are either coordinating with one another or one civilisation took the lead and every other civilisation is mimicking them. So at the outset it doesn't seem that plausible.”
“A nice historical analogue goes back to 1967 when British Astronomers discovered this very odd pulsing from a point in the sky that they'd never seen nature do. Initially the nickname was they had seen an ‘LGM1’ - Little Green Man 1 - but a few weeks later they found another of these and we now call these Pulsars: Rapidly rotating stars that are created by nature. We couldn't fit them into our preconceptions about the universe.”
In other words, what often does sound promising for an alien encounter will often have a natural explanation once they have been studied in more detail. The so-called “Alien Megastructure” that was widely reported last year is another example - despite the hype, scientists later found a much more plausible natural explanation. So if we do detect an alien signal, scientists are going to much more sceptical for a very long time.
Sending A Message
But imagine that we did all agree that - yes - aliens had been in touch. The second protocol that Douglas mentioned is deciding whether or not to send a message back after we receive one.
“Protocol says there should be no response until there's been international consultation”, Douglas explains. But there are few ways to stop anyone who wants to respond from doing so.
“I think that’s the protocol that's much harder to enforce because there are no legal constraints against transmissions. It’s not clear what the repercussions would be of anyone doing that. So anyone with a transmitter could send whatever they want to a civilisation and something similar might happen if the encounter [a la Arrival] is here on Earth.”
“The challenge is to actually find a way to constrain individuals or nations from acting unilaterally.”
From a technical stand-point, the tools needed to send such communications are fairly readily available. It wouldn’t need government to step in - it could be done with commercially available kit, in Douglas’ view. So perhaps ET’s first impressions of humanity won’t be formed by the words of the Secretary General of the United Nations, or even the US President (given recent news, this might be a silver lining), but it could be someone in their garage. Or perhaps, the aliens will already be familiar with us?
“I think any civilisation that has the ability to travel between the stars could probably pick up the BBC's television and radio transmissions. So That’s why those who are concerned that we would be announcing our existence to another world by sending intentional signals is really missing the point, which is any civilisation that could do us harm could already know that we’re here. The point of a response is not to let them know we heard your message but to to tell them we did get your message and now we’re interested in even more of an exchange.”
This is essentially METI’s mission - its approach is more pro-active than SETI in its desire to open communications with whoever is out there. But it hasn’t sent a message out there yet.
“We have our strategic plan and our goal is to transmit by the end of 2018. But we are now going through a lot of discussions about, for example, what message should we send”, Douglas explains. To figure this out, METI is hosting a number of meetings of to try and figure it out - its most recent one in San Juan, Puerto Rico:
“One of questions we had was whether we assumed the alien intelligence is like our human intelligence to too great an extent? Do we need to open up our imagination? For example one of the presenters was a blind linguist. [She] suggested that maybe the aliens don’t have vision and most of the messages that have been sent assume that we can send pictures and they'll be understandable. Not necessary she said, she imagined a world in which there are blind astronomers. So maybe that’s the sort of intelligence that we will encounter?”
The next meeting, in May next year in St Louis, is set to discuss the risks that come from transmitting a message. “The challenge is, I think, that international discussion needs to be generated by the community who is doing the work because as much as i'd love the Secretary General of the United Nations to say this is our top priority, I don’t see it coming today.”
“Now if the scenario of arrival happens, you can bet it's going to be that the Security Council is going to have at the top of its to-do list. But right now when we don't know that there's any intelligence out there at all, it is very challenging to get the kind of broad-based discussion that we need.”
So far, METI hasn’t received any government contact - though you can bet they will be calling if the unexpected does happen. “[Government contact is] something we would welcome”, Douglas says, adding “If any of your readers are those government officials send them my way - I would love that to not have to wait until Forest Whitaker comes to my office to say we've found something!”
Douglas Vakoch is President of METI International.