When we finally discover extrasolar life, something that may well happen within our lifetimes, it will probably be by detecting the influence of life on its supporting planet’s atmosphere. Without getting into something I don’t know very much about, analyzing atmospheres by their spectrum is as routine to astronomy as walking to the bus stop is to a student. Detecting the planets is probably harder than analyzing their atmospheres, provided the planet transits its parent star (which may have been part of its detection in the first place – there are various methods).
(One of the problems with extrasolar planet detection is that our tools are only good at picking up very massive planets – we would have a very difficult time detecting a system like our own with present methods. It hasn’t been conclusively proven that most stars of our type don’t have systems like ours – the proverbial jury’s still out.)
Anyway, once life is discovered, we will then probably debate the wisdom of beaming a message to the world. Let’s say there was a candidate world 15-20 light years away. What should we send them?
Well, being an English major, I would of course be tempted to start with Chaucer and Shakespeare. But this might not be a good idea. Even suggesting Chekhov also betrays my clear Western bias! Anyway, just as an example, while we all love Poland and all things Polish, how many of my readers outside of Chicago, New Toronto, and Warsaw would be up for a Polish poetry recital? For my part, I’d be able to pick out the part where a beer is being ordered and not much else. It would get tiresome pretty quickly in the absence of the training needed to appreciate it.
We’d need to start with a 21st century analogue of a Rosetta Stone. Math has been suggested as a candidate universal “language” that would be a good basis for communication.
I am not qualified to comment on such a thing, but just this very moment I had the idea: a well-illustrated physics textbook might be just the Rosetta Stone humanity would need! Sure, the pure math alone, if accompanied by the supporting material necessary to understand our conventions and glyphs, would be important, and math is as important to physics as air is to breathing. But oh! the physics lends itself so well to both numerical and textual description, and even the textbook examples would convey a lot of meaningful cultural information.
I could write the following from the perspective of the contacted world, but let’s say we are on the receiving end. Tomorrow the radio SETI folks say “Eureka! Bob Smith’s screensaver detected the signal from NGC 34245!”
And among the first items in the continuous digital stream would be a physics textbook! Okay, scratch that, first there would have to be something to indicate how the bits in the radio signal are supposed to translate into images. There are a lot of technical things that I’m just skipping over. Just imagine the physics textbook, in alien glyphs, with diagrams, photos – perhaps even fundamental relationships and equations we haven’t yet discovered.
As more and more information comes in, soon every university on Earth would have a Urxharguian Studies department. Thousands of technicians would earn their livings just decoding and disseminating the live stream and then thousands of linguists and translators would take over from there.
Soon we’d be working on sending our reply message, including math and physics texts and probably the current day’s Wikipedia. Twenty years hence, someone on Urxhargu will be reading about Polish motorways. There will probably be at the very least two Wikipedia mirrors – one in the original English, which some Urxharguians will deal with directly, and one in the Urxharguian analogue of English. Oh, but I forget – for the most part people will be concerned with merging our knowledge with theirs. They’ll read about the Polish motorways not on the Wikipedia mirror, but on their own analogue of Wikipedia, in their Urxharguian tongue of choice – as we will read about Urxharguain biology, taxonomy, transportation systems, and their chips, ships and sealing wax from our own secondary sources, in our own languages. I am sure that eventually all the most common Urxharguian trees will have their own articles in our Welsh Wikipedia, for instance.
Darn, I have class again less than eight hours from now. It feels like I just got home. Anyway, I was having a lot of fun thinking about all this and I wanted to share the ruminations with you.