|Rapping With an E.T.|
Issue #31 (March 1984)
I'm going to do some speculating about Conversation -- conversation between two intelligent beings in each other's physical presence, one of them human, the other not; just a simple conversation to exchange information. But please bear with me for a few introductory paragraphs.
[quoteright]First, how did I arrive at the conclusion that this situation will ever occur, and why do I think that it's a problem requiring a solution in advance, before the problem arises? This way, one step at a time.
Like Homo Sapiens, any race of intelligent beings must have gotten that way by accumulating information. Intelligence has survival value. Collecting and storing facts will be vital to the preservation and prolongation of the lives of such beings. Initially of course, this is simply knowledge, but (I claim) that amassment of knowledge is the forerunner of intelligence.
All life forms will have the same basic needs - shelter from the environment and a source of energy. The latter may be food, fuel, electrical charge or ?? But when a point is reached when energy needs are satisfied, and the environment is modified or the race has adapted to it - when the incentive to collect information merely to forestall death and improve life's quality no longer operates - then the incentive of curiosity will surely take over.
This is to state, perhaps arrogantly, that just as nature abhors a vacuum, the intelligent strive to collect information in order to become more intelligent. This process will (again, I claim) continue, even when (I repeat) it is no longer vital to the preservation, prolongation, or improvement of life.
So: Some other intelligent race somewhere in the Cosmos, having improved its lifestyle and tamed its perhaps initially hostile environment, looks to the skies, into space. Curiosity drives it, as it has driven us, to gather data enabling it to conquer its planet's gravitational pull, place artificial satellites in orbit, visit other planets of its sun, and eventually start to search for other planetary systems which might also hold intelligent life.
We'll skip the intermediate steps: the space probes, the plagues imported with strange viruses, electronic (and/or telepathic?) communication over vast distances, maybe even - heaven and George Lucas forfend! – interstellar wars. We now return to the situation first hypothesized; two beings representing two intelligent races, one the race of Man, standing or squatting or slithering or swinging face-to-face, or to face-plate or eye-stalks or neural node or whatever. This will happen. Some of you kooks reading this believe that it has been and is happening continually. It will happen some day in the near or far-off future, in a scientifically valid context. Here they are, in a room on Earth or in a compression chamber on Proxima Centauri IV, and each desires to exchange information with the other.
How will this exchange take place? What medium or media will be utilized? Well, let's start with something familiar - familiar not only to mankind, but surely to every intelligent being throughout the Cosmos: the periodic wave spectrum (is my anthropomorphic arrogance still showing?).
At the low end of this spectrum are sounds, sounds audible to the human ear. "Low" is not an absolute designation here; it is referent to one hertz, one cycle per second, an arbitrary human standard. But imagine an intelligent being somewhere with an incalculably slower metabolism than ours one who started to yawn with boredom about the time Hannibal was crossing the Alps, and who is just now lifting a languid hand (or tentacle) to stifle it politely. To him/her/it, one Hertz would be in the Very High Frequency band.
What humans consider low could be, say, drums vibrating at a few tens of cycles, the drumbeats spaced seconds apart - elementary frequency modulation. We ascend this range to hear all the sounds audible to the human ear: horns, bells, other musical instruments, voices, cries of animals, whistles - tapering off into inaudibility at about 10 or 12 thousand Hertz. Long before this audio limit is reached, at about three kiloHertz, we reach frequencies which can be feasibly radio-transmitted (actually, voice and lower frequencies may also be radiotransmitted, but not so "feasibly"). Let's stay with sound-frequencies for a moment longer.
The combinations and permutations of sound frequencies, tones, timbres,
intervals, etc., which could he used to transmit and receive close-up information are (I won't enrage mathematicians by saying "infinite") limitless. And certainly, any method of communication extraterrestrials use, employing sound waves audible to humans, could be learned and used by humans. With auxiliary apparatus if human vocal cords don't suffice. No problem.
However, suppose the other intelligent race evolved on a planet with no atmosphere, or with one so tenuous as to preclude sound wave transmission. How would they communicate among themselves, or with humans? Forget about sound-waves through a liquid medium - intelligent beings whose environment is so confining will never make it off-planet. Maybe we could visit them, of course, if we remember to pack our diving suits.
Let's continue on up the spectrum. We could also use radio frequencies in face-to-face communication, as they start well within the sound frequencies at about 3000 Hz and are practical up to a million MHz. This value is also called one thousand gigahertz or one terahertz, so pay attention, I may ask questions later.
Extremely high radio frequencies merge into the infrared, and a comparatively narrow band of frequencies between (but not including) infrared and ultraviolet comprises the visible spectrum - visible to human eyes, that is. This band falls approximately between 400 and 800 terahertz; remember that one THz is one million million cycles per second. Frequencies above these - X-rays, gamma rays, cosmic rays are not feasible for communication purposes, as they are harmful, even lethal, to humans.
Isaac Asimov once wrote an article concluding, from a base of quite reasonable assumptions, that intelligent extraterrestrial life forms would be humanoid - near to us in size, bipedal, two-eyed, generally bilaterally symmetrical, having a similar metabolism, etc. On the other hand, Carl Sagan once said: Environmental conditions on other planets may be so different from Earth's that if life exists there it will be bound to take forms we consider unlikely. Therefore we should let our imaginations go!
Okay, start imagining. Imagine an extraterrestrial who converses with others of his kind by waving his tentacles, or by altering the shape or position of features or appendages (read Jack Vance's short story, "The Gift of Gab"). Or by changing skin color like a chameleon; or by varying the color and/or intensity of a conversational photocell, part of his built-in physical equipment. A being with a fine color-discrimination sense could use thousands of tints and shades to express ideas; combined with, say, a few octaves of musical notes, what an immense and expressive vocabulary it would have!
May I digress for a moment to point out that these speculations deal solely with inherent means of communication? As intelligence develops, mechanical and electronic enhancements of natural communicative abilities are inevitable, the incentives being a desire for speed and a need to bridge distances with information. Jungle drums, signal flags, megaphone, telescope, wire, glass-fiber cable, computer-dish-satellite linkup...
Exchange of ideas using the sense of touch is rudimentary, and probably not susceptible to much mechanical improvement. But don't let it bug you if I suggest that the antenna-conversation of our terrestrial insects is probably electrical in nature. Imagine an intelligent extraterrestrial race evolving communication in similar fashion, should physical characteristics and environmental conditions so dictate. Or imagine on some lightless world a "Braille" system of communication, not as a refinement of a visual alphabet, but as a basic invention of a sightless but intelligent species.
Bound by anthropocentrism, it's difficult for us to imagine taste and smell except as adjuncts to other, higher senses. But let me speculate briefly that somewhere there exists an intelligent race having highly-developed olfactory organs used for communicative purposes. Imagine one individual transmitting a chain of ideas by varying the scents which he emits. Inhaling, the receptor's olfactory receiver translates scent back into thought. Rather a rank idea, I admit, but it's a speculation not to be sniffed at..
How about telepathy? That would seem to be the most logical eventual development of communicative ability in any intelligent race, not excluding ours. If it exists here on Earth in an embryonic state, and if we just haven't yet refined it to a reliable and controllable degree then perhaps it's already in use among the more-advanced inhabitants of other planets. All the requirements for a communication method are in its favor. If we can assume, albeit hesitantly, that telepathy exists, we can just as hesitantly assume that it needs no bulky biologic or mechanical apparatus, and that neither great distance nor the absence of other senses is an impediment to its use. Pure thought, with no need for coding and decoding between brain and brain. Perfect, right?
Wrong. Perfect perhaps for fantasies and abstractions, but very unlikely as an information-exchanging method between a human and an ET. The intelligent races we're discussing are certain to have frames of reference radically different from ours. Simple example: think of the concept "speedomenter" and visualize one. The other worldling will not only use time and distance units based on other-world conditions, but may also indicate speed by some other method, say gradations of sound or color. Another: how would one thought transmit a concept as basic to us as eating to a being who receives nourishment by absorbing nutrients through its pores?
No, telepathic contact (if it Is ever realized) may come only after many years or decades or centuries, when we've grown closer to another race in other ways, when our respective histories and ethics and thought processes have had ample time for thorough osmosis to be effected. Before then, perhaps Mankind will have discovered how to control this perceptive sense.
I admit to being guilty of anthropism in my approach to this subject, and I anticipate screams of rage and jeers of derision from experts in the various disciplines I've touched upon so fleetingly. So sue me. It's not easy to describe transcendent senses, and to postulate communication methods which could exist among intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, when those senses and methods may be strange beyond imagining.
A final pair of problems to consider: That major disparity in metabolic rates mentioned earlier would of course mean that there would be a great disparity in rates of imparting and receiving information. And lastly: Suppose our physical size and theirs differed greatly. Suppose they're microscopic. Or to them, we're microscopic. Brood about that.