Colin Robinson

2012-Sep-25, 01:26 AM

Could cultural distance make interstellar messaging unworkable?

By "interstellar messaging", I mean use of a medium such as radio. I don't mean crewed or robotic missions.

SETI advocates, such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, have suggested that mathematics could serve as a bridge between worlds. Others have raised doubts... The ideas that "they are too alien" or "their mathematics are different" appear on standard lists of possible approaches to the Fermi Paradox. (See Wikipedia page Fermi Paradox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi%27s_paradox), and also the University of Oregon page Fermi Paradox (http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec28.html))

Please consider:

1. The difference between the mathematics of ancient Greece (say, around the time of Euclid) and the world today.

2. The possible difference in mathematical concepts between ourselves and interstellar neighbors.

The ancient Greeks were mathematically minded and intellectually adventurous. Many of their mathematical concepts are still current — they knew about prime numbers for example. However, they used a system of numerals similar to the Roman numerals we still use occasionally today: a decimal system without place value or a symbol for zero.

What if a bunch of ancient Greeks mathematicians had been shown a message like Frank Drake's Arecibo message?

The Arecibo message was

* intended to be as comprehensible as possible to intelligent beings anywhere,

* based on prime numbers and the binary system.

After all, the binary system does use place value, and it does use the zero... The fact that it isn't decimal would have made it all the more foreign to the ancient mathematicians... So I think Euclid and company would have found the Arecibo message an unsolvable riddle.

If we did get a message from extraterrestrials (even if they were very like us, and only a few thousand years more advanced), perhaps we would be in the same position as ancient Greeks trying to read the Arecibo thing?

OK. So if the extraterrestrials' maths are different, and their messages are incomprehensible, then where are those incomprehensible messages? (This point is from the University of Oregon page Fermi Paradox (http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec28.html))

Well, if interstellar messaging is unworkable, our more-advanced neighbors presumably know it is unworkable... If they liked the idea, they may have tried the experiment earlier in their history, and they found that it just doesn't work... Why would you keep sending out messages that you know are not going to be understood?

By "interstellar messaging", I mean use of a medium such as radio. I don't mean crewed or robotic missions.

SETI advocates, such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, have suggested that mathematics could serve as a bridge between worlds. Others have raised doubts... The ideas that "they are too alien" or "their mathematics are different" appear on standard lists of possible approaches to the Fermi Paradox. (See Wikipedia page Fermi Paradox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi%27s_paradox), and also the University of Oregon page Fermi Paradox (http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec28.html))

Please consider:

1. The difference between the mathematics of ancient Greece (say, around the time of Euclid) and the world today.

2. The possible difference in mathematical concepts between ourselves and interstellar neighbors.

The ancient Greeks were mathematically minded and intellectually adventurous. Many of their mathematical concepts are still current — they knew about prime numbers for example. However, they used a system of numerals similar to the Roman numerals we still use occasionally today: a decimal system without place value or a symbol for zero.

What if a bunch of ancient Greeks mathematicians had been shown a message like Frank Drake's Arecibo message?

The Arecibo message was

* intended to be as comprehensible as possible to intelligent beings anywhere,

* based on prime numbers and the binary system.

After all, the binary system does use place value, and it does use the zero... The fact that it isn't decimal would have made it all the more foreign to the ancient mathematicians... So I think Euclid and company would have found the Arecibo message an unsolvable riddle.

If we did get a message from extraterrestrials (even if they were very like us, and only a few thousand years more advanced), perhaps we would be in the same position as ancient Greeks trying to read the Arecibo thing?

OK. So if the extraterrestrials' maths are different, and their messages are incomprehensible, then where are those incomprehensible messages? (This point is from the University of Oregon page Fermi Paradox (http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec28.html))

Well, if interstellar messaging is unworkable, our more-advanced neighbors presumably know it is unworkable... If they liked the idea, they may have tried the experiment earlier in their history, and they found that it just doesn't work... Why would you keep sending out messages that you know are not going to be understood?