Discussion: Language, without barometer

Suppose that in ten million years, humanity has been long wiped off the face of the planet. Some life still remains, but it has regressed to a more primitive state, due to some cataclysmic event, caused by our own iniquity, or some element of chance.
No animal that could understand the basics of calculus has existed on the rock called Earth for a very long time.

When one day, entirely by chance, our no longer blue planet is discovered, by some nomadic civilisation, who managed to achieve travel into the stars without using that same technology to blow each themselves up. In the ruins alone, under the assumption that concrete has eroded into mere particles that blew in the wind, and pages from books lost their ink; this civilisation would be able to piece together very little of what we were. Even if somehow some homestead had managed to endure the withering of time – if it had been cocooned in a blanket of ice, for instance; where would you even begin to understand what objects were?

A slab of metal and glass filled with silicon lines, in the corner of a room, where every piece of furniture is pointed at it. Knives and forks on the dinner table, for fighting no doubt. Window frames on the second floor, because we could jump so high, and often used that for quick access. Cloth in wooden containers, powdered energy in glass jars, animal carcasses in large white frozen boxes. It would be a frightening world of guesswork without a basis by which to guess. Everyone has had that experience of trying to tell a story, that was funny at the time, but after telling it out loud you find the other person does not find it so. Think of this, except not only do you not speak the same language, but you share no history, no culture, no prospects, no allegiances, and perhaps not even the same galaxy.

Now let’s suggest that humanity as a collective decides that the idea of a future civilisation discovering our remains and not being able to fabricate who we were is just too harsh a thought to bare. So they decide to devise a solution to this, or at least to devise a means in which to help these future nomads. And as a collective, they have decided to accept applications from anyone on the planet, and accept any ideas anyone on the planet may have on how best to communicate with the future visitors.

The problem then becomes the focus of this article: How do you communicate with these visitors? How do you construct a language, without barometer? In our own world, translations of works are inherently different to the language in which they were originally written, mainly because there is no word which translates over 100% – but at least we have something by which we can vaguely relate it to. But with an alien visitor -you don’t even have a set of words, objects, animals, or plants, by which you could guarantee you share. Not only this, but you cannot even predict the senses this alien might use to perceive the world around them. It is not enough to suggest you could communicate in a language that is a concatenation of a number of languages that are most frequently used or most expressive; because you cannot guarantee this creature has ears. Or perhaps they do but do not hear in the same frequency as we do. Perhaps you wish to communicate in symbols? – Well it has taken us thousands of years to build up semiotics to the point we can look at something and register to which category it belongs to at a glance, and even now most humans struggle with all of them, they differ in time and they differ from culture to culture. Equally, as before, the visiting nomads may not have eyes. Or if they do, maybe they do not see colour in the same range that we do. Lets say that they do have eyes – well what do they even register as a note? Say they looked at English at a glance, they could interpret the white space between the letters as the symbols rather than the letters themselves.

The possibilities are near endless for interpretation. This would be fair to say of something that came from our planet, or even our galaxy. But this could be a visitor that we may not even recognise as intelligent life, and yet regardless, it is. So much so that it had travelled through the stars to find us.

Furthermore then, we have an obligation to protect intelligent life as best as we can. To avoid any kind of pain and anguish where we can. If something can intelligent understand the universe and perceive its own consciousness, it must be our responsibility to ensure it.
It is important then to have this discussion – say we are aware of what brought about our destruction. It is our obligation then, to warn these visitors of the dangers we could not avoid. Perhaps areas of contamination, physical or otherwise, should be left in the past and certain technologies either avoided or proceeded with caution. The question being, how do we do this?

How would you communicate to something that may not even perceive the world in the same way that you do? And on a more personal note… Would you? Would you personally make an application to share your thoughts on how best to do this?

Arguably our only efforts to communicate without language thus far, is music. For thousands of years, we have communicated celebration, happiness, fear and war to others through music. No lyrics required to communicate exactly how we feel. Perhaps this would be our best bet to begin. Perhaps the sound of children laughing, the rain forest, or the ocean reaching the shoreline. The times at which we as a species were most at peace.
But then, while this may provide an example of our environment – it doesn’t necessarily define who we were or are. When we were good or bad. When we loved, and when we hated.

If we continue on a scientific trend – would we leave behind a hologram of a child as an ark of information, to provide context to who we were? Would this be the most realistic option, to convey our messages of peace in as many images and as many words as we possibly could? Could this child hold out a hand, with the bumps on his hand spelling in braille, and his words echoed in every other language, and Morse code? Would what the child spoke even resonate on any parallel? Should we literally throw sounds and light in some form of pattern, and hope that something sticks? Data dump our history and languages in as many different patterns as possible? Perhaps an AI, that can use everything that we are currently to determine what COULD be encountered in the future? Statistically, this is probably necessary. As much as they would like to earn us, we may need to learn it first, in the form of some machine learning. To discuss topics not only do we not understand yet, but we may never even have encountered in our cosmically short lifespan.

What if we decided that we wanted to communicate, only that which we wanted to communicate. I.e. perhaps we would wish to leave out the horrid parts of our history, or tell much more embellished versions of it in myth, legend, and art rather than the much more hard to swallow science and objectivity. If we were to do that, how could we separate semantics from pragmatism? To say very clearly what is, and not what we meant to say. This applies to our language, and also our visualisation of our culture. Say we built, or painted, or sculpted a grand cathedral, and hid it in some frozen ark – we may try to convey how complex and grandiose we were in our architectural choice – only to find that our visitor friends interpret the use of space as inefficient. They may regard our distinct lack of compactness instead, as a sign we were not intelligent whatsoever. That we were too wasteful. Perhaps then, they would be right.

The questions are endless, and arguably you could discuss for the millions of years we are hypothetically wiped out discussing what we could and should do – if and when we should – why and where we should. In fact, this question, which its infinite possibilities seems to grand a task to bestow upon us, and too great a burden to endure.

But if something is important enough, you must always try. Even if the expected outcome, is failure.

However; the question remains: Would you? And if so, how? How would you begin to construct a language to speak beyond the stars, without barometer?

Go.

What Lies Beyond

As you look into the night sky; and remark on the beauty of the universe in the shape of stars and nebula, you may at some point if given enough time, come to a realisation. These beautiful wonders, that have guided humanity since the dawn of our time, that have inspired poetry and created great works of art; may no longer be there. Light is the fastest thing that we understand. Nothing we perceive is greater than the speed of light. And yet even it, is finite. And the great span of distance from where we are, to where the stars lie beyond, is so great, that it takes finite definable light considerable length of time to reach us, and display to us the grandiosity of the stars, and nebulae, and everything beyond our world.

Potentially, these works of awe may have existed a length of time so greatly long ago, that the stars have not only died – but have dissipated and spread the elements of life into the universe since then. They may have brought about life in other parts of the universe, a life that may be so intelligent they too have used it to guide themselves through the dark, and used it to create light in works of art. How fascinating it is to think, that balls of light, crucibles of elements and life may have in turn brought about more life in new form, in places we cannot even hope to see. They may have inspired entire civilisations worth of culture, in what lies beyond.

Image result for pillars of creation
Pillars of Creation – A long dead mix of star and nebulae. This is a real image, taken from the Hubble telescope. Courtesy of NASA.GOV

They have done this, and they have done it so long ago, that cultures we may never meet, have already came and went based upon them. Yet still we see their awe. With certainty – stars will come and go – and yet still they inspire long after their implosion. It serves as evidence – that long after something dies – it can still be experienced.

Imagine you are in a room, and you are with one other person, facing them directly, as it would not be uncommon for you to do. You’re talking about something trivial and generally just spending time with someone you enjoy. You may smile and feel so in the moment with someone at that time, which is beautiful and remarkable in every way. But on a scientific level – there is a delay.

There is a delay between what happens for the self, and what the other person will see. There is a delay in sound. Sound travels at the speed of about 345 m/s, meaning that if this was a particularly massive room, a ball room perhaps in some large palace in Germany, that was this distance from one end to the other, if you stood at one end and your companion at the other, then there would be a one second delay between what you said, and when they heard it.

Now, when we actually experience this in reality, talking to our friends in close proximity, this delay is remarkably small. So small in fact, that relatively it is negligible. However, let’s not forget… it is still there. There is a similar delay with light – except that light travels significantly faster than sounds, at about 3 * 10 ^ 8 m/s (30’000’000’000 m/s), meaning that the delay is even more negligible. However, it IS still there.

To reiterate, what this means is that every time you talk to someone. there is a delay in when they say it, and when you see and hear it.

The complexity intensifies however, when our understanding of the universe and technology increase greatly. Let’s suggest that some far away intelligent being can view that conversation you are having with your friend; that they can view it on their version of a telescope which can see unimaginable distances away, and perhaps even translate what you are saying via subtle movements in your mouth and vocals cords, into whatever language they speak, effectively meaning they can see and hear you. The problem is, that if they are doing this millions of light years away from you – by the time they see it, it will have happened a long long time ago. Millions of years ago in fact.

But they are seeing and hearing it right now, to them, and yet you and your friend would have lived and died millions of years before. So how can this be?

Well… actually… this is exactly what’s happening with humanity and the stars. The two examples differ in negligible ways. So why even provide the two examples to say the same thing?

The reason being, it is necessary to humanise the following question; if everything we do is technically in a delay – if everything that we see and perceive is technically a memory – if all of time is relative to the person observing it, and there is no definite point of certainty – when does something, or more specifically someone… die?

If your friend perished in some terrible accident, to you they would be “dead” and naturally you would be very sad about it, and yet at the same time, this intelligent being could be observing them in their now, and viewing some certain events that happened before they were killed off in the third act. So they are dead to you, but not to this other being, who still sees and hears them, millions of years later.

It would seem then, that as the problem continues, the true crux of the issue – is that the general person still views time as an absolute constant, rather than simply constant – to you. In other words, relatively constant. Which is of course is an oxymoron.

What lies beyond, is not only new worlds, homes, discoveries, people, and cultures, but also the past, present, and future, simultaneously and all at once. It’s all just based on the perspective by which you view it.

Some comfort you can take from this, is that friends and family whom you have lost, some time in the past. No matter how long ago it was, they are not truly gone. Sadly, they are only gone, to you. But they are still smiling, and being happy, and looking at you with adoring eyes, from someone’s point of view, somewhere. Someone, somewhere, may be looking at you both in the past, with wondering eyes, and thinking, “They look happy.” And if some future technology could transport you an unimaginable distance away in an instant ( perhaps some quantum entanglement one day may teleport us ) then you could too, sit and view this person and you, watch each other with those same adoring eyes.

What lies beyond, is the past, future, and present; it’s the now and then; it’s the you and I.

Think of that, as you look into the night sky.