Me Human, You Alien: How to Talk to an Extraterrestrial by Jonathan Vos Post

(c) 1996 by Emerald City Publishing an excerpt from a book entitled THE HANDBOOK OF UFO CONTACT, to appear Spring 1997, New York: William Morrow & Co.

Copyright 1996, by Emerald City Publishing. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission. May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge. Return to Table of Contents


What do we know that we can be sure that the ET also knows? The key to this, if we are on Earth and the ET has come to us in a UFO, is that the alien civilization knows enough to be able to design, build, launch, and navigate their UFO! Gauss and Pythagorean Triangle 58 Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" 58 Knuth and Arithmetic 59 Leinster's "First Contact" 60 Piper's "Omnilingual" 61 Sagan's Intellectual Seive 61 Aldiss' "Dark Light Years" 63 Clarke's "Childhood's End" 63 Dickson's "Alien Way" 64 Gallun's "Old Faithful" 64 Hoyle's "Black Cloud" 65 Leiber's "Wanderer" 65 Violent Sci-Fi Movies 66 Yefremov's "Heart of the Serpent" 66 MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie" 67 Mann's "Eye of the Queen" 69 Masson's "Not So Certain" 72 Niven's "Mote in God's Eye" 73 Watson's "Embedding" 73 Delany's "Babel-17" 76 Vance's "Language of Pao" 85 Lem's "Solaris" 85 Sagan's "Contact" 86 Pohl's "JEM" 86 Moffitt's "Jupiter Theft" 90 Clement's "Mission of Gravity" 94 White's "All Judgment Fled" 97 Farmer's "Mother" 98 Lasswitz' "Two Planets" 99 Oliver's "Unearthly Neighbors" 102 Recent Fiction 111 LeGuin's "Author of the Acacia Seeds" 112 Sheckley's "Language of Love" to be done Fontenay's "Communication" to be done Kerr's "Communication" to be done Aarons' "Communicators" tobedone

Gauss and the Pythagorean Triangle

This means that they know at least some of the same mathematics, engineering, and science that we do. This was first pointed out around 1820 by the supergenius mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss, who proposed planting a vast forest in Siberia in the shape of squares attached to the sides of a right triangle, thus allowing Martians to see through their telescopes that we knew the Pythagorean Theorem.

Weinbaum's "Martian Odyssey"

The first time this idea was explored in science fiction was in 1934, when chemical engineer Stanley Weinbaum's story "A Martian Odyssey18" introduced a fascinatingly different alien named Tweel, who, for the first time in literature, was as smart as a human but did not think remotely like a human. This birdlike Martian, who jumped into the air and landed on his beak as a mode of travel, was able to learn the human protagonist's name, and the human learn his name, but then their communications bogged down in mutual incomprehension: "I couldn't get the hang of his talk. Either I missed some subtle point or we just didn't think alike--and I rather believe the latter view." Weinbaum then solved the problem in a way that forms the basis of our Handbook: "After a while I gave up the language business, and tried mathematics. I scratched two plus two equals four on the ground, and demonstrated it with pebbles. Again Tweel caught the idea, and informed me that three plus three equals six." This first step -- communicating about elementary arithmetic, and then working up to more and more advanced mathematics -- is the recommended technique, as many scientists today agree.

Knuth and Arithmetic

The problem is, there are many different ways of representing numbers -- think of Roman Numerals. Your guidebook to alternative arithmetic systems should be Professor Donald Knuth.19 In my own novel, One Hundred Trillion Planets20, human-ET communication is stuck for some time until the humans figure out that the three-armed ETs' number system was based, not on base 10 as is our (decimal) system, but on base -3 (negative trinary).

Leinster's "First Contact"

Another classic story of human-ET communications, indeed the one that gave the name to this whole genre of fiction, was "First Contact21" by Murray Leinster in 1945. A human-crewed spaceship and an alien-crewed spaceship encounter each other thousands of light years away, in the Crab Nebula. The communicate by radio, again beginning with mathematics, and accumulate a vocabulary of words that they can both agree upon. They find that they, broadly speaking, think in the same way. Unfortunately, that means that they both realize that if either of them returned to their home planet, the other might follow and begin an interstellar war. "I'd like to say," said the skipper heavily, "the appropriate things about this first contact of two dissimilar civilized races, and of my hopes that a friendly intercourse between the two peoples will result." Tommy Dort, the radio operator, sends this message, and receives a response from the ET captain: "He says, sir, 'That is all very well, but is there any way for us to let each other go home alive? I would be happy to hear of such a way if you can contrive one. At the moment it seems to me that one of us must be killed.'" Rather than destroy each other on the spot, they have a clever idea: "Swap ships!.... We can fix our instruments so they'll do no trailing, and he can do the same with his. We'll each remove our star maps and records. We'll each dismantle our weapons. The air will serve, and we'll take their ship and they'll take ours, and neither one can harm or trail the other, and each will carry home more information than can be taken otherwise." They communicate so well that, by the end of the story, they are telling each other dirty jokes!

Piper's "Omnilingual"

Further confirmation of our basic strategy was intelligently presented in the story "Omnilingual22" by H. Beam Piper in 1957. Human archeologist on an alien planet try to understand a vanished civilization. They succeed, based on the discovery of an alien "Rosetta Stone" which permits translation of the alien language. The key to recognition of shared knowledge is the Periodic Table of the Elements. Both humans and ETs have found the same inevitable pattern of the elements Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, and so forth. From that pattern, on the "Rosetta Stone," the alien arithmetic and technology become quickly able to be decoded.

Sagan's Intellectual Sieve

As Carl Sagan has explained75 (pp.232-233): "... the laws of nature ... are the same everywhere. We can detect by spectroscopy the same chemical elements, the same common molecules on other planets, stars, and galaxies.... Gravity, quantum mechanics, and the great bulk of physics and chemistry are observed to be the same elsewhere.... Intelligent organisms evolving on another world may not be like us biochemically ... but they must come to grips with the same laws of nature.... all those organisms who perceived their universe as very complex are dead.... Natural selection has served as a kind of intellectual sieve, producing brains and intelligences increasingly competent to deal with the laws of nature.... we will find that much of their biology, psychology, sociology, and politics will seem to us stunningly exotic and deeply mysterious. But I suspect we will have little difficulty in understanding each other on the simpler aspects of astronomy, physics, chemistry, and perhaps mathematics." Too many stories to mention involve a human drawing a Sun with orbits of planets around it, then pointing to the third circle and saying "Earth -- we come from the third planet." Any race able to fly from one solar system to another will have much of the same knowledge of Astronomy that we do, including Newton's laws, Kepler's Laws of planetary motion, and the like. Your Science Team will know more than enough to engage in dialogue on Astronomy, once the mode of communication and mathematical preliminaries have been established. The problem may come after this point of mutually comprehended science. Even human beings of different cultures and at different times think in alternative Paradigms, or patterns of thought, lists of essential questions and agreed-upon solutions, sets of implicit assumptions, allowable tools for problem-solving, and definitions of what things are in the universe of discourse. We may also find each others' social behavior distasteful or hard to fathom.

Aldiss' "Dark Light Years"

For example, in The Dark Light Years23 Brian Aldiss describes an intellectually advanced but (to us) physically repulsive race with an intricate but alien code of social behavior, which tends to make humans who understand it become (by human terms) insane.

Clarke's "Childhood's End"

In the classic novel Childhood's End24, Arthur C. Clarke outlines a race of beings superior to human beings, who effortlessly communicate with us, but achieve their mysterious goals by educating human children to attain super-human powers, until our children's behavior passes beyond that of human and alien alike. On the same theme, Arthur C. Clarke's book 200125, and the film made in collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick, involve human-ET communication which results in one man transcending human limits and human understanding. The inverse of this occurs in the short story "The Children's Hour96" by Kuttner and Moore, in which the apparently adult ET with whom the protagonist falls in love is in fact a superchild: A child can't completely comprehend an adult. But a child can more or less understand another child--which is reduced to the same equation as his own, or at least the same common denominator. A superman would have to grow. He wouldn't start out mature... Similarly, Ted Sturgeon's story "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff97" has ETs on the verge of destroying the human race until they have fun with a child, and understand us at last: Throughout the continuum as we know it (and a good deal more as we don't know it) there are cultures that fly and cultures that swim; there are boron folk and fluorine fellowships, cupro-copraphages and (roughly speaking) immaterial lifeforms which swim and swirl around each other in space like so many pelagic shards of metaphysics. And some organize into super- entities like a beehive or a slime-mold so that they live plurally to become singular, and some have even more singular ideas of plurality.... Prognosis [for Earth] Positive. Their young are delightful.

Dickson's "Alien Way"

The Alien Way26 by Gordon Dickson follows an Earthman in an alien brain who struggles to learn the complexities of an extraterrestrial culture.

Gallun's "Old Faithful"

The popular story "Old Faithful27" by Raymond Z. Gallun... xx xxxxxx xxxxx

Hoyle's "Black Cloud"

A particularly important novel for you and your Science Team to read is The Black Cloud28, by prominent Astronomer-Author Sir Fred Hoyle. He explores the communications problems between humans and a very intelligent and powerful, but very alien, creature made up of organic life distributed on particles within an ultra-cold "molecular cloud" in space. This novel also lays out (for the 1950s) a good summary of the kind of logistics needed to assemble and support a Science Team.