Alien Communication

Something I've been thinking about a lot recently is how we might communicate with an intelligent alien species once we encounter them. What will first contact really be like in this regard? Scientific speculation on the matter is quite varied, and some think that it may not be possible at all. However, there are a few general assumptions about life on other worlds, and the requirements for a species to reach technological complexity, that seem to lend hope.

First, we need to look at evolution and natural selection as the current dominating theory of how life changes through time. Here on Earth, the general direction of Evolution has been towards greater complexity. From early, single-celled organisms to humans, life has gotten increasingly complicated since it first started struggling to survive. We expect that this process will be the same no matter where we go in the universe. It is hard to imagine how else life might arise from stardust (basic elements) as it has, and this is a good thing where communication is concerned.
Image Credit: Falense
Via Wikimedia Commons

All complex life on Earth has the same basic needs because we all have the same struggle to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. We all need energy (food), a means to secure our resources (claws, fangs, venom, swords, guns, etc.) since all life is in competition with all other life for energy, and a way to make a next generation. The reasons why we do are dictated by the laws of physics and chemistry that we think are universal, so unless physics is different in different parts of the universe, it's safe to assume that life in all parts of the universe will have the same basic needs. This means that an alien language will probably have "words" for activities and things associated with satisfying basic needs, e.g. food, weapon, reproduction, etc.

So that covers the basics, but how do we go from that to skyscrapers, philosophy, and space ships?
Voyager 2 Launch 1977
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

This requires a wholly different level of life—a form of life that can process complex and abstract concepts like the laws of physics, mathematics, etc. This is more good news in terms of communication between advanced species, since it means we will probably share these complex concepts between us (which again, arise out of the laws of physics). This has been the prevailing thought since the 19th century when people thought that intelligent life might exist on the moon and mars, and were already thinking about how to contact that life.

The German mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss thought that we might be able to communicate with life on other worlds, like Mars or Venus, by building huge geometric shapes in the Siberian tundra. The Austrian astronomer Joseph Johann Littrow felt we could do the same by digging long trenches in the Sahara Desert and lighting them on fire with Kerosene. In modern times the theories of shared mathematical understanding have evolved. Since an advanced civilization like ours today requires advanced mathematics, more recent attempts to come up with exolinguistic systems (Exolinguistics is the hypothetical study of alien languages) have focused on communicating with abstract mathematical concepts.

The Golden Record on Voyager 1
Image Credit: JPL, NASA

Astraglossa, Lincos, and a system using prime numbers invented by Carl Sagan all represent these modern attempts at building a cross-species language based on mathematical concepts using simple symbols.

A more ambitious attempt at alien communication was made by Dr. Carl Sagan, with the Voyager project's inclusion of the "Golden Record" on both Voyager spacecraft.

"The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, et. al. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim. Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played. The 115 images are encoded in analog form. The remainder of the record is in audio, designed to be played at 16-2/3 revolutions per minute. It contains the spoken greetings, beginning with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and ending with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music. Once the Voyager spacecraft leave the solar system (by 1990, both will be beyond the orbit of Pluto), they will find themselves in empty space. It will be forty thousand years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. As Carl Sagan has noted, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet." 
-Quoted from : Voyager The Interstellar Mission, The Golden Record page (

Although it is unlikely that any civilization except our own will pick up the Voyager spacecraft (if it's going to take 40,000 years to reach the next star system, I'd like to think we'd have some kind of star drive well before then), the attempt at communication with an alien civilization made by these craft was still a worthwhile one. Given the number of stars in the galaxy, and our recent discovery that planet formation, and even Earth-like planet formation is relatively common, building a system of cross-alien-species communication is going to be an important part of our future.

Who knows? Maybe one day there will be a Rosetta Stone software program for Kepler-62 aliens.


  1. Good post. Misunderstandings can cause arguments, fights, wars. How can we communicate with alien species if we can't or refuse to learn how to communicate with others on our own planet?

    1. Maybe the equation will change if aliens arrive here first. We might be motivated to communicate if they have their ray cannons pointed our way. Sad but true. If it's the other way around I'm a bit pessimistic about the outcome.


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