Missing the point

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The next-to-latest xkcd:

There must have been many SF stories based on the premise that searchers for ET signaling Just Don't Get It, but I can't think of any.

Probably related: I can't think of any scientifically-plausible way to cash that premise in, other than dull things like really slow-moving sentients using nanohertz-range modulation of a spectrally prominent carrier.

No doubt some readers can remedy these deficiencies of memory and imagination.

[Update — I didn't mean stories about how ETs might actively prevent us from seeing their signals, or the signals of others; nor stories about how ETs might be so alien that communication would be impossible, so that even when we find their signals, we can't make sense of them, or perhaps completely misunderstand them. Those are both good themes, found in lots of stories that I can think of, and no doubt many more that I don't know.

What I had in mind was something more strictly analogous to the plight of the ants, who have looked carefully for chemical signals, but (presumably) have failed to consider the intrinsically implausible hypothesis that an intelligent and social species might make use of frequency-and-amplitude modulation of air-pressure variation at time scales of a hundred microseconds to 10 seconds or so.]


  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 6:38 am


  2. fs said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 6:39 am

    I believe you will find this page quite relevant, for what it's worth. Enterprising Wikipedians postulate there many perhaps plausible explanations for SETI's lack of success.

  3. WAT a guy said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 6:55 am

    Take a look at Stanislaw Lem's book "His Master's Voice", which deal with this subject:


    Lem is a much-underappreciated writer, IMHO.

  4. Dave C said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    My favorite example of a story along these lines is Stanislaw Lem's "His Master's Voice", about the difficulties inherent in actually interpreting an extraterrestrial radio signal.

  5. Nick Lamb said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    That Fermi Paradox page is a pretty good categorisation of the stories that have been written

    Iain M Banks' Culture stories have Earth as a "control" case in the Contact section's ongoing experiment. That's a "Zoo" scenario from wikipedia. But Culture stories assume FTL travel and other implausible things.

    Stanisław Lem also did some good stuff on the ethical problems with simulating a universe (e.g. ours) which contains sentient beings (the "Simulation" scenario), arguing that they're indistinguishable from "real" sentient beings and you have ethical responsibility for them which means e.g. it's not OK to just terminate the simulation when you're done.

    Greg Egan wrote at least one story where it turns out everyone smarter than us has evacuated long ago, something quite terrible is about to happen in our corner of the universe, and when we're finally smart enough to decode the first message we (Humans) detect from another civilisation it basically just says "Run!"

  6. John said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    @Nick: Beat me to the punch with the Stanislaw Lem reference. Actually I was going to mention his novella "Solaris." One of the main themes in that story is that even if we did find an intelligent alien life form, it might be be so different from us that meaningful communication with it would be practically impossible.

  7. greg said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    I've always enjoyed Terry Bisson's Meat Beings for a look at the situation from the other side.

  8. Nick Lamb said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    Yes, all the aliens in the "serious" fiction from Lem are pretty unintelligible. Eden / The Invincible / Fiasco, the humans struggle to work out what's going on, but make little progress. He goes further, the AIs in Golem XIV are completely alien too. GOLEM is able to engage in something resembling a conversation with humans, for a while at least. But HONEST ANNIE doesn't relate to humans at all – a conspiracy to destroy it is foiled without any sign that ANNIE even noticed the plan, just as you are generally not conscious of your immune system destroying potentially dangerous bacteria.

  9. Shmuel said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    Of course, we knew that ants existed before we knew that they communicated with pheromone trails.

  10. Gwillim Law said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    What struck me about the cartoon was the word choice. Ants and most other animal species already possess sentience, "feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate). Is this a specialized science-fiction usage of the word? I would have used "consciousness" or perhaps "sapience" instead of "sentience".

  11. Sili said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    This makes me think of the found poetry of Donald Rumsfeld.

    The means of communication is a known unknown, but that doesn't bring us closer to solving the problem. Add to that the unknown unknowns, which are obviously utterly unknown.

  12. JJM said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 9:27 am

    For some reason, all I can think of is this observation by "archy the cockroach":

    i once heard the survivors
    of a colony of ants
    that had been partially
    obliterated by a cow s foot
    seriously debating
    the intention of the gods
    towards their civilization

  13. Jim said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    I remember one book in which the punchline was that the universe was actually much older than we believed, and the cosmic background radiation we thought came from the Big Bang was actually highly compressed (and thus apparently random) data transmissions.

    In the Orion's Arm setting, there's also a project called the Reality Intratextualization Project, which puts a model of the entire universe through mathematical transforms that result in radically different physics which nevertheless still represents the same reality, and then looks for life in these transform universes.

  14. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    I think I got this from Dawkins, but I may be mistaken. (I may well have read some of it here.)

    The idea referred to the kind of sonar used by things like bats and cetaceans to "see" their surroundings in an absence of light. Part of the idea is that what we with eyes "see" is actually a mental construction based on certain stimuli. So there is no reason to think that bats, say, only "hear" their clicks and squeaks; presumably, their brains are also capable of creating a "visual image" of their surroundings. (Cf. recent work in the electro-stimulation of the tongues of the visually impaired.)

    BUT. Since sounds can be reproduced by sophisticated earth creatures in a way that light reflections cannot, it may be possible for bats or dolphins to recreate a sonar experience for a fellow bat/dolphin simply by generating the sounds that corresponded to the original experience. The effect might be analogous to playing back a videotape of everything a human witnessed through the eyes. Emotions and other subtleties, I guess, might come across as shades or colorations.

    Communication in this sense becomes not a matter of transmitting signifiers, but of creating virtual signifieds.

    A technological species capable of the same process might have real problems communicating with another technological society that is not so capable.

    [(myl) Well, a suitably motivated cephalopod might be able to use its chromatophores to display "I Love Lucy" reruns…]

  15. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    Wasn't there an episode of Star Trek on this theme (ahem!) that had hyper-accelerated aliens? I'm not a Trekkie, honestly, and it was a few years ago, so this may be wide of the mark.

  16. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    … and extending the debate to the theological …


  17. HP said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    The comic refers to the Subanthropic Principle, proposed by Beatriz Gato-Rivera in 2003 as a response to the Fermi Hypothesis. Paper here (PDF).

    [(myl) An interesting reference, but not really relevant to the comic:

    The Subanthropic Principle states that we are not typical among the intelligent observers from the Universe. Typical civilizations of typical galaxies would be hundreds of thousands, or millions, of years more evolved than ours and, consequently, typical intelligent observers would be orders of magnitude more intelligent than us. The Undetectability Conjecture states that, generically, all advanced civilizations camouflage their planets for security reasons, so that no signal of civilization can be detected by external observers, who would only obtain distorted data for disuasion purposes.

    xkcd seems to presuppose that the ants are roughly as intelligent as we are — at least, their communication is translated into English in a way that suggests this. And the signals that the ants in the comic are failing to notice — speech, not to speak of various radio-frequency signals — are not camouflaged at all.]

  18. Alyson said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    It seems to me that the comic is stating that we are looking for the wrong things, or that our search parameters are too narrow. The ants assume that because they communicate through pheromones all other intelligent forms of life must also communicate through pheromones (which we know isn't true). However, when you look at how we search for extraterrestrial life, many times there is an assumption that we are looking for something that requires oxygen and water (just like we do).

  19. JLrep said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Gwillam Law:
    Sentience is a pretty common term for the perhaps-indefinable thing (perhaps the soul) which, whether animals have it or not, is a significant question. The question as I understand it is essentially whether animals (especially animals like insects) can be said to think in a manner analogous to how humans think, or whether they are more appropriately thought of as machines.

  20. Aaron Davies said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    @Gwillim Law: "sentient" has been used for quite some time in SF to mean "intelligent".

    @Spell Me Jeff: there was a minor case of this in Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, where the "Spiders" have much better eyesight than humans, and find all our artificial imaging technology (TV's, etc.) crude to the point of not being able to recognize the images being shown.

    @sleepnothavingness: i think most cat "owners" would happily agree with the first theory.

    @everyone: the closest example i can think of is Sagan's Contact, where it takes everyone ages to figure out that the alien transmission is phase modulated–since all we use here on earth is amplitude and frequency, it simply never occurs to them to check.

  21. Jay Lake said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    Speaking as a professional science fiction writer (don't try this at home, kids!), your idea of:

    other than dull things like really slow-moving sentients using nanohertz-range modulation of a spectrally prominent carrier.

    ..is actually pretty damned cool. I wish I'd thought of it.

  22. Noam said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Ender's Game

    [(myl) Failure to communicate, yes. Failure to recognize the existence of signals? Not that I can remember.]

  23. ø said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    display "I Love Lucy" reruns

    A flounder could give it a good try, too.

  24. Nathan Myers said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    I gather that octopus, like Vinge's spideroids, see motion in video only at frame rates much higher than we normally use.

    Radio transmissions these days are routinely amplitude, frequency, and phase-modulated. The more they would seem like random noise, the more information they can carry per unit of spectrum the occupy. Anybody a little advanced would only be recognizable as a point source of noise, with no need for encryption. But anybody a little advanced would routinely encrypt anyway, as a matter of courtesy to the participants, just as our Bluetooth (phone headset) and GSM (cellphone) signals are encrypted.

    I wrote on what seems a closely related topic, linked from my name above:

    Here we all sit with these huge brains we're so proud of. Using them, we can throw a rock to knock down a bird. We can invent mathematics, and organza, and politics, and hard questions. Meanwhile, the lowly starfish creeps along the ocean floor, eon upon eon, nibbling, nibbling. It has no brain. It has no head to put one in.

  25. Deanna said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    The Star Trek episode you're thinking of is "Wink of an Eye."


  26. Michael Prytz said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    I do recall a science fiction story that fits the bill. It was structured as a series of one-paragraph vignettes portraying scientists from a number of different alien civilisations, each one puzzling over why they had had no response to their messages. And of course each civilisation was sending messages in a completely different way, over a completely different medium.

    Can't remember many more specifics than that.

    I think the story might have been "The Signals" by Francis A Cartier.

  27. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the dolphins were telling us all sorts of information and trying to warn us that the Earth was going to be destroyed, but we thought we were just seeing a neat dolphin show.

    I can imagine how a bee (famous for communicating by "dancing") could enter the real world and soon conclude that people rarely talk to each other — there's so little dancing!

  28. greg said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    Ender's Game

    [(myl) Failure to communicate, yes. Failure to recognize the existence of signals? Not that I can remember.]

    It was mentioned that they didn't understand how the Formics communicated prior to the events in the story. After Mazer Rackham destroyed the first Bugger fleet, they were able to study the remaining live Formics and from that were able to develop the ansible.

    [(myl) You're right. And they're Formics, too, for added relevance. But is the physical medium of the ansible channel ever explained?]

  29. John Ellis said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    While not quite SF, this cartoon reminded me of Kafka's Investigations of a Dog.

  30. chris said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    @Andy Hollandbeck: of course, yes, dolphins of Hitchhiker's! This was exactly the sort of thing that Douglas Adams loved. His spiritual brother Terry Pratchett wrote something very similar in his digression on inspiration in his novel Sourcery:

    Why the gods allow this sort of thing to continue is a mystery.
    Actually, the flash of inspiration needed to explain it clearly and precisely has taken place, but the creature who received it -a small female bluetit – has never been able to make the position clear, even after some really strenuous coded messages on the tops of milk bottles.

  31. Alan Walker said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    What would an alien culture make of the Voyager Golden Record, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_Golden_Record – a gold-plated copper gramophone record placed into a couple of 1977 space probes?

    For that matter, if the record somehow found its way back to Earth in the far future, would anyone have a clue what to do with it?

  32. Nathan Myers said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

    Evidently (evidantly?) the ansible (antsible?) involved leaving scent trails in the ether. What nobody explains, though, is why the Buggers, equipped as they were with ansibles from the beginning, ever bothered putting any actual crew on their ships. I guess we'll never know, seeing how they're all dead now although it's not really Ender's fault.

    The ants, when they do get their sentience on, ought to invent the Turing Machine way faster than we did.

  33. greg said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 10:42 pm

    [(myl) You're right. And they're Formics, too, for added relevance. But is the physical medium of the ansible channel ever explained?]

    Card created philotes to explain it.

    The term 'ansible' itself was invented by Ursula K LeGuin in her novel The Dispossessed as a shortening of 'answerable' and has been used by Card and a dozen or so other big name SF authors for instantaneous communication devices.

    And, Nathan Myers, the Formics aren't all dead. Unless you've not read the rest of the series, in which case I've just ruined some of that story line. Sorry. They didn't use ansibles either. They were just able to communicate via philotes.

  34. Robyn said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    Our instruments are not remotely powerful enough to produce gravitational waves, and not quite sensitive enough to detect them.

    Perhaps a sufficiently advanced and affluent technological society (who eat black holes for breakfast) could transmit messages using gravitational waves.

    Doesn't seem very likely, but it's good enough for a sci-fi short.

  35. Nathan Myers said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

    greg: No danger of that. I find the whole premise of the series, like Card himself, deeply repugnant.

  36. Jason Eisner said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    @Gwillim Law: I think the caption means that the colony as a whole has achieved consciousness. It's not relevant whether individual ants are sentient. They are like neurons — they act locally, unaware of the lofty thoughts and plans of the colony as a whole.

    (Douglas Hofstadter popularized the ant colony as a metaphor for the brain, e.g., in Gödel, Escher, Bach, which is probably popular among the xkcd audience. Many people have studied "collective," "societal," or "swarm" intelligence, both in its natural form and in AI algorithms.)

    The allusion is undermined a bit by the picture, which does seem to show an individua ant talking to another. But maybe that's artistic license, or maybe it's the colony as a whole talking.

  37. Don Sample said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 1:35 am

    I can't remember who wrote it, or exactly when, but I did read a story a couple of decades ago (probably in Analog) where the SETI people weren't noticing the deliberate attempts of aliens to communicate with us because the aliens were using things like modulated gravity waves, and artificially induced auroral displays.

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    To start with the on-topic part: In Sheri Tepper's Dervish Daughter and Jinian Star-Eye, set on another planet, there are "dream crystals" of uncertain origin, which give people hallucinations or cause compulsive behavior. It turns out, if I may spoil this trilogy of trilogies a bit, that the crystals are messages from the planet that people have been ignoring.

    This brings me to Terence McKenna, who as I recall thought that natural psychedelics and hallucinogens were Gaia's neurotransmitters, which we ignored at our peril.

    Experiments have suggested that religious experiences are the result of anomalous events in the temporal lobe. Others have said that the experiments show that the temporal lobe is the organ of transcendental perception, and people who don't have religious experiences may be spiritually blind.

    Not sf: Lorenzo's comment on the music of the spheres (Merchant of Venice V, i):

    Such harmony is in immortal souls,But whilst this muddy vesture of decayDoth grossly close us in, we cannot hear it.

    (though there seems to be some debate about the wording and meaning of that last line).

    There must be passages about how we can't perceive the utterances of the angels, gods, etc.

    @Deanna: That Trek episode reminds me of Katherine MacLean's story "Pictures Don't Lie" (1951). My childhood memories of it still make me shiver—which doesn't mean it would have the same effect on an adult now. (Thanks to Mike Stone at rasfw for the ID.)

    @myl: "But is the physical medium of the ansible channel ever explained?" I wish!

    @Greg: I'm disappointed to learn the etymology from "answerable". I'd hoped it was from Latin *ansere, because it jumps the instant you goose it.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    @greg: While I'm at it, "ansible" appears in Le Guin's first novel, Rocannon's World (1966). Here are the hits from the 1966 edition (if you trust the metadata at GB).

  40. Boris said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Did anyone notice the irony of the floor tiles being man-made? I wonder what this is supposed to parallel. Was our world created by aliens?

  41. Nathan Myers said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    Boris has hit it.

  42. Bryn LaFollette said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    Speaking as a life-long lover of Science Fiction and with all due respect to Science Fiction authors and enthusiasts of the speculative fiction arts, I think these sorts of questions generally give short shrift to the scientists who developed the SETI program. Most all of the points brought up above have, for the most part, already been considered and, in one way or another, been addressed. I had the opportunity to take a class on the subject from Dr. Frank Drake while he was at UC Santa Cruz titled "Life in the Universe". I think most who have not read up on the nitty-gritty technical details of SETI and also of the formulation of the Drake Equation seem to assume that these issues have been overlooked without ever bothering to research the details (a theme commonly taken to task on Language Log).

    The Drake Equation factors in the issue of the method of transmission as well as the issue of whether at some point civilizations would "go silent" for whatever reason (our own civilization has "gone quiet(er)" within just a century or so of the development of broadcasting technology simply from the advent of more direct forms of satellite/ground communication and cabled transmissions). As for the choice of where to look for a directed, electromagnetic signal, and what sort of transmission method to look for, it's worth reading up on the "Water-Hole". The sky is a big place, and there are a lot of issues, technical and philosophical, about where and how to start looking for extraterrestrial civilizations.

    The overall point, though, and I think the XKCD comic is actually parodying those that miss this point (the role-over text mentions the importance of the Kepler Mission, which can only serve to help in SETI research), is that, yes, there are a number of assumptions being made in the SETI program (one is that the civilization will be intending to be found, and is going to try to use the most common and basic method possible for making itself "seen", another is that they will want to be understood, and will be basing any attempts to be understood on universal principles of physics as observable in the universe), BUT even if they do succeed in finding the sort of signal they're looking for (and the chances on succeeding even if all assumptions are true are not knowable) they will not be taking this to mean that they believe there to be no other intelligent life in the universe.

  43. Bryn LaFollette said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    Oops. That last line should have read: "…BUT even if they do _not_ succeed…"

  44. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 4:28 am

    Aaron Davies mentions how specific are photographic and motion picture technologies to human visual perception. I recall coming across a mention that some CETI (Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempts (such as the Voyager record) had included color photographs and even video and I was quite surprised by this.

    Color is particularly problematic as it doesn't exist in the real world, but only as a product of the visual perceptual systems of many animals. Worse, all our photographic color reproduction technologies exploit the particulars of human color vision to reproduce the experience of color while not at all reproducing the actual physical phenomenon which creates it in the original scene.

    So a color photograph is doubly dependent upon a context that aliens are very unlikely to share.

    Motion pictures are less obscure, but still problematic. As mentioned above, they exploit the particular properties of the human persistence of vision in our visual and perception anatomy. Other species on Earth, like the octopus mentioned above, can resolve much smaller units of time visually and so, to them, our motion pictures are just sequences of still images. Nevertheless, a sequence of images is still fairly self-explanatory.

    Color imagery is, as I said, much more obscure and I think would be incomprehensible to aliens without explanation, unless they have in their ecology a parallel.

    It turns out, though, that these CETI scientists were smarter than I had given them credit for. They provided all the context necessary to decode color images—they described the spectrum of the Sun's light along with the human biology of three separate visual sensors sensitive to different ranges of frequencies in that spectrum. Unless the aliens also have the perceptual experience of color, there's no way that they would likely be able to truly understand the significance of what those three spectral ranges of visual information mean to us. But they'd still understand that our color imagery is a composite of sampling three different frequency ranges of the same visual field.

    On the other hand, as color imaging utilizes quirks of our color perception to reproduce the experience, but not the actual frequencies of light, of the original scene, I think some color imagery would greatly confuse and mislead them unless it was carefully selected against such an outcome.

  45. Aaron Davies said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    @Bryn LaFollette, you may want to consult XKCD's previous take on The Drake Equation. Of course, XKCD being what it is, that could be tongue-in-cheek too…

  46. George said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    Imagine (forgive my lack of science):
    Stars are sentient, and seemingly random variations in the fusion in their cores actually carry information/thoughts/self-awareness the way the movement of electrons and chemicals in our heads does. They communicate to each other via solar wind or luminous output or something else that occurs on a time scale too long for any humans to notice.
    If this were the case, we wouldn't recognize it as communication, and probably wouldn't even know how to look. The same way highly intelligent ants see us every day, but wouldn't imagine that changes inside us are thought and that vibrations we produce are communication.

  47. Garrett Wollman said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

    Forgive me for stepping in long past this conversation's sell-by date (i've been on vacation in the wilds of northern (and central and southeastern) Minnesota. This discussion reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?", reprinted in Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998), which is about the philosophical search for terrestrial, as opposed to extraterrestrial, intelligence.

  48. Robert said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:32 am

    `other than dull things like really slow-moving sentients using nanohertz-range modulation of a spectrally prominent carrier.' — Hal Clement's The Foundling Stars is based on such an idea.

    [(myl) The same concept, but only half-way there. According to this plot summary,

    these aliens live so slow lives that by the time a couple of sentences worth of conversation among them ended, "both Elvin Toner and Dick Ledermann were dead of old age."

    If "a couple of sentences worth of conversation" is the equivalent of 10 seconds of human interaction, and if it takes 100 years for Toner and Ledermann to be thoroughly dead, then the time-scale difference is 31536000/10 = 3,153,600/1, or about a factor of 3 million. This will change the ten-kHz-scale modulation of human speech to 10^4/(3*10^6) = 3.3*10^-2 Hz, or around 3 centihertz. To go from 3*10^-2 to 10^-9 is another factor of about 3 million.]

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