May 20, 2020
Greetings all—and a warm welcome back for another episode! Today’s show is a conversation with Daniel Oberhaus. Daniel is a staff writer for Wired magazine and the author of the book Extraterrestrial Languages, published by MIT Press in 2019. The book charts the history of humanity’s efforts at “interstellar communication”—our attempts to send messages to the stars in the hopes that alien life forms might receive them. Daniel and I talk about what these messages have contained, what forms they’ve taken, and the thinking and theories behind them.
As you might guess, the history of interstellar communication is packed full of colorful episodes, charismatic characters, and quirky passion projects. But it’s also full of deep questions—questions about the very nature of communication, about the essence of human language, about why minds think in the ways they do, about the origins of mathematics, about what can and should be said on behalf of our species—or our planet. Apologies for the long list, but there really is a lot in play here—we touch on a bunch of it but for the fuller story, I definitely recommend you check out Daniel’s book.
Thank you so much for joining us, as always. Enjoy and take care!
A transcript of this interview is available here.
Notes and links
Most of the topics we discuss are treated in detail in Daniel Oberhaus’s book, Extraterrestrial Languages.
2:38 – In 1960 the mathematician Hans Freudenthal published a book called Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse. Here is Daniel’s original article profiling Freudenthal and his ideas.
5:08 – There were a number of fanciful early schemes for communicating with aliens. For example, Carl Friedrich Gauss, better known for his contributions to mathematics, reportedly proposed building a large right triangle as a kind of message.
10:30 – The Arecibo message was devised and sent by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan in 1974.
11:25 – Two important acronyms in this world: the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) and messaging extraterrestrial life (METI).
14:40 – In case you need a refresher on what an exoplanet is—as I did—here is a place to start.
20:38 – For more on the idea of Mathematical Platonism, see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A few alternatives to Mathematical Platonism have been proposed, including the theories of Embodied Mathematics put forward by George Lakoff & Rafael Núñez in Where Mathematics Comes From.
27:00 – A brief survey of the different numeral base systems used in across human languages.
30:50 – Another analogy: decoding alien messages might be like decoding ancient scripts like Linear B.
34:20 – For more on the dolphin whistle research we discuss, see here.
36:16 – Noam Chomsky’s idea that recursion is a key—perhaps the key feature—of human language is controversial. For discussion of this claim—and an equally controversial rejection of it—see this article.
48:30 – Here is a list of the musical recordings that were included on the Golden Voyager Record.
51:20 – For more about the Cosmic Call messages, see here.
53:10 – The controversial Pioneer Plaque image.
56:49 – The website for METI International.
1:03:30 – The 2015 announcement of a $100 million donation to fund SETI research is discussed here.
Daniel Oberhaus’s end-of-show recommendations:
Intelligent Life in the Universe, by I.S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan
Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, edited by Carl Sagan
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://www.diverseintelligencessummer.com/), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Hilda Loury. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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