Alien Etiquette 101


Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: Hey, welcome to the podcast. This is Robert Lamb.

Julie Douglas: I'm Julie Douglas.

Robert Lamb: Tell me, Julie, have you ever been stuck on an elevator and find yourself in a situation where you feel like you have to make small talk with another person, a stranger?

Julie Douglas: Yeah, it's touch. Usually, you just sort of look around and for some reason or another weather is pretty reliable as a topic.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's instantly relatable. Everybody has to deal with it and opinions are not going to vary too much.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, it's not a lightening rod subject usually.

Robert Lamb: Unless lightening rods are the subject, I guess.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, then that's an entirely different elevator you're in. And it's a pithy subject. You don't have to spend a lot of time on it.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. So it's relatable. But there are all these cultural things, too. You're talking to somebody that you have no idea where they're coming from on hand gestures. I believe it was Amanda Arnold, a How Stuff Works editor who blogs for Coolest Stuff on the Planet. She did this really cool blog entry about how different hand signals mean vastly different things, depending on where you are in the world. Like a thumbs up is great here. Other places, you'll get attacked for that. Making a little wolf sign with your hands, over here that means you're rocking out or enjoying heavy metal. Other places, you're saying something bad about somebody's mother.

Julie Douglas: Showing the bottom of your foot, too, right, when you cross your legs?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, that's Thailand. That's a huge thing there. When my wife and I visited there, that was something that you're just on edge about the whole time. "Oh, my goodness. Make sure I do not gesture with my feet when I sit down. Make sure I don't cross my legs so that I'm pointing the bottom of my foot at somebody." And even in the airport leaving and flying on Thailand Air, they had a separate container for your shoes to be x-rayed in, separate from the rest of your stuff. The idea of putting your shoes in with your pocket things is just not acceptable.

Julie Douglas: It's insane, yeah.

Robert Lamb: So it kind of washed off on me and I still find myself - I'll be in a meeting here at work and I'll be like, "Oh, my goodness. Did I just point the bottom of my foot at my boss? What am I thinking?" And then I have to remind myself, "He doesn't care because he's not Thai."

Julie Douglas: Right. But that makes me think of how difficult it is to actually communicate with one another.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and that's just on this planet.

Julie Douglas: Right.

Robert Lamb: So when we start talking about the possibility of speaking with other worlds and other interstellar civilizations it gets entirely more complicated.

Julie Douglas: Right. Because, how would you even know what the cultural norms are of another civilization?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Or what you have in common with something that lives on the other side of the galaxy and evolved in completely different situations.

Julie Douglas: Which leads us to our subject today, which is - all right, if we do actually engage in conversation with these beings -

Robert Lamb: Yeah, what's the etiquette?

Julie Douglas: What do we do?

Robert Lamb: How do we behave? What do we talk about? How do we talk about it?

Julie Douglas: Yeah, who's regulating this anyway?

Robert Lamb: Turns out a lot of people are giving it some serious thought.

Julie Douglas: And it's been in the news lately for a couple of reasons - one because I think there were some ex-military personnel who signed an affidavit that basically said, "Hey, we saw some UFOs hovering over our military site. And we've got to put that out in the open." And then there was what has turned out to be a false rumor, that Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman was to become the UN spokesperson for earth just in case the aliens engaged us.

Robert Lamb: Okay. So if the aliens contact us and it's the middle of the night in Malaysia, then people are like, "Whoa. Hold on. Give us 30 minutes. We have to go wake somebody up."

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and they're like, "Hey, Othman, you're on deck." Right. And again that turns out to be false. But definitely aliens are on the mind. And in fact, there's a booking company that places bets that actually has 100:1 odds - they're offering this - that either the U.S. president or the serving British prime minister will announce existence of ETs within a year of the bet being placed.

Robert Lamb: I wonder if you can place bets on whether it will be announced during elections or in the lead up to elections? I wonder what works? If you want to be reelected, do you tell everybody there are aliens or do you sit on it?

Julie Douglas: Right. I don't know. We need to talk to some bookies about this, all the different factors that contribute to the odds. But in any case, it's definitely on our minds. And there are a couple of reason for that, beyond the fact that it's been in the news. One of the reasons is because of the SETI Institute. And these folks make it their job to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That's what they do day in and day out with satellites. They're basically cosmic eavesdroppers if you will, searching for some sort of signal that our little green friends are out there. And they're pondering in a significant way what would happen if they are out there. What if we did establish contact?

Robert Lamb: And one of the key ingredients in their belief - and a lot of people's belief - that there is intelligent life out there somewhere is the Drake equation. If you look at the entire equation, it's the one that looks like N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L. And these all stand for different things. N equals the number of communicative civilizations. R equals the rate of formation of suitable stars. fp is the fraction of those stars with planets. Then it breaks down along the lines of the earthlike worlds per planetary system, the fraction of those planets where life actually develops, the fraction of life sites where intelligence develops. And it gets into communication issues as well.

So we can't say definitively what the value would be for each of these letters. But we can make educated guesses. So when we make educated guesses, we plug all those numbers into the equation we get a very rough estimate of how many intelligent civilizations there might be. And based on Drake's own current solution to his own equation, he thinks there would be 10,000 communicative civilizations in the Milky Way.

Julie Douglas: Right. And again, this is rough science. So there are a lot of different parts of this equation that are drawing criticism.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, people will put in different numbers and say, "Actually, it's not 10,000. It's more like one."

Julie Douglas: Or 50.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it varies tremendously, but it's something that gives people a lot of - I don't know if hope's the word. I think there's a lot of concern and fear about the possibility of there being something out there. But a lot of people continue to work for SETI because they believe there's a good chance that it's there. And if it's there, we need to know about it and line up protocol.

Julie Douglas: Right. And I think the fact, too, that astronomers have discovered that there are 300 planets beyond our solar system, there's the idea that one of them could be an earthlike planet and therefore could produce life forms. So given everything that's been in the news, the fact that SE TI is making this grand exploration into the question of extraterrestrial life, the Drake equation - I think it's all pointing to, it could happen in two years. It could happen in 40,000 years. We're not quite certain. We've got some math and science to bear out different results. But what if it did happen tomorrow?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, what would we do? Would we be in a situation where it would just be chaos? Would it just be everybody with a radio station and TV going on and pretending to be the spokesman for humanity?

Julie Douglas: Right, introducing themselves as the President of the United States or the president of the Ukraine. I don't know.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, people using it as an excuse to appeal to voters or to slam candidates - the sky's the limit. So you end up having to have some sort of protocol in place, some sort of body that can direct policy.

Julie Douglas: And a little thought into how can you effectively communicate, given that it's hard enough for us to communicate with one another let alone some sort of being out there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Because in an elevator, the message is pretty simple. It's, "Hey, guy. I'm a normal dude, too. The fact that we're talking to each other and stuck in this elevator is not weird at all."

Julie Douglas: Right. Right. That we're sealed up. No, you're right. If you're reading between the lines, you're saying, "I won't threaten you. You won't threaten me either, right? Yes, the weather is great outside." So what do we actively think that we've been telling aliens?

Robert Lamb: Well, I like to think of it in terms of Facebook. Not because Facebook is constantly on my mind, though I do have to use it for work so I guess it kind of is. But on Facebook you have your profile. Your profile is out there. And certain corners of that profile, depending on how you have your settings, may be locked. So if somebody's not your friend on Facebook, they can't see everything about you. Maybe they can only see your picture and some basic stats. And you have no idea who's looking at it. It could be people from high school that you don't want to have contact with. It could be crazy people in other countries - aliens surfing the Internet.

And that's the thing. We have a lot of information out there that's just leaked away from the planet and is conceivably available, such as TV and radio signals.

Julie Douglas: So for the last 50 years we've had some leakage, so to speak.

Robert Lamb: Yes. And there are actually some really cool charts online that show just how far they've spread and to what stars these different shows have reached. There are portions of the Milky Way that are getting The Untouchables or they're getting Gilligan's Island or Buck Rogers. It's cultural leakage through television expanding outward.

Julie Douglas: So if some being were doing some cosmic eavesdropping, that being would say, "Wow, these people are nuts, maybe. They've gone through a lot of strife. They've created a lot of strife. They've had moments of grace and they have Jersey Shore."

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so it's like, "What kind of message are you sending us?" Especially if they choose to just focus on the second World War and Jersey Shore. I hate to be too pessimistic, but if you had to compile an argument for the eradication of earth just based on television programming, you could probably make a pretty strong argument.

Julie Douglas: You're right. It's a bleak thought.

Robert Lamb: And heaven forbid aliens get hold of our Internet, there's just so much stuff out there. We put so much of our culture and our global civilization into television and the Internet. It's not necessarily the best argument for who we are, or not the argument we want to put forth to other planets. It would be like if you had your complete Facebook all the way open to everybody in the world. And a potential employer logs on and they're like, "Oh, he's really a fan of these films that are weird. His profile picture is his Halloween costume and he looks like somebody I don't want to employ." It's that kind of thing. We have a lot of stuff that we don't necessarily want to put out there for public consumption in the universe.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, so where to begin. If we're going to describe ourselves, what's the best way to do it? We're pretty complex, multifaceted human beings. It makes me think of one of the first things to go out there in a very -

Robert Lamb: Yeah, an actual -

Julie Douglas: - organized way - which is the Pioneer Plaque in 1972. This was plaque that was adhered to Pioneers 11 and 12, the spacecraft. And it has an image floating around right now of a woman, a man, the solar system, the sun, a side section of the spacecraft - a couple of other things on there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, there's a hydrogen molecule diagram. Also, on the map of the solar system, it shows the trajectory of the craft to show where it came from and where it's going. And some other stuff, too, about the frequencies of pulsars to enable other civilizations to potentially determine the time that has lapsed since the Pioneer was launched. And to show that, "Hey, this is the ship. These are the creatures that made the ship. And this is a general idea of their scientific proficiency."

Julie Douglas: Right. And where we earth is in the solar system, the side section of the aircraft as it relates to the dimensions of a human being. So trying to give some sort of scope on that. But what I think is really interesting about this is, if an alien were to intercept this, I still think it would be a little bit baffling.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. We bring a little anthropomorphic chauvinism to just about anything. So you look at these people. At the very least, we know it's an animal, a human. But that doesn't mean another civilization, another alien species, would be able to look at that and figure out what it was. Is it a living thing? Is it sculpture? Is it a rock formation? Is it just lines? You think of just human neurological things like face blindness and the like, things that prohibit the mind from understanding a form.

Julie Douglas: Something out of context.

Robert Lamb: Right. So they could look at it and maybe they could tell, at the very least, that it is not a natural composition. But who's to say they could decipher anything beyond that?

Julie Douglas: Right. It might even look like a cave drawing to them, so primitive that they have to stare at it for a very long time and say, "Whoa. Wait. Hold on. I think this is some sort of object that was useful to them." But I want to look at the drawing a little closer, because it says a lot to us as a culture. If you look at the drawing, you've got a male and female and they're both nude. By the way, this caused some controversy when it first came out.

Robert Lamb: Oh, yeah. I have to read this. I got this out of one of Sagan's books. It's a copy of a letter that went into the Las Angeles Times. The Times had published a picture of that image on the front of the newspaper. And this person wrote in and said, "I must say, I was shocked by the blatant display of both male and female sex organs on the front page of the Times. Surely this type of sexual exploitation is below the standards our community has come to expect from the Times. Isn't it enough that we must tolerate the bombardment of pornography through the media of film and smut magazines?

Isn't it bad enough that our own space agency officials have found it necessary to spread this filth even beyond our own solar system?"

Julie Douglas: It's awesome when you think about it, especially in the context of 2010. This image is really puritanical, looking at it now. But at the time, it was interstellar pornography some people thought. And you have the male, who is signifying a goodwill gesture with his hand up.

Robert Lamb: He looks very awkward.

Julie Douglas: He does.

Robert Lamb: I think it drives home how ridiculous masculine nudity is anyway.

Julie Douglas: I was going to say he looks really uncomfortable. He really wishes he had his clothes on, I think. And then you have the female standing next to him. And the weird thing about her is that she's not signifying at all. She's not waving, so that's saying something right there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, she's kind of being antisocial.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. This is the female. She doesn't speak.

Robert Lamb: The man will do all the talking.

Julie Douglas: Right. I am the master of the universe is what that's saying. And the female is shifted slightly to one hip. So one of her legs is at a 45-degree angle. It looks a little suggestive. And if I were an alien and I could start to pick up on the nuances here, I might think that she would be open to dinner and drinks later.

Robert Lamb: Well, part of that is that she does look more natural. The guy just looks very stiff.

Julie Douglas: She does. She actually looks like she's used to being naked a lot. And it's the '70s when this is being drawn, so it's very possible that this is modeled after someone.

Robert Lamb: Another interesting aspect of that, speaking of her nudity in particular, is NASA officials censored this image before it could go out. It was originally - and this has been discussed enough that nobody at NASA even denies it - they decided to edit her a little bit so that she's not completely anatomically correct. She's more Barbie doll than smut magazine to use the language of the LA Times.

Julie Douglas: To be specific, the line that would define the vulva was erased. With the male, it's still very simple but it's obvious that there's some frank and beans or something.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I can imagine aliens looking at this and going, "Where does that even go? How does this work? I don't get this."

Julie Douglas: Yeah, I don't get this.

Robert Lamb: Clearly these are two different asexual species.

Julie Douglas: Right. They lay eggs in the water and then - yeah. I wouldn't be able to get a lick of sense out of this if I was an alien. But it is fascinating because it really is spelling out who we think we are, at least in 1972. And the other thing I was thinking about is, the plaque we know is going to exist well beyond our lifetime - so, I don't know, 40,000 years from now someone could intercept this. So we as a race might evolve into a very different type of being than what's represented in 1972.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, not to mention - this is the human body in its uncostumed form. When you talk about the future evolution of humans and how wearable computer technology factors into it, this may not be a complete picture. Even if biologically we don't evolve all that much, will this be a good image of what human society is that far into the future?

Julie Douglas: Right. Presumably, we'll have certain types of equipment attached to our heads. At least we think this right now.

Robert Lamb: And if we end up having more of symbiotic relationship with our technology, factoring in things like the idea of a technological singularity where computers exceed human capacity and we end up with something like in the Iain Banks Culture novels where we computers are looking after people and taking care of all the real serious stuff while humans this free society where they do what they want and don't have to worry about any kind of serious situations. Maybe in that respect, it make sense that Voyager's there in the background. And maybe they'll say, "Hey, there's the computerized machine that actually does everything. And these are the naked people who just do what they want."

Julie Douglas: There's their god in the background. But that's what I think is very interesting, this little time capsule that's shot out there. But it's not the only one.

Robert Lamb: Right. We followed this up with the Voyager missions. And we were a little more robust with this mission. My understanding, is Sagan wanted to actually include more like naked photographs - something very clinical just to show exactly the human organism. And that was completely censored and I think they went with a silhouette instead. But we also included the Golden Records.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, the Golden Records in which - there are 116 images on this record. There are greetings in 59 languages. There's bits of femora so to speak, the sound of a kiss -

Robert Lamb: Wind and thunder, birds, whales, other animals, 55 languages, printed messages from President Carter -

Julie Douglas: I don't know why I'm laughing about that. He's a wonderful man. But, yes I guess it's just the quality of, "Oh, well, It's 1977. Again, here's this representation of life specifically in this one year in this universe." Which is funny.

Robert Lamb: And we included, I think, some classical music.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. And it is definitely a fuller representation of the human experience in 1977 rather than this crude line drawing from the pioneer plaque. But I think what's interesting about it, too, is that - actually, this was a piece on NPR. They talked about how Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, his second wife - that period in time, that Golden Record is in a weird way an example of their burgeoning relationship when they were falling in love. And I thought was interesting is they also recorded the electrical impulses of Ann's brain and her nervous system, turning them into sound. And then the hope was that maybe in 1,000 million years some alien civilization might be able to turn that data back into thoughts.

And at the time, when they were recording that, she actually meditated on the awe of love and being in love. So it's such a romantic scientific thing. You've got to love it.

Robert Lamb: Wow. It is. It's a great story of scientists in love. If you haven't heard it, it's well worth looking up.

Julie Douglas: Absolutely. But, yeah. Here's more pieces of data that we've flung into space trying to explain who we are.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's interesting that we include the music and the art. I was reading some stuff from Paul Davies, the cosmologist who's a really awesome guy. I got to interview him for a Discovery news article earlier this year. He's a brilliant dude, very relatable, and could just break down these topics with ease. But he pointed out that art and music are very tied to our cognitive architecture. In one sense, music is a great example of who we are. But it's something that an alien species could easily have no frame of reference and just totally not appreciate it on any level.

Julie Douglas: Right. It might be some kind of weird squawking thing that we do.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. So in a way, it's the perfect example of who we are, but there's a very good chance nobody could read it.

Julie Douglas: Which is interesting because in talking about how we could communicate with aliens - and this is what SETI's really been cueing itself up to think about - music has come up as one of the ways that might be a language that we could share. And what I'm thinking about, too, is there was a workshop that the SETI Institute had in Paris in 2002. And they invited people from all different disciplines, and they got them in a room and said, "Let's start thinking in a very serious way about how we can communicate with aliens effectively and what modes we can do that in. How can you help?"

Robert Lamb: Was this college credit?

Julie Douglas: No, this was an actual workshop. The college credit came later.

Robert Lamb: Okay, because I could just imagine a lot of jocks signing up for that one thinking it's going to be an easy course.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, they'd be like, "We just say hey." Not to stereotype jocks, because you wouldn't say that if you were a jock.

Robert Lamb: They're not listening to this show.

Julie Douglas: They may be. You never know. There could be a jock scientist out there. We salute you.

Robert Lamb: Prove me wrong, jocks.

Julie Douglas: But there was actually a college credit that you could get at the University of Wyoming in 2008. It was a program sponsored by NASA. And the name of it was called Interstellar Message Composition.

Robert Lamb: Very nice.

Julie Douglas: They had 11 students. The students were asked to ponder how aliens might communicate, whether they'd be able to translate human language, and if they'd be able to see or hear them. So those were just some thoughts to get them going.

Robert Lamb: Thinking outside the terrestrial box, really.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. This is their college think tank, I suppose. If you look at what SETI's doing, it's actually pretty interesting. They are picking the brains of everyone they can about this problem of communication. How do we do it effectively? And one of the communications that came out of it was from a student who wrote a poem about menstruation with syllables arranged in the Fibonacci sequence.

Robert Lamb: A poem about menstruation.

Julie Douglas: Yes. Now, women do represent 55 percent of the population, so that might be an interesting tidbit to share with the aliens. Though out of context, I don't know that -

Robert Lamb: I'm just thinking when I meet people - the first thing out of their - I feel like I have met people before where the first thing they say does relate to menstruation. And it makes the rest of the conversation a little awkward for me.

Julie Douglas: This is the perfect point that people have people have been making about what we're going to say to aliens. Do you lock down Facebook style some parts of your personal profile so that you don't scare people off? If you meet your neighbor, you don't necessarily say, "Hey, I'm so-and-so and in about an hour I'm going to be completely ripped and naked in my back yard." These are not things that you normally say to someone if you're that person who does that. But Douglas Vakoch, SETI's interstellar communication guru, basically says we should be transparent about who we are - not necessarily talking about menstruation or binge drinking.

But being more transparent about who we are as a human race, that we do have a lot of strife. We do have warfare. He feels like being honest out of the gate is going to put us in a better position.

Robert Lamb: With any relationship, it's the idea that if you hide too much of who you are, if this relationship is going to blossom, then that stuff's going to come out. So don't lie, "Oh, we've never had wars. Wars? What are you talking about?"

Julie Douglas: Did you get that out of that leakage?

Robert Lamb: That was fiction.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. That was just a show about that.

Robert Lamb: So you let them know off the bat.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. So I do think that's interesting. And I do think the other interesting part of this effort to try to communicate is that people - in particular, SETI - are trying to regulate it. And space lawyers are getting in on the action and helping to create protocols so that not just every Tom, Dick, and Harry can put something out there and try to communicate with aliens. So we'll do it in a responsible way.

Robert Lamb: Or not everybody can do like in 2008 when Doritos used the observatory in Svalbard to beam a commercial 42 light-years across the galaxy. That was a little disappointing.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, I have a metaphorical tear going down my face right now. That's just so sad. I guess that's why you need space lawyers, right? Not just to take out litigation over disputes among astronauts, but to possibly say, "You're violating code XXJY7. Please, Doritos, don't do that again."

Robert Lamb: To go back briefly to Paul Davies, he's on SETI. He's actually the chair of SETI's post detection task group. The idea being that if we detect human life then they call up the task force and Davies and company march into a special control room and start figuring out what they're going to say. But I read an interview where Davies pointed out what he thought were the key things to hit during any kind of communication with an alien civilization. Number one, there's no single government on the plant - which I guess is good if they just tune in and catch something out of a destabilized region. You can use your imagination.

No corner of the world is a good representation of the whole, so you wouldn't them to get that impression. And then also there's no unitary political philosophy or ideology. Again, if they were to just tune in and pick any religion or pick any political party in the world, then you could probably pick out some extreme things that would make them raise an eyebrow or whatever the alien equivalent is. And he also said that it would be important to stress that we are a great place for freedom if not anarchy. And we would want to put together the best possible coherent package about what we are.

Again, it would not be saying we don't have wars, but here's an example of what's great about us.

Julie Douglas: So it would be like a user's manual. Here's earth and human beings and this is how we work.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. "Here's a list. This is us warts and all, but we're going to highlight some stuff that's good." You highlight the music and art and humanitarian stuff. But it doesn't need to look like a declassified CIA document where you've marked out every horrible thing that's ever been done.

Julie Douglas: Right. And then I guess it wouldn't be like the onions are dumb world, either. You'd want to take out some of the sarcasm.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. But one thing that Davies also stressed is that he thinks that in communicating with another civilization, it's like the weather being the one thing that we would have in common with the stranger in the elevator. Well Davies says the one thing we would have in common with this galactic stranger would be mathematics. So all these things that we just listed, we'd have to somehow find a way to communicate them through pure mathematics, which is quite a challenge.

Julie Douglas: Again, I think this is why SETI is thinking about this now and inviting so many people into the conversation - artists, musicians, astrophysicists, anybody - to say what the common language is that we can speak in. And I do think the music thing is interesting, but right. If you don't have a context - but music is based on mathematics and what sort of mathematics would they be using anyway? Would our mathematics look so primitive that it would be like, "What are these scratchings here?"

Robert Lamb: I really like the idea of a future where all communications with an alienation species are conducted by really talented DJs. So if you want to convey a certain feeling that we have, the guy goes in and grabs records and starts mixing stuff together.

Julie Douglas: I love that, too. I like your idea of - you did this with unihemispheric brains where if you were only using one side of your brain, you wanted to have some sort of system where you could tell people, "Don't ask me a really hard question right now. I'm using half of my brain." So I'm liking this, too. I think that music could be a wonderful way for us to try to communicate with each other.

Robert Lamb: Well, everybody listening out there, you'll have to tell us what you think - if you're a human or if you're an alien. I don't know. Just putting that out there. We might have some alien listeners. Thanks for listening.

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