Two vastly different alien races, on opposite sides of the universe, have made first contact.

This has been possible by one of the races developing new wormhole technology and randomly finding a repeating signal from the other.

Both races are along way off sending matter through the worm hole, instead they can only communicate with simple symbols. Only a small package of binary data can be sent through at any time, and it takes hours for the data to travel.

The only thing they initially have in common is when they decode the binary data it forms graphical symbols. So at this stage they both understand their transmitted data packet can only be a binary representation of symbols, anything more is noise. I'm thinking perhaps each package can only contain 3 symbols.

The question is how would these two races now find a common ground with the symbols they are sending each other and how would they start to decipher each others language?

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    $\begingroup$ See this : linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1001/… $\endgroup$
    – Ephasme
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Ephasme You're skipping a fundamental step where you know where one symbol ends and another begins. $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Neil you're right. I still think the good old method of detecting patterns will work. $\endgroup$
    – Ephasme
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 9:15
  • $\begingroup$ For arguments sake, can we say that both sides understand what a symbol is, and somehow they know what a whole one is... $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Ephasme If it were a system like ours, probably. However there is nothing which says that 10 can't mean "A", 110 means "B", 1110" means "C", 1101 means "D", etc. $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 9:31

5 Answers 5


Really, this comes down to how similar their psychology is.

The universal rules we can rely on are things like maths, so a good starting point would be to send sequences of prime numbers or Fibonacci sequences back and forth until all numbers are understood.

From that you can then start moving onto chemicals and elements, hydrogen. Helium, etc.

From there you can start building into more abstract subjects.

There has been a lot of discussion and research done into the field of communication with aliens so it would be well worth you reading it.

Note that sending 3 symbols doesn't limit anything. So long as you can send 2 symbols (or even one and a pause) then you can send binary data. Once you can send binary data it is just a matter of working out a mutually agreed encoding and you can send anything.

  • $\begingroup$ I like how the programmers/engineers get to interface with the aliens first. Then the mathematicians, then the scientists. Maybe after a few generations the politicians can come in too. Maybe. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh NOOOOO. never let the politicians talk to the aliens. 10 minutes after an alien talks to one of our politicians were find out they decided the universe was safer if they just blue up earth :P $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen Unless... politicians are aliens... :/ $\endgroup$
    – noncom
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 0:02

Try and transmit simple mathematical relationships in binary numbers.

0000 0001 0010 0011 0100 0101 0110 0111 1000 1001 1010 1011 1100 1101 1110 1111

Repeat multiple times. Then something interesting in the numbers range from 0 to 15. Addition and subtraction? The goal is to communicate that the transmission is mathematics.

Then transmit Gödel numbers for mathematical theorems. Many of them. Hope they recognize the concept and some of the theorems.


There's a common notion I'm familiar with that if you have the same information in at least three different languages, then you can decipher and translate that information by comparing the three and unlock them all. I remember reading this in several novels and in a few places online. So for example, we could send the aliens a single book in English, French and German, and they should be able to use those texts to translate and learn all three by some sort of computerized comparative analysis.

I think this concept is based on the Rosetta Stone, but I'm not 100% sure it's true. My understanding of the Stone is that we already knew one of the languages and just used it to translate the other two, so it doesn't seem obvious that it would necessarily work with three totally unknown languages. I'm not finding any references or articles that explain why this is actually possible, but it would probably work as a story concept regardless.

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    $\begingroup$ Pretty sure that only works if you already know one of the three languages. For instance, examine the case of using three languages that are simply dialects of one another. Give me three dialects of Mandarin Chinese and I'll have no idea what to do with them. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 15:03

If only 0s and 1s are being sent without any form of context, how can the data being transferred be correlated with the ideas being represented? The people at the receiving end would have to compare the signal patterns being received with a database of all known natural patterns in the universe in the hopes that some kind of match is found. Even then, you're hoping that the format of the data collected on those patterns matches the format that the signal is encoded in.

Eventually it might be possible to establish a basic dialog strictly in terms of natural phenomena this way, but how do you advance from there to more abstract concepts like philosophy, personal identity, culture? That would depend on an understanding of how natural phenomena affect the other species, which is impossible without context (biochemistry? physiology? psychology?). If any of these things were known you'd have a leg up (e.g. if they breathe oxygen and are fatally allergic to hydrogen, you could associate the concepts of "positive" and "negative" with patterns which map to these elements), but you know none of these things.

Ultimately, all you could do is communicate about the wormhole. Perhaps the species that opened the wormhole could work with the other species to stabilize the wormhole enough to facilitate transfer of matter, so they can meet face-to-face or else somehow gain data about each other's nature that can be correlated via observation to those signals.

Other than that, it's a long shot to believe meaningful communication would be possible.


The OP doesn't say but I'm going to assume 8 bits to a symbol, for a total of 24 bits per packet (this is an unusual packet length but we'll roll with it. ATM frames are 424 bits, so it's not too weird.)

Symbol Conversion

An alien can't automatically translate a given binary pattern to a given symbol. Remember that everything in a computer is binary, all the instructions, all the data...it's all binary. What matters is the context of a particular binary sequence. For example "0x30" (hex) or "0011 0000" (binary) can mean a lot of different things depending on where you find it. If it's an instruction on an Intel x86 cpu then it's an 'XOR' command. If it's in ASCII, then it's '0'. Translating binary strings into symbols isn't automatic.

Progression of Concepts

Binary first. This should be painfully obvious from watching the radio amplitude or frequency graphs. Two groups with sufficient technology to detect and utilize a wormhole will certainly understand binary.

Endianness next. Endianness determines if the first bit in the stream is the largest value or if it is the smallest value. This should be able to establish with some simple addition. Adding '001' to '001' is '010' establishes big-endianness.

Operations next. Sending through strings of basic operations like '000001 000001 000001 000010' and '000010 000001 000001 000000' would be enough to establish 'add' and 'subtract'. Each operation string will ensure that the aliens know how to execute a specific command.

They would send back a similar set of operations from which a primitive CPU and memory model can be derived. With that CPU model, we can start running their programs and they can start running ours. Distinguishing between programs and data can be specified by specific binary sequences. Essentially, we're telling them we both know about and know how to build a Universal Turing Machine.

Programs and Data

Eventually, when you've established a set of operations, then you can start sending them programs and data. With a program, you can convey pretty much anything. Images, maps, 3D models, anything you want. Any data we send them will be subjected to statistical analysis so over time, we could teach them English and they can teach us Alien. This would be a very lengthy process but ultimately doable.

We require more bandwidth

Bandwidth is going to be a real problem very quickly. The search will be on for faster means of transmitting data. Every scientific profession under the sun is going to want to ask questions. The cosmologists will want to know if the aliens can see a place where there are no stars or the cosmological microwave background is different than ours. They will have similar questions to us too.


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