This question continues the premise set in my previous question, but do not worry, I will try to tell the most important bits:

There is intelligent alien race about 30 light years away from us. They discovered, that Earth is submitting signal. They were not able to understand it, but they were able to tell, that Earth's signal is "intelligent" one and must be coming from someone who has technology

So, these aliens built generational ship and are on their way towards us. They will monitor our signal and try to decipher it and understand us. What can cause them to fail?

  • The aliens decided to pursue us in Earth year 1960
  • The travel will take them 100 Earth years, so they will arrive in Earth year 2060
  • The aliens are highly technologically advanced, so they have on board computed of 1 PFLOPS computational power dedicated just to understand our signal
  • Whole computational power of the ship is 15 PFLOPS (yes, 15 thousand million million floating-point operations per second)
  • During the travel, the aliens will actively try to decode and understand our signal

And also: As they are closing by, the Earth's signal is getting stronger, and stronger (obviously).

For the moment, assume same hearing and vision properties of aliens as humans have. Also, aliens age at the same speed as humans do, so we will meet 5th (ish) generation of these aliens.

For my story idea, I want the aliens be able to understand us once they actually meet us. But I do not know if its possible. So what are plausible factors of being unable decipher the signal, even if you actively try to do so?

My original idea is to give the aliens some weird language. But is it enough?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    May 23 '16 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon OP is unambiguous and precise when he uses multiplicatively thousands and millions (a thousand million millions is one followed by 3+6+6=15 zeros, so 10^15, or a peta-unit). Billions/Trillions are ambiguous; look at how they differ in value under French and British long scale, and US short scale. $\endgroup$ May 23 '16 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ @IwillnotexistIdonotexist Okay, I see why the OP did that. I didn't even know there was such thing as a long scale. $\endgroup$ May 26 '16 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ Are you aware of the Voynich manuscript? As it has eluded deciphration for a century, it might give you some ideas (voynich.nu/intro.html). Another possible source of ideas is the short story "Omnilingual", by Henry Beam Piper (about an archeologist trying to decypher Martian documents without a bilingual text). $\endgroup$ Jul 14 '16 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ um .... 1 PFLOPS is far from being "highly technologically advanced". Current supercomputers have up to 90 (NINETY) PFLOPS. My advice is : at least do some googling before you create stories like that. At least choose something like YFLOPS or even scientific notation - that'd satisfy your scale .... for now $\endgroup$
    – specializt
    Dec 9 '16 at 13:05

25 Answers 25


Because they are alien.

Alien means foreign. In the truest sense of the word, that means something that isn't part of you. More than that, it's something you have nothing in common with.

So aliens are alien. Language is a barrier humans can creatively avoid. Cultural differences however are, in some cases, irreconcilable. We're all different, we all think differently, and we all have a different frame of reference. Issues have divided people from a same country. So people from different species, what are they odds they would see eye to eye?

It's really hard to imagine something truly alien, because that would require you to be alien from yourself. For two incredibly intelligent species not being able to communicate, there would need irreconcilable differences in the way they think.

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    $\begingroup$ Alien scientist: "Commander, we discovered the real leading species of Earth are not humans by decoding the most viewed videos on their intenet" Alien commander: "They worship THAT pointy eared animal? Abominable <alien expeletive>!!! That is unacceptable!!! Prepare the anihilabomb!!!" $\endgroup$
    – Mindwin
    May 20 '16 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Mindwin "Prepare the anihlab--Oh look, it's chasing a laser! Awwwww" $\endgroup$ May 20 '16 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @IllusiveBrian Nay! The aliens are probably space cartoon mice or dogs. Never gonna happen. $\endgroup$
    – Mindwin
    May 20 '16 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ "Empathy" is how we imagine (and simulate) other intelligences. Unsurprisingly, it's tailored to simulate humans, first and foremost, so we tend to make everything human-like (Thor sends lightning!). The same way, we'll try to understand aliens as if they were humans (and they will tend to do the same to us, most likely). Most of the fun is going to be from thinking we understand each other, while we actually misunderstand completely. Of course, that's nothing alien to Earth - it happens all the time even with my coworkers :P $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    May 23 '16 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Amiral: "Because they are alien" - ha. Yeah, aliens with 5 PFLOPS of computing power. Plus, you never even mentioned what type of signal the humans might have chosen to transmit. Furthermore, scientific intelligence appears within concrete formulas, it's not something arbitrary to species. I can imagine it now, aliens aborting mission. "Well, folks, we tried. But their intelligence is too god damn different, let's go home." - what does that even mean? $\endgroup$
    – Luka
    Jan 25 '17 at 10:01

N.B. I'm ignoring the distance between us. For these aliens to pick up our signal by 1960, we would have had to start transmitting in 1930, which doesn't sound feasible. Years on Earth in this answer are equivalent to alien years.

Simple. Make the signal random.

When we started transmitting the signal in 1959, we transmitted the Fibonacci sequence. After a while, we switched to transmitting prime numbers. We sent the Golden Ratio; we sent the Avogadro and Planck constants. We even sent $E=mc^2$.

We got no response. What was left for us to do? It was 1969, we were off to the moon, and we had no ideas left for things to transmit.

So we switched to sending a high-intensity random signal at random intervals. Intense enough and intermittent enough that it couldn't possibly come from a natural source, but the content and the intermittency was totally random.

Meanwhile in space...

The aliens picked up our signal in late 1959, almost as soon as we started transmitting it. It was weak, though - 30 light years is a long way, and the intensity of our signal was tiny. With such little signal to work with compared to the noise and attenuation of the signal, it was difficult to decipher.

So, in 1960, they set off towards Earth in the hopes of getting a stronger signal to decipher. And they worked, and they waited.

In 1969, 9 years after they set off, the signal was strong enough for their computer to really start deciphering - so they set it to work.

By then, our signal was random. There are no discernible patterns; they will be trying to decipher it for ever. Until they reach us, at least.

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    $\begingroup$ With satellites you actually need less signal because it's focussed on an area. The film Contact (and earlier book) does consider the world's first major transmission in 1936 - Nazi broadcasts to the world from the Berlin Olympics. It's dubious whether aliens could pick it up, but it was still the first decent-strength transmission. The next major step up from there was the broadcast in 1974 which consciously tried to say "we are here". $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    May 20 '16 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the Summer Olympics in Nazi-Germany in 1936 sent limited TV-broadcasts - and radio (talk and music) and before that wireless CW (morse), had been around for a while (eg. Titanic sent morse in 1912). All these signals would've traveled and could have been picked-up - with an antenna and/or amplifier with enough gain and sensitivity... and the aliens are very technologically advanced. $\endgroup$ May 20 '16 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ Randomness don't fly in my book. Yes, perhaps the signal they originally picked-up changed and became random; but they would start to pickup lots of other transmissions - radio, TV, cell-phone, wireless computing and other communication - as they came closer, and these are obviously not random. They would also be observing these transmissions for a long time - eg. with a gradual switch from analogue to digital. $\endgroup$ May 20 '16 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ @HagenvonEitzen Yes, some band of frequencies due "skip" when the atmospheric conditions are right - but also some of those signals "leaks" into space. And while this is great fun for HAM-operators wanting to talk to someone on the other side of Earth, is less useful for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communication... nor is it useful for a local news-show. Other bands don't skip - and again, it depends on the ionosphere... for example, the medium-band reach very far at night. TBC $\endgroup$ May 20 '16 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ @HagenvonEitzen Can also add that the first ship-transmitters where of the "spark" type - a high-voltage spark skipped between two electrodes, creating the radio-waves. These transmitters literally filled the whole radio-band - you sent on all frequencies in the band at once. Not lots of stations side-by-side as today. The Russians where the last to - reluctantly - give-up the spark-transmitters; because when you fill the whole band and blocks all other transmission, you jump the cue and will be served first... something Russian ship-captains thought was great. $\endgroup$ May 20 '16 at 19:03

Lack of context

Suppose someone kidnapped you, transported you to Russia (or somewhere where you don't know the language), and kept you indefinitely in an isolated cell for some purpose unknown to you. Your needs (food, water, entertainment, etc.) are met without any human interaction. However, they made no effort to sound-proof your cell, and the guards chat with each other fairly frequently.

How long do you think it would take you to be able to figure out what they are chatting about? The answer is, unfortunately, you'll never know for sure what they are talking about - how would you know if they are constantly talking about how big of a pain it is to be sitting there guarding you instead of all the other things they could be doing, or if they are always talking about the latest episode of a particular Russian show that you have never heard of?

There is a lot that you would pick up, however. You'd get used to their language - the way they pronounce words, the syllables they use, the general flow of sentences, etc. You'd figure out which words and phrases are the most common. However, you have little hope of connecting those to their real meanings - you have no context for what they are talking about. As a simple example, if somehow you knew one guard always used a particular adjective to describe his wife, how would you know what that adjective means? He could be describing her as skinny or fat, short or tall, or any number of other things.

The Aliens have no context

So what can the aliens figure out from analyzing our signals? From radio signals, they're going to be able to do what you could do in the hypothetical Russian dungeon - determine which types of signals are the most common, the kinds of phrases that are used, etc. They'll have no clue what they mean, but they could easily set up a radio-signal chatbot. They could do something similar with TV signals - they'd be able to tell just from how much more information there is that it's more than just audio, and I imagine it wouldn't be too hard to work out how to separate the video and audio components (audio is often constantly changing, but video often changes slowly or only has parts changing). From there, they could build something like Google's deep dream.

Again, they'll be able to analyze our signals and figure out common patterns, but they won't have a clue what they mean. This does not mean that this information is useless, though - once they reach Earth, the chatbot and deep dream programs they develop can quickly be converted into translation programs. As a part of this, they will have already built systems to convert our signals into their methods of communication, even though it will be gibberish until they get to Earth.

This will work whether or not direct communication with the aliens is possible. If these are rubber-forehead aliens (basically human with minor differences), we could learn each others' language. If the aliens have incompatible methods of communicating (such as using pheromones), we won't be able to communicate without technological aids. In either case, we can send radio signals to them, which they have been analyzing and know how to turn into something they can understand.


The aliens won't expect to be able to understand us based on our signals alone. Without context, they'll have no way to determine what the signals really mean. All they can do is analyze the signals and prepare systems that will make it easier for us to figure out how to communicate with each other once they actually reach Earth.

Note: this ends up relating back to one of my previous answers about a galactic language. We continue to use our language, and they continue to use theirs, and the common language is the radio signals we send to each other.

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    $\begingroup$ Worth adding: All spoken human languages are optimized for learning through immersion, where you not only hear the language but you speak it and people respond to what you say. The one way nature of the communication here would exacerbate the issues you mention. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    May 20 '16 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ Except they do have content, assuming they can pick up our TV. In particular educational programmes for children will be extremely useful. In the analogy you are in a glass cell and next door is a kiddies classroom. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    May 21 '16 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ @nigel222 the context they don't have is how to interpret the TV signal - how do you know their interpretation of the signal wouldn't look like nonsense to us? $\endgroup$
    – Rob Watts
    May 21 '16 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ The old analogue TV Signals are a simple raster scanned image repeated for each frame. It's hard to imagine that amy species that has attained space going technology can fail to decode that into moving pictures. Modern digital HDTV will be a tougher nut to crack. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    May 21 '16 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @nigel222 I can think of a few reasons. For example, what if the aliens are colorblind and have no concept of RBG? Or what if the aliens interpret them as CYI (Cyan-yellow-indigo)? Here on Earth, we have creatures that can see up to 17 colors. We have creatures that can see sound. We have creatures that can't see at all. Or what if the aliens developed sonar-based circular displays, that aren't compatible with Earth displays? or what if those aliens managed to develop a technique that doesn't use still frames? Assuming aliens are humanlike is really farfetched. $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    May 23 '16 at 13:59

We tend to think that everything communicates using sound. They don't. They think all communication is visual. Their skin is covered in chromatophores like a squid or octopus. They actually have interpersonal communication at a symbol rate an order of magnitude or two higher than human. And they are "deaf". They can sense audio vibrations but only as a warning of hidden movement and possible threat. On their planet evolution did an arms race between quietly moving predators and "hearing" as an alert system. Communication by audio got squeezed out early on in favour of specialized skin patches and extra eyes.

They have decoded our TV broadcasts insofar as the pictures go. But they cannot understand the communication channel. They're trying to decode the audio as a representation of an array of dots which change colour. They are also perplexed why they never see this organ on the screen. But they can see we do not have pictures with high colour fidelity and therefore assume it's some sort of weird failure to invent a sufficiently good image capture system for recording natural communication at full bandwidth!

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    $\begingroup$ This is good, except — an audio signal can be represented as a pattern of changing colors. By the time they get to Earth, they very well may have invented translator without even realizing it. $\endgroup$
    – mattdm
    May 20 '16 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ But sound is a one dimensional sequence. Their communication organ is two dimensional. So they keep trying to work out how the audio maps onto a grid. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    May 20 '16 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Mathematically, it doesn't matter. They can work it out, and probably will. youtube.com/watch?v=HTRjjKfaV00 youtube.com/watch?v=Fx0TqwVeNkg youtube.com/watch?v=tKT4pquUBI0 $\endgroup$
    – mattdm
    May 20 '16 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @nigel222 not quite. yes, it is a 1d series of values, but it can be easily represented as a 2d series of values on frequency. $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    May 20 '16 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ @nigel222 memory in your computer is 1d, yet it holds 2d images. Analog TV signal is, always was 1d. If they can somehow make sense out of our TV, they can map sound to 2d as well. We can $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    May 21 '16 at 19:04

PFlops is so low for alien capabilities I thought... They will never decode any complex analog or digital signal without knowing some basics about it. Any mathematical method to analyze a suspicious signal would not say its "purpose", because the "purpose" is not mathematical it is just how a hardware would react on that.
What they could do, is decode some primitive analog radio-signal where sound has a direct mapping to the sound - AM or FM, if they get the idea of making the FM-AM-analysis, and try to play it like a sound.

They may not understand the concept of speaking at all if they do not communicate with sound, or normal frequencies of human sound are too low/high for them.

I doubt about analog video, unless we would have very big luck and the (former) analog TV-s had pretty much same structure as on Earth, what is improbable. In the worst case, they could be blind as well, or have a very different sense organs than humans and perceive the world in a very different way.

As an example, imagine there is some planet with a liquid-like lifeform, and all information, what they perceive, is a form of their liquid body and the chemical matter around them. They are intelligent and have produced a "radio", where they store this information in analog form. A Human expedition with, I don't know, ZettaFlops capabilities flyes to them. Would it be possible for humans to understand the signal? Answer is, rather NO.

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    $\begingroup$ And even if they do understand both sound and speaking, few words have obvious meanings - with the exception of words that mimic sound like "bah" or "woof". We "understand" other languages because we know they'll be built similarly to ours (verbs, nouns, ...), will need the same building blocks (words for "yes", "no", "not", "mom", "dad"), and because many of the words actually are similar (no, nein, nyet, non, nei,... daddy, papa, pappa, ...). Ailens would obviously have non of these advantages. Pictures/movies would help pairing words with things, but TV is more difficult to decode. $\endgroup$ May 20 '16 at 21:55

Others have already talked about fundamentally different sensory organs and us sending gibberish. I think while possible this is not entirely plausible. I think it is more likely we are similar but different enough to cause problems

We see "visible light" because most eyes evolved in water and "visible light" is the wavelengths of light where water is transparent and other stuff is opaque. What about creatures that evolve on a liquid methane dominated world like Titan? We could pick any liquid on any world, but I am picking one we have sent cameras to and that I understand, but we could work it out the same way for any liquid at any temperature.

The light we see is around 400 to 700 nanometers in wavelength while liquid methane is most transparent at 938, for reference the bright red from a laser pointer is about 650nm. Methane is also pretty transparent to radar, very unlike water. So creatures with eyes evolved for seeing in liquid methane would likely see in infrared and radar would make our notion of colors and a single range of visible light meaningless. I am going to run with on big difference all "visible light" we see is one (or several) value(s) on the continuous spectrum from Red to Violet, a creature with Radar and Infrared vision would have a large gap between these colors and may not even be aware that one radar eye and another infrared eye are both in principle working on the same principles. Of course their scientists might get it, but that is different than an intuitive grasp.

Creatures with 2 "colors" of vision infrared and radar would gather very different information from their color than we do. Their reds could be what we see when we look in an infrared camera, but at the temperatures on a world with liquid methane it would behave more like our normal vision. This is because we give off infrared light because we exist at the temperatures where we are literally glowing hot infrared. A thing evolved to live on titan would not give this off so they would see passive reflections like we normally do in our color and temperature range. To look at is another way, when we make a very bright visible light source it can shine through thin walls or drapes, we do this all the time in infrared.

If we imagine them to interpret radar as blue, then they would use their blues for totally different purposes. We use color to rapidly discriminate details in materials. It seems likely we evolved our 3rd color (red) to identify plants with higher sugar content faster than other primates. What evolutionary advantage would blue radar provide? Does the creature require some metal or salt that is radar opaque? When a creature creates such societies and has radar vision how do they use it?

If we send a meaningful signal like primes and digital video we can expect some amount of understanding for that signal. What might not be clear is why a video would come in one contiguous light band. These creatures might be too familiar with discontinuous light bands and might not understand our notion of color at all. This might entirely prevent decoding of video, but even if they decode video the notion of signage and writing in a continuous band of color could seem preposterous or foreign. They may not have writing at all, or might write with metal ink so that when reading they use their radar blues and see nothing else. The idea of carefully discriminating colors to discern writing could be seen as so detail intensive as to be preposterous. So even if they did decode video so much context would be lost as to guarantee a cultural divide.

Now what does a human voice sound like on Mars, Titan, Venus or whatever planet we know about is most similar to the alien homeworld? I bet it sounds pretty different, now image these creature have those ears and are trying to play an mp3 made on Earth.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Squeaky. $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 20 '16 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ Presumably the aliens could use mass spectrography to guess what comprises our atmosphere and deduce our visible wavelengths from that. We do that with exoplanets today. $\endgroup$ May 20 '16 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ @LawnmowerMan I agree in principle they could this. If they are far from the Earth/Sol system Sol's light will interfere as it is many times brighter than earth, presumably a sophisticated Xeno could overcome this with more precision in their scopes, if far enough away they may just zoom in on Titan (liquid methane), instead of Earth. Something I think little harder to overcome is to move from raw physics into understanding. In principle physics contains all the knowledge needed to explain everything, in practice chemistry, biology and sociology each provide their own tier of understanding. $\endgroup$
    – Sqeaky
    May 21 '16 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ As long as "they" are at least 3-dimensional beings that experience time as we do, they'll have no problem decoding our video and find the connection between audio and video. We've sent so many documentaries, that they'd be quite aware of our current state of technology, biology and vocabulary. Their notion of color does not matter, as the signals could be interpreted as any colors they see fit, and with lot's of computing power, they will find suitable format for their visible spectrum. $\endgroup$
    – diynevala
    May 21 '16 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ @diynevala Of course they can decode it, and with infinite time to ponder will get every iota of meaning from it. But if they never used sound/writing/color/whatever try to understand that concept could take much more time than another thing they had used. The will probably have finite resources and will probably try to prioritize what they can get the most meaning from. $\endgroup$
    – Sqeaky
    May 21 '16 at 17:45

For the same reason as the "plug and play" trope in films is such a joke. If it wasn't for our comms standards we wouldn't understand ourselves let alone aliens. You can't use an AM receiver to pick up an FM signal. How do you expect aliens to understand anything we've broadcast?


How different from us or similar to us do you suppose the aliens to be? Not just physically, but in their mental processes?

I've had plenty of conversations with people who are fellow human beings, but who have different ideas about politics or philosophy or religion, and I have found them incomprehensible in important ways. Often we use the same words but apply very different meanings to them. Like when a libertarian says "freedom" he means something very different from a liberal's idea of "freedom", etc. I've had some conversations with people who insist that the word "truth" is a meaningless noise. Etc.

I can easily imagine alien beings who would simply be unable to understand concepts that human beings take as common sense, and vice versa. I mean I can imagine it in principle, but trying to come up with an example where the aliens think very differently from us, but still have coherent logic behind their thinking, is hard. I have a hard enough time understanding people of a different political party, never mind beings who have never thought of the idea of politics.

On a much more pragmatic level: Deciphering a foreign language is hard. Perhaps you've heard of the Rosetta Stone: Archeologists didn't know how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then they found a monument with writing in Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphics. They assumed -- correctly, as it turned out -- that this was the same message in three different languages. As they could read the Greek, they knew what the hieroglyphics said. Even given that, what should be the ideal case for deciphering a language: The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. Archaeologists figured out the first couple of words in the 1820s. They were still working on it in the 1850s. It took over 50 years to decipher a language, with scores of the best minds working on the tasks, with a translation sitting right there in front of them. And that's for fellow human beings, from a civilization that we already knew a lot about from Greek, Roman, and Hebrew histories.

Sure, they didn't have computers, and I'm sure that would have helped. There have been scholars who have spent decades just counting the number of different symbols in an unknown language and how many times each occurs and looking for patterns, tasks that would have been greatly aided with modern computers.

Of course it's much easier when you have a speaker of the language who is intelligent and willing to work with you. I've talked to missionaries who have had to decipher previously unknown languages, and they talk about simple steps like pointing to a rock and saying "rock", pointing to a river sand saying "river" and so on until the other people get the idea and start telling their words for these things. Once you both understand the process you can compile a list of nouns for everyday objects pretty quickly, etc.

Still, I think it's quite possible that, if we met alien beings, establishing communication could be a very long and difficult process.


The signal wasn't designed to be intelligible (gibberish or ordered chaos)? But in that case surely they'd realise that quickly? Unless signal was patchy, but even then, with such a mad computer it'd be able to fill in the gaps. Your god-like computer breaks (good luck getting spare parts second generation into a journey like that), consequently only basic systems (life support and propulsion/landing) work and all knowledge is lost or decays from first generation? Chief scientist dies? Mutiny or space madness kills off the adults? Knowledge is not passed on to the next generations? But in any of those cases I can't understand why they would be able to understand humans and yet not a presumably simpler signal. Would have presumed alien languages harder to decode remotely than a presumably mathematical signal.

Perhaps the most likely reason is that by fifth generation the inhabitants of the ship have completely forgotten their mission purpose. Maybe the signal was decoded early on but access to ship systems was lost or knowledge of how to access them was lost.


Ignoring some of the "speed of signal" issues I think your going to have to go with, cause there different.

I would suggest that they can understand words but not context. We have the same issue today on earth, you just have to play it up a bit.

Terms like Gateway Drug, Google It, Jumbo Shrimp. The word gateway makes sense, drug makes sense, but without thought of using drugs for recreation, it sounds more like a drug you have to take to get into someones yard. What is a Google? It's an action, in one sentence and a proper noun in another. And what is up with Jumbo Shrimp?

Take our play on words, and marketing speak, common concepts like "search" and "post", "FaceBook it", or even less technical things, like https://play.google.com/music/preview/T6b7nznx5wqm247j4zkwk7yngvq?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics

Try understanding that with no context. And not just Rap, how about https://play.google.com/music/preview/T7voykkstcjbfxy24z5ln63jyku?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics

With no cultural context, most of the gibberish we spew is just that gibberish. So I suggest, they understand the words, but without a frame of reference, it's meaning less.

On the upside once they get here, they will pick up the language concepts pretty fast.

  • $\begingroup$ "once they get here, they will pick up the language concepts pretty fast" That would seem to assume that these aliens think somewhat similarly to us, which might not be the case at all as mentioned by AmiralPatate. $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 20 '16 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, the last sentence seems to contradict the entire preceding post. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    May 20 '16 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ Not really. There is a key difference between someone explaining a thing and you overhearing a thing. $\endgroup$
    – coteyr
    May 20 '16 at 23:58

I think the answer to this question is right here at home. There are many diversified and intelligent life forms right here on earth. Not just chimpanzees and dolphins, but also corvidaes (crows, etc), octopusses, and others. They may not have well developed technologies but they do have highly advanced ways of dealing with reality. We have pretty advanced technology and have been studying these creatures for years with basically unlimited access to information about them. We aren't just limited to observing what they transmit.

Yet still we do not understand these creatures on a level that lets us communicate with them directly. They may have languages of their own, but we cannot work them out. It comes down to psychology. We simply do not share the same biology, despite the fact that we are all built from similar DNA sequences. Our sensations and ways of taking in reality are vastly different and we fail to experience the world the same way.


On the surface, culture is basically the protocols we use to relate to each other. But the deeper truth is that those protocols are dictated by the values that lie underneath. What a culture values determines how its members relate to one another. If a person from an entirely different culture comes in, with entirely different values, sees the local behavior, at best they will not be able to make heads or tails why people behave so. At worst, they will totally misinterpret and misjudge the people and their behavior.

Example 1: one of the highest values in Sawi culture was betrayal. When they were first exposed to the story of Jesus, they laughed at Jesus and considered Judas the hero. Example 2: When I saw a PNG man carrying nothing but a bush-knife, while his wife, next to him, carried nearly 100 lbs of firewood and produce, i was incensed. When I found out his traditional role of warrior forced him to be ready to fend off attackers, I thought I now understood. I was wrong. There was much more about the local history and current context that went into it.

What is it that these aliens value? Can you come up with values that would really be alien to us (because even the "negatives" like betrayal have been tried by humans)? The closest I have seen was in SF is in "The Red Planet", the martians have a thing they call "the other place" to which they go sometimes. This was a truly alien and other-dimensional kind of behavior/value. The humans did not understand their doing that, and the martians did not understand humans being limited to one "place".

One more very important thought: consider one of the most unbreakable codes in history - the Navajo codetalkers of WWII. Breaking a code that is a foreign language proved impossible for during WWI, so before WWII, Hitler actually sent anthropologists to the US to study native American languages. They were unable to do so. It takes years, with the cooperation of native speakers, hearing language and seeing it connected to meaning, to learn someone else's language. So a big key is for these aliens to be able to decode transmissions that include audio and video. Then sampling what language constructs go with what situations. Can be done.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice, I understand first example(sort of) but what is with second one. He ready to act: defend, attack, scout, maybe some status thing as result, if she is't strong enough then it will be not strong enough kids, he may get another one by killing some one, she is more protected against trowing weapon - where the catch ? $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    May 21 '16 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg - In the second example, the man was just not helping his wife to carry all the stuff. It is sort of a status thing. The garden work and carrying children and produce is seen as "woman's work" in many of the Papua New Guinean (PNG) cultures. The man's historical role as warrior meant he was carrying only weapons so he could be ready to defend if they were attacked by enemy tribes. There is not as much tribal fighting as there used to be, but the roles persist. It is a lot more complicated than that, of course, and I don't fully understand it, even though I lived there for 9 years. $\endgroup$
    – user11864
    Jul 7 '16 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I just was wondering if there is something unusual, but ok there are typical reasons for that. Thanks for clarifying, was important for me, in theoretical sense. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 7 '16 at 17:07

I would say because the aliens didn't use our form of communication at all - ie. not sight/pictures, not voice/sound, and not symbols/text. Perhaps they're a race of blind, deaf and mute telepaths - in which case whatever we send won't mean anything to them, no matter how long they observe it with their telepathy... except the very basic knowledge, that there is this planet in a distance solar-system that keep sending-out obviously non-natural radio-waves.


30 light years in 100 years. We perceive the fastest way to relay information is the speed of light. So whatever RF and microwave emissions they pick up would be blue shifted to them. Maybe they cannot sample the signal quite fast enough.

Sure they have massive computational power, but if they cannot get the raw information what good is it?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Merlin. I like the perspective. If you have questions on the site (how to ask good questions and write good answers) check out the help center and feel free to visit Worldbuilding Chat $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 20 '16 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ Hi, in case this is not just a general reminder, please point out how I should improve the answer specifically. I spend most of my time on stack overflow so this is a new forum for me. $\endgroup$ May 21 '16 at 5:51
  • $\begingroup$ I actually don't see any major need for an edit in the case of this answer. My comment was more a general welcome to the site and providing easy access to the help and chat links. :-). $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 21 '16 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ Cheers mate! Thx $\endgroup$ May 21 '16 at 21:21

Human brains are hardwired to understand human language. Alien brains won't be. We come into the world preprogrammed to understand sentence structure, syntax, tense and the like. All Mom and Dad have to do is plug in the words. They show us a fish and say fish and we are then able to use that word, by itself, eventually in a phrase and then in a sentence. When you think of aliens understanding our language you are not making them alien enough. They may communicate all or in some part by any of the senses. We use hearing. They may use scent for instance. My question back to you would be why would they understand us? As far as "the message" itself don't forget that the first "message" they are going to pick up from us is going to be old radio and then T.V. shows. Talk about things that could easily be misconstrued!


Our science is wrong:

It is a pretty common idea, in both Science Fiction and Science, that communicating with anything particularly alien will have to be built on a 'language' so universal as to guarantee that the aliens have this in common with us, and that this language can only really be maths, physics or chemistry.

Reddittors discuss here the idea of using a diagramatic representation of the periodic table as the basis of communicating with aliens.


And that would likely work, unless:

What if our understanding of the universe is so wrong that the periodic table is actually meaningless. It is either wrong, or only applicable in very limited situations, and the aliens, having evolved flasners before inventing the wheel, do not commonly/ever experience these limited experiences that humanity experiences 100% of the time. They would never have invented the periodic table, as it would not explain the world they can observe.

Similar to how Newtonian Mechanics (which is incorrect, but close enough at low speeds) would not be developed by a species of aliens for whom 0.999c is a slow jog.

So the aliens would look at the pretty picture of electrons orbiting around a nucleus, and think "these patterns are too structured to be coincidence, they must have been created by these 'humans' as part of their primitive worship of their Gods, proton and neutron.

Note: This of course covers only very alien aliens. The 'use the periodic table as a guaranteed common element' concept is only necessary if we ave nothing else in common with them. If they speak a language with sentences made out of words made out of letters then the periodic table is unnecessary and a competent alien programmer will make short work of the translation.


Because everything in encrypted in 2060

Most of the other answers are based on how different the aliens might be. However, encryption may prevent even very human like Aliens understanding our signals.

Between identity thieves, spooky intelligence agencies using data-mining and internet trolls look for offence, transmitting any unencrypted data is becoming unwise. Already we are using https everywhere is being advocated. DRM is being increasingly used for TV shows, and it is not like they will be paying $60/month for a TV decrypter box.

Perhaps by the time the aliens are able to pick up non-trivial signals such as TV, it is simply not done to transmit unencrypted signals. So when they arrive in 2060 all they know about us is that we beamed the digits of π at them between 1959 and 2020, and now all our transmissions seem to be gibberish.

  • $\begingroup$ At the moment we mostly using not quantum computing resist algorithms, wait for more ban QC resist algorithms. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 13 '16 at 21:04

Computing power and data

1 PFLOP is too low.

15 freaking petaflops per second - Yes, would I personally have such power, it would make freaking good minecraft server, huge cubic world, with huge amount of diamonds, with huge small cubic figures.

As Top500 list shows TIANHE-2 (MILKYWAY-2) in first place with 34 PFlops practical and 54PFlops theoretical performance, with 3120000 cores and 17MW energy consumption. Just for reference.

Is that power enough to understand our languages by our self's?
I would like to know, how much power google translate have, looks like still not enough.

World’s total CPU power: one human brain

To put our findings in perspective, the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that human kind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second

Why it's important
One of the approaches to understand reality and rules of the universe is to build models of it, and observe such models and change them in a way we can't do in real life. And this is a very important method of understanding.

With flying alien - they can't do experiments on humans, just because they fly in space on their ship and humans fly on earth ship.
And because of that, aliens should build some models or sort and select some models they already have. They have at least one model, and it is a model of them selfs.

By model I mean not only the current state of their existence but also their past, how did they become to live, from atoms to live.
We do not have such model, in great details, but we definitely have some pieces of that model. Also, we have more than one model, answering the question how did we come to live. And we had them, so long how long exists our species. One of the kids questions is: where I'm from.
Even bacteria have model of universe, which it uses to find food. It have no clue about fact of existing of that model, but bacteria uses it to their advantage. I mean any have at least some part of model incorporated by them selfs. And it makes no difference do they know or not about it or they just use it. These models are different in sizes, as I may describe them, but maybe they are same size each and each is fully describe the universe as some advanced alien may say. But somehow they are different, why not by size - it isn't important.

How I describe that difference, isn't important, but what I wish from them is, because my Will will determine our future interactions with this set of atoms. And knowledge will tell, what to do, to get certain results.

Xeno psychology is a hard topic to talk, and it is not the complexity of that topic by itself, but where you are on that subject.

Xeno psychology topic is very simple indeed.
god censure department
after that there was an atom, he met another atom, bunch of them and after some time he made bonds with other atoms.
And after this long story, everything gone wild and pretty complex from our standpoint of view.

I mean there are some rules in this house, and we name them physics, chemistry, biology, astrophysics, mathematics etc. And these rules are for everyone, as we think at the moment.
We can make god model where will be all sorts of creatures that may exist.
Probably this model will be big, will take some time to generate - what we may do to reduce time and efforts and data - let say we strike out all creatures that are not connected to intelligence live. Yes, we have to have some criteria for intelligence, and aliens from question have such criteria because they are decided there should exists some intelligent creatures nearby. Probably such criteria will strike out also bunch of another intelligent creatures, who do not use radio as we do, who do not have 4 legs 4 arms as we do, 2 legs 2 hands sorry misspoken, or whatsoever.
So, yes we exchange precision of our model for it to be more reasonable and useful and practical size for us to handle.
Disclaimer - I do not talk about emulating the Universe, or any sort of theories connected or derived from that concept, but about determining some probability's of something to exists, and properties of that something. It may and is another sort of reduction. It's like fractal, you may detalize it as deep as you need.

Do we have to have such still big model?
No. Probably set of rules to generate that model again, will be way much smaller then result of those models by itself.

How it helps?
We may keep one model we like to work with and set of rules to generate the rest. So when we discover something that do not fit our working model - we may run our model generator and begin to pick stuff that may describe our observation. Let say we got something that fits in our model and describes observation, we keep generator still running but it find nothing. More it works and more it's still nothing more certain it is that what we have found is the cause. We add that set of data to our model, but because we didn't run our generator until end (and actually we never did that) we mark this data by some probability for future use. So if we discover another set of observation which do not fits in our model, and with data set we added recently specially, so it may be because we waited not long enough to find real cause of first observation, strike that recent data set, run generator again and wait until another data set will be found.
Scientists are such sort of model generators, they generate models based on observation and other models. Some of them we add to our general model, some we take out of the model - but overall we extend our knowledge and our model. We have some rules to handle it, how to operate it etc.

Aliens and their poor 1 Pflops

I don't know guys, but if you fly light years away from your home to understand another, totally new and unknown set of information, I expect you to be more prepared for that event. And even not because it makes sense in terms of achieving your goal of understanding, but because Live of your entry civilization may depend on how well you did that "understanding" process.
There is something big to think about.

Big Thing

  • First of all small note. To understand some difficulties that are on the way to understanding, someone do not need aliens from neighbor star, ask people who works with people - they tell you everything about, but how you interpret that information is up to you. And probably any was an object of misunderstanding, or misjudged them selfs.
  • Or just by reading that, high probability you did not understood something, because I used my reduced models and you have your own models which looks similar, but are not quite same internally as I meant.

But what if 2 civilization in a situation where 2 models are totally different, is that a problem for understanding.
No, yet not a problem, because base of our model is exact same (probably, with high probability). And it is no even big bang base, but chemical and thermonuclear reaction as we Know from our observations are same in far far freaking far(and this time it's really freaking far) far away from us are same. We know even more More, far far back in time they are also the same.

I do not why, but that did hit me Laniakea Supercluster (we are here in that cluster if you not familiar with that everything) which is part of way more and bigger structure by itself. About redshift wiki and redshift calculator converter to statue miles here
Maybe because it's so boring and astonishing at the same time.

So our direct observation tells us how it was in time and how it is in space - about atoms and that stuff.

  • as far as we can see there will be no possible live (from common materials, and as far as we know it now) which do not share some common base with our civilization. Actually that fact played numerous times in SciFi to be some sort of key to understanding. Science bro.
  • I will not talk here why Carbon based live is more way more likely then not carbon one. (model shows)
  • I even will be not surprised if in some cases technology development will be similar, there are some key discovery and approaches made possible all we have now. I talk even not about fire or wheels but this as example three plate method or that discussion about Three plate method for true square surfaces?
    You can be without fire(sort of) but technological development will have method of making flat surfaces, and at some point it will be Principle of Flat Surface Generation something like that, it may look different, like machines which do nothing, but it's not important because you will recognize the result, and how it's done.
  • yes there may be biological civilization etc etc
    You will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 7:16

Where is big thing, though.
The problem isn't understanding, but Will.

Let say you try to understand another civilization, and you picked wrong methods for that and accidentally killed half of that civilization. Big problem? Hmm, not yet. The problem begins when you not able or have no will to change methods, or when you not able to understand grasp the fact that you are losing information by that type of actions.

And this is the Start for Big Big problem.

Let say another example, something like pikachu wish to understand humans, and his method of doing this is saying to each people what he says, each time he can. And we for some reason do not have goals to understand him, I do not know why, let say we all think it's result of genealogical creation from corporation X, and we already know about him everything, and nobody noticed that it's not true (impossible situation for us, but for some reason, for simplicity it happened).
How long it will take for us all to decide that pikachu is just noisy animal(which is for some reason not investigated, hmm, strange, we should know about his internal structures and how he operates ... censure by corporation X)? Even if it have space ship - I may make space ship for my virtual dog, why not? It will fly trough space, look at new places, wonder how big is that house, and where hides master, and then I woooph hello doggy and ..... and so on. So for how long? - just for so long enough, until any human will know what to expect from that pikachu.

So if aliens are not flexible enough, not lucky enough wrong civilization type, not experienced enough, wrong methods etc, not smart, too suspicious etc etc. Yes they may fail. Not because it's hard to understand, but because of them self's. Destruction of expedition is actually not big deal for relations for both civilizations. Even war isn't big deal - it also may be method of understanding. But you should feel where to stop, and change method.

Goal of understanding Aliens

There is only one goal, extend you universe model.
Which form it takes: technology exchange, knowledge, war - is not important. More peaceful ways may be preferred because the destruction of information works both ways and your model can be destroyed, and that nullify all your actions, everything you have done to build that model. Not mean everything will be peaceful but less destruction less probability to be destroyed.

What gone wrong with aliens from the question

They took way much reduced and simplified the model, and they are not experienced in other civilizations, probably it was first one.
They fly with reduced models, only tech tree and rules for generator to establish here some computer center with 1025 Flops and quantum coprocessors over 9000 Flops each to run model generator. But accidentally they were confused with some pirates and were destroyed by Network it just so happened, there are some rules u know.

But they did good, Network council got information about their existence and send them green peace people, who were sad about destruction of that alien ship, for future contact development. Network council send expedition on 0.99c to that alien star, That's why no one has forgotten his goal and what to do next.
Also were sent expeditions for all stars nearby alien star, just as for information support and running model generators from the energy of that star, in case if they are free, or if not, then also making contact. There were also probes sent, to be recon for expeditions, expeditions should be able to prepare them self's for different scenarios, taking information from recon probes into account, keeping the connection between expeditions and sending information to Network council.

This also was reason for Network council to decide take some actions inside our system, like get and utilize all energy from our sun, disassemble Jupiter for fuel, send expeditions for surrounding stars, all stars in 50 light years around, establishing their computer centers and using all their star energy, to generate models from alien remains, by that establishing Interstellar Network to counteract and understand.

Actually, there was some cascade of different actions, everything Network council was not sure about in the past, or lazy to do, or deemed as not necessary to do. Aliens existence was like throwing a big rock in a tiny pond. Aline figure sales skyrocketing, games kill the alien, love the alien, teach alien wisdom, Mad Scientist discovers the Truth rumors, even a small war happened (Goons won).

There is some informational problem

Decoding signals is some problem, but not big one, 1PFlot isn't enough for that, but in early stages technology was pretty limited with what can be done, and how it could be done, and determine possibility's is easier then generate biological creatures as example. Which we also may have to generate for determining possible tech evolution of that civilization. So signals are not big deal, maybe also some encrypted too. They should fly and collect all information they can, and probably not with one ship but Set of them, forming big interference receiver, some 100 a.e. receiver dish or more if needed. If you are not ready for space scale actions, but too curious to stay home until you will be ready, then be prepared to give you destiny in hands of another civilization and prey you ancient gods for they be smarter then you and worthy of that gift, and be it a gift for them, and you lucky enough.

Just get to the system, stay, observe, and wait until senpai will notice you, stay alive. The last one is very important, it shows you reaction on possible methods they may use to understand you, and that will show you are not like other matter, you different from any typical substance they may seen before.
If you have to destroy something, to stay alive, destroy it. If you have to kill, kill. Not you choose methods.
Do what you wish to do, react. But be not super excited with destruction, be flexible change you strategy. it may be so that they are not excited about your existence at all, so maybe go home for a while to think, work with models etc. Prepare better, if they are able to exist as whole, there is something they like, there are ways to deal with them.

  • If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are. STNG


  • This model isn't full, and some sort one sided, something I skipped for shortening that story, something I have forgotten, something I do not know, something is wrong. But I give it as it is, GNU power.

  • TV Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation

  • There is some interesting literature about problems of understanding, not in order, all are good:
    A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
    Echopraxia by Peter Watts
    Роза и Червь by Роберт Ибатуллин

  • Here you can play God for creatures with simple and clear rules, and get some grasp of evolution processes, if you observed it less than 2 months for 24/7 so it may be so that you waste your life just now, sorry no offence, but really just try to understand their live, they are aliens, here it is critterding
    It much more fun if you may grasp programming involved and tune it for your self's.


Perhaps the signal was effected somehow as it left our solar system, and the data was corrupted. For example, as it passed through a nebula it was corrupted, but due to difference in technology the aliens weren't able to detect or repair the corruption. However, when the aliens got closer to Earth, whatever obstacle was corrupting the signal would have been passed but maybe they were so close (and English was such a foreign language to them) they didn't have enough time to fully understand it.


They failed math class and their spaceship was a gift from "god/advanced race/long lost history".

Once you have patterns, you have language. If aliens have no scientists, code breakers, or even anyone who is interested in a puzzle, that's the only way they can fail to understand some kind of signal.

Sure, they can misunderstand the signal, but they'll still decode the message. The only way to prevent them from decoding it is to make it so they won't, or have not evolved to a point where they understand that the signal has meaning.

Maybe the best way is that the spaceship is a gift from deity, and they are to Press The Red Button, which takes them to the next source of The Signal. Then they go there and <kill/eat/get eaten>.

  • $\begingroup$ This gets me wondering. What if Google had one piece of code in it's 2 billion lines of code where they were stumped. Logic would suggest they'd move to math, to try and figure out what stopped their understanding of what they were deciphering. If this fails, they might try and guess work it out. Or...>They'd Google it $\endgroup$ May 22 '16 at 4:16

With Google and Facebook having their big data released to the use of marketing and military applications, humans have developed a number of AI's to assist and enhance human interaction. There is augmented reality, totally handsfree world-wide communication and complete man-to-machine neural interfaces.

At the same time, religious groups and power-hungry dictators are starting world war III, reducing earth's population to thousands. Television and radio quickly become extinct as there are no actors, studios or Hollywood. More importantly, there is no audience or even advertisers to support broadcasts. Remaining computer networks are used, fixed and improved. Earth stops sending any signals as there aren't any towers standing or satellites flying. The only wireless networks are strictly local (and/or optical/directional such a laser) as a precaution against any remaining threats.

Aliens might have been able to follow our culture and situation up until now, but with their journey already on it's last quarter, they'll at least come check out the now-silent planet.

The rich and intelligent have survived the war in their shelters, where they develop and evolve further into half-men-half-machines. With seemingly unlimited resources and technological advances, robots are quickly developed. Robots clean up the ruins of war, farm vegetables, salvage materials, fix and build more robots. Common jobs are medical, scientific and supervision of robot labour.

Latest generation of people is able to share experiences, emotions and even their personalities real-time as they are always online, and with heavy collaboration on their daily tasks they learn to communicate more efficiently. A new language is born and quickly distributed throughout the entire connected population. Technologically assisted telepathy is an understatement as humanity is so fused together.

When the aliens arrive, all they see is this blue and green planet and it's robots gardening it. Humans, when finally found, have technologically evolved far beyond from the original man the aliens spent decades getting familiar to.

Hope they come in peace.


Even if we work out ways to communicate, there may be very fundamental ways of misunderstanding each other.

For instance, Richard Feynman on the importance of discerning left from right:

To illustrate the whole problem still more clearly, imagine that we were talking to a Martian, or someone very far away, by telephone. We are not allowed to send him any actual samples to inspect; for instance, if we could send light, we could send him right-hand circularly polarized light and say, "That is right-hand light—just watch the way it is going." But we cannot give him anything, we can only talk to him. He is far away, or in some strange location, and he cannot see anything we can see. For instance, we cannot say, "Look at Ursa major; now see how those stars are arranged. What we mean by 'right' is ..." We are only allowed to telephone him.


In short, we can tell a Martian (...) "Listen, build yourself a magnet, and put the coils in, and put the current on, and then take some cobalt and lower the temperature. Arrange the experiment so the electrons go from the foot to the head, then the direction in which the current goes through the coils is the direction that goes in on what we call the right and comes out on the left." So it is possible to define right and left, now, by doing an experiment of this kind.


So if our Martian is made of antimatter and we give him instructions to make this "right" handed model like us, it will, of course, come out the other way around. What would happen when, after much conversation back and forth, we each have taught the other to make space ships and we meet halfway in empty space? We have instructed each other on our traditions, and so forth, and the two of us come rushing out to shake hands. Well, if he puts out his left hand, watch out!


As others have mentioned it is really actually not that much computing power which could cause a problem on it's own, to put it in perspective 1 PFLOPS is approximately the single precision floating point performance of just 142 Nvidia GTX Titan GPU's. Granted here on Earth those things cost around \$1,000 a unit but still that would make 15 PFLOPS worth have a price tag of around \$2,100,000 dollars. If we somehow assume that these aliens despite their clearly far more advanced spaceflight technology somehow only have similarly advanced ability to produce computational power that we do this would seem a strangely small amount of processing power to pin your hopes on for a mission that would probably cost the equivalent of several billion dollars to design and construct.

That said ultimately for decoding meaning from human language realistically even massive amounts of computational power may not be of much help here this is because put simply human language is not merely a code that can be cracked. Or more importantly even if you could actually break it down into words and extract the lexical information from the language what you have is effectively still incomplete.

In a way a text file for example containing written language could be regarded as an incomplete datafile that is in reality nothing more than a complex set of references to something else. Lets call the something else here the concept dictionary, now while we may have never written such a thing down we all have one of these it's the product of our experiences, knowledge of humanity, culture and all the information that we know and have picked up through shared experience of life on this particular little rock in space.

The context dictionary is the part that you are using if I say "cat" and you know that a cat happens to be a furry animal and a lot of other descriptive information, you also probably know that humans keep these animals as pets, various facts about the species and a whole host of other information that allows you to truly understand the concept of a cat and what I am talking about.

That context dictionary is something that the aliens will not have they are not human, they don't know how it feels to be human, they have no knowledge of human life and culture, they do not know Earth, what sort of flora and fauna exists on Earth or anything about how the various plants and animals are used and their relationship with humans and human culture or for that matter anything about what it is like to live here on this particular planet.

This would make deciphering any meaning from language almost impossible, interactively with a lot of time and effort it seems that an intelligent alien and a human could work with each other to pick up enough to make some sense of each other but it would take a significant prolonged effort on both sides to actually teach them the human concept dictionary and for them to teach us theirs. Since it works both ways we would be in the same position trying to understand anything they tried to tell us about their home world, culture and life there since we are missing the conceptual information to relate to that experience without being taught.

Even with additional context it can be hard to understand what is actually being expressed take the cat example again, say you didn't know anything of the language or for that matter anything about Earth or cats if I pointed at a cat and say "cat" you wouldn't know that word referred to all instances of animals of that type. For all you know I could have just said my pets name, or maybe I said animal, mammal, pet, furry, black or other descriptive terms. It would take a lot of time and work to pick up enough to truly understand which it was and only by effort and repetition noticing the patterns of how and when instances of words crop up again etc.


To build spaceships and travel the outer space, you have to be capable of some talk. This means your aliens would have a language or code.

However their communication might be different from human natural language, syntactic denotation-oriented approaches allow disambiguating any communication code, provided the users of the other code cooperate with you.



If you think about friendly aliens, there might be little point to make them incomprehensible.Champollion managed even without friendly visitors, focusing on syntax and denotation. :)




I think the greatest obstacle is that their crew will be intergenerational. What warrants that the grandchildren of expert linguists and cryptographers will have any interest in alien culture and languages?

But I think you are misrepresenting their efforts.

Suppose you don't know, for instance, Portuguese. And that you want to decypher it. What do you do?

You pick a Portuguese text you receive, and send it back:

Dangerous aliens who love the samba: João e Maria foram passear na floresta

You: João e Maria? (or, even better, João e Maria foram passear na floresta? What does that mean?)

Similarly, your aliens would start repeating our transmissions back, until we became aware that for some strange reason our transmissions were being repeated, with curious codas.

Of course, there would be much more difficulties in doing that than in an attempt to establish communication between two humans who speak different languages - first of all being that we make transmissions in which the original code is reencoded into eletromagnetic signal - and then quite likely reencoded again for information security - which means that the aliens will be in trouble to understand whether what is being broadcasted is an electromagnetic version of the Odissey or a picture of Jennifer Aniston - ie, text or image (and it can get even trickier if their concepts of "text" and "image" aren't as clearly cut (and at the same lines) us ours). But the basic principle is, if you want to understand what others are saying, you try to engage in conversation.

But, of course, perhaps they - or a faction among them - don't want to understand us? That would be a formidable cause for non-understanding/misunderstanding.

  • $\begingroup$ problem is a bit deeper then language understanding. Valid point about generation ship problem and overall about dialog. Sending signal back and getting response will take 60years. Take borgs as example - they constantly wish make dialog, but constantly are misunderstood, because of manners and their needs. It's hard to talk to bees, but dialog with them is possible, but not necessary they will understand that this is dialog. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 14 '16 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ There are reasons to first understand in which way dialog is possible. Take look at movies. Day we will just know they are flying, or something is flying, will divide us at least in to 2 categories - this is good, this is bad. Resistance is futile. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 14 '16 at 16:13

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