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One property of life is communication. In particular sound is very useful due to it's non-directional nature. An alarm call is heard by every member of the pack and warns them immediately of the danger whether they are looking in the right direction, or asleep, or doing something else entirely. It also travels around corners, allowing you to hear the alarm call even if you have something in between you and the lookout.

For life-forms evolved in space, for example Could life form in outer space? then sound would be almost completely ineffective. It could be used when two life-forms are touching each other or touching the same solid body but not when they are separated.

What could they use to serve the same purpose as sound does for earthly lifeforms? A mechanism that they could use for communication with each other and that has similar useful properties to sound waves. Is there anything that could take the place of sound as an alarm, warning, or distress signal?

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm sort of surprised that no answers below mention projectiles. Or threads. $\endgroup$ – Mooing Duck Feb 9 '15 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MooingDuck Hitting a target moving in 3 dimensions with a laser is hard. Throwing an object at it is much, much harder. Now do it from 100 to 100,000km away (useful space distances). $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 10 '15 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern: It's also hard to accurately find and grab a branch while falling out of a tree, so much so that nearly half the human brain is more or less dedicated to it. But I see your point. $\endgroup$ – Mooing Duck Feb 10 '15 at 0:16
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    $\begingroup$ I think a bigger question is what they might consume for energy and reproduction. I think the very nature of space necessitates the need for close proximity to matter concentrations, where use of sound waves can be more ... useful. I imagine sound travels better in a nebula than in open space, so if we came across space life, I suspect it would be in the environment of a matter concentration, making it more likely that they actually would/could evolve hearing. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Feb 10 '15 at 4:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Flotolk That's a separate question. There are many possibilities though including solar sails, ballistic trajectories by pushing off rocks. They may even carry rocks or water with them to throw as propellant. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 16 '15 at 18:37

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Yes; Bioluminescence!

You could use bioluminescence! It has been well documented that many deep-sea creatures use bioluminescence, and a popular theory for many of them is that they use various lights to communicate as well as for lures.

For instance, many types of cuttlefish use light shows to attract mates. They're effectively saying "I'm awesome, mate with me," which seems to get the job done. Obviously, you could use such a thing for communication in space, but not in areas where individuals are heavily obscured.

Edit: On Wave Properties of Light, and Problems With Communication

(Inspired by Peter Masiar's Comments). There are some problems with using light to communicate in space. You need to overcome these problems:

  • You need to decide on some part of the EM spectrum to use, and it's preferred to use something that doesn't fry your creatures every time they want to communicate. (Of course, they are in space, where frying or freezing is a real issue.)
  • Objects can obscure your signal. Unless these creatures are star-sized massive, or interact on that sort of scale, you can say light does not bend around corners. Some light can go through the corner, but then you run into the problem mentioned earlier. Also, that energy for communication needs to come from somewhere, so less energetic light is better.
  • Your creatures need to be paying attention. This is common for any type of communication, though. I suggest more eyes in more places if you're using light to communicate.
  • False Signals. Space has a lot of stuff in it, and that stuff produces light at many frequencies. They would need to be complicated enough in their communications that they can distinguish between a communication signal and a pulsar.
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  • $\begingroup$ but light does not go around the corner. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Feb 9 '15 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar Actually, it does! We don't really see it often, but it is one reason why 1 light source can provide light to a room. I'll address this in my answer. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Feb 9 '15 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding corners, space is incredibly empty. A creature in space may go its entire life without ever encountering one. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Feb 9 '15 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ @PipperChip Reflection off of other surfaces is responsible for very nearly all of the illumination of spots without a direct path to a light source in a room. Gravitational lensing has very, very little to do with it. In general, light communications do indeed require line-of-sight between the transmitter and receiver unless in an environment where a very significant amount of reflection occurs (and then you have to deal with a bunch of multi-pathing issues, though those are solvable.) $\endgroup$ – reirab Feb 9 '15 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab Gravitational Lensing wasn't what I was thinking of when I made the comment. It was, however, the only light-going-around-corners effect I could think of commonly happening in space. Single-slit diffraction patterns and (or cases using Babinet's principle). If it were true the light never, EVER went around corners, including their reflections, we couldn't light a room with a single source. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Feb 9 '15 at 23:50
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Would electromagnetic waves work for you? Light is the most obvious.

To go around corners you need much longer wavelength. That adds additional complexity - receptor needs to be size of wavelength, but still can work in outer space where distances are huge, so species can grow big.

Not sure why downvoting - 'around the corner' requirement was added as response to my answer. Someone is mean.

Downvoter, would you care to explain why? Or is it just a signal i am not welcome here?

Currently all 3 answers suggest light. My was first, and AFAICT the only one downvoted.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've added a note about another property of sound - traveling around corners.... $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 9 '15 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ The downvote was probably because it was a single-line answer, generally they don't get well received. It's likely that if the downvoter sees the edited answer they'll reverse it. In the meantime have an upvote :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 9 '15 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming your corner is made up of some material, the right type of EM radiation would travel through the corner and still be detectable, even if distorted. So this answer could still be perfectly valid. $\endgroup$ – talrnu Feb 9 '15 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB: If electromagnetic waves don't travel around corners, how do you think a wireless phone works? $\endgroup$ – b_russel Feb 10 '15 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @b_russel Some fraction of the energy bounces off obstacles, such as walls. EM diffraction happens as well, but isn't the primary propagation mode at UHF (which your wireless phone most likely uses). $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 10 '15 at 14:05
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Some possibilities not mentioned yet:

Gravity

A sufficiently large organism could communicate using gravity waves. It would need a way to rapidly generate or move mass, but could then pulse those out. Major advantage is it's difficult to block these, a disadvantage is they're not directional - everyone within range can "hear" you.

Ansible

This is a staple of several sci-fi stories, it's basically an instantaneous point-to-point communication system that operates at any distance. You could use a parent-child pattern (so children have a link to their parents, and two children can go child -> parent -> child), allowing families to communicate within eachother. If they're effectively immortal, this could network the entire species.

Dancing/ Sign Language

Bees use "dances" to communicate with the hive. On a similar level your creatures could use 3d patterns of movement to communicate, since they clearly need some way to detect other objects. Or if they can change shape/orientation, they could use a form of that the same way we use sign language.

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The easist substitute to sound is light. We already have photoluminestic organisms such as fire flies and can create their own light source, and many others, that can reflect light. Any organism that lives in space could change how it generates or reflects light to sound an alarm or communicate among its kind.

However, on a planet there is usually a den or different terrain that prey can flee to escape. In the vast reaches of space, there likely isn't a similiar benifit to an early alarm, instead a warning would be a signal to congregate and prepare to defend the herd.

There are some additional options to light as well. Neutrinos are very low energy so it wouldn't be impossible to send out a signal using them. The creatures would have to posses a way of reading neutrinos far better than anything we currently have since neutrinos react so rarely with normal matter. Neutrinos travel through almost any object allowing the animals to signal each other through obstacles, as long as they can consistantly detect the particles.

A final idea would be a magnetic field or a way to manipulate gravity. Gravity propegates in all directions. If your creatures could manipulate it, everyone with a sensitave enough detector would read the change, regardless of what structures where in the way. Magnetic fields are similiar. Any change could be sensed and acted upon nearly instantaneously.

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In space you can stil use pheromones.

The very low density of air means that your "scent" would disperse pretty quickly (if its a gas).

So, basically, you might create a species that can communicate using different kinds of gases to communicate.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for creativity. There are some issues with this, but there are issues with everything. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Feb 9 '15 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ Biological organisms can be are really good at sensing very low concentrations of chemicals, but the square-cube law says in a vacuum your gas will diffuse too quickly even for that. To reach 1 meter you have to fill a sphere with a radius of 1 meter or 4.2 cubic meters. At 2m its 33.5m3. 3m is 113m3. At 1km it's 4,186,666,666m3. At 1 million km, a decent distance in space, its 4.18x10^27m3. To use the example of water, and if I did my math right, you'd need 180kg of water to fill that sphere with one molecule per cubic meter. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 9 '15 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern you obviously haven't met my friend Andrew whose flatulence will one day be confiscated by the CIA and weaponised. His range is astonishing. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Feb 10 '15 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ A creature living in near-vacuum would have to be miserly with its biomass. I would suggest pheromones only as alarm signals. $\endgroup$ – treat your mods well Feb 10 '15 at 22:03
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Maybe they could use some other kind of radiation (such as ultraviolet) that can pass through many materials. Some organisms such as bats do use it to locate prey.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not a lot of material to pass through... IN SPAAAACE!!! $\endgroup$ – Schwern Feb 10 '15 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ You may want to add some more info, like how the radiation can be passed, and of course some pros and cons... $\endgroup$ – Flotolk Mar 16 '15 at 18:20
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Since we are talking about higher life in a vacuum, I'm going to assume that some organizing agency (a.k.a. God, Forerunner-Aliens or Human Genetic-Engineers) were involved in the entities' creation. IMHO, hard vacuum and harder radiation is just too harsh an environment for classic evolution. If therefore we can assume some deliberate design in your creatures' origins, then stretch believability slightly and bring quantum entanglement into the game.

Within the space being's nervous system, terminate a nerve at a magnetically sensative and assertive organ which itself is wrapped around one side of a pair of quantumly-entangled atoms. Put the other side of that pair in a similar organ within the brain of a related space being, perhaps a parent or sibling or child. Now evolve a communications protocol, using these organs to emped a two-directional signal across this quantum pair. These two creatures are now telepathically connected.

Now add such qe pairing between each of the genetically related members of a space herd, effectively forming a mesh network across the entire species.

A scream signal, pushed across all of the pairs of this mesh is therefore instantly "heard" across all the vastness of space, regardless of corners, attention or consciousness.

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    $\begingroup$ Assume you could use quantum entanglement to transmit information (which I think isn't actually possible?), you'd still run into the problem that actually checking the entangled particles will break the entanglement, so you'd need one for each time you want to communicate. Potentially they could each have a stock of entangled particles, and trade newly entangled particles every time they meet someone though, but the more they want to talk, the more they'd need to store. $\endgroup$ – Brendan Long Feb 10 '15 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I didn't know that observer effect applied to QE. Excellent explanation from Wikipedia. Definitely wrecks my idea. I like your idea of having them trade potentials for a shared future thought whenever they touch. Cool potentials, working that idea into a future-sci scientific explanation for human love. I might use that someday. +1 for setting me straight! $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Feb 10 '15 at 6:03
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They could communicate by generating a magnetic field. This would be done most likely by shocking a special plate, much like how we shock a muscle, to change its magnetic field. This would cause pulses, and they would communicate almost in a Morse code manner. Plus, they can change their "volume" simply by making the field weaker/stronger. It will not really bend around corners, more just go through them (unless it's magnetic as well), and would only really be affected by another field, just like 2 noises would interfere.

In a vacuum, this would be the closest to sound, excluding the ability to bounce off things.

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How bout telepathy/psychic? The way Zerg communicates from planet to planet? Which is also a perfect example of organic life-forms capable of space travel.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you expand this a little, if possible? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 10 '15 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ Telepathy/psychic has no known scientific basis. Do you have any thoughts on how it might work? $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 10 '15 at 9:23
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Do your aliens/creatures have technology ? If so maybe they could have a radio transmitter embedded in their heads from birth to communicate.This 'device' 's input end would be connected to the speech nerve (if these creatures are anything human-like) and output to auditory nerve . Whatever they want to say , they just think and that gets transmitted to other aliens / creatures in the vicinity . But anything which uses a transverse wave will work , as only those work in vaccums . Other answers , like light , electromagnetism are also good and are well described in other answers

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