Lingua Extraterrestris

Are we alone in the Universe?

Lingua Extraterrestris is my MA thesis and an exploration into the limits of communication. I'm interested in CETI — Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence — because it is the most extreme example of all communication types. My investigation looks into historical and science-fiction examples of CETI, and concludes in expanding on the seminal Drake Equation.

I presented Lingua Extraterrestris at two astrobiology conferences and in a workshop at the SETI Institute in California.

Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (active branch of SETI) has always been focused on the question: "What should we say to them once we make the contact?"

The Pioneer plaque by Sagan and Drake, NASA
Pioneer 10 and 11 plaque, designed by Sagan and Drake, NASA

My own research focused on looking at the process of extraterrestrial communication through the lens of information theory.

Shannon-Weaver general model of communication
C. E. Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Computation
The Bell Syst Tech Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379-423, Jul–Oct 1948

I looked at both science-fiction and scientific examples of communicating with extraterrestrials to understand the similarities and differences with various ways of communication we know on Earth.

From the science-fiction films like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"...

Close Encounters of the Third Kind by S. Spielberg Close Encounters of the Third Kind by S. Spielberg Close Encounters of the Third Kind by S. Spielberg Close Encounters of the Third Kind by S. Spielberg Close Encounters of the Third Kind by S. Spielberg
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by S. Spielberg, 1977

...to controversial accounts from Independent Thinkers...

One Pair of Eyes, with Sir Patrick Moore, BBC, 1969

...to historic scientific endeavours such as broadcasting the famous Arecibo message.

The Arecibo message
Arecibo message sent towards globular star cluster M13 in 1974

I also looked at how information theory can inform our understanding of the Drake Equation, which allows to estimate the number of civilisations in our Galaxy with whom we might communicate.

I suggest to expand one of Drake's original terms fc to take into account four factors that are central to information theory and linguistic models of communication: Channel, Contact, Context and Code.

Drake equation expanded

Abstract

With no hard evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), communication with ETI (CETI) remains a scholarly exercise with great potential for speculation and experimentation.

The purpose of this paper is to explore CETI as the most general instance of the communication process. A custom method is used to analyse both historical and fictional examples of CETI from the perspective of the theory and practice of exchanging information. This appraoch is based on decisions:

  • To treat both scientific and fictional examples of CETI as equally informative and valid; since none of the scientific endeavours in CETI proved successful, the credibility of CETI depictions in the works of fiction is seen as equal to its credibility in the works of science;
  • To use a hybrid communication model for investigating CETI; because none of the existing models of terrestrial communication covers the full scope of the CETI problem, a custom model is proposed that combines elements of the Shannon-Weaver and the Jakobson models of communication.

As a result of this investigation, a possibility for expanding on the fc term of the Drake equation is identified, and interpreting it through four aspects of the generalised communication process (Channel, Contact, Context, Code) suggested.

While researching for and writing of my thesis I received enlightenment and critical advice from Ken Hollings (@Hollingsville).

Lingua Extraterrestris in print Lingua Extraterrestris in print Lingua Extraterrestris in print Lingua Extraterrestris in print

While researching for and writing of my thesis I received enlightenment and critical advice from Ken Hollings (@Hollingsville).

I presented Lingua Extraterrestris at:

  • Communicating Across the Cosmos workshop at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, 2014,
  • Astrobiology Science Conference AbSciCon 2012 at Georgia Tech, Atlanta,
  • History and Philosophy of Astrobiology symposium on Tycho Brache's island Ven in Sweden, 2011.

I also discussed my research in an interview for a BBC Futures article by Tracey Logan.