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Greetings, Aliens. We Come in Math!

Question: If you were the first human to \r\ncommunicate with an\r\nalien civilization, what would you say?

\r\n\r\n

Paul\r\nDavies:  Well first of all\r\nwe have to understand that they’re unlikely to speak English unless \r\nthey’ve\r\nbeen studying us for a long time and that it’s hard enough to \r\ncommunicate\r\nproperly between different people on this planet, all part of the same \r\nspecies,\r\nthe cultural gulfs of misunderstandings are of course notorious.  We’re now dealing with a completely\r\nseparate species.  Then you have to\r\nthink what on Earth have we got in common, so I feel that our \r\ncommunication\r\nwill be… we will want to let ET know our finest achievements, the things\r\n we’re\r\nmost proud of and if you just go out on the street and ask people well \r\nwhat do\r\nyou think are our finest achievements, chances are that you’ll be told a\r\nBeethoven symphony or a Picasso painting or something like that and I \r\nhave no\r\nquarrel with that, but the problem is that our appreciation of works of \r\nart and\r\nmusic are very much tied to our cognitive system and an alien whose \r\nbrain is\r\nwired differently probably wouldn’t have any understanding of it and \r\ncertainly\r\nwouldn’t have any understanding of politics or sport or anything of that\r\n sort,\r\nso there would be no point in sending those things.  Now\r\n there is one thing we’re all agreed that we must share\r\nand that is mathematics. \r\nMathematics is universal. \r\nIt’s discovered by human beings, but the rules of mathematics are\r\n the\r\nsame throughout the universe and the laws of the universe. \r\n Our mathematical relationships or the\r\nunderlying laws of physics we can cast in mathematical form, so if they \r\nare\r\ncommunicating with us if they have technology they will understand the \r\nlaws of\r\nphysics and the nature of mathematics. \r\nThese are things that we can share, so it seems to me that our\r\ncommunication will begin in terms of mathematics and physics. 

\r\n\r\n

So me, I’m a mathematical physicist, so you might \r\nsay well\r\nyou would say that wouldn’t you, but I really do think that this is the \r\ncommon\r\ncurrency of the cosmos and so we will want to communicate about our\r\nunderstanding of mathematical physics, so we could tell them things that\r\n we\r\nhave discovered in the realm of mathematical physics, but there is stuff\r\n that I\r\nwould like to know.   There\r\nare some famous problems like how to bring gravitation and quantum \r\nphysics\r\ntogether, the long-sought-after theory of quantum gravity. \r\n That’s one thing that I would like to\r\nknow.  It may be hard to understand\r\nthe answer that comes back.  There\r\nis something that is perhaps a little easier.  There\r\n is a quantity in the theory of quantum electrodynamics\r\ncalled the fine-structure constant. \r\nI’m getting technical here. \r\nIt’s a particular quantity. \r\nIt’s a fundamental constant of nature.  It \r\nhas a value of about 1 over 137.  Nobody knows why\r\n that number is as it\r\nis.  It’s a pure number.  It\r\n doesn’t matter what units you use\r\nand it’s long been an interest of mine as to how that number has arisen \r\nin\r\nnature, why that particular number and none other, so I would like ET to\r\n give\r\nme the explanation for that.  Of\r\ncourse the answer might be we don’t know either.  It’s\r\n not clear that ET will be all-knowing.

Recorded April 15, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

If humans contacted aliens, the astrobiologist would be the man in charge of sending the first message. So what would he say?

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