Sometimes when I start to write these blog posts I don’t really know where my thoughts will take me or what the point is that I want to make. On these occasions I work on the EM Forster principle: how can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
This week is a case in point. I recently read a profile of a British professor called Paul Davies who, even for a scientist, has an unusual job. A theoretical physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist, he chairs the Post-Detection Group of SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). In other words, he’s the man who, should it occur on his watch, will take charge of the first contact with whatever might be out there.
SETI, which falls under the umbrella of the International Academy of Astronautics, examines the universe for radio transmissions that might indicate life elsewhere. It’s a serious organisation and Paul Davies, currently a professor at the University of Arizona, is a serious scientist who, according to the profile, ‘lives his life at an incredibly high level of amazingness.’
I like that description. It’s playful and vivid and extremely effective in conjuring an image of someone who lectures at the UN, the Vatican and the Royal Society, as Davies does. It’s also apposite. Nothing could better characterise the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence than amazingness.
But what sort of language will humankind use to communicate with alienkind? Davies is disparaging about space capsules containing the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Beethoven and the Beatles. We will have only one possible language in common with other forms of intelligence, he believes, and that is mathematics; the reason being that mathematics is a language so absolute, so fundamental to the explanation of the universe and the nature of existence, that any intelligence capable of making contact with us will have to have grasped it.
This leaves me with the sobering thought that those of us whose stock-in-trade is mere words, who take delight in amazingness, won’t have much of a role to play in what will undoubtedly be the most amazing exchange of all time.