All living beings have a system of communication in one way or another. Plants release odorous chemicals, and animals use visual and sound-based signals, but, as far as we know, humans are the only species capable of spoken language.
Our means of communication have evolved over the centuries together with humankind. What began as primitive cave paintings and smoke signals has morphed into an endless variety of ways of expression. Yes, including TikTok dances and emojis.
Up to a certain extent, we are familiarised with the communication techniques from other species on our planet. But what about out in space? Do you believe there's life beyond planet Earth? And if there are intelligent space aliens out there, how do they communicate and how would we communicate with them? We use spoken and written words, but aliens might use numbers, shapes, tones or something beyond our imagining.
The 2016 movie "The Arrival", offers a realistic portrayal of an alien encounter through which a linguistics professor translates the aliens' language and opens communication with them.
As language and communication geeks, we loved this movie. But however realistic it may be, it's still science fiction. So what if we bump into an alien in real life? How could we explain our entire existence simply and understandably?
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager Golden Records into space. Chaired by a committee from Cornell University, these two phonograph records contain a selection of sounds and images that are intended to enclose life on Earth. You know… in case an alien found it.
Each record is fully protected and explains the spacecraft's mission and instructions on how to play the records in a symbolic language.
The Voyager Golden Records contains:
A total of 115 images encoded in an analogue form that include photographs and diagrams both in black and white and in colour. They show different mathematical and physical quantities as well as the basics of science and the measurements that appear on every picture, which are likely to be consistent anywhere in the universe.
They also managed to create an overview of humankind by exposing DNA, anatomy and reproduction. There are several images of people from a wide range of cultures and ethnic groups in different scenarios, as well as several human creations such as a train, a house, a museum or a telescope. Apart from human life, the record includes pictures of nature and animals, such as a toad or an eagle.
The images are reinforced by the recordings of different kinds of natural sounds: meteorological conditions such as rain or thunder; animal sounds such whales and birds; human activity such as laughter, heartbeats or footsteps; sounds that emerge from human creations like tractors of cars.
A varied musical selection from different cultures and eras, including classical music geniuses such as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.
Spoken greetings, given by different people in fifty-five languages.
The Latin inspirational message "Per aspera ad astra" in Morse code, meaning "through hardships to the stars".
A recording of Ann Druyan's brain waves. She was Carl Sagan's wife, who was the Voyager's chairman. The record is an hour long and contains different streams, including Earth's history, civilizations and the problems they face.
Printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Waldheim. Here's an extract:
"We cast this message into the cosmos ... Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some – perhaps many – may have inhabited planets and space-faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."
Whether you believe in extraterrestrial life or not, this is undoubtedly an interesting exercise to think about. Our planet has over 4 billion years of history… how to summerize that is definitely a challenge!
What's clear is that design and words are the tools to do so; tools that have been essential since the beginning of time all the way into infinity, and we are proud to be a part of it.