If you were to attempt to communicate with an alien lifeform, what would you want to say? And, just as importantly, how would you say it? It’s a question that has inspired countless science fiction stories and fueled real debate between scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
Now, a digital artist and academic has produced his own answer with a collection of mind-bending poems written in an artificial language that was designed for alien communications.
Richard Carter, a senior lecturer in digital media at the University of Roehampton and author of the new collection Signals, has always been interested in code languages and various modes of digital communication. So when he came across Lincos, a “lingua cosma” invented in 1960 by the mathematician Hans Freudenthal as a means for alien interactions, he was intrigued by the possibilities it raised as both an artistic medium and a cosmic conversation-starter.
“I found it fascinating because Freudenthal’s project is a very unusual idea,” Carter said in a call. “It's not just a notion of communicating with alien beings, about mathematics, science, atoms, and the usual standard metrics you might expect to find a common basis for communication.”
“Freudenthal’s work has elements of that aspect, but he's not really interested in that,” he continued. “He's interested in communicating things like memory, morality, competition, and all these elements about the nature of human life in the world, at least as he sees it, using mathematics and logic in order to do that,” which results in a “fascinating contrast between mode of communication and the content that seemed so different from other attempts to communicate with alien beings.”
Freudenthal envisioned Lincos as a spoken tongue built from radio signals of different wavelengths that are sonified into words. The concept was later adapted into written glyphs by the Canadian astrophysicists Yvan Dutil and Stéphane Dumas, who used the language to transmit the so-called “Cosmic Call” messages to nearby star systems in 1999 and 2003.
Carter draws on this rich history of Lincos in Signals, a title that plays on both the artificial signals humans have transmitted to make contact with aliens, as well as the natural signals that the universe sends to us in the form of observable cosmic phenomena like stars, planets, and galaxies.
“We’re trying to beam messages out there for various ends, but actually there are messages of sorts already coming to us and we are developing instruments to try to receive them,” Carter said. “Although these are not intelligent messages in the sense that we might think of them, they might nevertheless be the crucial indicators that there is indeed something out there that maybe, just maybe, somehow, against all the odds, we’ll be able to communicate with.”
The interlinked poems, written in text based on the Dutil-Dumas glyphs, touch on essential human themes such as distance, social connections, warfare, and our experience of the material universe. The book also weaves in otherworldly depictions of stars examined by NASA’s Kepler telescope, which discovered thousands of exoplanets during its lifespan. Geert Barentsen, a NASA scientist, converted stellar light curves, a measure of the brightness of the stars over time, into what Carter called “wonderfully evocative, grainy, pixelated glimpses of these ancient stars so far away.”
“I really wanted to pair up the poems with this selection of images to, again, emphasize this exchange of signals across the universe—the closest thing to interstellar travel that we have at this juncture,” Carter said.
“This writing comes somewhat out of a tradition of experimental writing and poetry more broadly,” he noted. “Sometimes my work is characterized as belonging to traditions of visual poetry, where there's language, but writers are being playful with the materials and sometimes they're not immediately even decipherable as poems. Only when you think of them more conceptually do you understand that they're built on the rhythms and patterns of language.”
In this way, Signals can be viewed alternately as a puzzle, an art piece, or as a bonafide icebreaker for interstellar chats. As to whether he sees aliens as the ideal audience, Carter said he is ironically pessimistic about the odds that humans will establish contact with an extraterrestrial species, but added that our urge to search for them is valuable on its own merits. At the very least, our calls to these hypothetical beings can help us evaluate our fragile yet beautiful place in the cosmos.
“I do wonder, in his heart of hearts, whether [Freudenthal] really imagined [Lincos] being used, or whether it was more an intellectual exercise for a human audience, which in many respects, a lot of alien messages really are,” Carter said. “They are not for them, out there. They are for us. They are our attempts at expressing ourselves to the wider cosmos, because the chances of us sending a message out there and it being received and understood is so infinitesimally low as to be almost meaningless.”
“This is an attempt to communicate with alien beings, but in some respects, when we think about our contemporary situation—in trying to manage a changing world and negotiate all the things it’s generating—so much of that is trying to understand the signals that the Earth is communicating to us, to be able to understand what they mean, and to generate meaningful responses to that, to read the scriptures of the Earth and the atmosphere to lead us, perhaps, toward a better future,” he concluded.