Communicating with the Aliens: an article by: GF Willmetts.

Originally, this piece was going be among the footnotes of my editorial, looking at some oddities in the 1977 ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ film and then looking at the end sequence again and then I thought I could expand on that into general communication with extra-terrestrials. Using CE3K is mostly because there aren’t that many SF films dealing with communication in a non-verbal way when there is no communication bridge.

When looking at any vintage film, we have to make allowances for the time it was filmed and the additional knowledge we’ve learnt since then. Probably the biggest known mistake was the co-ordinates given for the Devil’s Tower are not the actual ones in reality. Quite how that got through, we shouldn’t ponder on too heavily. On-line there are a lot of American films with even bigger mistakes, especially when it comes to medical problems, even up to the present day. You would think by now, some of that would finally sink in and someone gets paid to research and don’t allow for such errors. I’m surprised when it comes to medical problems, if emergency treatment was carried in such a way that American film studios wasn’t sued for showing bad advice. That’s a side issue, let’s go over the main reason I started this article and accept a lot of what we see on screen is as happened and question how much are we missing. I’m not going to reiterate the entire plot as I’m sure most of you reading out there have seen CE3K.

The aliens send some of their scout craft around the Earth looking for potential ‘guests’ rather than randomly abducting them this time. They leave clues to their intention by leaving the aircraft from Flight 19 in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico and the missing SS Cotopaxi ship in the Gobi Desert, neither of which were the places where they came from so obviously the aliens were either not bothered by this or literally leaving a clue compared to our ‘fish out of water’ logic. Certainly by not leaving the crews, they were also aware that they would not survive long in such environments. Even so, you do have to wonder how Claude Lacombe’s unit got there so fast with no one telling them they were there unless radar picked up some unusual activity at the time. The same also applies to the witnesses in Dharamshala to the 5 tones. Why weren’t other places chosen? All of this relies on the right people picking up on the right clues across the world. Broadcasting the 5 tones back into space gave them the response for terrestrial co-ordinates, 104 44 30 40 36 10, of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

For the record, the actual coordinates are 104 44 59 44 104 42 , using the longitude, latitude way used in the film. Maybe someone thought having two co-ordinates at 104 would have confused viewers but who would check while watching the film before it was issued on video or DVD? Perhaps we should have a wry grin that the Americans might have set their unit up in the wrong place and the mothership had to make a detour from Colorado to Wyoming and were a little late. Comparing the two places, wouldn’t a farm area being more familiar to their ‘guests’ than a desolated place near a volcanic monolith if no one turned up? Like the two deserts, Devil’s Tower is hardly a welcoming spot to drop off passengers no matter how unusual the rocky mountain is. Logistically, it might have made more sense to put the ‘guests’ down at the farm and collect the chosen artistic types at Devil’s Tower but somehow the lines of communication got muddled. Unless, of course, that was the intent to see how humans had progressed. Despite the UFO activity around the world, the aliens didn’t seem that intent on bringing their mothership to a more habited part of the world.

There was also a little matter of when were they to wait there? The alien co-ordinates should have supplied a date, assuming they understand the human concept of time and they could still be late if they didn’t understand leap years from their human abductees.

The only information the human team would be able to sort out from all this information is the aliens had various people from those craft and probably more and had given a destination point. There was no actual indication this was their actual intention or what else they might be doing. They had also given a greetings tone that by their signal back showed a basic communication level without having to know what it meant. So having and equipping a synthesiser accordingly as well as linking it to a computer to interpret it and although the tonal language was taught it was not used in further communication with the aliens. You would have to wonder why a full synthesiser when only 5 tones are used? Although factorial 5 gives 80 notes, it does give many more if notes are repeated.

Nowhere in all of this was there any information about setting up a linked light billboard nor whether said lights would be able to correspond appropriately to the tones given. Now that would have been a lot of forward thinking. I suspect if CE3K was filmed today and without current technology, the lights would be programmed to start corresponding to the lights and sound from the alien mothercraft and after looking chaotic would no doubt achieve some synchronicity and be explained to the viewer by some cast member. Even so, quite what the lights would add to the communication is anyone’s guess.

A language in light and numbers would certainly be hard to continually repeat. Certainly neither forms of communication were used by the alien ambassador/captain. All he did was imitate Larcombe’s hand signals, based off the Zoltan Kodaly technique, and smile and probably puzzled over what it meant on-board later. Larcombe was hardly having a communication with the alien and would no doubt have looked like a dunce had the alien kept communicating in hand signals that he couldn’t interpret. Should there ever be a return visit or from other members of the same alien species, we can only hope we have some sort of grasp of the language that only computers could quickly interpret.

Considering the aliens had humans on-board from the earlier 30 or more years previous, you would have thought they would have learnt some terrestrial languages, especially as they were capable of giving terrestrial co-ordinates. If they could not speak it, then they could certainly have chosen one of the returnees to deliver a message. If anything, all the returnees seemed disorientated except Barry Guiler and he was only on-board the mothership while it stayed in the solar system. One presumes Guiler’s abduction was to show that he was unharmed and that one day they would return their latest guest, Roy Neary, at a later date.

The choice of humans with some artistic talent gives no indication whether the selection was because of the means to give the terrestrial destination in a graphic form that could be translated to canvas or sculpture or for possible communication later. Considering much of the lack of communication while on Earth, maybe they hoped to improve and sort out this problem. It would be interesting to see if they went through a similar process the next time, just what they would do or what kind of guests they would want. Certainly not scientists and would the humans recognise their choices the next time. Hopefully, whatever the aliens gave in the tonal message might be to recognise when they arrived the next time without all the fuss they caused this time.

Anyway, that is where I started and you’ve had a look inside my thinking. Now we need to think alien. I’ve commented in the past that our TV transmissions have been reaching to the stars for over 80 years now, depending on the strength of signal. The news broadcasts are going to reveal mankind’s xenophobic tendencies and certainly our SF material of some of this and also our ability to communicate with aliens. This is going to look like mixed reactions.

Why SF and not the other genres? Basically because they are going to look at anything similar to themselves. They might be able to distinguish between fiction and reality but if any of the species we display actually are extra-terrestrials they recognise then they will pay even more attention. Considering the aliens in CE3K are based on the reports of small grey aliens, then if they don’t look the same then they know of them. The only other appearances of such aliens have appeared, as far as I know, only in the TV series ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Seven Days’, neither as benevolent. That might even be acceptable. After all, we can’t be the only species who fights amongst itself. I’ll raise question marks at the 2011 film ‘Paul’, mainly because I haven’t see it and would question whether aliens understand the various forms of humour we have on this planet.

We do have to hope that they don’t have a tonal language and wonder why our depiction of it is gibberish or worse, actually makes sense to them and telling them to go away. Considering we are still recording UAPs in the atmosphere, that might actually not be the case although it could mean they don’t want to communicate.

Outside of alien threats, they would also look at our means of communications. Again, we have to hope they can tell the difference between reality and fiction but they would look for common denominators especially where language translation is concerned and how they match. Mind you, if they thought we had real universal translators, they might have contacted us by now.

Whether any of the other alien designs we have used in films and TV are similar to any others they might know would complicate things, especially if they are thought hostile. Having someone like a polymorph alien saying we are under its protection recorded in TV series resembling any species they know should also be worrying in any communication. As indeed any other humanoid or non-humanoid species we’ve used in SF film or TV series, assuming they can not tell the difference between fiction and reality. It isn’t unusual for humans to create fictious representations of real people in out media. It is also possible that at least one species might resemble something from our legends. Arthur C Clarke explored that in ‘Childhood’s End’ with Karellen’s species, who waited patiently for people to accept them sight unseen before revealing themselves. Then again, when you consider some of our early alien depictions had multiple tentacles and eyes or even like ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (1953) resembling a protoplasm floating eye capable of taking over people, they might understand our apprehension.

Even if they can tell the difference, any accuracy might explain any covert activity than upset anyone. If they interpreted ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ that we expect their abductees back but have since died of old age at the least, then there might be some embarrassment. Then again, we might accept natural causes as a possibility or even a colony on another planet who don’t want to come home.

For the moment, lets assume they can tell the difference and they check the current situation here and, at most, we have a position we can accept mistakes from then intentional hostility.

Understanding our own languages would no doubt be tricky. They would look for the most common languages. Our own English would be awkward. We have too many words with multiple meanings and mixes in a lot of foreign words as well. Chinese Mandarin might be an option, providing they can accept a change in a word can be by sound pitch, not to mention the logograms. Any wonder that they might want to consider teaching us their language although if that was being considered, then it would have been included if there was any validity in abductions and just see us as primitives. The choice of abductees, no offence to any who have been picked up, are hardly genius level.

Of course, they could go to the most basic language of all, mathematics. A subject that I’ve dealt with before. The trick then is to match their constants and adapt if they don’t use base 10, commonly called decimal to what they would use. I doubt if they would use binary (base 2) or even hex (base 8) beyond original computer usage.

We favour decimal now simply because it is easier to do mathematics. At least we do have the means to translate number systems now but it could take some time to learn their language as much as them ours, assuming they have a similar vocal arrangement. If its done by tones, we might be stuck in base 8 (hex) and need a composer to continue the conversation.

The fact that the aliens could induce an image of the Devil’s Tower in so many people should make you wonder why they couldn’t send a more complex message that only makes sense when their new ‘guests’ got together and compared what they were sent. Then again, the aliens might well rely on visual aids than actual speech when it came to communication with other sentient species.

Of course, a lot of the above is speculation. The least possible threat is if they look like us with minor differences, although that might make things worse. You only have to think the TV series ‘V’ (1983-85; 2009) where the Sirians hide their true appearance under a mask. We would need to be able to do our own biological checks to put our minds at rest about that. The last thing we need is an incident like in the film ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951) and accidentally shoot their emissary.

The best we might hope for is they have an appreciation of the arts and want to see our art galleries and museums and hope they don’t get stuck in a queue. If art is the universal language then we can only hope that might be enough for any alien species to preserve our species although I wouldn’t count on it. After all, we’ve kept the art of previous generations with little regard to their creators while they were alive. Why should we expect anything different from beings from the stars?


© GF Willmetts 2023

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