What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”


Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

From Eternity to Here

img_1036To extinguish your total bank of knowledge on the subject of a book by page 11 can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your self esteem, your habits of curiosity or your attitude about learning.  I try not to read books that I suspect will simply restate what I already know, or ones that I am predisposed to agree with. Rather I enjoy books that are a bit out of my league. I may have overshot a bit with this one.

If you have ever watched Sean Carroll’s Youtube videos, you know that his verbal speed is not much slower than 299,792,458 meters per second, which is also the known speed of light. But a book can be paused, reread, skimmed and scanned, and Carroll is one of those Richard Feynman kind of physicists that perfectly explains complex ideas that are nearly impossible for the layman to retain, much less explain to another layman. And the reader can reread as many times as it takes to get it (the pictures help, too).

The idea of time has fascinated me ever since I sat one day at a bus stop and realized that if there is no matter, there can be no time.  So what is time? In an episode of Brian Cox’s excellent series The Wonders of the Universe, Cox explains that the reason things are the way they are is because it is much more likely that they would become that way than another way. Things change from an ordered state to a disordered state because there are many more different ways to be disordered than ordered.  And this is crucial in the understanding of time and why it is important.

Entropy is the number of ways that the components of a system can be rearranged without a noticeable difference.  As Brian Cox explains above, a pile of sand has high entropy, and a sand castle has low entropy.  There is no law in physics that says the sandcastle could not  be blown by the wind to form another adjacent, identical sand castle; it is only much more likely that it will not. Why is this important in relation to time?  We know now that entropy always increases over time, and the only way that we really know the difference between the past and the present is because of the processes of matter changing from low entropy to high entropy.  It is the reason we can’t remember the future, why we get old, why it’s very hard to unscramble an egg, why there is an arrow of time that goes in only one direction.  We notice change and therefore conceptualize that change with time.

I can now move on with my day, and chapter 2.

This is why I read.


From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

By: Sean Carroll 

Dutton, 438 pages