Here’s a Guardian journalist’s pleasant lunchtime excursion with the superbrilliant cosmologist Paul Davies, who is in charge of the group of eminent scientists in charge of coming up with something non-stupid to say to aliens if ever they make contact. Excerpt:
“So what will the message say?” I ask, changing the subject.
“We’re talking about two civilisations communicating their finest achievements and their deepest beliefs and attitudes. I feel we should send something about our level of scientific attainment and understanding of how the world works. Some fundamental physics. Maybe some biology. But primarily physics and astronomy.”
“And some classical music?” I suggest.
“Well, we could, but it’s not going to mean anything to them,” Paul says.
“Yes, yes, of course.” I pause. “Why won’t it mean anything to them?”
“There’s nothing certain in this game,” Paul says, “but our appreciation of art and music is very much tied to our cognitive architecture. There’s no particular reason why some other intelligent species will share these aesthetic values. The general theory of relativity is impressive and will surely be understood by them. But if we send a Picasso or a Mona Lisa? They wouldn’t care.” He pauses. “I mean the phonograph disc that went off on Voyager had speeches by Kurt Waldheim and Jimmy Carter. That’s a world away from what we should be doing.”
Oh, I’m not so sure about that. I think that’s a scientist’s bias coming through. Granted, he’s right about speeches by Jimmy Carter and Kurt Waldheim, but does one really have to share our aesthetic values to appreciate our art? Bach is intensely mathematical, for one thing, and for another, an intelligent non-human race could certainly perceive harmony and design in our works of art. Does one really have to understand Christianity to appreciate the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta? Of course not. Understanding Christianity deepens your understanding of the art object, but any intelligent person is capable of perceiving formal beauty. I don’t understand the theory behind traditional Chinese painting, but I can appreciate it on the most basic level. Why would this necessarily be gobbledygook to aliens?
Thought experiment: Which five cultural objects would you transmit to an alien race to make sure they had access to among the finest artifacts of the human race? You can only have five. Obviously your choices will reflect your own biases, but so what? That’s what makes this fun. I say:
1. Bach’s B-minor mass.
2. Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
3. Architectural plans and images of the Chartres cathedral.
4. A compilation of hymns and chants from the world’s religions.
5. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (A note about that one: I don’t even own a copy of it in my CD library, but it seems to me to be the quintessential statement of modern urbanity, hope and playfulness — and I would want the aliens to know that we are a solemn people, but also a merry people.)
Ask me tomorrow, and I’ll have five different entries. I’d probably take Gershwin off in favor of something from the world of rock. I’d need to think hard about rock and roll — which would be the example of rock I’d want the aliens to have? Everybody’s default is The Beatles, and though the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” is probably my favorite rock album, I’m not sure I’d necessarily want that representing our civilization in toto. I dunno. Your five?