What Would Extraterrestrial Intelligences Think About Us?

From time to time, when I watch some video, or listen to some music, I wonder what an extraterrestrial intelligence might think about us if that was the only piece of information they had.

I blame that fascination on a short story I read by Arthur C. Clarke called “History Lesson”. It is sometimes called “Expedition to Earth”, although he wrote another story with the same title.

The gist of the story is that aliens visit the earth long after humans have died out. The only artifact they find is a single roll of movie film. They try to understand what the movie is trying to tell them. After much discussion, the story reveals the nature of the movie, and it is nothing like what the aliens thought.

I read the story once, about 47 years ago, but the idea has been stuck in my mind ever since. What would extraterrestrials make of music like “The Blue Danube”, “The James Bond Theme”, “She Loves You”, or “Disco Duck”? What would they make of movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, ” Casablanca”, “Citizen Kane”, or “Plan 9 from outer space”?

Other people have had the same thought, and some have even proposed to deliberately leave a message for extraterrestrials who might find them many millennia from now.

The best-known examples are the plaques on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes, and the golden records on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Apparently, the New Horizons probe did not have any message on it. I always thought that it was Carl Sagan’s idea, but read recently that someone else suggested it to him. Carl was a friend of Arthur C. Clarke, so may have known the story “History Lesson”.

The record does have a range of music and sounds, but I don’t think it is as representative as we might like. It has three pieces by Bach and two by Beethoven. I do not want to put them down, but there is so much other great music from cultures throughout the world they could have chosen. Besides, to give a proper idea of humanity, some more mediocre music would be worth including.

I read that the Voyager records will last at least a billion years. So, a billion years from now, one of the Voyager records may be the only evidence that humanity ever existed.

A recent example of deliberately leaving a message is https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/11/a-time-capsule-launched-into-space-for-aliens-to-find-when-all-the-humans-are-gone/265718/ I believe there are other proposals along these lines, but I wasn’t able to find them in a quick search.

Several times over the years I imagined a movie based on the concept. It would be difficult to make, since although we would know the context of the surviving piece of human culture, how could we imagine realistic extraterrestrials and how they would interpret the artifact.

Another approach would be to have humans find the last remaining artifact of an earlier civilization. Although, in that case, it would not be possible to show the discrepancy between the reality of the artifact and how it is interpreted.

The idea I came up with would be to focus on a conference of extraterrestrial scientists as they argue about the meaning of the artifact. At the end of the movie, they would watch that one surviving human video: the cookie monster making cookie soup.

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