Discover Lincos, the Language a Dutch Mathematician Invented Just to Talk to Extraterrestrials (1960)


The recent hit film Arrival took on a question that has, in recent decades, deeply concerned those involved in the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Say we locate that intelligent life. Say we decide what we want to say. On what basis, then, do we figure out how to say it? Aliens, while they may well have evolved certain qualities in common with us humans, probably haven't happened to come up with any of the same spoken or written languages we have.

In 1960, the Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal came up with a solution: why not create a language they could learn? The efforts came published in the book Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse. In it, writes The Atlantic's Daniel Oberhaus, "Freudenthal announced that his primary purpose 'is to design a language that can be understood by a person not acquainted with any of our natural languages, or even their syntactic structures … The messages communicated by means of this language [contain] not only mathematics, but in principle the whole bulk of our knowledge.'"

Freudenthal created Lincos as a kind of spoken language "made up of unmodulated radio waves of varying length and duration, encoded with a hodgepodge of symbols borrowed from mathematics, science, symbolic logic, and Latin. In their various combinations, these waves can be used to communicate anything from basic mathematical equations to explanations for abstract concepts like death and love." You can read Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse (PDF), over at Monoskop, and even though it constitutes only the first of a planned series of books Freudenthal never finished, you can still learn the basics of Lincos from it.

Be warned, however, of the intellectual challenge ahead: Freudenthal just plows ahead without even defining many of the concepts, which readers without a background in mathematics or logic will likely need explained, and Oberhaus quotes even one astrophysicist as calling Freudenthal's book "the most boring I have ever read. Logarithm tables are cool compared to it." Still, 56 years on from its creation, this intergalactic Esperanto has had a kind of influence: Freudenthal demonstrated the idea of including an intuitively understandable dictionary in the spaceward-sent message itself, an idea Carl Sagan went on to use in his novel Contact, in which extraterrestrial intelligence-seeking astronomers receive a signal from elsewhere that considerately does the same.

Contact became a major motion picture, something of the Arrival of its day, in 1997. Two years later, a couple of Canadian Defense Research Establishment astrophysicists used a radio telescope to beam out a Lincos-encoded message toward a few close stars. Like any enthusiastic member of their profession would, they sent out information about math, physics, and astronomy. They have yet to hear back from any residents, fellow astrophysicists or otherwise, of those distant neighborhoods. But if any extraterrestrials did hear the message, and even if they have yet to fully grasp Lincos, I have to believe they feel at least a little grateful that, unlike some humans attempting to communicate with others unlike them here on Earth, we didn't just start yammering in English and hope for the best.

via Monoskop

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Carl Sagan Talks with Studs Terkel About Finding Extraterrestrial Life (1985)

This week, Blank on Blank wraps up its series "The Experimenters," with an episode animating a conversation between Carl Sagan and Studs Terkel--two figures we've highlighted on our site many times before. But never have we brought them together. So here they are.

Recorded in October, 1985, as part of Terkel's long-running Chicago radio show (find an archive of complete episodes here), the conversation touched on some the big questions you might expect: the compatibility between science and religion; the probability we'll encounter extraterrestrials if given enough time; and more. You can hear more outtakes from their conversation here:

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Adam Savage’s Animated Lesson on the Simple Ideas That Lead to Great Scientific Discoveries

Educator, industrial design fabricator and Myth Busters cohost Adam Savage is driven by curiosity.

Science gets his wheels turning faster than the notched disc Hippolyte Fizeau used to measure the speed of light in 1849.

In his TED-Ed talk on how simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries, above, Savage zips across the centuries to share the work of three game changers - Fizeau, Eratosthenes, and Richard Feynman (one of the de facto patron saints of science-related TED talks).

I found it difficult to wrap my head around the sheer quantities of information Savage shoehorns into the seven minute video, giving similarly voluble and omnivorous mathmusician Vi Hart a run for her money. Clearly, he understands exactly what he’s talking about, whereas I had to take the review quiz in an attempt to retain just a bit of this new-to-me material.

I’m glad he glossed over Feynman’s childhood fascination with inertia in order to spend more time on the lesser known of his three subjects. Little Feynman’s observation of his toy wagon is charming, but the Nobel Prize winner’s life became an open book to me with Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s excellent graphic biography. What's left to discover?

How about Eratosthenes? I'd never before heard of the Alexandrian librarian who calculated the Earth's circumference with astonishing accuracy around 200 BC. (It helped that he was good at math and geography, the latter of which he invented.) Inspiration fuels the arts, much as it does science, and I'd like to learn more about him.

Ditto Fizeau, whom Savage describes as a less sexy scientific swashbuckler than methodical fact checker, which is what he was doing when he wound up cracking the speed of light in 1849. Two centuries earlier Galileo used lanterns to determine that light travels at least ten times faster than sound. Fizeau put Galileo's number to the test, experimenting with his notched wheel, a candle, and mirrors and ultimately setting the speed of light at a much more accurate 313,300 Km/s. Today’s measurement of 299792.458 km/s was arrived at using technology unthinkable even a few decades ago.

Personally, I would never think to measure the speed of light with something that sounds like a zoetrope, but I might write a play about someone who did.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her play, Fawnbook, opens in New York City later this fall. Follow her @AyunHalliday

The Solar System Drawn Amazingly to Scale Across 7 Miles of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert

Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh set out to create something you've never seen before -- our solar system drawn to actual scale. Forget what you've seen in books, or on web sites. To depict things accurately, you need a bigger surface. A really large canvas. Like a seven-mile expanse in Nevada's Black Rock Desert (which otherwise hosts The Burning Man Festival). It's on this dry lakebed that Overstreet and Gorosh built "the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits" and it's a sight to behold. Creative, industrious, and humbling. Enjoy.

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Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Clever Promo for Ridley Scott’s New Sci-Fi Film, The Martian

"Ever since our species first looked up at the sky, we dreamed of reaching Mars. Back in 2029, that dream became real, when the first humans stepped foot on the Red planet. And, in a few months, a new group of astronauts will make the journey...."

It all seems like many other Neil deGrasse Tyson videos you've seen before. Until he says, "Back in 2029." Wait, what?

Behold Neil deGrasse Tyson appearing in a clever promo for Ridley Scott's upcoming film The Martian

Based on Andy Weir's bestselling 2011 novel The Martian, the movie will star Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut who goes on a big mission to Mars -- the one so stirringly described by Tyson above. But the journey to Mars is not where the real action happens, and we'll just leave it at that. No spoilers here.

The film will hit theaters in October. You can watch an official trailer here. And, in the meantime, you can always listen to Neil's Star Talk Radio Show (referenced in the clip) anytime.

via Slate

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Take a 360° Virtual Tour of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Personal Home & Studio

360 tour taliesin2

You can learn a lot about an architect from looking at the buildings they designed, and you can learn even more by looking at the buildings they lived in, but you can learn the most of all from Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin. For that best-known of all American architects, this house stands still today not just as his home but as one of his notable works, and as the studio in which he designed other notable works (including Fallingwater). Wright's enthusiasts make pilgrimages out to Spring Green, Wisconsin to pay their respects to this singular house on a hill, which offers tours from May through October.

For those less inclined toward architectural pilgrimages, we have this HD 360-degree "virtual visit" of Taliesin (also known as Taliesin East since 1937, when Wright built a Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona). "The center of Frank Lloyd Wright’s world was Taliesin East," write the online tour's developers. "It was his home, workshop, architectural laboratory and inspiration for nearly all his life." In the comfort of your web browser, you can "experience what he saw daily, surrounded by Asian art, expansive views of Wisconsin’s rolling hills, his own courtyard gardens and a space to relax before a fire watched over by a portrait of his mother."

You can also get a view of "the actual drafting tables where Wright designed his most famous buildings" and the drawings on them, all while "staff historian Keiran Murphy shares the history, the personal stories and points out special objects in the room" (if you choose to keep the "tour guide" option turned on). And Taliesin certainly doesn't lack history, either personal or architectural. Wright built its first iteration in 1911, and it lasted until a paranoid servant burnt it down in 1941, axe-murdering seven people there (including Wright's live-in ladyfriend and her children) in the process. Wright, who'd been away at the time of the tragedy, recovered from the shock of it all, then set to work on Taliesin II, though he didn't really live in it until after he returned from his work on Tokyo's Imperial Hotel in 1922.

Three years later, another fire (this time probably due to an electrical problem) badly damaged the house again, necessitating the design of a Taliesin III, which he could begin only after digging himself out of a financial hole in 1928. It is more or less that Taliesin that you can see today, whether you visit in person or through the internet. If you feel sufficiently inspired as a result, you could even apply to study at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture located there. While the house won't likely turn you into an architectural genius just by osmosis, at least you can rest assured that it has probably put its most dramatic disasters behind it.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

1980s Photo Captures Neil deGrasse Tyson Looking Hip in Grad School (Plus More on His “Failed Experiment” at UT-Austin)

Neil deGrasse Tyson in graduate school at Texas - 1980s - Imgur

Last year, we revisited the high school days of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Growing up in New York City during the 1970s, Tyson attended Bronx Science (class of '76), ran an impressive 4:25 mile, captained the school’s wrestling team, and, he fondly recallswore basketball sneakers belonging to the Knick’s Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Tyson was, of course, also a precocious student. Famously, Carl Sagan recruited Tyson to study with him at Cornell. But Tyson politely declined and went to Harvard for his undergraduate studies. Then, he headed off to Texas, to start his PhD at UT-Austin. That's where the photo, taken circa 1980, captures him above -- hanging out with friends, and looking hipper than your average astrophysics student.

This photo (now making the rounds on Reddit) originally appeared in a 2012 article published in the Alcaldethe alumni magazine of The University of Texas. To the magazine's credit, the article takes an unvarnished look at Tyson's "failed experiment" in Texas. The piece starts with the lede "Neil deGrasse Tyson, MA ’83, is the public face of science. But he says his success has nothing to do with UT." And, from there, it recounts how professors and university police immediately stereotyped him.

The first comment directed to me in the first minute of the first day by a faculty member I had just met was, ‘You must join the department basketball team!


I was stopped and questioned seven times by University police on my way into the physics building. Seven times. Zero times was I stopped going into the gym—and I went to the gym a lot. That says all you need to know about how welcome I felt at Texas.

But the real problem wasn't race. According to Tyson, “there was simply no room for me to be the full person that I was." "An obsessive focus on one thing at a time; a strong connection to pop culture, from the moonwalk to the Rubik’s cube; and a refusal to put research first: these traits contributed to Tyson’s failure at UT," concludes the Alcalde. They also allowed him to flourish later in life.

After his "advisors dissolved his dissertation committee—essentially flunking him," Tyson transferred to Columbia, earned his PhD in 1988, and became the greatest popularizer of science since Carl Sagan. We like stories with happy endings.

Read more about Tyson's experience in Texas at the Alcalde.

via Boing Boing

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