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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free NASA eBook The­o­rizes How We Will Com­mu­ni­cate with Aliens

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

Ani­mat­ed Video Explores the Invent­ed Lan­guages of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones & Star Trek

Klin­gon for Eng­lish Speak­ers: Sign Up for a Free Course Com­ing Soon

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.

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