Saturday, 6 July 2013

Non-Human Lifeforms in Sparta and Outer Space

Lovell Telescope: Listening to Outer Space

Amongst the bleak headlines you may not have noticed that on Friday a momentous meeting took place at St Andrews in Fife, where UK astronomers launched a network to coordinate the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life.
We Brits, as well as the Americans, are now OFFICIALLY LISTENING  HARD for radio signals from non-human lifeforms, with the help of seven radio telescopes, connected by optical fibres, stretching from Cambridge to the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank in Manchester.

In what language are the strange marks on the Skiapod's foot?
The news has revived my old irritation at the assumption that Ex-Terrestrials consist of metal or plastic. The ancient Spartan poet Alcman knew that aliens (in his day resident in ‘Libya’, the archaic Spartan equivalent of Outer Space) resembled humans. The difference was that they had an outsize foot they could use as an umbrella-cum-parasol. They were called ‘skiapods’ or ‘shade-footed ones’.

I am de-mob crazy after delivering my two FINAL (yippee!) conference papers of the season. They were on Greek history in relation to Sci-Fi and Sparta respectively. This dangerous combo, along with the heat, produced a vision in which it was revealed to me that the Skiapods mentioned by Alcman wrote messages on the soles of these feet which could be read by non-human life-forms who really were in outer space. 

This means that Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds were talking to Extra-Ts in Singing in the Rain (in the movie you NEVER saw what was inscribed on the top surfaces of the umbrellas). There can be no doubt in the case of Rihanna. Her Umbrella lyrics prove she is singing to off-planet aliens: ‘You're part of my entity, here for infinity/You can stand under my umbrella/(Ella ella eh eh eh).’ I offer as proof this important photograph, provided by G. Poynder (age 13).
Is Rihanna A Skiapod or Just in Contact with one?

If the good weather persists, we could all aid the search for extra-terrestrial life by writing messages on the parasols in our pubs and gardens. But what words should we inscribe? What do Ex-Ts actually speak?  

‘Communication expert’ Dr John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University upset the St. Andrews conference by explaining that ‘Any message is unlikely to be written in Martian English.’ He also reminded them that ‘we still have scripts from antiquity that have remained undeciphered over hundreds of years, despite many serious attempts.’

Dr Elliott, Reader in Intelligence Engineering
Leaving aside the likelihood that some of those scripts may well have been invented by Skiapods, the safest bets for us today are probably Latin and Chinese. Here is a translation of ‘IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE?’ into both: estne quisquam extra? / 有没有人在那里? An average-sized umbrella should accommodate both phrases without difficulty.


  1. I'm sure somebody has actually thought about this - whereas I am making it up as I go along, with a brain addled by heat - but I wonder if the ideographic nature of Chinese would make it easier or harder to decipher? There may be something in Korean; it's the only script with (alebit very abstract) phonological correspondences between symbols - aspirated forms of a consonant, for instance, are indicated by the symbol for the aspirated form with an extra line. The strokes were supposedly modelled on the shape of the speaking parts of a human, but I can't see the resemblance. We might have to send the aliens Yorrick so they can recreate what we've written.

    Is that the customary Chinese translation? It says, literally (from my fairly basic Chinese) 'Have or not have people out there?', which I find rather charming - like the aliens could write back, "No, but we've got it in green if you want."

    1. I am glad you could at least make sense of it in my google-translated Chinese! I am going to try to learn some basic things because I have been asked to go and give some lectures there next spring and am also about to write a chapter for a book to be published in Beijing.

    2. I only recently found out how Google Translate actually works, and it isn't actually by translation - rather by averaging known translations: With a language as well-represented as Chinese, and with a fairly fixed phrase like "Is there anyone out there?", it's probably fairly accurate.

      I learned Chinese through the OU. I found it very manageable. People are put off by the conceptual unfamiliarity of tones, when it comes to speech, and characters, when it comes to writing, but beyond that there are probably more similarities than differences, and where there are differences Chinese is probably simpler - no inflection, blessed mercies.

      Chinese is particularly well-served with learning materials, and they're quite standardised, because of the existence of the HSK - a standardised language test run by Chinese embassies around the world. The OU's material is taken from a series of books called Chinese in Steps, which the Confucius Institutes (I continued with night classes at the one attached to Sheffield University) seem to use. I'd recommend the Confucius Institute if you were looking for classes.

      A lot of the basic stuff is built around fixed phrases, so quite manageable to get to a basic level. Your 有没有 (yǒu-méi-yǒu, 'have not have...?') in the original phrase, is therefore, exactly the same as the question you might use to ask if a restaurant or bar has what you're after, so you've already learned the essentials, some might say.

      I hadn't realised quite how much of a Latin of the East Chinese had actually been historically - I've since discovered that both Japanese and Korean very often the Chinese words for the different numbers, and both have substantial borrowing's in their vocabulary (possibly up to 50% in Korean's case). My Chinese is only very basic, but it's still enlightening to see these same processes occurring in another part of the world in the way we grow up appreciating them to have done in our own. I recently started learning Korean (I'm interested in the relationship between syntax and semantics, and Korean is interesting as it's topic prominent, and thus has semantic markers, but also marks case in the grammatical sense; I just want to be able to read enough to make sense of the examples in literature on Korean syntax and semantics, really). It's quite illuminating to see the Korean word for alcohol - jo - and suddenly recall it's Chinese equivalent, jiu. It's like seeing somebody's else Greek or Latin (although alcohol is from Arabic, of course).

      But I digress...

  2. Your question is well chosen, because we can certainly translate any answer that is distinguishable from noise. It will mean "yes."

  3. That is very funny and probably very true!