The Canonical Artifact and proof of intelligent life
October 25, 2017 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Bell Labs scientist Gerard Foschini proposed that the chance of intelligent life emerging in our universe was 10^264, meaning that either we are very unlikely to exist or something besides the normal laws of physics predicts life. His derived these odds by speculating about the The Canonical Artifact [pdf], the smallest thing a being could make that could not reasonably be created by chance alone, but that intelligent societies would be drawn to create. He proposed that the Canonical Artifact would be a sculpture demonstrating the 26 sporadic groups (read more if you want to learn about The Monster, Moonshine, and group theory). Now the definitive indicator of intelligence in the galaxy now exists! (though it is not that impressive to look at)
posted by blahblahblah (74 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Good. Now that our TCA has finally been created, other intelligent life should be contacting us shortly. I, for one, welcome our new group theorist overlords.
posted by otherchaz at 12:45 PM on October 25, 2017 [7 favorites]


They might not want to associate or be able to commute
posted by crocomancer at 12:51 PM on October 25, 2017 [42 favorites]


The only intelligent species that we know capable of sending deep space communications can barely do so and it took 13 billion years for this species to come around.

Nobody has a damn clue what they're talking about on this subject. Frankly, I'm not even sure humanity is intelligent life.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:06 PM on October 25, 2017 [37 favorites]


Manifold lies!
posted by lalochezia at 1:06 PM on October 25, 2017 [11 favorites]


Tangentially, the Rosetta Project may be of interest here. I'm not qualified to evaluate whether a Rosetta dome or pendant qualifies as a TCA, but at the very least it qualifies as interesting!
posted by crysflame at 1:07 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


Google-fu failure? Does TCA not exist in wikipedia? Was trying to learn more about it and was a bit surprised to not find a wikipedia entry.
posted by bastionofsanity at 1:21 PM on October 25, 2017


From the pdf "In the second case, where such a life form is inevitable, physics faces the problem of giving even a semblance of a quantitative explanation for a 264 orders of magnitude effect."

I'm pretty sure Darwin solved that one already. If I roll 340 six sided dice, the odds of me rolling all sixes is on the order of 1 in 10^264. But if I am allowed to iterate and select out the sixes, I can probably do it in under 50 rolls (my actual estimate is around 35, but I'm not being careful with the math...) Natural selection is a weaker effect, but it's still plenty good enough to explain a 264 orders of magnitude improbability.
posted by surlyben at 1:24 PM on October 25, 2017 [30 favorites]


This reminds me of the dinosauroid, where you make a bunch of 'reasonable' assumptions regarding what a human-level-intelligent dinosaur would look like and, surprise!, you end up with something that basically looks like a human. It is truly remarkable how the human form, and human mathematics, seem to be the inevitable direction that intelligent life must take.
posted by Pyry at 1:25 PM on October 25, 2017 [12 favorites]


Somehow I can't stop thinking about the argument that Carl Sagan attributed (probably wrongly) to Christian Huygens proving the existence of hemp on Jupiter. Namely that Jupiter has a lot of moons. Here on Earth, one of the moon's primary purposes is aiding mariners in navigation. Jupiter has a lot of moons, so we can assume a lot of mariners sailing lots of ships, for which they would need lots of ropes, and therefore a lot of hemp to make all those ropes. QED
posted by Naberius at 1:27 PM on October 25, 2017 [31 favorites]


Google-fu failure? Does TCA not exist in wikipedia? Was trying to learn more about it and was a bit surprised to not find a wikipedia entry.

This is a MeFi-first compilation. Was reading Webb's excellent book on the Fermi Paradox and read about TCA thought it was cool enough to share. Basically everything about it is in this post, which is now the Canonical Source on TCA.

TCA is actually one of the weaker scenarios in the book, which is quite exhaustive as Webb actually goes though 75(!!) potential solutions to the Fermi Paradox, many of which deal with some of the other issues raised in the thread.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:28 PM on October 25, 2017 [7 favorites]


Huh. It's Hewligan's Haircut.

But why the assumption that it has to be an object? Why can't it be data? A broadcast of prime numbers, rather than a model from set theory?
posted by Leon at 2:10 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


The belief that any truly intelligent life would necessarily be interested in the same kind of math I'm interested in has got to be the quintessential example of dudes who can't distinguish between their feelings and Cold Pure Logic.
posted by straight at 2:12 PM on October 25, 2017 [22 favorites]


"Leech used it to obtain a remarkable way of packing 24-dimensional spheres, a fact with useful applications to technology."

That's so delightful. (Delightful post, too. Thanks.)
posted by clew at 2:14 PM on October 25, 2017


I just sort of assumed it would be a tea kettle.
posted by briank at 2:20 PM on October 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


Here on Earth, one of the moon's primary purposes is aiding mariners in navigation. Jupiter has a lot of moons, so we can assume a lot of mariners sailing lots of ships, for which they would need lots of ropes, and therefore a lot of hemp to make all those ropes. QED


Witchcraft!
posted by darkstar at 2:26 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


If you didn't independently think of the same thing that this guy did, you are obviously not an advanced intelligence. Sorry, every other human, and most every other lifeform.
posted by aubilenon at 2:28 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]



The only intelligent species that we know capable of sending deep space communications can barely do so and it took 13 billion years for this species to come around.


Not really a useful timescale, thought. We came from our raw materials in around 4bn years, and the same stuff has been forming into other systems for much longer than that. I'm not sure exactly when the first solar formation with a mix of enough of the right sort of elements happened - but the full range of elements starts to appear as soon as you've had a few supernovas and neutron star-neutron star collisions. As the Sun is a 1000th generation star, there will have been plenty of places where life could have started to evolve from its own stellar three-key-reset event, long before we arrived.

I do like these sort of thought experiments, but they're not really a match for how strange the universe actually is. We don't know how our particular kind of life started, how many completely different other sorts of life there may be, what intelligence actually is, nor what's going on in our own back yard in the seas of Enceladus and Titan, let alone further afield. And our modern notion of what physics is capable of is at most 100 years old.
posted by Devonian at 2:31 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


The belief that any truly intelligent life would necessarily be interested in the same kind of math I'm interested in has got to be the quintessential example of dudes who can't distinguish between their feelings and Cold Pure Logic.

I have no trouble believing that math geeks will share interests that transcend species limitations. What I'm not getting, is why all the futzing about with "a artifact an alien math geek would recognize as extreme math geekery as proof of species intelligence" - because I'd kinda hoped that, if aliens visit here, they'd see the cities and roads and books and, yes, teakettles, and say, "Hm, looks like those were made with deliberate, intelligent intent." And I'd hope that if we visited other worlds and found, oh, canyons full of mirrors that create incomprehensible holograms when the suns' light hits them the right way, or sets of beads strung in clusters of seven in huge stacks in caves, or human-fist-sized objects with five small tubes and a knob in the middle, we'd say, "huh, looks like those were made by intelligent life."

I mean, I like the math geekery, but somehow I doubt first-contact personnel on either end are going to be mathematicians.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:36 PM on October 25, 2017 [11 favorites]


Pyry, thanks for posting the dinosauroid! I saw that at a museum as a kid, and was sure that I had imagined it, since my Google searches for "terrifying lizardman statue" weren't doing the trick.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:42 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


> This reminds me of the dinosauroid, where you make a bunch of 'reasonable' assumptions regarding what a human-level-intelligent dinosaur would look like and, surprise!, you end up with something that basically looks like a human.

Can't get to technology without harnessing fire. Can't harness fire without standing upright. Ain't nobody got six legs.
posted by Leon at 2:50 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


I really like that he went ahead and built a TCA after coming up with the idea. It shows he has faith in his convictions, and presumably elevates us all to full intelligence.
posted by surlyben at 2:52 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


Pages 220/221 makes it pretty clear to me that Foschini is making an existence argument. It would be erroneous to conclude that Foschini actually thought that the artifact must be that mathematical object; the first part of page 221 is more like a "suppose... then..." kind of reasoning about mathematical bounds. Page 220 also argues that the object meaningfully exists precisely in spite/regardless of whether some entities (mathematicians, nonmathematicians, etc.) are interested in it or not.
posted by polymodus at 2:59 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


the smallest thing a being could make that could not reasonably be created by chance alone, but that intelligent societies would be drawn to create.

I was thinking one of those wind-up sets of teeth that clack and run around a table top. ymmv
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:15 PM on October 25, 2017 [25 favorites]


Here on Earth, one of the moon's primary purposes is aiding mariners in navigation.

The problem here is this flawed premise. In fact, on Earth, the overwhelming purpose of the Moon is regulating lycanthropy. Given the large number of Jovian moons, it is likely that, if life existed there, it has been exterminated by hordes of werewolves. It just stands to reason.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:33 PM on October 25, 2017 [19 favorites]


Werewolves are alive though.
posted by biffa at 3:37 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


The real question about intelligent species in the rest of the universe is whether they have British accents or American accents.
posted by XMLicious at 3:42 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


Given the large number of Jovian moons, it is likely that, if life existed there, it has been exterminated by hordes of werewolves.

#notallwerewolves
posted by The Bellman at 3:51 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


The space elves, orcs, and hobbits have British accents. The space humans have southern drawls.
posted by Pyry at 3:53 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


Does anyone want to give the ELI5 as to why what looks like a pretty massive array is the smallest possible artifact? Is it just the claim that you could miniaturize it and somehow it's impossible that pebbles or whatever could never pile up in that same exact format? Because otherwise I'm with OHenryPacey and their wind-up teeth argument.
posted by tavella at 3:55 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


Werewolves are alive though.

Crushing gravity gets them eventually. It's a pretty bad food chain, honestly. Intelligent Design should be ashamed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:24 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


This idea is deplorable, and he should feel bad for having it.

Srsly, his idea of "intelligent life" is something that didn't exist on Earth before the 1960s?

The problem with all discussions of the Fermi Paradox is that you just can't extrapolate from one data point. But at least your theory, or hot take, should correctly recognize that one data point. If it can't look at Neolithic hunter-gatherers and see intelligence, it's not only silly, but unethical.
posted by zompist at 4:25 PM on October 25, 2017 [17 favorites]


I mean, I like the math geekery, but somehow I doubt first-contact personnel on either end are going to be mathematicians.

That depends on whether we believe that math is universal, or just a product of the mind. The question is far from settled.
posted by jonnay at 5:47 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


If it can't look at Neolithic hunter-gatherers and see intelligence, it's not only silly, but unethical.

Just sticking with silly first, like with the Fermi paradox, aren't there just so many assumptions that could be mistaken that the supposed point of the exercise, a numerical calculation of chances (1, I guess, out of 10^264, here) is actually worthless? So many nodes where the thought experimenter decides that alternatives they simply can't conceive of are, in fact, impossible? It's an exercise that has some intellectual value, but I think it's pretty epistemically arrogant to think that the result actually is informative about the universe.
posted by thelonius at 6:20 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


I must admit:
  1. I don't understand.
  2. The thing itself makes me want to play Cones of Dunshire.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:36 PM on October 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


Frankly, I'm not even sure humanity is intelligent life.

Spend an hour reading the comments on YouTube. It should resolve any uncertainty in this regard.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:09 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


I have no trouble believing that math geeks will share interests that transcend species limitations.

I'll seriously consider the hypothesis that other species would necessarily have math geeks when someone can satisfactorily explain why humanity has math geeks.
posted by straight at 7:22 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


Can The Culture please step in now?
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 7:28 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


The problem is, it's too small. Your TCA may be missed. What you really need is a machine that makes machines that make TCA's. There's lots of matter, feel free to use as much as you need.
posted by bigbigdog at 7:41 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


The figures at Nazca speak of something, the fact the lights are on all over the Earth speaks of something. That cave the Dogon guard, with the map of the Sirius system and its neutron companion star, says something. Its gonna be the zig zag cut french fries that gives us away. I can see them now, obviously these starchy vegetables fell into a hot oily pit, but no sire, the cuts indicate machine intelligence, obviously these were special plants, sacrificial plants with great religious significance, these entities that used to thrive here worshiped these starchy plants. That will be all master colonizer, I have to ponder this. I feel there has to be more, perhaps the sacrificial blood of another sacred vegetable, red in color to set off the starchy yellow of this artifact. So simple and yet so telling, you can bet your sixth finger we can figure out the communication on this small piece of parchment, some sort of number code, with symbols. You see those arch forms? They were on the sacred container of crenelated starch forms.
posted by Oyéah at 8:09 PM on October 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


As the Sun is a 1000th generation star

I'd thought that it was maybe a 3rd generation star. Is there some other theory about lots of short-lived stars before the Sun?
posted by xris at 9:04 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


The thing itself makes me want to play Cones of Dunshire.


This past summer, while suffering from an excess of unproductive mental downtime as sometimes happens when between projects, I invented a dice game. I’ll call it “Yahtzo!”

Yahtzo is played with a dozen six-sided dice, because that was what was in my dice bag at the time (I’d just been playing Shadowrun.). It’s a statistical prediction game, based on a series of algorithms that are dynamically generated based upon an iterative process. It is played by one player. If you get an end result that makes you go, “huh, that’s pretty improbable” then you win. If you don’t win, then you keep playing, or at least until the microwave beeps and the Steamables are done.

I was describing the game to a friend, when I happened to mention that I wasn’t satisfied with my original rule set, so I’d also made my own house rules. That’s when he interrupted me with a confused look and asked, “Wait, you house-ruled your own game?”

When I told him that, well, yeah, he said “All right...I’m not judging you. Okay, maybe I’m judging you just a little bit.”

My point - and I do have one - is that it occurs to me that our search for extraterrestrial intelligent life is like a house-ruled home game of Yahtzo! You win if you find something highly improbable. But in the end, the endeavor seems pretty arbitrary, is a little embarrassing, and ultimately doesn’t lead to much at all.
posted by darkstar at 9:16 PM on October 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


This reminds me of the dinosauroid, where you make a bunch of 'reasonable' assumptions regarding what a human-level-intelligent dinosaur would look like and, surprise!, you end up with something that basically looks like a human.

That reminds me of a couple of the " design an alien" panels I attended decades ago, supposedly with the intention of building a realistic alien with as much attention to biological and evolutionary plausibility as possible.

It turned out the panel before the one I was on ended up designing a four- limbed brachiator with binocular vision. As did the panel I was on. And so did the next panel. It became obvious really quickly that the people putting on the thing were damn sure there was only one proper body plan that lead to intelligence. My pleas to just look at the diversity of environments was ignored, and the amount of "Well it works for us, it must be a universal principle " was amazing.

This reminds me strongly of those conferences.
posted by happyroach at 9:52 PM on October 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


Gerard Foschini proposed that the chance of intelligent life emerging in our universe was 10^264

No, the chance of intelligent life emerging in our universe is 1, because it happened, which means the more likely cause is that some of your overly confident assumptions are incorrect.
posted by benzenedream at 10:04 PM on October 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


That depends on whether we believe that math is universal, or just a product of the mind. The question is far from settled.

The mathematical principles are universal. Relying on them as a way to understand and relate to the world around us may not be.

Sound is universal, too, inasmuch as "vibratory ripples through a medium" happen in measurable ways, but we don't select objects for building supplies according to the tones they make when struck. (I'm aware that what counts as "audible sound" will vary drastically by species, and some may have no comprehension of it at all.)

So the alien wants to build a new porch, it sings to a stack of boards and grab the ones with the correct resonance. Needs to cut more boards, so it taps one in a few spots until it finds the right spot to cut. Some weird theoretical scientist somewhere is playing with numbers as if they could be used for something other than children's games and weird art, but nobody pays attention to them.

Science geeks who ponder How To Aliens need to spend less time on abstract scientific principles and more time reading Space Australians entries. (Not that many of those are plausible, just that they cover a diverse range of, "aliens could be really, really different.")
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:52 PM on October 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


I mean, I like the math geekery, but somehow I doubt first-contact personnel on either end are going to be mathematicians.

Of course they will be, along with their hot linguist and/or biologist former spouse that they can't stand but still have feelings for.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:49 AM on October 26, 2017 [7 favorites]


You don't have to be a mathematician to understand the concept of 2 and the expression 1 + 2 = 3. At least not unless unless your idea of what qualifies as expertise in mathematics is pretty idiosyncratic.

The big handwavy idea is usually that we don't know how extraterrestrial beings think, or communicate. Everything we hold dear they might revile, and vice versa. Simple "Hello, friends!" messages, if somehow comprehensible by recipients, will probably mean little and could be antagonistic.

So the reasonable hope is that math can be the baseline concept to initiate contact. That alien might communicate through smell, and twoness might be expressed as a fresh lilac scent, and and the number 2 might transcribe as 1.10101001001111011 in their fractional-base counting system, but there's a means to a mutually developable conversation through a shared concept, and twoness requires far fewer assumptions about alien civilizations, or even how alien bioforms work, than almost any other concept humans understand. And once you've communicated 2, you can try addition, and continue from there.

When we were once shooting gold disks into space, we hoped and assumed that any possible recipient will be able to decrypt alien (to them) writings and drawings, distinguish between drawings and photographs, and figure out how a record can be used to produce sound. These would mean that they'd probably have also developed the ability to make and retain conceptual abstractions and understand some algebra and/or calculus, in whatever forms they might take, because of how we assume any bioform would develop a complex culture. But we still documented math fundamentals as we knew them. It wasn't to teach them math, it was to teach them our civilization.
posted by ardgedee at 3:48 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


The belief that any truly intelligent life would necessarily be interested in the same kind of math I'm interested in has got to be the quintessential example of dudes who can't distinguish between their feelings and Cold Pure Logic.

What straight said. Seriously, the absolute solipsism of some (usually male) people gifted with certain forms of high intelligence never ceases to amaze me — the solipsism, fused to a total lack of curiosity or wonder or simple suspicion that the universe of possibilities might be more various and complicated than we presently understand. Haldane had this nailed a long time ago.

And in any event, even if you do accept the logic that leads you to believe in a Universal Canonical, surely it'd be something along the lines of Dr. Manhattan's sigil, no?
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:12 AM on October 26, 2017


One moon circles?

(We actually search at 1420Mhz for more or less this reason).
posted by Leon at 5:12 AM on October 26, 2017


But the problem with that hydrogen symbol as a Universal Canonical is that he's trying to construct the smallest object that could not occur in the absence of intelligence. In other words, no false positives.

It's not an intelligence test: sure, hunter gatherers couldn't construct that object, and they're intelligent, but that's not the point of the object - it's more like a "beyond all possible doubt" test, and it doesn't care about false negatives.
posted by Leon at 5:18 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


The use of mathematical concepts would seem to be conditioned on the theoretizing of physicists and cosmologists. That I'll grant. But if we're trying to find some sort of "universal language" then the relations of mathematics do seem to be a good fit. You can express mathematical ideas in many different ways, and none of them have to carry assumptions about number base, symbols, or anything like that. A 7 on Earth is the same as 7 everywhere in the universe.

That's looking aside that any physical or informational expression still has to be interpreted, and maybe our notions of interpretability are biased.

But groups are a pretty simple and reliable mathematical structure with a number of non-trivial implications, including the orders of the sporadic groups. Groups are one of the simpler types of universal algebra. I know they're typically presented as being expressive of "symmetry" in however vague a way you make it. A perhaps simpler notion is that groups can express how some things may be considered the same even if they're different. Some notion of groups, even if it were embedded in other notions or expressed with somewhat different axiomatizations, would be universal. This isn't that abstruse.

The argument is that this TCA thing can't have arisen by chance and produces a fairly ludicrous number. It reeks of creationist arguments. I am with surlyben on this.

The thing reads like a too-clever concept ginned up to support a Fermi estimate or back-of-the-envelope.
posted by adoarns at 5:29 AM on October 26, 2017


The mathematical principles are universal.

That's a bold pronouncement. Can you back up the assertion? If numbers and counting are truly an inherent feature of the universe, surely there must be some existential proof.... Right?

It's true that math is unreasonably good at describing the universe, but that doesn't make it universal.

If you're interested here are two videos on the subject, from two different perspectives (neither one take a particular side in the argument):

Numberphile from a more mathematical perspective.

PBS Ideas Channel from a more Critical Theory perspective.
posted by jonnay at 5:54 AM on October 26, 2017


existential proof

What's that?
posted by thelonius at 6:08 AM on October 26, 2017


Bait and switch, I say... they start talking about an artifact a human could hold in their hand, then end talking about a string of bits.

Any number of physical objects would work.... A replica of the Antikythera mechanism, a Watch, a Lathe (the Queen of machine tools), a Micrometer, a Baseball, an iPhone. Essentially, any of the billions of manufactured items our civilization churns out every hour.

If you want to send a string of bits, send a copy of Toccata and Fugue in D minor, as an uncompressed mono 8 bit stream. It's not the minimal size, but it'll get the point across.
posted by MikeWarot at 6:32 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Somehow I can't stop thinking about the argument that Carl Sagan attributed (probably wrongly) to a gram of very pure hash Christian Huygens....
posted by I hate nature. at 7:02 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind. Interesting and complex, but missing the mathematical theory for "Don't get high on your own supply."
posted by netowl at 7:22 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


> Any number of physical objects would work.... A replica of the Antikythera mechanism, a Watch, a Lathe (the Queen of machine tools), a Micrometer, a Baseball, an iPhone. Essentially, any of the billions of manufactured items our civilization churns out every hour.

What is it about the Antikythera mechanism that would convince an alien civilization that it's the work of intelligence? Take components away, one at a time, until you're left with a single cog. That single cog could be the result of relatively unintelligent processes (in the same way that a snail shell is).

Where on that path, between Antikythera mechanism and single cog, is the "this must be the product of intelligent life" signal lost? Where's the irreducible complexity?
posted by Leon at 7:42 AM on October 26, 2017


existential proof

What's that?


.... Morning brain. Sorry.

That should read: "surely there must be some proof.... Right?"
posted by jonnay at 7:49 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


xris --

The 1000th generation must refer to the stars that seed the universe with heavier elements, ie, massive stars that supernova. They are very short lived in comparison to solar mass stars. Stars like the sun last a long time but they are sterile as far as really changing the universe.

In order to die in a supernova, a star needs something like 5-10 solar masses. A 5 solar mass star might live 200M years, and a 10 solar mass star maybe 50M years.
posted by jclarkin at 7:51 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


it's more like a "beyond all possible doubt" test, and it doesn't care about false negatives

That's fine as it's own intellectual exercise, "What's the nature of the very minimum object that would be proof of intelligent life." But the assumptions about whether any particular intelligent life would be interested in making such a thing and using that to estimate the chances of intelligent life existing is the silly part.
posted by straight at 8:04 AM on October 26, 2017


The PBS video about Is Math a Feature of the Universe or a Feature of Human Creation? asks, "Did humans discover math, or create math?"

Bleh. Neither. Math is a label for a way of grouping some of our perceptions. It's a way of categorizing our observations. Humans created the labels; the concepts behind them are based on physical realities which, if we start questioning, we quickly run into solipsistic games of "is the world I perceive with my senses even real?"

Our particular set of numbers and equation systems may well be unique to humans. However, while I can't prove that it's universal that "two is more than one," I'm going to posit that any species that does not acknowledge that, is going to be one with whom we have no basis for communication; their intelligence or lack thereof is not going to matter.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:25 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]




"surely there must be some proof.... Right?"
[proof that numbers exist independently of our concepts of them]

I don't really know that much about philosophy of mathematics, but I'm not what such a proof would look like - or a proof of the contrary position, either. I mean that not rhetorically, but genuinely. I guess you could try to show that the negation of your position is contradictary or incoherent. To me, it does seem very odd to believe that, say, if there is no one right now concieving of a certain number, or there is no collection of, say, 3,987, 896,921,824 physical objects (assuming for the sake of argument that the notion of a physical object is not itself problematic), then that number actually does not exist, but I don't know if that is actually a consequence of subjectivism or constructivism or whatever you'd call the denial of mathematical realism.
posted by thelonius at 10:26 AM on October 26, 2017


That single cog could be the result of relatively unintelligent processes

Except that on examination, it is made up of an alloy is extremely rare (and not long lasting) in nature, with an even distribution of metals and structure that will show it was forged, not accreted. It will also be obvious from the surface of the cuts that the indentations in the metal were made by by another object, not grown. So you would have to posit that a piece of this extremely unusual material was somehow created with perfect regularity of a circle and perfect flatness, and then somehow tumbled naturally in such a way that perfectly regular notches with perfect spacing were created.


Let's compare with the supposed TCA from that photo. Well, yes, you could tell it was a created object... because it's made of the same kind of cut and forged objects as the cog. So lets take away that, and make it out of natural pebbles. Well, there's a hell of a lot of pebbles piled up all over the universe, given our observations in this solar system. It would be vastly less bizarre for some of the uncountable numbers of those piles to happen to match a particular number sequence than it would be for the cog to arise naturally.
posted by tavella at 11:05 AM on October 26, 2017


As a proof of intelligence as opposed to a proof of somewhat complex "natural" phenomena compare the Antikythera mechanism to, for example, an organized lattice of photonic crystals. Each crystal made of diamond-based nano-structures that operate on light more or less like semiconductors operate on electrons.

One might think that the highly organized lattice of photonic crystals is so so unlikely that it may be part of a photonic computer from an advanced civilization, when in fact it is just how this brazilian beetle gets its pretty colors.

Even cogs can be created by non-intelligent life, look at this grasshopper!

If you want to avoid false positives you need to get more creative than dumb natural selection, and math is pretty creative. That anyone else will be able to see what your artifact represents is something else.
posted by Metafilter only supports English letters in userna at 11:43 AM on October 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


Yes, all sorts of living creatures create various crystals biologically... and there are structural tells that indicate that, which is why they are useful fossil remnants. Forged and cut metal has another set of tells... which is why they are extremely useful archaeological remnants. Hammered metal has a different structure than accreted metal which has a different structure than natural crystalline metal. Surfaces that were cut have different tells than surfaces that naturally developed. And so on.
posted by tavella at 11:55 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


However, while I can't prove that it's universal that "two is more than one," I'm going to posit that any species that does not acknowledge that, is going to be one with whom we have no basis for communication; their intelligence or lack thereof is not going to matter.

So how's your ability to communicate with crows coming along? By your definition, they are intelligent non-humans.
posted by happyroach at 12:57 PM on October 26, 2017


> Forged and cut metal has another set of tells

Interesting. So a subtractive process (boring, milling) is inherently more of an intelligence signifier than an additive process (3d printing)? Makes a certain kind of sense - we expect life to grow. But then there's shipworms... and I wouldn't bet against life somewhere in the universe incorporating metal, even if it's only in the same way that a caddis fly larvae incorporates sand, or a bird incorporates grit. For highly "regular" shapes, I point again to snail shells.

I think we see something close to all your proposed tells right here on Earth. I think I still believe a metal cog could evolve, or be the product of an evolved process. Even a few cogs put together to perform an action (like the grasshopper).
posted by Leon at 1:11 PM on October 26, 2017


I harbour an irrational hatred for pure math. It can go off the rails very fast.

Theorizing about the likelihood of life in our universe hits a very real limit - the speed of light.

For all we know, life in the universe is not only plentiful, but inevitable, and we would never know. We would be very, very lucky, if an intelligence compatible with ours existed no only at our time point in the universal history, but close to our physical location.

In brief, I don't get this obsession with calculating so very precisely how special we are, when we might not be anything but.

Also, the "Artifact" made of coins and rubber cones looks like something which could easily be created by nature.
posted by Laotic at 5:59 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


In brief, I don't get this obsession with calculating so very precisely how special we are, when we might not be anything but.

Well if we did have some way of figuring out how likely it was that there was intelligent life nearby, it could help us decide how much time and money to spend looking for them.
posted by straight at 8:45 PM on October 26, 2017


How exactly are these hypothetical aliens supposed to encounter the TCA? If the only example of one is sitting on some professors desk, it seems highly unlikely to ever be found. If we want other civilizations to know that we are here and we are intelligent, scatter some tiny, minimally destructive VonNeuman devices in all directions. Such an elegant solution surely would also have been thought of by other races, which leads us back to the question of "where are they".
posted by ambulocetus at 9:37 PM on October 26, 2017


straight you will easily admit that is about the last reason anyone would take seriously. I mean, there must be extremely good reasons for wars if we seem to engage in them so readily, right?
posted by Laotic at 10:20 PM on October 26, 2017


Math is a label for a way of grouping some of our perceptions. It's a way of categorizing our observations. Humans created the labels; the concepts behind them are based on physical realities which, if we start questioning, we quickly run into solipsistic games of "is the world I perceive with my senses even real?"

You say it with such conviction, and yet it's a devilishly difficult thing to prove, or disprove. That's the point.

Ultimately that's why I would way a pure mathematician in my newly formed team to communicate with aliens, but he won't be the only one there.
posted by jonnay at 7:26 AM on October 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


So how's your ability to communicate with crows coming along? By your definition, they are intelligent non-humans.


Me: "Hey crow! What does 'caw' mean?"

Crow: "Caw!"

Me: "No, that's what I'm asking you about. What does it mean when you say 'Caw'?

Crow: Turns head, peers intently. "Caw!"

Me: "Dudecrow. Seriously. What does the word 'Caw' mean translated into English?"

Crow: "Look, dumbass, I've told you twice already. 'Caw' means 'caw'. Look it up! If you don't even know your own language, how do you expect to learn mine?"
posted by darkstar at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


I read Webb's book on the Fermi Paradox a few months ago, and he's fully convinced me that there are no intelligent aliens in the observable universe. Which bummed me out for a bit, but I've now decided it's a positive thing, as that's one less thing to worry about. Alien invasion. Next!
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:31 AM on November 9, 2017


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