Cosmos #12 Encyclopedia Galactica

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence

Sagan's statement "Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence" has been restated many times in the history of science. My graduate advisor called it the "Principle of Minimum Astonishment", and it's really a consequence of Occam's Razor, the idea that the simplest explanation that fits all the data is probably the correct one. Given an outlandish claim with weak or absent supporting evidence, the simplest and most probable explanation is that the person making the claim is wrong.

One of the most controversial expressions of this concept was philosopher David Hume's criterion for scientific acceptance of miracles. He stated that the evidence would have to be of such quality that it would be a bigger miracle for the evidence to be faulty than for the miracle itself to have happened.

Lots of people attack science for having too stringent standards of evidence. That's like complaining it's unfair for a marathon to be 26 miles because many people can't run that far. If you want to run a marathon, you practice until you can run 26 miles, or accept the fact that you can't do it. If you want your ideas accepted as science, you have to meet the standards of evidence.

A Classic UFO Encounter

The Cosmos episode recounts the September 19, 1961 adventure of  Betty & Barney Hill, who were supposedly abducted by an alien spacecraft. This incident, written up by John G. Fuller (a prolific author of this sort of stuff) as The Interrupted Journey, is considered a classic UFO encounter. Under hypnosis, Mrs. Hill recalled seeing an alien star map that supposedly included the Sun and a number of nearby stars, including some that were discovered after the alleged incident.

As Sagan notes, the alleged fit is not very good, and given the number of stars near the sun, it's surprising that nobody could find a better fit. Properly used, hypnosis can recover forgotten or suppressed memories, improperly used, it can reflect the interviewer's own fantasies or, worse yet, implant false memories. It's entirely possible Mrs. Hill did recall a star map, but one she had seen somewhere, maybe in an astronomy book. The stars, of course, were stars visible from Earth.

A lot of people believe the subconscious mind is a faithful recorder of information. Dreams are widely supposed to be a good way of generating creative ideas by either getting around mental blocks or by recovering information that the conscious mind has forgotten. I had a couple of interesting dreams that reveal just what sort of nonsense the subconscious is capable of dredging up. They're an interesting counterpoint to the widespread myth that the subconscious is especially creative or accurate in retaining memories.

Paranormalists, hypnotists, spiritualists and others would have us believe the subconscious is a perfect recorder of information, able to integrate information that the hobbled conscious mind cannot.  I'm not going to deny that for some people dreams may provide access to forgotten or blocked information, but in my experience, my subconscious has repeatedly failed to retrieve
information that my conscious mind has no trouble whatever recalling.  My dreams seem to be nothing more than random memory dumps.  I suppose on occasion some random bit flushed out in a dream may inspire someone to think along new lines and thereby lead to a creative insight, but such an event is purely random.  Flipping randomly through an encyclopedia is just as likely to inspire new ideas.

The term "Close Encounter of Third Kind", used in the episode and title of a 1977 film by Steven Spielberg, refers to a scale of alien encounter evidence:

Despite lots of speculation ranging in luridness from Spock's half-human, half-Vulcan ancestry to the downright pornographic, encounters of the third kind are extremely unlikely to be sexual. First of all:

The video shows remarkable footage of a meteor that nearly hit the earth on August 10, 1972. The object, about the size of a bus, entered the atmosphere over Utah and first became visible at an altitude of 76 kilometers. It traveled nearly due north, reaching a minimum altitude of 58 kilometers over southwestern Montana, then exited the Earth's atmosphere near Calgary, Alberta. Heated by its passage, it faded from visibility at an altitude of 102 kilometers. Although the meteor was visible a total of 101 seconds, was visible at any one spot for less than 30 seconds, passed over a sparsely inhabited region and was completely unexpected, we nevertheless have dozens of clear photographs of the event. The footage in the video was shot by a woman who tracked the object so perfectly that when it reappeared from behind some clouds, it was still perfectly centered in the frame. An observer in Canada photographed the object exiting back into space. A complete report is in the July, 1974 issue of Sky and Telescope.

Where is there a single UFO apparition with this kind of documentation?

Communicating With Aliens in Our Past


1801 - Joseph Fourier and Jean Francois Champollion

Rosetta Stone 1799

1828 - Champollion's visit to Egypt

Champollion/Young translation




Symbol Count = letters

Some ideograms


Impressive as Champollion's work was, it was almost trivial because he had three parallel texts. Much more impressive, and relevant to communicating with extraterrestrials), are languages that were deciphered with no parallel texts. The translation of Babylonian cuneiform by Georg Friedrich Grotefend is a good example. Cuneiform, from Latin words meaning "wedge shaped," was created by impressing triangular dents into clay. These markings are very simple. There is no question of their being obscure symbols or pictographs - they are obviously letters or syllables.

First of all, lack of material is not a problem with cuneiform. Markings were impressed into wet clay, which hardened. Often an invading army would burn the town where the records were kept, obligingly baking them and helping to preserve them even better. And tablets have been unearthed by the thousands - they were often pretty prosaic stuff like ledgers, official proclamations, and so on.

The nice thing about this material is that it is so repetitious. The fact that the formats are so similar gives us clues as to what the records are about. And that's what Grotefend took advantage of. You have to love his reasoning, which was basically: "empires may rise and empires may fall, but bureaucrats are the same forever." Grotefend reasoned that a lot of official royal documents started with the same header: "King x, son of y, son of z, etc... proclaims such and such." He was thus able to identify the standard "boilerplate" text and identify names. He was then able to place the names in sequence and match the sequence against royal chronologies from other sources. This matching enabled him to determine what sounds were represented by what symbols and the rest is, well, history. With sounds established, plus the fact that the language was Semitic, it was possible to guess at word meanings using other related languages.

Maya Hieroglyphs

When the Spanish came to Central America, they discovered that the Maya had the only elaborate written language in the Americas. The Maya had thousands of books written in hieroglyphics. The Spanish, seeing these books as perpetuating both pagan cults and native resistance, destroyed them all. Only five are known to have survived. Innumerable stone inscriptions also remain across the former Maya world.

The hero-villain of this piece is Diego de Landa, a complex, paradoxical figure who defies easy pigeonholing. On the one hand he was one of the principal forces behind destruction of the Maya literature. On the other hand he protested mistreatment of the natives to the point where his enemies had him sent back to Spain to face trial, ironically on trumped up charges of mistreating the natives himself. And de Landa left us some of the most detailed accounts we have of the Maya at the time of the Spanish conquest.

When I was in college, Maya hieroglyphs were considered the archetypical example of a language lost forever. Now it is considered at least 85 per cent decipherable. One of the breakthroughs was in the analysis of language structure, an outgrowth of research in cryptography, that enables linguists to identify the structures of a passage even if the meaning is unknown.

Another breakthrough was re-interpretation of de Landa's writings. De Landa had written down a Maya "alphabet," which had long been known to be wrong. But in 1960, Yuri Knozorov asked "de Landa was too careful an observer to have been completely mistaken. He was recording something. What was it?" The obvious answer: syllables. When de Landa recorded a sign as corresponding to "b", it wasn't the letter, but the name of the letter, in Spanish the syllable "bay." All of a sudden several dozen syllables and many words became readable. Since Maya is still extensively spoken in Central America, other words and syllables became clear from context.

Communicating With Aliens in Our Future

None of these examples is a perfect analogy with communicating with aliens. All, in some sense, had a "parallel text" in that they could be linked to known languages. Even an utterly unconnected human language of unknown affinity would still be generated by a human brain, with at least some similarity to our own. Still, the variety of human languages and the logic employed in them is impressive; there are plenty of aliens right here on Earth.

Interstellar Messages - Cosmic Rosetta Stone

Arecibo Radio Telescope

Could communicate with replica of itself 15,000 l.y. away

How far away can the Sun be seen?

The Drake Equation

The famous Frank Drake equation, a formula for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, has been called by astronomer Jill Tarter "a wonderful tool for organizing our ignorance." It tells us what we need to know to answer the question, and how far we are from being able to do so. The equation consists fo a number of terms all multiplied together:

Could we be alone?

Assumptions about extraterrestrials



Less Aggressive?

Possible effects of contact

Self-destruction not inevitable?

Culture Shock?

Could we have been visited?

Why aren't they here?

We're the first or only

Unknown problems


A Big Galaxy

Star Wars Unlikely?

Technological Imbalance?

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Created 13 January 1998, Last Update 3 May 2000

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