Recently1 I reported on the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua (“oh-moo-ah-moo-ah”) and why astronomer Avi Loeb believes it to be a piece of alien technology instead of a wandering asteroid or comet. Because of his prior involvement in designing a project to send probes to a nearby star using lasers and lightsails, and because of ‘Oumuamua’s apparent similarity to one of these lightsails, Loeb accepts this as the possible explanation for an object of extremely light weight, flattened structure, and high reflectivity. He does, however, admit that this is only a comparison, and the object could certainly have other technological explanations.
While I accept his analysis of ‘Oumuamua from what we could detect at the time of its passing, I am powerfully reminded that we probably cannot understand or even guess at the nature of a piece of technology arriving from an advanced, spacefaring civilization. And I base this on the great technological divide that exists in our own recent history.
As I’ve written several times elsewhere, you could bring an educated first-century Roman forward in time to Europe in about the eighteenth century, and he could easily recognize most of what he saw. Styles and techniques would certainly be different in fabrics, clothing, and other everyday items like modern carriages, the tack of the horses pulling them, and the roads they drove on. He would have some trouble with understanding the widespread nature of a printed book but could easily understand the principles involved, once they were explained to him.
Our ancient Roman would have a somewhat harder time with a flintlock rifle, because his era knew nothing of gun powder or indeed had any experience with small, contained explosions—although they were familiar with volcanic eruptions. But without going into the structure of atoms and the chemistry of molecular bonding through the trading and sharing electrons, you could tell him the explosion was a kind of very rapid burning, and he could accept it. In fact, I suspect many people today without formal education understand most explosions as such. And as for the rest of eighteenth-century technology, the ancient Roman could be brought up to speed in an afternoon.
Now consider that same Roman brought into the world just two centuries later. Photography, recorded music—even in their analog versions, let alone modern digital transmission and storage—and other technologies we all have taken for granted since childhood, some of them since the dawn of the twentieth century, would be perplexing to him. Try explaining a light-sensitive film emulsion or the technique of recording sound waves on a vinyl disk, and you must first explain the physical wave properties of light and sound. Well, yes, start with ocean waves and work your way upward. And then go on to electricity and its relationship to lightning bolts. Then there are photons, radio waves, and the whole business of radio and television. Don’t forget electric circuits and transistors—the backbone of digital technology. Oh, and the steam engine and internal combustion, automobiles and airplanes. Not to mention microbes, cellular biology, evolution, and genetics.
It would take a couple of days just to catalog all the realms of science over which your ancient Roman temporally jumped. It would take several months of general science courses before he could even begin to understand the physics, chemistry, and other discoveries behind these technologies. Otherwise, it would all be magic involving either godlike or demon-inspired forces.2
If you doubt this, let’s try a thought experiment. Go to your computer, run a Google search on some topic—let’s say “Henry II of England”—and print out the results on your laser printer. Now get into your time machine and go back to a period after that Henry but before Gutenberg popularized printing and books in the mid-fifteenth century—say, the court of Henry III (reigned 1216 to 1272). Hand that printed page to any scholar or monk within reach. The monk would have the most experience of reading and writing, because he probably spent part of a day copying out the holy books. Let’s not ignore the fact that the English language has changed remarkably in diction, definitions, spelling, and orthography in the last seven hundred years, or that most of the people at court spoke a form of French by preference.
Your printed page would not be just a curiosity but practically indecipherable. The paper—at least of that uniformly high quality—did not exist in the West of that time. The fine and exact characters on the printed page would be unknown to people who dealt with handwriting, even with conscientiously practiced calligraphy and stone-carved inscriptions. And aside from the difference in language, the purpose of your printed page would be unguessable. Without a knowledge of the internet—whose technologies exceed even those we were trying to teach the ancient Roman—the listing and its references would be unimaginable. Even with an inkling of a world linked together with computers so that what any one of them knew could be known to any other, the functioning of a search engine like Google, and before it Magellan, Lycos, and AltaVista, let alone online bulletin boards like AOL, would take more than a day to explain and demonstrate.
Without such a guide and insight, your paper printout would be gibberish. Lacking the context of a search among dispersed references, the “message” would be incomprehensible as to its meaning and uses. What is “https://” or “www” or “.com” or “.edu”? Even if a monk could read beyond the language difference, these usages would be hieroglyphs without a Rosetta stone to put them in context. By itself, the paper would be an unsolvable mystery.
And so, while I can agree with Avi Loeb that ‘Oumuamua is likely a piece of technology—or technological debris—from beyond our solar system and therefore a sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life, I don’t think we will understand what it was used for. The analogy of a lightsail is extrapolated from technologies that we know and understand. But the reality, to us, might seem like magic. And even if we sent a probe out to capture the object or tear off a piece of it, we would still probably be in the dark.
We would have to wait to meet the aliens themselves and, like our ancient Roman, open our minds and really listen to their explanations. And only on that day would we begin to understand.
1. See Proof of Alien Life from April 4, 2021.
2. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”