Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 123: The Science and Pseudoscience of Communicating with Aliens with @KarenStollznow

Karen Stollznow talks
‘Bout the issues of ET

I wanted to start the New Year off on a lighter and different kind of topic, so I interviewed linguist, Dr. Karen Stollznow, about alien communication. This was based a bit on her TAM 2014 talk, and we got into a lot of issues not only with how communication is portrayed in popular media, but how communication is problematic amongst people on our own planet, different language groups on our own planet, and different species on our own planet. We then discussed – within that context – some people who claim they are in contact with aliens and how linguistic analysis shows the claimed languages to be poorly constructed variations on what they already know.

This interview was only meant to be a half hour long, but even after editing, it is just under an hour. That editing included removing a headset issue and two phone calls from my mother (family emergency). I tried to find a possible natural break to get it to two 30-minute episodes, but I found none: the conversation flowed very well, I thought.

There are no other segments in this episode because it is just over an hour long. The next episode should be about black hole denial.



  1. That was a very interesting episode. With regards John Lily all I’d remembered about him was that his work had inspired a rather obscure 1970’s thriller movie called “The Day of the Dolphin”.

    I have a copy of “Murmurs of Earth”, the book on the Voyager Golden Records and I noticed you seemed surprised that an LP record like design was used. The reason that design was used was that it was the most durable storage technology available at the time. The record would have to be physically damaged for the data to be lost, though I did notice that information did not appear to have been incorporated into the Wikipedia article.

    Now onto some sci-fi geekery, one story I’m surprised didn’t get mentioned was H. Beam Pipers ‘Omnilingual’ of 1957, which was the first story I encountered to touch on the idea of decyphering a ‘dead’ alien language. Author C.J. Cherryh has also written many novels which involve interspecies communication and make the point that even if you can understand what is being said, the mind behind the words may have a different understanding or even a lack of understanding of the concepts being conveyed by those words.

    Last but not least, the British comic book 2000AD once ran a strip in which aliens interpret the pulsar diagram on the Pioneer Plaque as being both directions to the point of origin and a depiction of the species that built the probe. Thinking ‘Hey these guys look just like us.’ the aliens go to Earth, lets just say it doesn’t end well for humanity…

    Comment by Graham — January 4, 2015 @ 7:46 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Graham. Regarding the Voyager records, I knew all about them, it was more the idea that a specific type of storage medium would somehow make any sense to a completely different species. So, scoffing at the practicality of its purpose.

      FYI, Karen says you raised some interested points. I suggested that she come over here and comment, but I don’t know how much time she has these days.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 5, 2015 @ 11:56 pm | Reply

  2. Oh, wow. I remember hearing about living with the dolphin on Radiolab:

    Comment by Chris — January 5, 2015 @ 11:52 pm | Reply

    • The dolphin story was slightly familiar to me, too. I’m wondering if I heard it on an old SGU episode. Or maybe C2C. Scary when I start to conflate the two.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — January 5, 2015 @ 11:53 pm | Reply

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