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Alien Scientist: Here Be Aliens

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: June 2004, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

MAPMAKERS OF ANTIQUITY used to write 'Here Be Dragons' towards the edge of their maps, to indicate (or obscure) areas which no-one really knew anything of, or dared to go to find out. We may be amused by those ancient maps, with their fantastic ship-devouring sea monsters and strange squiggly landmasses. But we still haven't fathomed all the creatures of the deep, and only really knew the shapes of the continents - and the roundness of the Earth - once we got out into space.

An alien cartographer charged with surveying the Earth would of course know the shape of the planet first, and then the shapes of the landmasses, before knowing anything about the geographies of sea-going humans or cephalopods. Besides, what they chose to map might look alien to us in any case.

Any map is, to an extent, a subjective interpretation - however objective the data on which that is based. Most of the things marked on maps are not things you can actually see, but are human constructs. The black square signifying a capital city cannot be deduced from any satellite imagery. The pattern of coloured roads on the road atlas is a construct of the national highway administration. Which kinds of vegetation qualify to be marked as 'forest', or which flows of liquid qualify as bodies of 'water' are determined more by human factors than a simple analysis of botany or chemistry.

An alien's photo-survey would show things like coastlines and fields of different colours varying with the seasons. But the more interpretation the alien put into its mapping, the more alien the map night look to us. Alien symbols might be chosen primarily to indicate things of use to them - for food or refuelling, perhaps. Our cities of stone and concrete might be mapped merely as intricate bio-geological layerings, curiosities no more or less significant than coral reefs. And, if solid topography were the object of mapping, an alien might view the surface water of the planet with no more significance than we view clouds, and show the crinkly contours of the mountains seamlessly fused with the wrinkles of the ocean bed.

Then again, a view of the Earth at night could, like an X-ray, reveal more about the functional anatomy of the planet than the colours and substances of the terrestrial surface. The twinkling blur of our night-time conurbations could appear to the alien observers as intriguing and unknowable as the constellations of our night sky must have looked to our own first stargazers.

How we or the aliens interpret the pinpricks of light in either direction will depend on where we are coming from. And if the laws of cultural relativity hold - where no point of view is more valid than any other - then an Earthling's worldview is as valid as any alien's. An Earth-centric view of the universe is as natural as placing Japan at the centre of the world map, as easily as the Mediterranean or the Americas.

That the constellations are a unique perspective on the cosmos from the Earthlings' point of view is not itself a problem. To name celestial features after deities or iconic creatures may be anthropocentric, but all locational names - even systematic ones found in star catalogues - are to some extent culture-specific.

The crucial point is to know that the constellations are not astronomical units with any physical significance, other than the particular visual pattern they present to the Earth. The problem with this kind of Earth-centric view is if it obscures the knowledge of the bigger picture: if a fixation with constellations were to obscure our understanding of galaxies. To miss the significance of, say, the Milky Way, is to miss the point about the scale and structure of the cosmos.

Ancient world maps that showed just one landmass at the centre of the world are not dismissed for what they show, so much as for what they don't show. To depict a single landmass at the centre of the world is simply to have a selective focus; but to present that single landmass as the world would have us dismiss the map as a decorative object, rather than an object of scientific or practical value.

Our Earth-made maps of the heavens can work fine, as long as they make sense of outer space in outer space - if they could point the way back to where our celestial cartographers came from. Writing 'Here Be Aliens' on a blank part of the star chart would not, in the circumstances, be enough.

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