Tuesday, March 22, 2016

An Unsolvable Math Problem Inherent To Space Vinyl

One thing science fiction authors often fail to consider is metabolic differences in perception of time. There are a subset of human musical creations which are very similar to the music of birds, just much slower. That same subset is also very similar to the music of whales, just much faster. Birds are tiny creatures with extremely rapid heart rates and their songs are incredibly fast; whales are giants with slower heart rates and their songs are incredibly slow.

When you look at three different types of animals — ourselves, whales, and birds — that all discovered melody, you can see a universality there, but it's actually easier to see it than to hear it. If you transcribe whalesong or birdsong into Western musical notation, its similarity to various forms of human music becomes easier to discern.

The most obvious science fiction consideration here came and went, without anybody handling it reasonably, fifty years ago. We sent a metal record, like a vinyl record but made out of metal, out into space, in the hopes that any creature which found it one day might be able to learn of human music. We included an instruction manual, but even so, what did we know about how an alien who found the record would perceive music which was optimized for our physical size, our heart rate? If an alien similar to a whale finds this music, they will think it incomprehensibly fast; if an alien similar to a bird finds it, they will experience it as bizarrely slow.

Or to be even more obvious, consider that human music is necessarily optimized for the range of audio frequencies that human ears can perceive. Even age differences among humans are enough to cause different perception capacities here. There are frequencies which teenagers can hear, but adults can't, and convenience stores sometimes use this fact against teenagers. They'll play loud sounds in those frequencies to annoy the teenagers without adults even being aware of it, to stop the teenagers from treating their stores as places to hang out. Obviously, if aliens one day discover this metal record floating in space, and they figure out how to build the record player from our oddly IKEA-like diagrams, there's no guarantee that their ears will be able to perceive the same range of frequencies, or indeed that they will even have ears in the first place.

There's a type of extremely complex and multi-dimensional ratio here which we have no way to estimate ahead of time; the ratio of the speed at which sound changes over time in a given piece of music, vs. the speed at which sound normally changes over time, in the perception of listeners of a particular species.

So my big hope for that space record is that, thousands of years ago, aliens abducted a small number of us and transplanted us to a new planet just to see what would happen; that those human beings thrived on this other planet, with no knowledge of our own planet except a few half-forgotten legends; and that these "alien" humans will be the ones to discover that record. Not only is it the most likely way to expect that the music on there will ever be truly heard, it would also be a very weird and exciting experience for the people who found it.