One of the topics in math that fascinates me the most is the idea of infinity. What intrigues me the is that there are several ideas of infinity; the idea of infinity out in any direction, as well as the idea of infinity between two values on a number line. I found myself thinking of these concepts of infinity this past week as I reflected on a thought presented in a TV show I have been watching.
For the last few weeks, I have been watching (the re-make of) COSMOS on TV, and a comment made in the last episode caused me to pause. It showed a picture of the Earth, and noted that all of our radio and TV broadcasted since such technology was developed have created an envelope of communication waves around the Earth which proceed to expand into infinite space. If there are other civilizations out in space anywhere, they will certainly be able to pick up such waves eventually. I smiled as I realized that this meant that the first impressions that alien civilizations may have of creatures on Earth will be from radio and TV broadcasts. Indeed, such information about Earthlings might reasonably be called a “Massive open OFFLINE Course” on what it means to live on planet Earth, surely the largest MOOC in the universe. I wondered what first impression this will give them, and shared this thought with my daughter. A few giggles resulted.
Would such alien civilizations even realize what the creatures on Earth looked like? Perhaps, but what if they first encountered cartoons of Mickey Mouse or (God forbid) Sponge Bob Square Pants? And what if they saw commercials of cars, and thought that Fords and Hondas were different species of life on Earth? Their first impressions of Earthling life might well be “Father Knows Best” or “All in the Family” or even “The Simpsons.” I wondered which they would conclude is the one that represents the typical family on Earth.
Transmission of the darkest moments of human history would eventually arrive, bringing pictures of war and the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There would also be pictures of the Holocaust and racism of all kinds, including photos of skulls form the Cambodian massacres, pictures from the Rwandan massacres and what seemed like never-ending footage of towers collapsing on September 11th of 2001. I hope that they also learn that the human race eventually discovered nonviolence, that they learn of the success of people like Gandhi and that eventually they hear the echo of “I have a Dream” as it ventures out into infinity. I wonder what they will eventually conclude about the moral compass found in humankind.
I cringe to think that the TV show of me as an awkward pre-teen doing a tap dance for an upcoming dance recital will forever float in space. I cannot still my infinite “shuffle-hop-steps”, any more than I can remove the horrible job I did on a local game show in my home town, when my ignorance of pop culture became clear. Did I think that I would be asked about math or economics, already my passions at that early age?
Movies and TV shows would be part of what they would pick up, but music from radios would be included, too. To aliens that may reproduce in ways very different from those found on this planet, I wonder what they will think of the song track to “Love Story” or the lust in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” I wonder whether hearing Tchaikovsky will make them want to dance (on how many feet?), or what their response might be to the musical command of “Do the Hustle.” I hope that their alien hearts, in whatever form they might come in, will be moved by the music of Mozart or Beethoven, as are those of Earthlings.
As someone who believes that the One God speaks to humans across the world through their own individual cultures, I have to conclude that the same applies to life in far away galaxies. And so, when they finally receive the broadcast of the crew from Apollo 8 reading from Genesis, I hope that it rings true in the deepest level of their alien beings. For such literature is among the best that this planet has to offer the cosmos.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts