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Looking Up: What might we learn from extraterrestrials ?


Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Donald Burleson

Special to the Daily Record

It’s a commonplace observation that, given the sophisticated nature of the UFOs we’ve seen in our skies, the creatures who design and pilot them must have scientific knowledge considerably more advanced than our own. What might we learn from them if we had the opportunity?

The easy answer is that we would stand to discover things about physics and chemistry that we had never known before. After all, most of what we humans know about these sciences has been discovered within the last century or so, and somehow one gets the feeling that it would be our first day of kindergarten if we only had the right teachers.

But there’s far more to it than that, if one really thinks about it. It isn’t just matters of fact that we might learn in the company of creatures from another world and another line of evolution. Rather, we could possibly find whole new ways of looking at everything.

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Let me use my own field as an illustration. I’m a mathematician. First, are there facts about mathematics that we specifically might glean from extraterrestrials? Well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

For example, the most notable unsolved problem currently being kicked around among mathematicians is something called the Riemann Hypothesis, an unproven claim about the zeros of the Riemann zeta function (it’s a long story), for which many people have tried valiantly to find proof — so far to no avail. If the hypothesis is true, it has profound implications for such areas of application as prime number theory, cryptanalysis and data security. But nobody knows for sure if it’s true, until someone finds proof. Could extraterrestrials enlighten us as to whether it’s true or not?

Quite possibly they could, but there are far more intriguing possibilities. Conceivably those creatures, while capable of traveling here from other star systems, might never even have concerned themselves with what we call the Riemann Hypothesis. Using brains vastly different from our own, they might have developed their own understanding of mathematics along fundamentally different lines.

One would expect certain dissimilarities in any case. We use a base-10 number system probably because we have 10 fingers, but creatures with another physical makeup would likely base their numbers on something other than the number 10. This, however, is a minor matter. The real question is, when we do mathematics, do we do it in just about the only way it could be done, or is our own viewpoint provincial and not necessarily the only way? Could aliens with a whole other mental framework have a larger view?

If we sat down to talk mathematics with them, would we find that they have basically the same concepts we do, just more deeply pursued? Or would we find them working along lines largely unrecognizable to us? Is mathematics, as we humans see it, the inevitable and universal fabric of reality, or is reality something different than we think?

Open questions, for sure. There’s always much more to learn.


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