Dear Aliens,

I hope you take it as a caress, the gentle sweep of our gaze across the great room of space, a bright ballroom crowded with emptiness as far as we can tell. We may have skipped blindly over you, blank stare rolling on. Simply because we didn’t know what we were looking for.

We are very limited in our perceptions by the boundaries of the familiar. We cannot see what is strange.

The portion of the light spectrum we can see is bounded by lively violet and languid scarlet—it’s the range of wavelengths between 380 and 700 nanometers in length. 

But that is nearly meaningless to me. I cannot imagine it means anything to you. 

Isn’t it arrogant to assume that you have meters to dice up into nanos? 

That’s what bothers me most about the stories we make up about other worlds. Somehow, these foreign lands retain minutes and miles. But measure is a language, terms with which to describe the universe. Language is anthropology and evolution, a thing which develops in the cradle of a mountain’s hips and or the curve of a river’s arm. The blend of nitrogen and oxygen that raised me has made me a different thing than your hydrogen or helium has made you. 

Our idea of minutes, one of the smallest units we use to track change, comes to us from an anthropologist, Al-Biruni. He was a significant figure in a long line of humans working to neatly map the passage of heaven’s lights. By stars and planets—you, perhaps—we have navigated distance and broken down time into chunks we can chew. And always, we have used ourselves as a model, defined the alien in terms of the familiar. 

Scholars suspect that the Egyptians, who get credit for making the first maps of time, broke days into 12 segments either to reflect the lunar cycle or simply because there are twelve finger joints on a human hand. 

We see our own form everywhere. One of our favored measurements for distance is a foot, based on the average length of an average man’s foot. With our hands we grasp time, with our feet we tread distance. Man is man’s measure of the universe. 

Since I was a child, I have visualized distance in six-foot increments. My father is approximately six feet tall. To eyeball the height of a wall or the length of a boat, I have imagined replicas of my father laid end to end. “Dads” is as good a unit of measure as anything else.

And when I look at the images of the space between and around us in the images captured by our James Webb telescope, my mind resolves the images, by definition alien, into familiar shapes. I see the blur of traffic in SAMACS 0723.

I see a mother scolding a child, arm raised and finger pointed in the universal gesture of “go to your room” in Stephan’s Quintet.

I see a foregrounded mountain range like the peaks I know so well in the Carina Nebula. My mind interprets the blue lights as a vista beyond the red fringe of the nebula even though I have heard that the celestial light our eyes see as “red” is a long wavelength stretching out toward us from a much greater distance than the shorter blue waves. The blue lights are closer, and it takes great effort to compel my mind to abandon its first impression.

We never see anything but the familiar. We define all things in terms of the similar. 

One of our wise men said “there is nothing new under the sun.” Perhaps there is nothing new beyond it. We have perhaps seen all that we can see. And those other shades of existence, those planes where you may dwell, are simply too foreign to our perception to be known. If we have not seen you, for all our looking, we perhaps never will. 

We are planets in an expanding universe of knowledge; the light by which we see stretched very thin. The extent of what we, collectively, may know grows while the capacity of each mind continually becomes a smaller portion of the whole. We are separated from each other, our own terrestrial neighbors, by ever greater distances of specialty. Our spheres of specialty and experience, our orbits, intersect less and less. Our languages are evolving independently, dividing generations and cultures and neighborhoods. There are members of my own species whose language and scope of experience is so different from my own, they may as well be as different from me as you. If we cannot find alien neighbors we may be well on our way to making them. 

We are a lonely species. Drawn irresistibly to stare at points ever farther from us, expanding our known universe, heedless of the distance between our nearest neighbors.

The answer cannot lie in enforced similarity or standardization. A shared language, even merely of measure, will not unite us. I wonder if we can stretch, like red light, spend all our strength in reaching, and not impose a colony of terrestrial expectations on what lies beyond? Can we imagine anything beyond what we have known?

I understand if you wish to keep your distance until we learn to let go of ours. 

Fondly, 

Emily

1 Comment

  1. Alex Johnson

    Mmm that last line. I love the playing you doing here with form and the familiar and the foreign. Lovely

    Reply

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