The universe is almost unimaginably vast. Our sun is 150 million km away. It takes light from our sun about 8 minutes to reach Earth, but from the edge of the observable universe, it takes light 50 billion years to reach us. There may be 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe, each with their own solar system. When we look at Earth from a cosmological perspective, it appears to be an ordinary planet orbiting an ordinary sun, in an ordinary galaxy. So most scientists presume that life is abundant in the universe, even if we have not experienced it outside of Earth. What is alien life like?
As a theoretical physicist, I look for mechanisms. The themes of my work are self-organization and emergence, and my immodest goal is a theory of general biology: biology as it could be anywhere in the universe. When does life emerge from inanimate matter?
In my struggle to develop such a theory, the emergence of order in language was a useful starting point, for language has a vast generative capacity: `infinite use of finite means,' as Humboldt put it, which mirrors the capacity of ecosystems to generate new biological solutions to the problem of survival. And moreover we all have intimations of how language works, internally, to allow us to express complex ideas. This gives us an edge over passive observation. But a child is born without knowing language. She must learn how logical structure is carried by syntax and semantics. This is an emergence problem.
Since there are nearly 7000 human languages, we know a great deal of the universal structure of language, at least on Earth. The formalism to describe this is called generative grammar, and was pioneered largely by Chomsky in the 50's. A generative grammar is essentially a set of rules that tell you how sentences can be constructed. It captures the logical structure of syntax, but not semantics. Chomsky's famous sentence `colorless green ideas sleep furiously' is syntactic (grammatical), but meaningless. In the generative grammar for English, this sentence follows the rules. Not so for `furiously sleep ideas green colorless', which is neither grammatical nor meaningful.
To study the emergence of order in language, we can abstract away the learning any particular language, and focus on the family of all the relevant languages. After all, the child does not know which particular language it will end up speaking. The Chomsky hierarchy defines classes of relevant languages. The so-called `context-free' family captures most of the syntactic structure of human and programming languages. In my first works on language, I showed that this family has a phase transition marking the emergence of order. Subject to the various assumptions of the model, it means that to learn the syntax of a language is like rapidly cooling a liquid to form a glass, freezing in structure.
While working on these papers, I was sampling random languages-- languages as they could be anywhere in the universe. I knew that these should have an application as art, but at the time I didn't know how.
When I learned of NFTs and the new interest in generative art, I was immediately hooked. I had been obsessed with generative art in the 90s and 00s, first making demoscene-type graphics, and then making generative landscapes. But for the past decade my interests in generative structure have been developed in the context of physics. In January of 2021 I decided to explore further these random languages, but in the context of art.
[ There is some precedent here. From the 60s, Manfred Mohr has been developing `visual music', very much in the spirit of random languages. To what extent Mohr was influenced by developments in linguistics I do not know. ]
Enter now the aliens. If the structure of generative grammar is just a consequence of the need for intelligent communication in our physical universe, then the best assumption we can make about aliens is that they too will have this structure. But, the actual visual/aural representation of the language could wildly differ, as it does across human languages. So in my work, I imagine alien languages in which syntax becomes largely geometric. This is presented in my first series, alien tongues. Each image in these series shows a distinct possible language. It may represent the true syntax of an alien language, of a distant planet, on a distant star.
In my second series, alien codex, I wanted to be even more ambitious: can we imagine how an alien civilization would see itself? Would it be like the way we see ourselves, suitably translated? How different could alien cultures really be? By looking at early human civilizations, we see universals. Ritual is universal. Language is universal. Maybe it's also the case with the aliens. alien codex is an imagination of a kind of codex that would be valued in such a culture. Text is arranged radially around a circle, in the centre of which is an abstract form. An object of worship, perhaps? Maybe an artifact like this is also what they would share with us, if they had the chance.
In my third series, spectral beings, I continue this theme, but now asking what the aliens themselves might look like. Since the laws of physics are universal, they constrain the possible forms of life, anywhere in the universe. Radio waves, visible light, UV radiation, and microwave radiation are all governed by one set of equations, Maxwell’s. These equations have curious features, as any student of physics discovers: if you run a current through a wire, you generate a magnetic field. Conversely, if you spin a magnet, you generate an electric field. Spectral beings asks if, following these phenomena, light can organize into self-sustaining structures. The result, part fanciful and part scientific, again highlights creatures as they might be.
Unknown to me at the time of release, Spectral Beings echoes earlier work by Herbert Franke, who also trained as a physicist. In the 50’s, Franke experimented with analog forms of generative art, using an analog computer to power an oscillograph, whose images could be photographed. His series Dance of the Electrons shows light geometric forms on a dark background.
Artistically, my interest is in large-format generative art: art meant to be displayed at such a size that one cannot take in all elements at once. This is a celebration of complexity. Like nature, large-format art demands that the viewer spend time with the piece, at different scales. For example, each alien codex features a large amount of text, decreasing in size towards the centre of the circle. This is all syntactic, fully-formed text, as in alien tongues, which can be rendered in arbitrary resolution. I hope that one day it will be commonplace to display digital, generative art in living rooms, foyers, offices. My pieces are designed to reward viewers in such an environment.