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Explaining Left and Right to an Alien...

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758088.  Sat Nov 06, 2010 2:37 am Reply with quote

Could we not explain Left and Right to an alien as Translations negatively and positively in the X plane of the Cartesian Plane when the point of origin is absolute zero facing towards Positive Y?

Or is the mere fact that we would have to explain the Cartesian Plane to an Alien too much work to be explained? Or even if the fact that they could comprehend what we were saying?

758090.  Sat Nov 06, 2010 2:51 am Reply with quote

You'd still need to explain which way is positive and which negative...

Of I've got it - the negative is on the left, and positive, right. (I jest)

758091.  Sat Nov 06, 2010 2:56 am Reply with quote

Well isn't it that when they transmit messages through space for potential aliens all written in math? If we have to explain Negative and Positive well then. Yikes!

I have a feeling through that we would have problems with a language barrier regardless of using Math though as their symbols for math could be completely different, Or they might not understand math at all. Though one would question how they got their spaceship then. Unless of course they actually come from an alternate reality where you don't need things to make sense to work.

... yeah, I'm beginning to think too much into this.

758171.  Sat Nov 06, 2010 8:23 am Reply with quote

There are a couple of other threads about this, so I'll just re-post what I've said there:

It's a funny thing about this issue: however clearly you say that you're making a point about the limitations of language, people always come back and suggest some practical, non-linguistic solution to the problem which involves sharing a common physical reference such as the one you propose. This is what Stephen said:

Thatís the point. You canít, semantically there is no explanation for left or right without reference to a physical world that someone can identify. You canít, you canít explain it just by language. That is really the point of the question.

gerontius grumpus
758267.  Sat Nov 06, 2010 6:41 pm Reply with quote

Couldn't left and right be explained in relation to electron spin in atoms or the most common arrangement of asymmetrical molecules and their effect on polarised light?

I was hoping my (totally ignored) wrong anatomical markers argument might spark off this discussion.

758290.  Sat Nov 06, 2010 7:55 pm Reply with quote

Yes, I dare say it could - as long as you were looking for a
practical, non-linguistic solution to the problem which involves sharing a common physical reference

758305.  Sat Nov 06, 2010 9:07 pm Reply with quote

Hi Resulka welcome to QI Forum. Why would the concept of left and right be important to an alien in the first place?

758338.  Sun Nov 07, 2010 4:05 am Reply with quote

Thanks Zebra, And you're entirely right! It wouldn't be as important as explaining the definition of the word 'the'. ^^

758417.  Sun Nov 07, 2010 8:45 am Reply with quote

Which is in fact very difficult to do. By no means does every language have a definite article - in fact, those that do are very much in the minority.

Just in case anyone wanted to know, most Indo-European languages have a definite article. In the Scandinavian languages and in Romanian it is a suffix, while the Baltic and Slavic languages (with the exception of Bulgarian) do without. It is for this reason that Russians and Poles speaking English show a tendency to omit the definite article.

Most of the Semitic languages also have a definite article, but elsewhere in the world they are rare indeed.

758591.  Sun Nov 07, 2010 11:10 pm Reply with quote

Gerontius, unfortunately not as these things may all be symmetrical. You could shine light through a molecule but there's no way to know that the alien is not using a molecule with opposite chirality (handedness)

The universe only seems to exhibit a lack of mirror symmetry for certain quantum-level events. Specifically, there's an experiment that can be performed on Cobalt 60 that would allow for a definition of left and right to be made (Props to Teramut for mentioning it on the board first).

758593.  Sun Nov 07, 2010 11:25 pm Reply with quote

I'm obviously being a bit thick here but I'm struggling to understand what point is being made - particularly by Flash?

Up and Down - that's defined by gravitational attraction I assume. Or as I like to say "by reference to a physical world that someone can identify". Or is there some other way of defining up and down?

Assuming a world which has a common language (except directionality), with creatures that understand physics, and which is inhabited by creatures with multiple anuses and eyes (as per suze) - how do we communicate left/right.

Simples - up and down are defined by gravity. Your forwards is the direction in which you receive the strongest signal from me. And left/right can be extrapolated by the use of some extended physics.

758600.  Mon Nov 08, 2010 12:11 am Reply with quote

I think it's definitely possible to over-think it and, as sometimes happens in QI questions, some context is missing which leaves the question open to some semantic nonsense.

The question really boils down to what data could you provide to another being to allow them to deduce the same meaning of left and right as you have without the information being encoded in the transmission medium itself (circular polarization of the radio waves would be out of the question for example).

The question really isn't can the aliens do this-or-that because them being able to do this-or-that is part of the question. We must assume they can receive radio waves, we must assume they can decode to some kind of diagrammatic form. It also turns out that they must be able to decode to three-dimensional representations and have knowledge of electromagnetism and atomic physics. Until 1958, it appeared that the universe was mirror symmetrical. It turns out that it isn't.

Using that experiment, it is possible to determine a definition for left and right. If you can encode the method to repeat the experiment into the data you are sending to the alien, they can derive left and right.

As to why would you need to? Well, that's a bit asinine since it's a hypothetical question. If you must, assume a cloud of space radiation is heading earth's way. The aliens who we have just contacted can manufacture an antidote but they have to know which way our DNA rotates for their antidote. The right way cures, the wrong way kills painfully. Or something.

758605.  Mon Nov 08, 2010 12:58 am Reply with quote

I've just realised there's a simple way to define right and left

If it's right it's taxable - if it's left it's exempt. (or vice versa). You'll be amazed how quickly our hypotheticals dissolve.

765004.  Sun Dec 05, 2010 5:45 am Reply with quote

I just watched this episode and was quite shocked at this. There is definitely a way to determine left and right because nature is not entirely symmetric -

The only caveat is that the aliens are made of matter and not anti-matter, which is very likely but not 100% certain.

Edit: Bugger, must read the whole thread before posting. There's apparently a simpler way than looking at how mesons decay. Although the cobalt-60 method relies on an understanding of which way current flows, which has its own problems.

765152.  Sun Dec 05, 2010 4:02 pm Reply with quote

I think the rider is 'without reference to a physical world' - that's the tricky bit!


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