On days when I need a pick-me-up, I remind myself that the first extraterrestrial life we encounter will be likely be indifferent to us, just as fish and grasshoppers and ducks are broadly disinterested in human swimming, jumping, and quacking.
Of course, when we meet our aliens we can’t assume that. Of course, we are scientists, so we will demand a rigorous examination of the alien-hopping-fish-duck’s capacity for intelligible conversation.
Carefully, thoughtfully, the eggheads will concoct an elaborate light and music show in an attempt to communicate without language. We’ll spend months crafting the proper message and two of the lead scientists will get into a fist fight over the use of a diatonic rather than pentatonic scale (with some implications of racial bias). They’ll later apologize to each other over email, both agreeing that they were very tired and have been put into a stressful circumstance with a very tight deadline, that this is water under the bridge as far as each party is concerned.
Following twenty tense months of deliberation, composition, and review, we play our light and music show for the hopping-fish-ducks. Then we hold our breath.
They seem to just be hopping more-or-less in place, like they always do. Wait, did one do a little dance just there? It was quick, but it looked like it perhaps shimmied slightly before its little hop. The lead zoologist leans in: Yes, there is a possibility that the shimmy was an intended response. We will require a follow-up investigation.
An application is submitted to concoct an elaborate dance routine for the hopping-fish-ducks. We can’t rule shimmying out. We can’t rule anything out.