Let’s go alien-hunting

A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. Why not?

You probably don’t think of Britain as a spacefaring nation but we’re up there with the best. It’s just that we usually do the dull stuff that no one talks about. How exciting, then, that the UK could soon be the only country with a government-sponsored alienhunting programme.

Britain’s space engineering efforts at present add up to a £9bn industry that employs 30,000 people. But although Britain has its own spacemanin- training, Major Tim Peake (why couldn’t he have been a Tom?), it’s still essentially the backroom jobs we’re grabbing. Britain’s final frontier is likely to be in better satellites to improve telecommunications, internet provision, navigation systems and TV broadcasting. We will also continue to be an important player in the European Space Agency’s science missions.

We’ll get even better at earth observations that tell us about climate trends and global weather patterns. Occasionally we’ll deliver an innovative launch technology, or create infrastructure that will pave the way for space tourism. But it’s not exactly Dan Dare.

Yet one day soon we might be the first to make contact with aliens. A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. The idea is to buy time on e-MERLIN, a network of seven radio telescopes dotted around the UK, and begin the world’s only government-funded search for aliens. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, is in the captain’s chair, so the group has a good chance of being taken seriously.

That said, it does all seem a bit far-fetched. The UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) group made a series of presentations at the National Astronomy Meeting at St Andrews early this month. Among the more conservative suggestions was that space probes should be equipped with capabilities to interact with aliens. At the other end was the idea that the lunar surface may be studded with “extraterrestrial artefacts”, such as fragments of exotic alloys that have flaked off alien spaceships. We should go and look, apparently.

Somewhere in between was the contention that our search for aliens should also include consideration of machines that may have taken over a biological civilisation. Such eventualities would lead to different kinds of communication – machine codes – being more abundant than the biological-intelligencebased signals we’ve always sought. Then there was Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University, who offered an analysis of the “deadly probes” scenario, in which the apparent absence of alien civilisations arises from highly developed cultures sending out space probes designed to kill off newly arising competitors.

This, by the way, is a scenario that causes great controversy in alien-hunting circles. Some say we should accelerate the time to first contact by broadcasting “We Are Here” signals for aliens to pick up. Those who object point out that some aliens might not be friendly, and could decide to come and destroy us.

You are probably rolling your eyes at all this. That is why no government funds SETI at the moment: the idea of searching for aliens is regarded as faintly ridiculous. Nasa’s alien hunt ended in 1993 after a Nevada senator pointed out that “millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow”.

However naive and Boy’s Own it might seem, though, first contact would be momentous – a watershed in human experience. The UK SETI group wants only a million pounds a year; it’s hardly going to kill us. Assuming the aliens are friendly, that is.

Is anybody out there? Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Show Hide image

Why are online jokes funnier without punctuation and capital letters?

Academics and social media users weigh in on Twitter’s most unexplained phenomenon. 

The first person to notice it did so in 2010. “Sometimes I think a twitter joke is funnier if you omit punctuation,” tweeted @zacharylittle on 2 April. He was a pioneer. It took two years for anyone else to express the same thought, but they did so in droves. “I like not using punctuation like commas on twitter because its somehow funnier lol,” said @chxrliesheen, sans apostrophe. “I never use punctuation on twitter and tumblr I just think its funnier ok,” exclaimed @julieamarch. From then until now, people have been constantly questioning the phenomenon, but there are still no answers.

Why exactly are Twitter jokes funnier when they have grammatical errors, discard punctuation, lack capital letters, or are misspelled?

“There is a frisson, or sense of pleasure, from playfulness in language,” Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, tells me over email – in which she demonstrates some of this playfulness herself. “writing wihtout caps, proper punctation, and leaving misspellings uncorrected also feels like private communication, like whispered kjokes, and therefore has the same potential thrill.”

Dr Hugh Rabagliati, a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, warns me that most of his knowledge on the subject comes from “spending too much time on Twitter, rather than any obvious academic work”. It is true that research into the area is lacking – books about “internet language” get outdated quickly, and seem to focus on email and chatrooms, rather than more modern social media. “The misspellings [on Twitter] are often beautifully calibrated, like a very subtle malapropism, and the grammar errors are designed to make familiar material feel out of kilter,” he says.

Sometimes humour is found when grandiose sentiments are contrasted with train-wreck grammar, he argues, whereas other times the language can be exclusionary and people share it to prove they “get” the joke.

Perhaps the most famous Twitter user who has mastered the technique of the misspelled tweet is Jonathan Sun. Sun has gained 168,000 followers posing as an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge”, and is part of what is known as “weird Twitter”, a subset of the site where humour is surreal and often bolstered by misspellings, a lack of punctuation, and grammatical errors. But while “weird Twitter” takes it to the extreme, many other arguably “normal” Twitter users will uncap the start of their Tweets or the word “I”.

“i’m not really sure why but i’ve been going out of my way to un-cap for ages,” one anonymous Twitter user told me via a direct message on the site. “i recognise that it is a stupid waste of time, ive had partners mock me for it.” Possibly, they theorise, they do this because they used to edit copy as part of their job. “it could be a reaction to that, to be completely armchair psychology about it.”

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World reinforces this point. She argues that language users are always looking for ways to distinguish their voices and express emotion. “A bevy of authors – from the poet e.e. cummings to social media scholar danah boyd – have further personalised their identity by eschewing the normal capitalisations in their names,” she says. “When it comes to social networking sites such as Twitter, lack of capital letters lends a tone of informality that makes the messages feel more speech-like.”

It’s hard to admit that you’re deliberately making mistakes in order to look offhand, as you are essentially revealing you try-very-hard-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying-at-all. But Rebecca Reid, a 25-year-old journalist, admits this is why she used to uncap her tweets. “Honestly I literally thought it made me look cooler,” she says. “I saw my sister doing it, and she's a couple of years younger and very trendy, so I thought it was just what we were doing. So I copied her. This is so tragic from me. And after a while I realised that it wasn't making me seem edgy, it was making it seem like the shift button on my key board was broken.”

It is true that informality is important in written messages, as a 2015 study revealed that ending text messages with a full stop was perceived to be insincere, most likely because it is seen as a sign of aggression. Twitter jokes that are written similarly formally – with full stops and capital letters – might also seem insincere, or be less inviting or inclusive than those with deliberate mistakes, run-on sentences, or five-too-many exclamation marks.

“There's also a phenomenon that linguists have only started discussing in the last decade, called ‘Eggcorns’,” says Rabagliati. “Here the speaker has learned a misanalysed locution. The phenomenon is named from the case of a woman who had, all her life, misheard the word acorn as ‘eggcorn’. ‘To all intensive purposes’ is a similar error. These mistakes play on our fear that our knowledge of language might not be as robust as we want to believe – think about all those words that you've read, but never heard aloud. Plus, the errors are fun because they demand some backwards reasoning to reconstruct.” 

More academic research is needed for a final answer on the phenomenon, but one thing is certain. If uncapitalising things on Twitter is cool, writing an 800-word article about it certainly isn't. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.