Recently I watched the 2016 movie “Arrival“. It depicts the story of the arrival, at twelve separate locations around the earth, of twelve mysterious spacecraft. The key character, a linguistics professor, Louise Banks is seconded by the military to interpret the language of alien visitors.
The movie is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998).1 It was directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.
Here is the trailer from Paramount Pictures:
The 7-foot tall aliens, heptapods,2 which look something like octopuses with 7 tentacles and a human hand, are depicted as enormously technologically advanced on humans. Their 7 tentacles each have 7 tendrils, out of the centre of which they eject an ink-like substance. Remember octopuses produce a black ink like substance. (And you might ask why all the 7’s. It’s science fiction after all.)
Alien language and perception of time
These alien heptapods use a vocal communication that is unpronounceable by humans (classified as Heptapod A), but, as professor Banks discovers, they also have a written script (Heptapod B), which can be dissected and interpreted. But strangely enough the vocal and writing components are unrelated, in the sense that Heptapod B does not represent sound. Heptapod B is written with the ink-like substance they eject from their tendrils and they are able to manipulate it in space to form the characters of Heptapod B.
We are told that a deep understanding of their language can induce a non-linear perception of time in those who learn it. This idea is where it really gets crazy.
The story introduces the concept of when one learns a new language, one also learns to think the same way that the producers of that language think–the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–because one’s brain is rewired to think that way.
Then, with this new perception of time, time-like loops are introduced (really time paradoxes) where, because the professor experiences (in her thoughts or perception) the future, she gets knowledge (of future events) that she then uses to determine the future events she perceives.
The concept here of our perception of time does have some basis in real physics. It is still an open question of why do we remember the past and not the future. That might sound strange to some but most of the laws of physics are time reversible. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, where entropy never decreases in a closed system, but generally increases, is an exception and the primary reason we always perceive the forward arrow of time.
However, for particle physics (including electromagnetism) there is no preference to which way time flows. Physicists call this a symmetry. And in this movie this is highlighted by the name, Hannah, of the yet to be conceived daughter of Prof. Banks, about whom she experiences future memories. The word “HannaH” is a palindrome–a sequence of letters or characters that can be read either forward or backward and produce the same word.
Heptapod B is written in a circular way and is palindromic. At least that is what I understood it was intended to be. Looking at one of the alien sentences (on the right) it does not seem to have reversible symmetry, in the structures that form their words (spiky bits that stick out), though, of course, a circle is not linear in one sense as it is represented on a plane.
Of course, this story is just that, a story and total fiction. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining one.