Notes on Paul Graham's essay - Alien Truth

Paul Graham recently wrote an interesting essay titled Alien Truth. It made me wonder about mathematics, physics, and even a bit about truth.

Writing a few unpolished notes on it.


Mathematics is our language to explain the Universe. It originated from counting. There are a lot of natural phenomena that we still can’t express in form of mathematics.

I think we are constantly iterating in mathematics. As an example, while we know that square roots of negative integers don’t really exist, we defined them in form of imaginary (and complex) numbers. To our surprise, we were able to explain a lot about electricity and signals using complex numbers.

And therefore, I wonder if the assumption that aliens would have the same language to explain the universe is right.

(They might have a language to explain the universe, however, it will be the same mathematics as we have is not necessarily true.)


Ditto for the truths of physics; the mass of a carbon atom would be the same on their planet

This made me wonder again. Mass is a property that we, as human beings, have defined.

So while it may be true that the mass of a carbon atom might be the same on the earth and aliens’ planet, it is quite possible that they may not identify mass as a property of an element.

For that matter, aliens may not differentiate between elements and compounds. And, it is also possible, that aliens may not live only on planets!

We may one day have something like alien life among us in the form of AIs

This is a very interesting point. In fact, I have always wondered why in the movies we show aliens with limbs, eyes, and a body. A lot of scientists believe that water in liquid form is necessary for life to exist (Goldilocks’ zone principle]. Perhaps it is difficult for us to imagine life without water or in a form without the body!

At one point, we didn’t think time as a dimension. It is quite possible that there are many more dimensions and states of the universe. Similarly, our assumption was that the light always moved in a straight line, which Einstein established isn’t always the case. Using the assumption that the speed of light is constant, Einstein showed how energy and mass are correlated.

It is quite possible, in the future, someone as genius as Einstein would assume that the speed of light is not constant and show us a different theory/truth.


I believe truth is a matter of perception than reality. At least, this is true (pun intended) for the historical truth.

For example, ancient Persians/Zoroastrians worshipped Ahura and thought of Daēwa as demons.

Interestingly, ancient Persians didn’t have the sound ‘s’ and pronounced it as ‘h’ instead. This is how the river Sindhu and the people living near it came to be known as Hindu, which Greeks later translated as the river Indus and the country India.

Coming back to Ahuras - they are called Asuras in Sanskrit. Most Indian religions consider Asuras as superhuman demigods with primarily bad qualities. Similarly, Devas are considered divine and good beings.

Essentially truth about who are the gods and who are the demons was based on which side of the river Indus you were on!

There are many more such examples, and we keep discovering new truths. This is the reason I really liked how PG connected truth with philosophy.

The attempt to discover alien truths would be a worthwhile undertaking. And curiously enough, that is itself probably an alien truth

These two lines are my favourite ones from the essay - so apt and beautiful!

Homework for me - learn a bit more about philosophy :)

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