Alien Encounter Puzzles by Cliff Pickover

I welcome your feedback.

Alien Gift

Aliens descend to Earth. They only have time to stay for a few minutes. You have a choice of giving them a single gift with which they will return to their home world. Quickly looking around your room, you see a few items that you may give them. Choose just one. Why did you make this choice? Also, which object would you be least likely to give the alien? Why? (I may tally the various responses and excerpt from them in a book. Right now, I do not know if there will be a clear "winner." Do you think there will be a clear winner?)
1. A Nintendo Gamecube 
2. A banana
3. A bottle of Tabasco® sauce
4. A VHS video tape containing what you last recorded: Dan Rather presenting the news of the day, Charlton Heston Presents the Bible (Genesis), and Sara Jessica Parker in HBO's hit show "Sex and the City"
5. A Fender Stratocaster® Electric Guitar
6. A small reproduction of "The Thinker," a statue by Rodan. 
7. Frog preserved in formalin.
8. Poster illustrating the biochemical process known as the Krebs Cycle.
9. Viable egg case of a praying mantis
10. Shakespeare's Hamlet (book)


David Jones : The poster would easily be the least likely one I would give to them. It would seem kind of pointless to present them with knowledge they most likely have already discovered. While the same thing might be said of the Gamecube, it at has at least marginal more value as it says something about our culture (although, if the only games I have are violence related I may reconsider what veiw I would want them to have of us).

> 4. A VHS video tape containing > 10. Shakespeare's Hamlet (book)

These are both good choices for most likely to give. Most of the other stuff I didn't like because, while they may reveal something about the planet, something like a banana or a preying mantis doesn't tell the aliens who we are as a people. The video tape is good because it has a variety of items about our culture unlike Hamlet which is just one single work. However, television is a much plainer and more pedestrian window. I wouldn't consider anything on that tape to be of great importance. Ultimately, I think I would give them Hamlet. If the aliens come back 200 years from now we will still be reading it, yet I doubt that anyone will be watching any of those shows. It also has more rereadability than the tape does rewatchability. Davy

Glass David :

Hmm, interesting choices. I've indicated my selection below, and provided a bit of explanation.

> 1. A Nintendo Gamecube

No. If the aliens have mastered space travel, then there is little technologywise that a Nintendo Gamecube could teach them. And, there's no guarantee that they'd appreciate it for the entertainment value.

> 2. A banana

Yes. Food is almost always a good choice (Hey, get your minds out of the gutter and stop thinking about bananas in that manner!). :*)

> 3. A bottle of Tabasco® sauce

No. While it's possible Tabasco sauce could be classified as food, there's also the chance that the pepper in it would severely burn the aliens if they tried to consume it[1], in which case they might consider it as a poison.

[1] Ok, it's also possible that a banana could adversely affect their biology, but the case could be made that bananas are perfectly safe for human consumption, and thus was considered as food. I'm not sure the same case could be made for Tabasco sauce since I know I wouldn't want to drink a bottle of it.

> 4. A VHS video tape containing what you last > recorded: Dan Rather > presenting the news of the day, Charlton Heston > Presents the Bible > (Genesis), and Sara Jessica Parker in HBO's hit show > "Sex and the > City"

No. There would be little that a VHS video tape could teach the aliens in terms of technology, unless it was how backwards our technology is. Plus, the contents probably wouldn't do much to tell the aliens about our society, at least, nothing that I'd want them to know.

> 5. A Fender Stratocaster® Electric Guitar

Maybe. This could serve as a source of entertainment if the aliens enjoy music, or, if they don't, it would at least educate them about what humans enjoy.

> 6. A small reproduction of "The Thinker," a statue > by Rodan.

No. While I've seen "The Thinker", and agree that it's a classic piece of art, I doubt that the aliens would appreciate art much.

> 7. Frog preserved in formalin.

No. While this would give them an excellent opportunity to study the biology of Earth, it could also be mistaken for food. And, I doubt if the formalin would leave a very good taste in their mouths. Additionally, the banana would also allow them to examine some of the DNA of Earth, and an intergalactic war wouldn't happen if they accidentally ate it.

> 8. Poster illustrating the biochemical process known > as the Krebs > Cycle.

Maybe. But, I have to wonder if they wouldn't have a good grasp on biochemical processes already, although they may be lacking in knowledge of Earth's biochemistry.

> 9. Viable egg case of a praying mantis

Probably not. Could this be considered the first shot in an intergalactic biological war? What if they returned with the praying mantis egg case, and the newly hatched praying mantises attacked the flora and fauna of their home world. What type of retalliation would they launch back at us?

> 10. Shakespeare's Hamlet (book)

Probably not. While this would give them an opportunity to study one of the languages of Earth, the language in it is rather archaic. Additionally, once they did progress to the point where they could understand the language, I'm not sure the message that that work conveys is something that I'd want to introduce to an alien, at least, not initially.

"lonno7" : I'd give them 9) Viable egg case of a praying mantis -- maybe they could learn something about how life on this planet develops and reproduces (assuming that this would be a good thing). They can't have 5) my Fender Strat, because I'm a guitar player and I'd have more use for it than they would ... beside, it's MINE, I tell you, MINE! MINE!

"lucid2step" : I would give them the Fender because music is one of our nobler ideas as well as a fine example of our intellectual and emotional capacities. I would be least likely to hand them the frog in formalin because the exploitation of animals is one of our more embarrasing ideas. I would hope that a truly advanced civilization would have figured out how to pursue knowledge without deeming it necessary to inflict the kind of suffering, upon fellow sentient beings, that humans have carried out in the name of science. --Nannette

Marcus : I'd give them the mantis eggs. And frankly the VHS video could trigger an interplanetary conflict...

"axeman333" : I would have to go with number 5, 6, or 10. All of these are "artsy" choices, and I don't believe that aliens, having far superior technology than ourselves, would be interested in our sciences. Art, however, is universal and is always open to different interpretations.

AlienMoon : Hello, I think I'd give the aliens one of my computer programming books or a book on anatomy. ( But I'd tell them that such books are quite expensive and bring them back as soon as possible... :-) AM

April: * I kind of cheated by putting myself in the alien's shoes and asking myself what I would like to get if I were visiting someone's alien-to-me-planet. I'd want the VHS tape because it shows a candid snapshot of what humans consider important, day-to-day culture-wise. I'd least likely want the poster, since my home world would have no doubt discovered the Krebs Cycle too. I bet people's picks on this will be all over the place, with no clear winner. April

Wellyn: I would give them the Stratocaster because it is the most multi-dimensional object of the bunch. After all, not only is it one of the greatest musical instruments ever conceived by our own species, but it can conceivably be used as (a) a sculptural objet d'art, (b) a signaling device, (c) equipment for an acoustics lab, and (d) in the right hands (claws, palps, what have you), a formidable close-combat weapon. Along this line of reasoning, then, I would be least likely to offer the banana, as I can see it serving only one need (well, perhaps two).

Paul Moskowitz: I would choose (2) the banana because I have had a long and fruitful relationship with bananas. When I used to bowl, I found that if I ate a banana during a game, I would almost always get a strike on the next frame. However, I never tried eating twelve to see if I could get a perfect game.

When I was on Wheel of Fortune, I did not solve the first two puzzles and had thoughts of going home in defeat. However, the third puzzle, a before-and after, turned the game around for me. I solved the puzzle, "BANANA SPLIT INFINITIVE" for $14,000. I only had to call one correct letter. (Your readers who are familiar with the game will be able to tell you which letter and what the dollar value on the wheel was.) I went on to win over $50,000 and meet Vanna White.

The banana is the most consumed fruit in the world. -Paul 

Alien Web 1

You are browsing Ebay on the Web with an alien. You will buy the alien any object in the following list that the alien chooses. Which do you think the alien will choose? Why? Which object is the least likely to be chosen by the alien?
1.  Several unpolished ancient Roman coins all from Thrace and the Balkan peninsula after the Roman conquest in 46 AD. 
2. Anna Kournikova poster (25" x 35"), never used, along with a protective mailing tube.
3. Burlap sack containing uncut emeralds straight from a Brazilian mine. 
4. 100 top-selling CDs
5. Chess set comprising a solid glass board with alternating frosted squares, along with chess pieces made of clear glass. 
6. A box containing Adobe PhotoShop software.
7. A 10 by 14 foot handmade Kerman Persian rug.
8. Grandfather wall clock of beautifully crafted cherry wood, with glass front revealing a swinging pendulum.   The clock chimes twice on the hour and once every half hour.
9. French empire crystal chandelier, dressed with 24% lead hand-cut crystal.  This chandelier is characteristic of the grand chandeliers that decorated the finest European palaces.
10. Cute giraffe pair with intertwined necks (small statue). 
11. American-flag, alabastrite bookends adorned with highly-detailed renditions of eagles.

Craig Becker : It's really pretty much impossible to figure what an alien might consider precious or valuable (countless SF short stories have used this as a plot point), but over the years I've come to the conclusion that interstellar commerce (if it exists) is likely based on the exchange of unique pieces of information. So something like Brazilian emeralds wouldn't have much worth -- but the 100 top CDs would be something new, unique, and perhaps valuable. Craig


Glass David : I'd think that, of that list, the alien might choose the grandfather clock. Since the aliens would obviously have a highly advanced technological society in order to perform space travel, they might be able to appreciate technological historic objects. I've added some of my thoughts below. David Jones :

> 2. Anna Kournikova poster (25" x 35"), never used, > along with a protective mailing tube.

Unless the alien either likes tennis or is into, um, cross-species oggling, I can't imagine why he would pick this one, unless maybe he needs the mailing tube.

> 6. A box containing Adobe PhotoShop software.

Hmm, I guess the alien is probably advanced enough to have his own graphical editing software, so he/she/it wouldn't need this. (I'd be shocked if he were even using Windows or Unix.) Since square boxes are more common than mailing tubes, I guess this is more useless than the Anna poster after all.

> 1. Several unpolished ancient Roman coins > 10. Cute giraffe pair with intertwined necks (small > statue). > 11. American-flag, alabastrite bookends adorned with > highly-detailed renditions of eagles.

My vote is for one of these. Anything else on the list can probably be manufactured just as well where he comes from. He can record music off of the radio (does he even have a working CD player?). The persian rug is just a reproducable pattern (unless there is something special about the cloth that he likes and can't get on his planet.) The chandelear is just crystal and molded metal. On the other hand, his alien peers don't know what ancient Roman's or giraffes or eagles look like. He can't get these things where he comes from because the artists on his world wouldn't know what they look like. I would probably vote for number 11 over everything else. Aside from the fact that the detial would make it more interesting than the giraffe or the coins, he would have two of them, one to keep and one for a friend. Davy

Wellyn: While I would glom onto the Photoshop in a picosec for myself, it might very well be the item my alien friend would be least likely to go for. After all, if (s)he's really interested in digital graphics editing, well, (s)he would probably have something at least as good back home or aboard ship (in which case I would be inquiring further - again, for myself). No, I'd expect the alien to be dithering a great deal about whether to buy (a) the grandfather clock, or (b) the Persian rug, because these two objects 2 together 2 reveal much about a most fascinating aspect of human culture: the East vs. West dichotomy, especially with regards to how different cultures view time. Time is an inexorably motile thing in western culture, and (despite Einstein) the stately, glass-encased swing of Newtonian temporality is how we see time in our lives, and deaths. The Kerman, however, reflects something altogether different: instead of lock-step progression from moment to moment, it shows us every moment, all at once 2 or else no moments at all. It gives us a glimpse of a world where time is irrelevant. If I had to guess, I suppose (s)he would pick the clock because it might strike him/her as curious that humans should create such a strikingly biomorphic object from the remains of a truly once-alive, beneficent being (i.e. a tree).

Alien Web 2

An alien browses the web with you and requests one of the following items. Don't worry about the cost of the item. Which object would make you most nervous if the alien requested it? Which object would make you happiest if the alien requested it?
1. Heavy 14 carat gold ring with seven diamonds clustered in the front.  The ring once belonged to Elvis.   
2. 21 volume VHS Little Rascals video set including 84 episodes of the Gang at their funniest. 
3. Vintage mortuary embalming fluid bottle reused and relabeled for Brooks floor wax from early 1900s 
4. Adler's 1987 edition of Physiology of the Eye edited by Robert Moses and William Hart. This book is its eighth edition, with 712 illustrations with over 650 pages of information. 
5. Mid-1800s English Victorian butterfly and insect collection.  Specimens mounted with pins in an attractive arrangement. 
6. Three pieces of sheet music: the title theme of the 1960 movie "Exodus,"  "Somewhere over the Rainbow" sung by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz, and "Puff the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul and Mary
7. A complete set of Playboy magazines from the year 2002.


David Jones : I don't think any of them would be any different. None of them really give me any indication that the alien would want to harm me except for perhaps the eye book, but even then I would just think he was curious for knowledge. I wouldn't have any paranoid thoughts about it unless somebody posed a question like this to me about it. I guess if push comes to shove, something about dead moths does make me feel uncomfortable. I'd hate to have to bring number 5 into the house.

> Which object would make you happiest if the alien > requested it?

I don't really have any reason to think I would get to keep any of this stuff so I don't see that it matters, except for number 5 (see above). Davy

Wellyn: For my alien friend, I would practically gift-wrap the Little Rascals collection (though if it came in DVDs, so much the better). Not only would that indicate a shared sense of humor between us (upon which we might build loftier things), but where else are you going to get such a nifty crash course in human psychology, sociology, anthropology, or history (remember how old this stuff is)? Four years of cognitive theory (as important as that may be to us) won't teach an outworlder what fifteen minutes of the He-Man Woman-Hater's club might about social dynamics among higher primates. On the flip side, I'd be most loathe to click "Submit Order" for the bug collection because (a) as in the Photoshop case above, if the alien needs a static (i.e. nonliving) specimen of a living being, (s)he could either (a) zap his/her own bugs, or (b) conjure up virtual models. The antiquity of the specimens offered would only matter to him/her as a specimen of human history (or as a quaint example of our need to be surrounded by history).


You come home from school or work to find one of the following objects in the middle of your home's foyer. Which elicits the most fear?
1. Live tarantula
2. Live cobra
3. Human skull (dirty, as if it had been underground).
4. A puddle, possibly blood, with no apparent source
5. Frog in a bottle of formalin
6. A dead gibbon
7. A photo of you with the word "inchoate" scrawled across it in red lipstick.


Glass David : Probably the most scary for me would be the cobra since that is the only one that can immediately do serious damage to me (posionous fangs). I'd be repulsed by the trantula, but secure in my knowledge that it couldn't do much to seriously harm me. The human skull would make me worried that a crime had been committed, and that possibly a murderer might be in the vicinity. The blood would worry me a bit, but, having created and come upon puddles of blood myself (You should see what a really good nosebleed will do.), I wouldn't be overly concerned. As for the frog, I'd wonder who'd been carrying things out of the biology lab and absent mindedly forgetting to return them. The dead gibbon would repulse me, but I wouldn't be overly worried about it since it couldn't (directly) harm me. The photo with the lipstick smear would concern me, but with as many whackos in the world as there are, I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about it in particular.

David Jones :

> 2. Live cobra

It's the only thing on the list that I can't outrun. It's the only thing on the list I can't immediately defend against. Davy

"lonno7" :

 1. Live tarantula -- I'd keep it as a pet
 2. Live cobra -- Bingo!
 3. Human skull (dirty, as if it had been underground) -- this and 
6): nah; dead things can't threaten me, so they don't scare me
 4. A puddle, possibly blood, with no apparent source -- mysterious, 
ominous, maybe, but not fearsome
 5. Frog in a bottle of formalin -- funny, not fearsome
 6. A dead gibbon -- see 3)
 7. A photo of you with the word "inchoate" scrawled across it in red 
 lipstick. -- even in my 40s, I consider myself still a work in 
progress ... incomplete (albeit not incipient) in that sense
"lucid2step" : I would be least afraid of the first two because, although it is unlikely, I could imagine the animals, somehow, finding their way into my home of their own volition. I would simply call animal control and have them removed. Anything that is clearly placed in my home by an anonymous human being would worry me. I think the photo would be the creepiest because, it is most consistent with psychotic, predatory, human behavior. Also, the word, "inchoate", might give me a panic attack wondering if I was only dreaming about finding the photo in my foyer. Coming home and seeing that after working a long overnight shift might cause me to have an existential breakdown.-- Nannette

"peteb_hwp" : Oh, my! I could squash the tarantula with my shoe, bash the cobra with my umbershoot, mourn the passing of the human that once claimed owning the skull, step over the blood so as to not soil the carpet, examine the floating frog's fysiology, bury the dead gibbon with full honors in my yard, but...

I could NEVER, EVER recover from a judgement that I was "inchoate"! Not even if the mind of the accuser suffered from the same fatal flaw! A fate worse than... well, the only thing worse that comes to mind would be to be deemed a diehard Britney Spears fan. :=) :=) Pete B

"carledsagan" : Is this one more of those "probability teasers" Cliff? If I came home to find ONE of the above objects...IT would be the one to elicit most fear! If not, most definately the pool of blood - an intruder? Has one of my housemates died? the dead gibbon comes a close second. The other live animals (and the frog) wouldn't bother me too much and I would think the skull was a joke. And the photo? I find it fairly accurate, now that I know what inchoate means! Best regards

Marcus : The photo, if only for the reason that I don't have a clue what "inchoate" means. Could someone help me out. I'm not a native English speaker!

"Steve Brazzell" : The puddle of blood is the only one which would strike real fear in me (I have a wife and five daughters). The fact that it had not been cleaned up would be the most frightful factor, as it implies either evil-intent or that the wound that caused the blood is serious enough to ignore the blood on the floor. Steve

April: The photo would freak me out the most, especially if it was a photo of me I'd never seen before, which would suggest it was taken sneakily by a stalker or someone like that.. I'd flee the room, not even wanting to risk looking for a dictionary to find out what "inchoate" meant. The definition of "just begun, hence incompete" is too ambiguous to instill much fear. But the photo alone is scary. The other choices are all scary too, not because of what there are but because it would mean a stranger placed it/them there. April

Wellyn: The dead gibbon, hands down (so to speak), because (a) the killer may still be lurking about (or, if not, may return at some inopportune time), and (b) you can escape deadly spiders and cobras, but you can't escape threatened/exotic species laws; I would surely have to explain the gibbon's presence to someone, who may already be on his/her ways


Which one of the following items do you find most beautiful? Any reasons for your preference?
1. The shiny interior of an abalone seashell
2. The planet Saturn
3. The Bahai prayer, which reads, "O God, guide me, protect me; make of me a shining lamp and a brilliant star. Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful." 
4. Ocean waves pounding a craggy New England shore.
5. Schrodinger's wave equation, the principle equation of quantum mechanics, the science of submicroscopic phenomena. 
6. The resonance of monks chanting in a Buddhist monastery
7. A pine forest, at dusk, with the glimmer of a sunset in the distance.
8. A swallowtail's wing
9. The human aorta
10. A Pentium computer chip


Glass David : Interesting question. I'd probably have to go with the Pentium computer chip, even though I'm somewhat repulsed by the memory of the floating-point divide bug in the early chips. Still, anything as complex and delicate as such a processor is beautiful to me. The other items do have beauty associated with them, too. But, I seem to remember hearing that one of the measures of beauty is that it's something a person is familar with, something that they've experienced all of the aspects of and can fully appreciate all of it.

David Jones :

> 1. The shiny interior of an abalone seashell

I've developed a fascination for underwater life over the past couple of years. I think the idea of being able to live in world you have more control over being able to move in the third dimension is appealing, which is why I love to watch fish, dolphins, and the like. Appreciation for the flora and other sea creatures stems from that. Probably my number one from this whole list.

> 2. The planet Saturn

I suppose it would if I could actually see it, but really its kind of dull looking in pictures. There is a world of difference between being at the Grand Canyon and looking at a picture of it. Views of the planet strike me as have the same quality.

> 4. Ocean waves pounding a craggy New England shore. > 5. Schrodinger's wave equation, the principle > equation of quantum mechanics, the science of > submicroscopic phenomena.

I love listening to things more than looking at them. Yet somehow I can't quite see the mechanical description of them as being beauty. I certainly appreciate them, but not in the same way. Number 4 would be second runner up to number 1 but 5 would be low on the list.

> 7. A pine forest, at dusk, with the glimmer of a > sunset in the distance.

I'm not big on the color green.

> 9. The human aorta

Anatomy grosses me out.

> 10. A Pentium computer chip

Physically, the chip itself, very low on the list. In concept, much higher. Its amazing to think how manipulation of on and off currents can allow us do such many things from solving problems of math and science to sending a message that can be read around the world.

"lonno7" :

1. No; pretty, not beautiful
2. Beautiful, even awesome, but not most beautiful
3 & 6: prayers to me are just refined form of glossolalia; don't 
need 'em, don't want to hear 'em
5. Takes too much training to appreciate the beauty of these
8. Beautiful, yes, but lots of birds are
9. human brain is more beautiful
10. Are you kidding?
so I'm torn between 4 & 7 -- they give me a lot to contemplate in terms of the evolution of life in this world, and how this planet will still be going even when all life has left it.

"lucid2step" : > I choose number seven. All of these other ideas blend into a nice walking meditation through the forest. I would have to add my dogs to the picture because they are my sangha. --Nannette

Marcus : Personally I find the Planet Saturn the most beautiful of the choices given. Don't ask me why. I just happen to be one of those strange people to whom a visit in a planetarium or observatory is the closest thing to a religous experience.

April: It would have to be the Monk chants or the prayer verse, because, while the other things are certainly "beautiful" in their own way, they weren't created with the INTENT to be beautiful. This applies to all the nature-made things, Saturn, the aorta, swallowtail's wing, etc. We see them as beautiful, but without any intent on nature's part, they really aren't beautiful, so it makes more sense to pick one that is intentionally beautiful.. The computer chip doesn't fit the bill because it's job isn't just to look pretty. The prayer and chants are made to be pleasing to our minds/senses and that's it.. I'd add Michealangilo's "David" to Cliff's list, and then choose that! April

Wellyn: The planet Saturn, for a very simple, shallow reason: Since early days I've always fantasized about being awakened in the middle of the night by some wraithy night-light. I would then rise towards the window, expecting to see only the full moon or my neighbor's big-screen TV and instead my eyes are filled with the spooky, sallow glow of Planet Six 2 with all its otherworldy mystery aglow there, too 2 spanning the window's whole width and thereby implying that I'm just a few thousand kilometers from touching the first tenuous wisps of its cloudtops. And while I can't help but admire the intricate wonders of a swallowtail's scales or the translucent depth of the Bahai prayer, these mysteries (if they're mysteries at all) wouldn't rouse me from a night's sleep. Saturn surely would.

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