“I just mean that the human auditory system isn’t an absolute acoustic instrument; it’s optimized to recognize the sounds that a human larynx makes. With an alien vocal system, all bets are off.” I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll be able to hear the difference between alien phonemes, given enough practice, but it’s possible our ears simply can’t recognize the distinctions they consider meaningful. In that case we’d need a sound spectrograph to know what an alien is saying.”

In the early stages of working with the heptapods, Louise uses concepts of relativity to develop a rational approach to her research. Implied in the quote is a comparative analysis between heptapod and human. If the scientists go into their sessions assuming that humans and heptapods hear and produce sounds in the same way, they risk running into problems. But Louise allows for the likely scenario that heptapod biology will be radically different. Given this difference, Louise anticipates the technology she will need in order to compare human language with heptapod language so they can begin making sense of it.

Still, I tried to ponder questions formulated in terms more familiar to me: what kind of worldview did the heptapods have, that they would consider Fermat’s Principle the simplest explanation of light refraction? What kind of perception made a minimum or maximum readily apparent to them?

This quote comes shortly after Gary explains Fermat’s Principle and his confusion about what the heptapods consider a simple concept. Rather than focusing on the scientific concepts themselves, Louise looks at the bigger picture. Her mind goes to a comparative analysis, in which she ponders the cognitive differences between humans and heptapod. By comparing human conception of the world around them with educated guesses about the heptapods’ worldview, Louise is ultimately able to make sense of the contradiction.