Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Understanding Alien Messages May Be No Different Than Decoding the Rosetta Stone


If we find an intelligent alien civilization, how will we talk to its inhabitants? There is, perhaps, no question that has been more frequently considered within science fiction. Well, now it's a question that NASA is very seriously thinking about and it's explored, at length, in a new e-book published by the agency.

The thing is, talking to aliens (or, the theoretically nearer-term challenge of decoding an alien radio communication), might not be all that different from understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or deciphering long-lost artifacts from a foreign culture. Sure, for all we know, aliens might all communicate with telepathy, with undetectable pheromones, or, in what would be a nice, easy twist, maybe they just straight up speak English like Kang and Kodos.

But it's also possible that they communicate in a way that might be reasonably decipherable, according to Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at the SETI institute and editor of the book, called Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communications.

"For a couple thousand years, we had no idea what the hieroglyphs said. We had this idea of them as this abstract, exotic language, this super language that had some higher meaning," he said. "Ultimately, that's not what they are. They are like other languages, and we just had to free ourselves of an assumption that held everyone captive. We had to see them in a new light and assume they were just like every language."

The idea explored in the book, then, is that, yes, alien messages might be impossible to decipher, but, assuming it's a radio signal or some other sort of electronic pulse, they must have a similar understanding of science and math as us. It's pointless to assume that, simply because a civilization is alien, they will be impossible to communicate with. And we can likely crack the code.

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