“Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication,” a new book by NASA, addresses the “complexities of communicating with extraterrestrials.” It’s a collection of essays by archaeologists, people who already study other civilizations on Earth.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Douglas Vakoch, its editor, said that even if we do detect a signal from an alien civilization, we may not be able to fully understand it.
There will be no Rosetta Stone for our communication with extraterrestrials.
The Rosetta Stone is a slab of rock, which provided the key to deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. It’s inscribed with a decree passed by a council of priests in 196 B.C. The same text is written thrice: in glyphs (the tongue for religious laws), in Demotic script (the language of the masses), and ancient Greek (the language of administration.)
Some of the problems we’ll encounter in communicating with extraterrestrials are:
The distances involved [will] make conversation unlikely.
Our comprehension of their message will be confined to math and numbers.
The speed of the message presents another problem: on Earth, human language happens at a speed somewhere between birdsong and whalesong. So, how fast should our message be and on what scale should we be listening?
Then there are all the difficulties created by the nature of our interlocutors. What if they’re so different from us that our messages are mutually incomprehensible? What if the message is sent by some sort of automated system—a voicemail from a long-dead civilization?
h/t: THE NEW YORKER