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

A new NASA book suggests that the agency wants to be ready to interact with aliens.

The world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where lots of SETI research is done. Image: Flickr/Hmboo Electrician and Adventurer

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. 

The Rosetta Stone obviously helped us with the hieroglyphics problem, and Vakoch admits that "we aren't going to get something that is written in English and Klingon" to make it easy to translate between the two. But, he says, we can take analogs from what we do know: "We can think, do we have an analog to the Rosetta Stone? You can look at things like math and science. If you can build a radio telescope, then you must know some basic math, and you can look at those as potential rosetta stones."

What's important to note about Vakoch is that he's a social scientist, not an astrophysicist, as are most of the other contributors to NASA's new book.

"Even my background is in psychology, where we're attuned to understanding people who think like us," he told me. "Well, anthropologists and archaeologists are used to making contact and connections with completely foreign things. They have this mindset of encountering the 'radically other,' so most of them [were] very receptive to contributing to this book."

The first problem, of course, is actually detecting alien life. There's obviously no guarantee extraterrestrial intelligent life exists, and there's certainly no guarantee we'll find it. Vakoch says that SETI is a field that "requires tremendous patience," and thought experiments like this book are ways of helping prepare us to be ready to interpret an extraterrestrial message should we ever find it.

The fact that NASA published this book, and the fact that, just this week, the House of Representatives Science Committee held a hearing about SETI, is evidence that the government is once again beginning to take the search for intelligent life a little more seriously.

"It's very easy to make fun of this, just like it also would have been funny to make fun of Magellan before he sailed around the world," Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with SETI, told Congress. "We looked in particular directions at a few thousand star systems—the fact we haven't found anything means nothing. This is like asking Christopher Columbus two weeks out of Cadiz if he'd found any new continents yet. We have to look at a few million star systems to have a reasonable chance."

And, if we do find something, NASA wants to be ready.