How We’ll Talk To Aliens

New NASA book looks beyond astrophysics to figure out how we'll communicate with extraterrestrials

Assuming we one day contact aliens, how will we communicate with them? That’s the subject of a new book from NASA called Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication. _(Kudos to Jesus Diaz of _Gizmodo for uncovering it.) The book steps outside astrophysics and computer science to explore how archeologists and anthropologists have approached cross-cultural communications between human cultures, and what those techniques and analytical frames could contribute to understanding a message from an alien culture.

Intelligent Life

In NASA’s new book, anthropologists and archeologists consider the challenges we may encounter in communicating with aliens.

“It’s a serious book—deep and complex, but quite accessible,” Diaz writes about the new title, Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication, “…that takes into consideration our knowledge on historical and prehistorical Earth, as well as our understanding of biology, evolution, and physics.”

If it did nothing else, space exploration enthusiasts would find the book a good read for its concise histories, institutional and political, of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. But the book is also refreshing because the contributors step beyond the usual technological questions, defensive worries, or assumptions about supposed fundamentals of human-alien communication.

“Indeed, much of the literature on contact with extraterrestrial intelligence tacitly assumes that an alien civilization will be culturally unified, unlike our own world,” writes John Traphagan in his chapter on “Culture and Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” which explores definitions of culture, and the limits of “common languages” like mathematics or higher technologies in creating cross-cultural understanding.

Add to this “the strong likelihood that alien beings may have sensory organs that are quite different from our own and, thus, may process experience and translate that experience into cultural frameworks in a way different from our own,” Traphagan writes. He proposes that in addition to deciphering the meaning of a theoretical future contact from the stars, we will also have to consider its context: what the method of communication and means of conveying information tell us about who sends it.

Reading this chapter put me in mind of Mary Doria Russell’s first-contact novel The Sparrow, in which the beauty of an alien civiliation’s music blinds the protagonist to how completely (and disastrously) he has misunderstood their culture.

Diaz’s enthusiastic recommendation of this book must have perceptibly spiked the number of visitors to NASA’s website, because the next thing he knew, NASA chief historian Bill Barry contacted him to say the agency had pulled the e-book offline pending the arrival of printed copies in June. But NASA apparently reconsidered benefits of the viral buzz being generated, and as Diaz writes, has put the book back online in multiple e-formats.