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Recently, at a mass in Vatican City, Pope Francis said that, if given the chance, he would baptize aliens. (“Who are we to close doors?” he asked.) Unfortunately, judging by “Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication,” a new book, about the complexities of communicating with extraterrestrials, released last month by NASA, it won’t be that simple. For a long time, the people most interested in searching for extraterrestrial intelligence came from “hard science” disciplines like astronomy or physics; to them, the main obstacles seemed technical (building radio telescopes, processing signal data). But, in recent years, the field has broadened to include people who already study other civilizations here on Earth. In these essays, they report that their jobs are hard enough as it is. Archaeologists struggled to decipher ancient Greek; deciphering a transmission from another world will be even more difficult. Even if we do manage to detect a signal, they write, fully understanding what it means may be impossible.

The challenges described by the contributors are daunting (and, at least to me, surprising). On Earth, they write, we were able to use the Rosetta Stone to figure out Egyptian hieroglyphics. (It contained the same text written in glyphs, Demotic script, and ancient Greek.) But there will be no Rosetta Stone for our communication with extraterrestrials, and the distances involved make conversation unlikely—which may mean that our comprehension of their message will be confined to math and numbers, never able to make the jump to broader concepts or less abstract words. (How do you describe a lake, or a tree, with math?) The speed of the message presents another problem: here 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? And 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?

Douglas Vakoch, the editor of “Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication,” is the director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California. (The Institute’s name refers to the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” an umbrella term for a number of projects that began in the sixties, some funded by NASA.) Vakoch has degrees in comparative religion, the history and philosophy of science, and clinical psychology (“I expected to become an astronomer, but discovered that I was more interested in people than in stars,” he told me). At SETI, Vakoch is responsible for designing the messages that we might send to extraterrestrials; he is also a member of the International Institute of Space Law, where he works on the policy issues surrounding the messages’ composition. (There are currently no laws about sending signals into space; in theory, anyone with a powerful enough antenna could be talking to the cosmos right now.) “We used to think we would get an Encyclopedia Galactica,” Vakoch said. One of his primary goals, in editing the book, was to give air time to the less optimistic views of social scientists, and to start thinking about what an incomplete or indecipherable message from space might mean to humankind.

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