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Decoding E.T.

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates@home.com>
Date: Fri, 16 Nov 2001 10:01:41 -0500
Fwd Date: Fri, 16 Nov 2001 10:01:41 -0500
Subject: Decoding E.T.


Decoding E.T.: Ancient Tongues Point Way To Learning Alien

By Doug Vakoch
SETI Institute
posted: 07:01 am ET
15 November 2001

The modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is
based on the premise that a systematic search of the cosmos may
reveal artificial signals, transmitted either intentionally or,
somewhat like the leakage of TV and radio signals from Earth
today, as electromagnetic noise. But will these signals, if we
ever detect them, be more than simple beacons telling us that we
are not alone? What if the signals bear messages from an alien
civilization, attempting to describe the universe from the
perspective of an intelligent species evolved completely
independently of humankind?

If an extraterrestrial radio or optical signal is packed with
information, we might not know for sure until well after we have
determined that the signal is artificial. The SETI programs
currently underway focus their energies on finding strong
artificial signals=97not on detecting fluctuations of those
signals that might convey additional information. But with the
detection of a sign of intelligent life beyond Earth, stronger
search systems would no doubt follow, possibly revealing encoded
messages from extraterrestrials.

How would we go about deciphering such messages? SETI
researchers have long contended that the content of messages
intentionally beamed toward Earth would likely be heavy on math
and science=97at least in the early stages. These scientists
reason that if extraterrestrials are intelligent enough to build
radio telescopes or lasers capable of interstellar
communication, they will also be familiar with many of the same
principles of mathematics, physics, and chemistry that we use on
Earth. And while that may be true for the initial steps in an
interstellar codebook, how might extraterrestrials convey
something about the more unique aspects of their world=97such as
their culture and history?

Anthropologists Ben Finney and Jerry Bentley of the University
of Hawaii suggest that we might gain clues to decoding more
complex extraterrestrial messages by examining past attempts to
decode languages right here on Earth. But these scholars warn
that we need to be cautious about which examples to use for our
case studies.

Finney and Bentley note an oft-cited analogy for detecting a
message-laden signal from space: the transmission of knowledge
from ancient Greece to medieval Europe. Though any major
bookstore today has a wide variety of classics available=97often
in paperback editions at bargain prices=97during the Dark Ages,
Plato and Aristotle weren=92t so easy to come by.

In fact, European scholars had lost vast numbers of Greek works
on philosophy, literature, and science. But fortunately, copies
of these works were well-protected by Islamic scholars,
particularly in Spain and Sicily. Thus, as Europe entered the
Renaissance, Western scholars were able to reclaim Greek
classics from Islamic centers of learning, either directly from
Greek editions or through Arabic translations. And thus, over
decades and centuries, the "young" European civilization was
able to learn from the older Greek civilization, although the
two were separated by long expanses of time.

The analogy has natural affinities with contact between Earth
and the much older extraterrestrial civilizations being sought
by SETI. If we do detect information-rich signals, it is
possible that they will come from civilizations long since dead.
The impact, we expect, would be even more edifying than the
influx of ancient thought was for early modern Europe. This
reclaiming of ancient knowledge provided Europeans with
alternative perspectives to some of their typical ways of
viewing the world, in turn leading to new syntheses of modern
European and ancient Greek insights. If some day we detect and
decode messages from civilizations beyond Earth, we will have
similar opportunities to juxtapose terrestrial and otherworldly

But, Finney and Bentley warn us, perhaps it won=92t be quite that
easy. While the Greek comparison is informative, as with any
analogy, it does not tell the whole story. For a more nuanced
understanding, we can turn to other examples of decoding ancient
scripts. In the next article in this series, we will follow
Finney and Bentley=92s lead, and examine other analogues of
decoding extraterrestrial messages, drawing on more recent
attempts to translate ancient Maya and Etruscan texts.

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