Translating for ET

Assuming there is actually is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe, how are we supposed to communicate with it? What would we say? “Na-Nu Na-Nu?” “ET phone home?” Without Star Trek’s universal translator, our chances of being understood are frankly not very good.

But that hasn’t stopped dedicated “alien hunters” from trying. According to MSNBC.com, an article recently published in the “Space Policy” journal suggests creating an international protocol for sending messages to aliens, and then  creating a website in which people from all over the world could use the protocol to post their own messages.

But what type of protocol will we use? That’s the tricky part, as there really isn’t any one perfect option. For example, using pictures might seem to be a clear-cut way of communicating with beings that don’t speak our language. However, in reality pictures don’t always translate well even between different human cultures. As Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute explained to MSNBC:

“a Westerner may look at some ceremonial carving from the Maori and say, ‘You know, that’s a beautiful geometrical shape,’ but a Westerner may miss the fact that there’s a human body being depicted in that message.”

Vakoch believes that experimenting with a variety of approaches is our best bet. He told MSNBC:

“I think the key to creating a message that has a reasonable chance of being understood is to send as many distinct messages as you can, with the hope that at least one of them might be understood. Anyone who claims they have one message that will undoubtedly be understood is overly optimistic.”

Incidentally, if you have something to say to your friendly neighborhood extraterrestrials, you can say it on SETI’s “Earth Speaks” website. So far, most of the submissions appear to be tongue-in-cheek (at least, I’d like to think so.) There’s even one that appears to be from a “Lost” fan, asking for help getting off the island!

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