22 Nov 2019

Talk to the Stars

Daniel Oberhaus. Extraterrestrial Languages. MIT Press (19 Nov. 2019)
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If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand? What languages will they (and we) speak? Is there not merely a universal grammar (as Noam Chomsky has posited), but a grammar of the universe?

Oberhaus describes, among other things, a late-nineteenth-century idea to communicate with Martians via Morse code and mirrors; the emergence in the twentieth century of SETI (the search for extraterrestrial life), CETI (communication with extraterrestrial life), and finally METI (messaging extraterrestrial life); the one-way space voyage of Ella, an artificial intelligence agent that can play cards, tell fortunes, and recite poetry; and the launching of a theremin concert for aliens. He considers media used in attempts at extraterrestrial communication, from microwave systems to plaques on spacecrafts to formal logic, and discusses attempts to formulate a language for our message, including the Astraglossa and two generations of Lincos (lingua cosmica).

The chosen medium for interstellar communication reveals much about the technological sophistication of the civilization that sends it, Oberhaus observes, but even more interesting is the information embedded in the message itself. In Extraterrestrial Languages, he considers how philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, science, and art have informed the design or limited the effectiveness of our interstellar messaging.