“Be careful! Don’t land your UFO after 9pm. Someone can steal it or you can be kidnapped.”
Although I’ve followed the work of the SETI Institute for many years and I respect their dedication to the search for alien life, I have qualms about this new project. Yes, it is important to determine how best to reply to an alien civilization once discovered, but my concern is how we can best communicate with them? Here is a good example; an independent Russian group the last few years has sent greetings in Russian and English to targeted stars in our galactic neighborhood. Tell me exactly how an alien race can interpret the syntax and semantics of either Russian or English? It reminds me of the old Stargate SG-1 TV series, where every civilization the SG-1 team visited through the stargate somehow knew English. At least the Star Trek series had the Universal Translator to solve the language problem. But we’re not talking SciFi now, this is for real.
I think the message we ultimately send must take into account several factors. First, we can’t just send audible or written natural language. Human language evolved over millennia on Earth and to expect that anyone out there might have a chance at understanding it is unrealistic. Also, so much of human language is tightly woven into the social and cultural fabric of being Homo sapiens and any commonality with a sentient being that evolved independently on another world would be very slim. Yet another factor involves conceptual elements of language. How would an alien race interpret words (or concepts) such as “love,” “morality,” honesty,” or “religion” if those words (concepts) are part of our message? Alien civilization may indeed be very “alien” by any standard we can conceive of and any hope for a successful translation may simply not be possible, at least during the first contact period.
So what is an appropriate message then? I think our message should be very simple, something that would qualify us as beings that have mastered the conceptual basis of the laws that govern the universe. The message could be a recognizable series such as the prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, or maybe the spectral lines of hydrogen. But even sending them the speed of light is subjective to the units of measure used since 299,792,458 m/s is based on the meter which is an arbitrary standard, and the second which is dependent on the Earth’s rotational period. The message should qualify us as having the cerebral capacity to have made basic mathematical and scientific progress necessary for the Human race to be a worthy galactic colleague. I believe this can be achieved without natural language, at least at first.