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Extraterrestrial Languages - Daniel Oberhaus ***

Despite the title, this book isn't about the languages that aliens use, but rather how should we format messages that are intended for non-human recipients? Every now and then, we send something off into space, whether it's the inscribed plaques on the Pioneer probes or messages beamed from radio telescopes. Whether we should do this or not is a contentious issue - Daniel Oberhaus briefly examines the arguments for and against - but the meat of the book is trying to answer the question 'If we do want to communicate to aliens, how could we make our message comprehensible?'

Oberhaus opens the book with a fascinating story I hadn't heard of the astronomer Frank Drake sending a message (by post) in 1961 to 'nine of the smartest individuals in the United States' as a hypothetical message from outer space, consisting of 551 zeroes and ones. The recipients were supposed to spot that this is a multiple of prime numbers, array the zeroes and ones by these numbers and interpret the visual message then presented. None understood it (though one did spot it was a visual array in this format and replied in kind). This so strongly underlines how difficult it is to send a message to someone who has no clue about the format. If humans couldn't interpret a message from other humans, how much harder would it be for a truly alien species?

In the book, Oberhaus takes us through the mechanisms used in the various attempts as well as some theoretical ways of communicating such as artificial languages that have never been used. It is genuinely interesting, but I found it too technical - there were pages at a time that were very hard to get your head around if you aren't involved in the field.

Apart from this occasional impenetrability, as someone involved in improving the quality of university essays, I was a little worried about Oberhaus's assertion that 'Gauss was correct in his estimation of the importance of extraterrestrial contact [as a greater discovery than America]' being made without any evidence to back it up. Bearing in mind we are almost certainly talking about one way communication, I'm not sure this is at all obvious.

Overall, I think the biggest omission is that Oberhaus is not critical enough of the various attempts, which seem intensely naive in their assumption that aliens would be able to (or could be bothered to) interpret something that the chances are no one on Earth could decipher. This is perhaps best underlined in a section on using the arts to communicate. While Oberhaus does end up mostly closing down this approach at one point he says 'One possible solution is to use solely abstract art, which may be considered universally intelligible given its rejection of "cultural, historical or political contexts". This seems totally back to front - abstract art entirely fails to communicate anything concrete with any certainty, being entirely dependent on interpretation.

So, a fascinating topic if, perhaps, talking about a pointless exercise, but could have been addressed more critically and should have been written in less of an academic style if it were to be made approachable by the general reader.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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