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E.T., phone earth - and provide a translation.

If E.T. phones Earth, will we understand what he is saying? Many scientists involved in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project assume that, if they detect signals from intelligent aliens, it will be only a matter of time before the messages are decoded.

That assumption is overly optimistic, given what researchers know about the nature of communication and language, according to Neil Tennant of Ohio State University's Center for Cognitive Science. He maintains that the work of the best cryptographers and supercomputers probably will fail to translate the signals of extraterrestrials into messages humans can understand. "I think some of the SETI proponents are really exaggerating the possibilities of meaningful communication. The public may be misled about the prospects of receiving understandable messages from extraterrestrials."

One of the major problems with decoding alien signals is that Earth most likely will receive nothing but a series of electromagnetic "bleeps" from outer space. Modern philosophers and linguists believe that language is meaningful only when it can be observed and understood in the context in which it is spoken. it is necessary to see speakers in their natural environment, interacting with things around them.

For instance, most people believe they get more meaning out of a conversation when they speak with someone directly, rather than over a phone. Imagine, then, how much more difficult it would be to understand an isolated message from an alien society of which humans have no prior knowledge.

Moreover, the strings of bleeps received probably would not be the natural language of the aliens, any more than Morse code is the natural, everyday language of mankind. So, these bleeps would derive their significance only indirectly from their language. This adds yet another layer of complexity to translation. "Given these problems, how might strings of bleeps from outer space mean anything to us at all?," Tennant asks.

There are other issues as well. For example, would humans be able to work out their system of grammar, or even be able to tell which of the bleeps and pauses are punctuation marks and which are meant as content? Could the aliens be so advanced that their "sentences" would be too long for human brains to comprehend? Even more basic, there is no assurance that E.T.s would have a metaphysical outlook - the way they look at the world - that people could understand.
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Title Annotation:decoding messages from extraterrestrial beings
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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