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Review: Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication

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Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication
by Douglas A. Vakoch (ed.)
NASA, 2014
hardcover, 332 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-62683-013-4

It’s rare for publications by the NASA History Office to make waves in the mainstream media. That has nothing to do with the quality of those publications, but instead their subject matter: deep dives into narrow topics that are of interest primarily to historians, space professionals, and perhaps some space enthusiasts, but not the population at large. Except, it seems, when it comes to extraterrestrials.

Contributors to the book—primarily anthropologists and other social scientists, not astronomers—suggest many SETI researchers have underestimated the difficulty in understanding any signals they might detect.

“NASA is getting ready to communicate with aliens,” declared the headline of a piece in Sploid, a blog run by Gawker Media, on May 21. That assessment was based on its review of a new book published by NASA, Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication. (Besides being for sale in print, the book is also freely available in ebook formats from NASA.) Moreover, the article led off with a sensational claim, referring to a passage in the book where one author discusses ancient stone carvings found in England. “‘For all intents and purposes, they might have been made by aliens.’ When a new NASA book on alien communications has a paragraph like that, you better pay attention.”

The author of the Sploid post went on—belatedly and perhaps a bit halfheartedly—to explain that the book was not arguing those stone carvings were made by some kind of extraterrestrial intelligence, but the damage was done by those people who did not, in fact, pay attention to what that NASA book said. “Nasa: Strange Markings Across The Globe 'Might Have Been Made By Aliens'” proclaimed the UK edition of The Huffington Post, which went on to state that the carvings “could have been made by aliens, as a test.” “Book Published by NASA Actually Suggests Ancient Rock Art ‘Might Have Been Made by Aliens’” said The Blaze, a publication created by conservative commentator Glenn Beck.

Of course, that’s not what that chapter, or the book itself, is about. In the passage in question, William Edmondson uses the stone carvings, whose meaning remain a mystery, as one of several examples of the difficulties trying to decipher any signals a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program might detect, as well as the challenge in trying to construct a message that could be understood by unknown civilizations. The Sploid post that hyped the “might have been made by aliens” sentence left out the footnote attached to it, where Edmondson writes, “One need only think of books by Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken to see where that line of thinking can end up”: a pretty strong clue that he is not arguing for an extraterrestrial origin of the carvings. In retrospect, had Edmondson written, “For all intents and purposes, they might as well have been written by aliens,” there may have been less fodder for a ginned-up controversy.

The attention focused on, and misinterpretation of, that single sentence is unfortunate, since Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication overall offers an interesting, and different, take on SETI. Most discussion of SETI is devoted to the astronomical side: the efforts to sweep the skies at radio (and sometimes other) wavelengths, looking for signals that are not of natural origin. That discussion usually emphasizes radio telescopes, computer algorithms, and other technologies. A secondary issue is the development of protocols to follow once such a signal is detected: who is notified and who responds, and how.

Often neglected, though, is actually decoding the content of any communication from an extraterrestrial intelligence. “If, as is commonly assumed in SETI circles, extraterrestrial civilizations turn out to be vastly older and more advanced than we are, then perhaps they will be kind enough to construct their messages in such a way that we can comprehend them,” writes Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University, in one chapter of the book.

However, Denning and other contributors to the book—primarily anthropologists and other social scientists, not astronomers—suggest many SETI researchers have underestimated the difficulty in understanding any signals they might detect, as well as constructing any signals they might want to transmit. Throughout the book, they point out the difficulties in trying to decipher books and other communications left by ancient civilizations here on Earth (the now-infamous stone carvings mentioned by Edmondson being just one example of many.) The problem of determining what other humans have written is compounded when dealing with a signal from an alien civilization whose language and even concepts of thought and communication are likely to be, well, alien.

The small size of NASA’s last SETI program meant it had few advocates in the space industry, and it also fit awkwardly within NASA’s organization of science programs: all factors that made it vulnerable to being cut.

These concerns are, for the time being, academic, since no such signal has been detected, and SETI programs in general are suffering from extremely limited funding. (Contrary to the Sploid headline, NASA is not actively supporting, or planning to support, SETI programs, be they passive listening or active transmitting efforts.) The first two chapters of the book offer a good history of SETI programs at NASA. The late John Billingham—he passed away in 2013—gives his first-person perspective of starting up and eventually leading SETI work at NASA, from its origins at NASA Ames Research Center in 1969 through its cancellation in 1994.

Historian Stephen Garber examines in detail the end of NASA’s SETI work, when Sen. Richard Bryan, a Democrat from Nevada, led what appeared to be a surprise, and successful, effort in 1993 to cut funding for NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), a SETI effort that started just a year earlier. As Garber notes, Bryan had actually been opposed to the project for a long time and showed little interest in talking with NASA officials about it. Moreover, the small size of the program—$12 million a year, or about $20 million in current dollars—meant it had few advocates in the space industry, and HRMS also fit awkwardly within NASA’s organization of science programs: all factors that made it vulnerable to being cut.

Perhaps all this attention towards a misinterpretation of a single sentence of this book—be it from negligence by bloggers rushing to meet a daily quota of posts, or a deliberate effort to drive traffic and advertising dollars—is instructive. At the very least, it helped publicize an interesting book to an audience that might otherwise never have head of it. Moreover, it unwittingly demonstrates the challenges of interstellar communications: what hope do we have of deciphering any signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence if we can’t clearly communicate with each other in our own language?