The decoding of extraterrestrial messages could be the biggest citizen science project ever



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Stay sharp! You may be required to assist in the decoding of a message of intelligent extraterrestrial beings one day.

The work of professional linguists, mathematicians, and scientists “is probably not enough” to unravel a cosmic mystery communication, said Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguist at Bowling Green University in Ohio, who is also a member of the council of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a San Francisco-based non-profit.

“We have all hands on deck,” Wells-Jensen said “We need everybody, and we’re going to need to generate multiple sets of meaning for a message that we get.” [13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent aliens]

An experiment carried out recently by Wells-Jensen, shows why we need the power of the human hive-mind. They presented students with several puzzles that was encoded in the manner of Lincos, a constructed language designed to be understood by intelligent aliens. The students came up with the simple things, such as basic arithmetic functions, very good, but it went risky when the concepts even more complicated.

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For example, Wells-Jensen, gave the students the formula for the circumference of a circle, as a light coded representation of “pi” (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter).

“And I said, ‘OK, what is this really a word?” And they came with all sorts of crazy things,” she said. “Some made poetic jumps and said, ‘the world’; some of them made an opposing poetic jump, and said: ‘the infinite.’ A number of them thought that I meant that the diameter of the circle ended up on a wall, and said: ‘the prison.'”

And that is a message that is written by a fellow human. It will undoubtedly be a lot more difficult to decrypt something invented by beings from a distant solar system that have no cultural or evolutionary history with us, which may rely on other senses to perceive their environment and to communicate, and that are likely to be far more advanced technologically than we are.

So, we’ll probably need to marshal the collective wisdom of the world, in a large citizen science project, to identify (and to agree with the “correct” answer, Wells-Jensen said. And our chances of success in this endeavor would be greatly increased if we all hit the books a bit, to our critical thinking skills and our understanding of the nature and how it works, she added.

“One of the goals of METI — and I really think that it is a goal of all of us — is to work on this science-literacy problem,” Wells-Jensen said.

The linguist was originally scheduled to get her results on Saturday (26 May), during a workshop at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) 2018 in Los Angeles. But she nixed that after running out of time. Wells-Jensen is quite crowded; they sat the workshop, which is called “the Language of the Cosmos,” and she is the co-author of a workplace study.

The full-day workshop, which was organized by METI, examined the possibility that language — or at least certain essential elements of the language as possible, is universal throughout the cosmos.

The famous linguist Noam “Chomsky has often said that if a martian visited Earth, would think that we all speak dialects of the same language, because all the earthly languages share a common underlying structure,” METI President Doug Vakoch, who also presented a paper at the workshop, said in a statement. “But if aliens have language, would it be similar to ours? That is the big question.”

Two workshop papers, including a co-author of Chomsky, expressed optimism about. Wells-Jensen said that they are more skeptical, citing our lack of knowledge about the origins of human language, and the difficulty of extrapolating from a sample of one. (However, whale languages can be complex enough to increase our planet sample of two, she added.)

“I don’t think we know, but this is a nice hypothesis to play,” she said of the language-universality of the idea.

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