Communicating Across the Cosmos 4: The Quest for a Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta stone, now displayed at the British Museum in London, was used by Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher Egyptian heiroglyphics, Credit: Hans Hillewaert, British Museum

The Rosetta stone, now displayed at the British Museum in London, was used by Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher Egyptian heiroglyphics. The same message is given in three languages, Egyptian Hieroglyphics (top), Demotic (middle), and Greek (bottom). It is a useful example of what we may need to engage in interstellar communication, Credit: Hans Hillewaert, British Museum

On television and in the movies, it’s so easy. Aliens almost always speak English (at least in America they do). If it’s explained at all, we are typically told that they learned it by intercepting communications with our astronauts, or tapping into our television broadcasts. A universal translator device instantly abolishes communication difficulties. Hollywood aliens are, of course, human beings in costumes (these days augmented by computer graphics). They are equipped, as are we all, with a human brain, a human larynx, and human vocal cords; all singular products of the distinctive evolutionary history of our species.

Real extraterrestrials, if they exist, will be the product of a different evolutionary history, played out on another world. (…)
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