Earlier this year, I found myself in the Pentagon, the vast headquarters of the American military apparatus, for a meeting, when I spotted a striking sign on a door. It seemed to indicate the office was dedicated to research into unidentified flying objects, aka UFOs. Security was tight, and yet I asked, “Is that a joke?”

I did not get a clear response. But in late June, the Pentagon released a widely discussed report revealing that officials have been studying sightings of UFOs – or, as they now prefer to call them, UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) – for many years.

Of 144 UAP sightings between 2004 and 2021, only one can be easily blamed on a normal object (in that case, a deflated balloon). “[We] currently lack sufficient information in our dataset to attribute incidents to specific explanations,” the report concluded. Speculation about top-secret Russian, Chinese or even American technology, not to mention the wilder theories about aliens, has run rampant ever since.

But amid all the chatter about extraterrestrials, there is another intriguing question that the US government has been quietly studying: if aliens did show up, how might we communicate with them?

The US government’s efforts to look for, and potentially communicate with, aliens are well known to sci-fi devotees. Seti, short for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence”, employs one hundred scientists from its base in Mountain View, California, part of Silicon Valley. (Where else?)

What is less well known, however, is that Seti is also working with archaeologists, anthropologists and other social scientists on the assumption that should we find somebody, we might want to say hello. Much of this is secretive, but back in 2014 Nasa published an extensive report on this work, titled “Archeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication”.

Though it attracted little mainstream attention at the time, it makes for fascinating reading (and can be found online). “To move beyond the mere detection of such intelligence, and to have any realistic chance of comprehending it, we can gain much from the lessons learned by researchers facing similar challenges on Earth,” explained a foreword by Douglas Vakoch, a clinical psychology professor emeritus at the California Institute of Integral Studies who was then “director of interstellar message composition” at Seti.

“Like archaeologists who reconstruct temporally distant civilisations from fragmentary evidence, Seti researchers will be expected to reconstruct distant civilisations separated from us by vast expanses of space as well as time,” he noted.

“And like anthropologists, who attempt to understand other cultures despite differences in language and social customs, as we attempt to decode and interpret extraterrestrial messages, we will be required to comprehend the mindset of a species that is radically Other.”

In practical terms, this meant that the Seti team had analysed how archaeologists failed to interpret Mayan and Egyptian texts to see how to decode unfamiliar signals. They had pondered how “dead” ancient Greek culture transmitted signals into modern European thought and looked at how the anthropologist Ruth Benedict tried to “decode” Japanese culture for the US government during the second world war.

The research also explored the mistakes that physical anthropologists and archaeologists made when they first encountered Neanderthal fossils, most notably by presuming that this branch of humanity walked in a stooped fashion since the first excavation of bones indicated this. (It turned out those bones were from an individual with arthritis.)

All of which led the Seti researchers to conclude that if they are going to communicate with aliens, they cannot use auditory signals since “the factors affecting the propagation of sounds could vary so much from planet to planet”, noted cognitive scientist William Edmondson. Nor, he added, can they use symbols since “symbolic communication – in which the connection between sign and signified is arbitrary – is intrinsically limited”.

Instead, the group favours sending pictures of Earth into outer space or using maths-based quantitative signals, since these seem to be less dependent on any symbolic interpretation. But while prime numbers are presumed to be a universal construct, Vakoch has stressed that it would be dangerous to assume that numbers are perceived in a universal manner.

None of this, of course, casts any light on UAPs, which might perfectly well turn out to be any number of unexciting phenomena. Nor does it address the potential downsides of making contact, as described by physicist Stephen Hawking – and many great novelists, who fear that alien beings would not only be technologically superior, but also likely to wipe out humans.

Futile or not, I find it oddly cheering that at least part of the government has been devoted to thinking about the near-unthinkable in recent years and doing so with an admirably interdisciplinary approach.

And even if we never find any extraterrestrial life, the search for it helps to foster a debate about what it is that enables humans to communicate with other “alien” humans, across time and space on our own planet. Right now, that is badly needed – with or without any UFOs.

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