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Q&A: Talking to ET

15 Feb 2016, 07:01 UTC
Q&A: Talking to ET
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Question: I have three questions. If we ever did get a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, how would we recognize it, how would we be able to decode it, and if we did, how could we ever understand it? I mean, it’s not like it’s going to decode into English or any other language on Earth. To me, this seems like a very difficult task. — RS, Anthem, AZ
Answer: We would recognize a signal based on two criteria: it would contain non-random information (unlike static), and it would arrive in a narrow band of the frequency spectrum. That’s what our radio signals look like. Mathematical methods can distinguish between random signals and those that contain information. Both those criteria were met by the infamous “Wow! signal” received on August 15, 1977. Alas, it has never repeated or been decoded. Still, recognizing a signal is the easy part, and computers handle all that processing these days.
Your other questions delve into the arcane field of anticryptography. It’s the exact opposite of cryptography, which is all about making messages as difficult as possible to decode. Instead, the idea is to make the message as easy as possible to decode. So rather ...

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