By Tom Head
Earlier this month, NASA published an anthology titled Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication (SP-2013-4413). If you find yourself thinking “hey, that sounds like a scholarly anthology dealing with the cultural implications of alien contact,” you’re absolutely right. And it’s amazing. I’ll be writing more specifically (and critically) about some of the theories it describes in the weeks ahead, because it asks some questions that don’t lend themselves to easy answers.
The anthology couldn’t have been published as a direct response to Gabriel G. de la Torre’s recent paper on first contact, but it reads like one; the timing is pretty serendipitous, as it constitutes exactly the kind of rigorously scientific, but interdisciplinary and provocative, conversation that Torre asked for. As the volume editor Douglas A. Vakoch explains:
Addressing a field that has been dominated by astronomers, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists, the contributors to this volume raise questions that may have been overlooked by physical scientists about the ease of establishing meaningful communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. These scholars are grappling with some of the enormous challenges that will face humanity if an information-rich signal emanating from another world is detected. By drawing on issues at the core of contemporary archaeology and anthropology, we can be much better prepared for contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, should that day ever come.It doesn’t completely resolve the conversation we need to have about communication with extraterrestrial civilizations—but it’s a definitive contribution to the field, and it starts some conversations that we would be very well served to have.