NASA image of a distant galaxy

Alien hunters want you to decode weird messages

Contributed by
Jun 3, 2018

Will you be ready to translate a language from a planet in a distant galaxy if someone (or something) beams it to Earth?

METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is relying on the collective brain to demystify what exactly aliens could be telling us if the try to communicate. You would think that all the linguists, scientists and mathematicians in the world could figure that out, but with citizen scientists discovering random exoplanets, anything could happen.

Linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen believes even the most advanced professionals may not be enough to help us speak alien. The more gray matter, the better.

"We're going to need everybody, and we're going to need to generate multiple sets of meanings for a message that we get," she told

When it comes to a (literally) unearthly language, there could be enough opinions to span the universe, as a recent experiment by Wells-Jensen proved. There is actually such a thing as a language created with math for the specific purpose of being understood by intelligent beings from somewhere besides Earth. That language, Lincos, was used in a series of puzzles given to college students. While the students got through the more basic problems, answers started to go to exotic places when the level of difficulty went up.

The SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array

The SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array, which seraches the skies for alien radio signals. Credit: The SETI Institute

When presented with the equation for the circumference for a circle and a code that translated to pi, then asked to decipher what that meant in English, the subjects came up with everything from “world” to “infinity” to “prison”. Just imagine if they were facing a message actually composed by aliens. It could be the stereotypical “we come in peace”. It could be something much weirder.

Think about. If intelligent extraterrestrials exist, they evolved light-years away from our species and developed cultures that would probably baffle us. They could be hundreds and even thousands of years ahead of us technologically, and may even use different senses to understand the world around them—and worlds beyond.

We don’t even know if language is universal or if the structure of a tongue spoken by creatures that may not even live in the Milky Way would be strangely familiar or something we could hardly imagine. This is why we need the power of every human mind we can get when it comes to translating and agreeing on what exactly aliens are trying to say if and when they make an effort to communicate with us.

If you haven’t cracked a book since your senior year of college, now would be the time to do so.