Extraterrestrial Languages by Daniel Oberhaus

@April 7, 2020


As a language-learning enthusiast, I impulse-bought Extraterrestrial Languages by Daniel Oberhaus without reading much more than the title. Published by MIT Press in late 2019, this book documents our attempts to talk to aliens, and the theory behind the messages we’ve sent.

Long-story-short, we’ve pushed a lot of content into space. Perhaps the most iconic of these messages were the Golden Records sent with the Voyager missions in the late 1970s. The records contained music from Bach to Louis Armstrong, along with recordings of typical sounds heard on Earth — crashing waves, crickets, and people speaking.

However, the records were relatively light on theory compared to what we’re sending now. The goal then was to capture a slice of life on Earth, not to systematically send information. Today, scientists with SETI have developed a domain-specific language for communication. Broadcast via radio, we begin with universal concepts like numbers, then build towards complex topics like chemistry and DNA. Even if no one receives them, the compilation of these messages makes for a fascinating account of our current understanding of the universe.


I’d recommend this book to folks who are fans of Three-Body Problem or the film Arrival.