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Language barrier? Free NASA guide delves into talk with aliens

Astronomers have long searched for life on other planets. But what happens when we find it? This e-book lays the groundwork.

Do you speak alien?Ricardo Liberato/Flickr

Though E.T. spoke in kind of a toddler-meets-Tarzan language, chances are good that when we make contact with alien life -- and you know that we will -- communications are going to be a little more complex.

Fortunately, a new free e-book released by NASA examines "some of the enormous challenges that will face humanity if an information-rich signal emanating from another world is detected," according to the project's website.

We tend to think of encountering alien life as the stuff of sci-fi and therefore the stuff of myth, legend, and big box office takes, but this book takes a serious look at the complexities involved when two different cultures -- let alone species -- try to communicate with one another.

The truly comprehensive guide, titled "Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication," features chapters written by a wide range of authors including experts in linguistics, history, anthropology, psychology, literature, religion, and life sciences. It's not a quick read, but being that scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute (SETI) recently testified before Congress that they think extraterrestrial life could be found in about 20 years, you still have a little time to get through all 300-plus pages.


The book begins with a look at the SETI program, then moves into a section called "Archaeological Analogues," in which information we've derived from studying cultures like the ancient Greeks and Mayans can be applied to those we may encounter in the future.

The next section continues in a similar context-creating vein and is entitled "Anthropology, Culture and Communication." Then we get to the fun stuff -- a section called "The Evolution and Embodiment of Extraterrestrials."

Here we get chapters like "The Evolution of Extraterrestrials," which looks at how our ideas about alien life have changed throughout time; "Biocultural Prerequisites for the Development of Interstellar Communication," which examines the Drake Equation for determining the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy; and "Ethology, Ethnology and Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence," about, well, that name kind of says it all.