The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is based on the idea that a search of the cosmos may reveal artificial signals that are being transmitted intentionally or as electromagnetic noise, like TV and radio signals.

But if we do detect these signals, what will they tell us other than the fact that we are not alone? The signals may contain messages from an alien civilization that we cannot decipher and SETI currently focuses on finding artificial signals, not on decoding them.

SETI researchers believe that the content of messages intentionally beamed toward Earth would rely on the universal language of math and science. But how would ETs transmit knowledge of their culture and history?

Anthropologists Ben Finney and Jerry Bentley of the University of Hawaii suggest that we can learn how to decode complex extraterrestrial messages by examining past attempts to decode languages here on Earth. They give the example of the transmission of knowledge from ancient Greece to Europe.

During the Dark Ages, translations of Plato and Aristotle weren?t available and European scholars actually lost many Greek writings on philosophy, literature, and science. Fortunately, copies of these works were kept by Islamic scholars, particularly in Spain and Sicily. When Europe entered the more enlightened era of the Renaissance, Western scholars were able to reclaim Greek classics from Islamic centers of learning, either directly from Greek editions or through Arabic translations.

We can use this analogy to consider how Earth might obtain information from the much older extraterrestrial civilizations being sought by SETI. If we do detect signals, it is possible they will come from civilizations that are long since dead. We can still learn from them, just as the West had much to learn from the dead civilization of Ancient Greece.

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