By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

“Drake’s Equation,” repeated Dad. His manner toggled to pedantic mode within two syllables. “A model for approximating the number of technological civilizations in the galaxy. You estimate the stars in the galaxy, the fraction of those stars with planets, the fraction of those planets giving rise to life, and so on. You make up most of the numbers, so the equation ‘proves’ whatever you want about the prevalence of communicating ETs.”

The chat-room denizens who had struck me as most thoughtful used, with what degree of justification, I could not say, values that predicted interstellar contact was entirely implausible. “And Fermi’s Paradox?”

“Who are you really, and what have you done with my son?”

I repressed mild irritation; Dad had every reason to be surprised by my questions. “Do you know?”


What I took to be pencil-on-desktop tapping noises emphasized the pause at the far end of the line. He was no doubt stymied by the futility of drawing me a picture. It hadn’t taken me long, growing up, to crack the code of, “This will take pencil and paper.” It meant: here comes more information than I would ever want to know (or could hope to process). Pencil and paper also had going for them, at least in the eyes of Professor Cryptic, that whole picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words thing.

Eventually, Dad found his tongue. “The galaxy is a big place, so it seems improbable Earth has the only technological civilization. Now, assume there are others. Spacefaring aliens would colonize nearby solar systems. In time, those settlements would mature to repeat the cycle. The numbers you invent this time deal with how quickly the colonists fill their new homes and the speed of starships. The values you pick don’t much matter. In a few million years, a cosmological eyeblink, any such aliens fill the galaxy. So, asked Fermi, where are they?”


“I taught you well,” Dad chuckled. “Brian, why these questions?”

My answer, if incomplete, was truthful: researching the propagation of vocabulary in certain chat rooms. I had, in fact, already web-surfed my way to definitions of the terms about which I’d asked Dad. What I had not known was whether the sites at which I found my answers were just a less overt sort of crackpot destination. The hidden agenda of my call was to hear if a serious ‘hard’ scientist took these ideas seriously. On the one hand, he knew the terms; on the other hand, the sarcasm had been awfully broad. “So tell me, Dad, what do you think?”

“About whether there are aliens? UFOs?”

“Uh huh.”

“Insufficient information.” Another prolonged pause. “You?”

“I’m studying Ufologists, Dad, not UFOs.” Amid a diatribe about the study of objects the existence of whose subject matter had never been demonstrated, I took satisfaction at the success of my deflection. Had I been pinned down on the subject my own beliefs, I could not, for the life of me, guess what I would have at that moment said.

* * * *

“ ‘Discourse Analysis of a Self-Selecting Subculture,’ scene 1, take 4,” I emoted more than dictated into the microcassette recorder. No sociology paper would ever see dramatization, but any amusement I could extract from this experience was welcome. A mug of tepid coffee surrounded by cookie crumbs memorialized a previous bout of procrastination.

The title was as generic as I could make it. What passed for a plan remained workmanlike dullness—satisfy my obligation with a submission that, if it were ever published, would vanish without citation into a Bermuda Triangle of unquotable academic prose.

None of my rumination was new. I was stalling … again.

“The research presented in this paper draws inferences from the language usage of a unique Internet community.” I tried unsuccessfully to feel some righteous indignation at the friends and colleagues who had egged me into this. “Internet chat-room visits are, as the netizen reader is surely aware, voluntary, as is each decision as to whether and about which topics to offer comment. Participation in this venue, it is furthermore necessary to recognize, can be entirely anonymous. Ianelli and Huang (1997) have documented the consequences of perceived anonymity, behavioral effects that are neither easily nor unambiguously disentangled from the group dynamic. The term ‘dynamic’ is, in this context, doubly pertinent, as both the membership and the interactions of chat-room occupants vary over time.”

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