Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

Matthews looked glumly out blackened, one-way limo glass. More and more demonstrators streamed past the trapped limo towards the UN. “Look at this crowd. Can they spell Luddite?”

The ambassador snapped shut his briefcase. “The major economic powers all want the ET technologies. We’ve been trying hard to freeze COPUOS membership until after the natural milestone of an authorization to reply. I expect to lose the procedural vote on that membership freeze today.

“We have nothing to trade, long odds of getting a reply authorized are about to get worse, and the clock is running out. Your Luddites are the least of our problems.”

* * * *

“I became interested in a report from the Analysis group. As they had determined, there are obvious subassemblies for signal modulation and amplification. There is an impressive design for focusing and steering a beam using a phased-array antenna, like we use for radars. It is elegant work.”

Joachim Frisch tapped the printout spread across his dining room table. The schematic was roughly two meters by three. It had been printed on letter-sized stationery and taped together. “And then we have this complicated mess.”

Frisch was a frail, grey-haired gentleman of seventy-three years. He’d never fully recovered from a car crash two years earlier, and was wheelchair-bound. Until his retirement, he had been a customer-support engineer at the big German electronics firm, Siemens. He still did free-lance consulting, troubleshooting others’ designs and suggesting improvements.

“Forty years moving from customer to customer, application to application, builds a skill set. I thought that mastering yet one more design, even an alien one, would be easy. I’ve seen many radio circuits in my time.”

Matthews nibbled on one of the biscuits set out by Frau Frisch. Honigkuchen? “Your web posting suggests that you had more success than the task force.”

“Ah, but I cheated. I have a hobby to help.” He rolled into the adjoining living room and opened a cabinet to reveal a rack-mounted set of ancient stereo components.

To a crisp, metronome-like performance of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, Matthews reconsidered his mental dating of the equipment. The sound quality was exquisite, at least as good as that of his own recently purchased stereo. The orange glow of vacuum tubes had clouded his judgement. “I admit it, I’m a transistor chauvinist. These tubes produce a better, truer sound. How long did this take to build?”

Frisch laughed. “I began in college and I’m not done. In these modern times I must make many of my own tubes. Later, if you wish, I will show you my workshop.”

“So what do you find most interesting about ET’s radio?”

“Our symbols for electronic components of course differ from ET’s. We learned ET’s symbols early in the message, in the physics tutorial. Do you agree?”

“I think so,” said Matthews. “I am not an expert in that part of the message.”

“ET drew a wet-cell battery and showed it with a new icon. This is how we know his symbol for a voltage source. He made an animation of electrons moving, and another symbol, and we know how he shows current.

“Then ET drew the simplest possible circuit: the voltage symbol in series with one new symbol. The drawing is above the most familiar of electrical equations.”

Ohm’s law, recalled Matthews: junior-high physics.

“Obviously, the new symbol is for a resistor,” continued Frisch. “There is also a graph. It is not drawn as we would, but from context, it is recognizable: current versus voltage in the new device. The graph describes a resistor, so the plot is a straight line.”

Matthews nodded. “We don’t know how ET builds a resistor, but the circuit is so simple we were sure to recognize the new element. The real purpose of the chart was to introduce voltage/current plots, transfer functions.”


“And does ET use transfer-function graphs to describe all of his other circuit elements?”

Frisch smiled. “Exactly! Later in the message such graphs define many new electrical devices. They behave like diodes, capacitors, inductors, and other familiar parts.”

“Leaving to us to decide how the component is actually constructed.” Fascinating. “Almost any EE today, seeing a three-terminal amplifying device would assume it was a transistor. He would consider the associated transfer function drawing as a cartoon and dismiss any subtle differences from what is expected of a transistor.”

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