Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

Then it was Matthews’ turn.

“Many have expressed surprise, and some disappointment, that ET’s message is commercial in nature. That approach has come to make sense to me. Our task force has not been an inexpensive undertaking. Radio telescopes are not inexpensive instruments. Adapting transmitters for interstellar use, sacrificing the use of spectrum … these are all very real costs. Governments have historically found SETI a hard investment to justify. Dialogue with another star, however intellectually stimulating, can quickly come to seem less worthy of financial support than today’s natural disaster or international incident.”

Emotionless faces looked back at Matthews, diplomats all skilled at internalizing their reactions.

“Can humanity maintain a purely intellectual conversation in which answers to our questions will come, at best, after a sixteen-year delay? Will we maintain financial support for such a dialogue? I don’t presume to speak for Earth; that is the responsibility first of this committee, and, based on your recommendation, for the entire United Nations. ET, however, has reached a conclusion for his society: communications with Earth are to be self-supporting.

“So ET constrained our decision: there must be value to him in our reply. Perhaps we can also learn about each other’s cultures, but only if our relationship works economically.

“Here is the crux of our problem. ET has more sensitive radio receivers than we, more powerful transmitters, better telescopes. His knowledge exceeds ours in the areas, chemistry and materials science, in which he solicits our contributions. While there may be exceptions, potentially trade-worthy technologies in our most advanced laboratories, we are entangled in ownership issues here on Earth.

“The question becomes, simply: what do we have to trade?”

Ambassador Smythe of Belize cleared her throat. “It is a rather delicious irony that the developed world’s knowledge is not commercial.”

Matthews ignored the barb. “We’ve all felt hampered throughout this investigation by how little we know about ET. Well, ET knew less about us when he sent his message than we now know about him. Recognizing how ET jumped to conclusions about Earth may help us be more realistic about him.

“Effectively, ET could hear us whispering, but not make out anything we said. We presume ET sent us a transmitter design because he inferred from our weak transmissions that Earth couldn’t talk any louder. That’s incorrect. He offers us his sophisticated chemistry, and apparently feels, with no basis that we can see, that our chemistry must be comparably advanced. That is also wrong.

“The transmitter design is the single largest part of the message. Analysis of the design has been enlightening. It is a more powerful transmitter than humans have cared to build, but we could build a transmitter that powerful if we so chose. The Undersecretary-General has explained how we are working to do just that. The interesting fact about ET’s radio design is not its power, but rather something it took a while to recognize.

“It appears that Earth’s electronics technology is far superior to ET’s.”

* * * *

“Rioting Earth First demonstrators, unsuccessful at preventing the COPUOS hearing for a second day, have shut down areas of Manhattan up to two miles from the UN. Arrests now exceed two hundred. Sympathy protests are causing lesser disruptions in London, Canberra, Tokyo, Berlin, and Paris.

“Undeterred by but surely not unaware of the violence, the Lalande task force and the committee that oversees it continue to debate whether Earth will reply to ET.”

—AP World News

* * * *

The USG called a ten-minute break after Dean’s revelation. Coordinating diplomats was like herding cats: thirty minutes later, the head count had only crept back to a quorum.

“I worked at a satcom company before joining the task force, and that background provided a useful insight.

“To be pocket-sized, satellite-capable phones must avoid big batteries and antennas. We put the satellites in low Earth orbit to minimize power requirements for the phones. In these orbits, satellites constantly move in and out of sight. It takes a lot of software to sort out which satellite should handle a particular call, and when to hand off a call to another satellite. Meanwhile, the Earth rotates under the satellites, bringing different ground stations into play.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner