Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

“My impression is that the team will consist of national government and UN personnel, plus academics. Sorry.”

He canted his head thoughtfully. He’d been an RF engineer and systems architect before moving into management. He’d been a SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) enthusiast for longer. Perhaps he had the basis for an inference that would impress her. “Let’s see what I know about ET that you haven’t shared.

“I don’t need to tell you that the universe is full of radio noise, or that most of that noise is outside the microwave band. At one end of the microwave window, at a wavelength of 21 centimeters, is the neutral hydrogen line. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, so the SETI folks deduce that’s the radio-dial marker to listen near.

“The OH ion radiates nearby, at 18 centimeters. H plus OH equals H2O: water. That’s why the SETI crowd calls wavelengths between 18 to 21 centimeters the ‘watering hole,’ around which they theorize intelligent species will congregate.”

He tested the liquid in his glass: an unblended Scotch. Served neat: without ice or water. “Of course, that’s a water-chauvinist’s perspective on SETI.”

He knew that the SETI Institute had examined the nearest thousand stars at watering-hole wavelengths without success. He inferred a NetSat conflict with ET’s signal, far from the watering hole. He hadn’t read much about SETI work at MIT. All factors pointed away from a finding at the watering hole.

He rolled the dice. “I predict that ET’s signal is about 6.7 centimeters: the hydrogen wavelength divided by pi.” Pi was the only transcendental divisor of the hydrogen wavelength that could cause a conflict for NetSat. “That would be a good indicator of a signal from intelligent beings.”

Her raised eyebrow confirmed his speculation.

“Where is the signal from?”

“Lalande 2-something. I hadn’t heard of it.”

“Probably Lalande 21185.” The adult physicist had once been a boy with a four-inch telescope. A Web search agent kept him current at a hobbyist level with major astronomical news. “It’s one of the stars closest to Earth, about eight light years. Near Leo Minor. It’s been believed since 1996 to have at least one planet, Jupiter-sized.”

She was silent for several minutes, making up her mind. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do.”

* * * *

Bandwidth alone didn’t guarantee a successful satcom company—NetSat also needed to put its birds into orbit. Some of their launches were booked on Russian and Chinese boosters. That had meant obtaining licenses to export satellites to the foreign launch sites. And that meant Matthews knew people in the State Department.

The connection worked.

His assistant reached him on the flight from Switzerland. No need to dash across JFK for the plane to Washington: he had an urgent appointment in Manhattan with Alex Klein, American ambassador to the UN.

The diplomat was as circumlocutory as Matthews was direct. In some manner, it would seem, with vague attribution to the auspices of the Department of State, and in public-minded and full support of a recommendation from the Office of the Secretariat of the ITU, it would appear … that Dean was in! He should expect an invitation to join the Lalande task force.

The implication was clearer that Klein’s office was available to Matthews as a resource.

Unambiguous, if deniably oblique in its delivery, was the subtext that Dean should be forthcoming with any data of a “national security nature” that might arise during the task force deliberations.


Held at a Caribbean resort, the kickoff meeting of the Lalande task force could have been mistaken for a corporate boondoggle. The remote island was far from most of the idly curious; a smattering of UN guards turned away uninvited members of the press.

The people at the registration table disavowed all knowledge when Dean had questioned the round red sticker on his name tag. It related, he presumed, to the as-yet undefined committee structure of the task force. Five colors were in use; no one whose name he recognized had red.

The auditorium doors opened, and the crowd surged inside. The Secretary-General of the UN gave the obligatory pep talk by satellite link. He introduced Kim Chun Ku, the Undersecretary-General for Administrative Affairs, as (the day’s first news) head of the task force. The SG was followed by Ambassador Juan Roderigo of Argentina, currently heading COPUOS, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

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Categories: Edward Lerner