Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

“Yes, yes, Dr. Matthews.” Ambassador Smythe stood in the doorway, back from her extended break. “I’m sure your former employer appreciates the advertisement. It isn’t clear that ET would be impressed.”

Dean decided to overlook both gibes. “Because satellites move along their orbits and ground stations rotate with the Earth, there are continuously varying Doppler shifts over various links. The software must adjust.

“You’ll recall that ET’s signal maintained a constant wavelength. Achieving that constancy took correction in real time for the relative motion of ET’s star and our sun, for the orbital motion of our planets, and for the rotation of our planets. The calculations resemble those with which I am familiar from the design of satellite constellations.

“Our analysts have closely studied ET’s transmitter design. Two observations surprised them. First, ET’s electronics are based not on transistors and integrated circuits, but on vacuum tubes. That was astonishing enough. The second conclusion was more amazing. ET does not employ digital computing.”

Scattered whispering had erupted in the gallery at the mention of vacuum tubes; the comment about computing elicited even less seemly murmuring. The chairman glared at the small audience. “If necessary, I will clear the room of all staff and invited guests.” He motioned at Matthews to continue.

“I reviewed my background only to make a point: Doppler correction is familiar to me. The geometry can be messy, but the correction is easily programmed into a standard digital computer. ET has a distinct analog control loop for each component of motion: his planet’s orbit, his planet’s rotation, Earth’s rotation, and so on.” More precisely, and of doubtful interest to the diplomats, ET’s transmitter employed coupled feedforward servo controls.

“ET’s system works, or we would never have heard him. Still, by our standards his approach is extremely cumbersome. Each correction factor is provided by a physically separate circuit, involving many vacuum tubes. Tubes are inherently unreliable devices, compared to transistors. That makes his circuits prone to component failures.”

Crowd noise and the sound of gunfire—from rubber bullets, Dean silently hoped—repeatedly punctuated the briefing. Scowls began exceeding sympathetic expressions as the din rose repeatedly. Had Earth First overplayed its hand?

He pushed on. “ET’s most advanced technologies appear to be chemistry and materials science. In these areas ET clearly exceeds our knowledge. But ET does not know what he does not know: solid state physics. He probably never seriously investigated digital computing: our pre-transistor computers were unreliable novelties, room-sized monstrosities with less computing capability than my wrist watch. Digital computing simply isn’t practical without solid-state devices.”

Once more the roar of angry protesters made speaking difficult. The supposedly multicultural demonstration seemed to have found one voice: obstructionism. Resistance to change. An inarticulate remembrance of his time on the Media committee nagged at his subconscious.

Dean took a deep breath. “At this time, I’d like to introduce the task force’s recommendation. We should respond to the Lalande message, starting transmission in seventeen days as per ET’s request. We should order from ET’s catalogue.

“For prepayment, we propose to ignore ET’s shopping list. We would instead send introductory instruction in computing and the design of some simple solid-state devices. It need not include anything proprietary. Our accompanying catalogue will be for more advanced device designs and digital algorithms.

“We would be surprised indeed if ET failed to find these new technologies far more attractive than anything he has requested.”

* * * *

In a logical world, the presentation was complete. In this world, the fun had only begun. As Roberto Ramos, the Chilean ambassador, was being recognized, Dean spotted Alex Klein’s prearranged gesture identifying a planted question.

“Dr. Matthews. A point of clarification, please. Is the task force proposing that Earth’s trade goods be elementary computing and electronics techniques?”

“That’s correct, Ambassador.”

“Technology we all,” and here the ambassador’s arm sweep encompassed the many nations comprising COPUOS, “have mastered and moved on from.”

“Yes. ET’s science appears not to have gone in those directions.”

“And in return for our decades-old technology we can expect to receive advanced chemical knowledge. In effect we get something for nothing.” Ramos thumped the table. Around him, many ambassadorial heads were nodding. “How can we lose?”

“Who are ‘we’ that cannot lose?” The question came from the task force’s nemesis, Ambassador Smythe of Belize. “Who obtains this advanced chemistry?”

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Categories: Edward Lerner