Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

Sherman Xu reprised his big announcement of two days before. The signal appeared to come from Lalande 21185. The carrier signal was at the hydrogen wavelength divided by pi. Like naturally occurring cosmic radio sources, the faint signal faded in and out. Unlike natural radio sources, the carrier was modulated with a narrowband signal, under 300 Hertz. About every 30 hours the signal included a sequence of pulses: pulse, pause, two pulses, pause, three pulses … up to 128 pulses. That pulse sequence was repeated once.

A complex-seeming message followed the easy-to-recognize pulse sequences for thirty hours. The cycle then apparently repeated, although that conclusion was tentative due to noise and signal fading. His team hoped to have synthesized the full message within a week—if the signal persisted that long.

It was almost noon when Kim Chun Ku claimed the podium. Kim’s remarks confirmed what his title plainly said: he was an administrator. His third viewgraph was an organization chart: five colored boxes. As one, the audience members glanced at their name badges. Whispered conversations erupted.

Kim tapped the mike until order returned, and he confirmed that colored stickers denoted committee assignments. After lunch, at committee breakout sessions, complete rosters would be made available.

The gold team, at the top of the chart, sounded like what Bridget had called the steering committee. Kim led the gold team. Membership included the leaders of the still undefined other teams, famous names from the SETI community, two assistants to ambassadors from COPUOS-participating countries, and a few UN agency heads like Bridget.

Blue team dealt with radio engineering: signal acquisition and recovery. They would work with the ITU on reducing Earth-originated interference in ET’s preferred frequencies, and coordinate among radio observatories worldwide monitoring ET’s signal. Blue team was mostly radio astronomers, including Sherman Xu, with some of Bridget’s staff thrown in.

Green team owned what struck Matthews as the part of the project most likely to be second-guessed: analysis. They were tasked with decoding and interpreting ET’s message. Membership included lots of SETI folks, a codebreaker from the National Security Agency, mathematicians, and linguists.

Gray team would ponder Earth’s possible response. Opening a dialogue with another civilization was not about science: this committee was entirely staffed by diplomats assigned by the Security Council. Mathematicians and linguists from Analysis would encode Earth’s message after a reply, if any, had been strategized.

And the red team? The best had not been saved for last.

Red denoted the media and education committee. They were to coordinate the release and positioning of everyone else’s results. Red team would also field questions and unsolicited suggestions. Matthews’ teammates were pool reporters, PR flacks, educators, and—oh, joy!—a multicultural behavioral response team.

Why was he on the red team?

* * * *

“And so,” concluded Paul Ricard, “our role is to package and control the Lalande information, while respecting various cultural sensitivities. After a short break, I propose to discuss process concepts for that mission.”

The red-team leader had spoken for twenty minutes, without conveying any more than his summary. The viewpoint was what Matthews expected from a PR flack, even one with a prestigious UN title. Dean cleared his throat.

“Dr. Matthews, have you something to add?”

Unfortunately, he did. “Yes, actually. I don’t think our charter, as you’ve spelled it out, can be accomplished.”

“Why is that?” Ricard was more condescending than curious.

Matthews had sensed, when the session opened with brief introductions, that he was not alone in wondering about his assignment. As he had suspected, Dean was the only member with a physical-sciences background.

“We don’t have a monopoly on ET information.” The media reps, who were being mysteriously docile, seemed to suffer from the misapprehension that task-force membership guaranteed a lock on all Lalande news. “If we withhold or spin any findings, we’ll discredit the whole task force.”

“I question the premise.” Ricard was miffed. “We’ve brought into the task force the leadership of every major radio telescope. Surely we can rely upon their cooperation in the responsible release of discoveries.”

Irrelevant even if true. “In days, universities worldwide will be monitoring ET directly. They can easily build an adequate receiver from arrays of commercial satellite dishes. Thanks to Dr. Xu, they know exactly where to point the antennas and the frequency to tune to. And they’ll all be racing to post observations and interpretations on the Web.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner