Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

“It has been a most pleasant discussion, but duty calls.” Antinov stood. “As for your question, I am almost convinced.

“I am entirely certain that were ET able to sneak up on us, nothing we could do in preparation would matter.”


“…And still no comment from the UN investigation. Has ET’s signal been lost? If so, what does it mean? Is the UN covering up? We want to hear from you.”

The radio call-in show was Dean’s regular breakfast companion, entertaining when he successfully compartmentalized the sorry implications about the state of education. Today’s show was annoying rather than amusing, however—even though, oddly enough, it had the facts mostly correct.

The signal from Lalande 21185 had vanished last night.

He retrieved today’s paper from the curb. Loss of signal was front-page news, with attribution to the SETI Institute, the Planetary Society, and Cal Tech. As he’d foreseen, universities and science-interest groups had built their own antenna arrays—and they were free to announce findings when they pleased. That usually meant only a phone call to a buddy at a peer institution to confirm an observation or analysis.

He’d phoned Ricard after getting an alert from Signals, urging the committee head to issue a statement. Ricard instead ruled that the matter needed a Media & Education consensus recommendation to the steerers. Damned committee process!

He stuffed the paper into his briefcase. There’d be time for it on the shuttle to New York for the emergency meeting.

* * * *

The early work of Media & Education had lulled Matthews into a false sense of security: the task force’s original findings were uncontroversial, and so quickly released. For those first few days they’d also had a monopoly on signal reception.

Things started changing once independent observatories came on-line and the bulk of the repeating message was posted to the Web. Now the task force was in a race with every other interested party to interpret ET’s message.

That message started simply enough: two pulse trains counting from one to 128. Next came hours of data without apparent pattern. The analysts soon recognized that the data immediately following the two pulse trains of 128 was a two-dimensional, 128-by-128 pixel image. The image was simple but informative: sets of tick marks, from one to sixteen, each set paired with alien symbols. ET was communicating by what amounted to facsimile transmission, he counted in octal, and he had shown Earth how he wrote his numerals—a quickly approved press release.

The bottom left corner of that first image carried ET’s symbol for one: he was enumerating images. The bottom right corner bore two numbers: 128 twice. As suggested, the next part of the message could be read as another 128-by-128 image.

Subsequent images were easily recognized as math lessons, building a common mathematical vocabulary. None of the symbols matched human conventions, of course, but there were no surprises at that early stage as to message meaning. The committee had little difficulty drafting a press release citing a shared view of arithmetic.

Contention arose with the next few images, perhaps not coincidentally because an undergrad physics major at the University of Calgary was first to interpret them. She identified one drawing as a spectrogram, an energy-intensity versus frequency plot, of Lalande 21185. The next graphic was a similar spectrogram for the sun.

Beyond confirming the source and destination of ET’s communication, those images introduced two new symbols: us and them. The solar spectrogram had one other novel aspect: a corner annotation indicating that a 3-D dataset followed. The 3-D dataset appeared to be a series of spectrograms, successively more crowded, but otherwise mysterious. The net effect was a crude animation, like a child’s flip book. The meaning of the dataset’s third dimension remained unclear. Intriguingly, each 2-D slice bore the symbol for “us.”

The committee was slow to comment on these images. The media types (and Matthews agreed) proposed simply stating that two new symbols had been decoded, but that the following dataset was not yet understood. The behavioral-response contingent thought it necessary to put these findings “into a suitable context” to protect fragile human egos. “To those countries that were recently colonies of the West, ‘us and them’ distinctions are sensitive matters,” was one Third World sociologist’s assertion. The behavioral-response folks were further concerned that an admission “’we’ had failed to understand” a dataset could make humans feel inferior to, hence threatened by, ET.

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Categories: Edward Lerner