Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

“There’s a big ‘but’ in there somewhere.”

“Think of the most bureaucratic dealings you’ve ever had with the government. This is worse. On top of a clumsy committee process, we’ve got all of the international politics. Amazingly, most prospective announcements get inanely entangled with nineteenth-century colonialism and worries about possible Third World misperception. Apparently our paramount mission is to build up humanity’s self esteem.”

“Then come back to NetSat. I need my chief strategist.”

“Barb … let’s not go there. This work is too important.”

It wasn’t the answer she wanted. She brightened as a safer topic came to mind. “Hey, I owe you a compliment. Your recommendation paid off.”

Dean guessed she meant the wrap-up memo he’d written on his way out the door at NetSat. He had a visceral dislike of loose ends. “The constellation reconfig?”

“The same. As you proposed, it was an easy software fix to keep our satellites and ground stations from broadcasting directly on a Lalande 21185 line of sight. We’ll lose a little capacity, but we maintained our launch schedule. It sure beat trying to start over on a new frequency to accommodate your ET buddies. That could’ve put us out of business.”

“I’m glad it worked out.”

Her wristwatch beeped on the hour. “Gotta run. Listen, it was great seeing you, and I do want you back sometime.”

After a goodbye hug she left and he finished his late lunch. The conversation had put an unaccustomed monetary perspective on the task force’s work: the cost associated with foregone use of spectrum. That was in addition to the cost of investigations, UN-sponsored and other, about which several countries were already complaining.

The epiphany came during his last taco. How about ET’s economics? Even without knowledge of how ET allocated resources, it stood to reason that ET had made a major investment to contact Earth. His transmitter, and its power requirements, had to be enormous. For how long would his society, whatever form that took, be willing to operate it? Was that why ET had gone off the air?

Congress cancelled NASA’s SETI program in 1993, when the agency was only spending about a nickel per taxpayer on the effort. Luckily, some private institutions had ponied up the money to keep the search alive. Many developing countries were now objecting to UN funding of the task force. Would ET’s society work any differently?

There was a new urgency to decoding ET’s full message, and answering while, Matthews hoped, ET was still listening.


With intellectual discipline that many found intimidating, ET’s message continued to expand a common vocabulary. Some speculated that much of ET’s delay in responding had been time spent formulating the elegant reply.

Animations of motion introduced mechanics and ET’s notation for the calculus. Cartoons of atoms with emission spectra identified elements and ET’s symbols for them. Cartoons using the element symbols showed simple molecular representations, which were used to illustrate a simple chemical reaction. An image of a simple wet cell labelled with its chemical reaction provided a symbol for voltage, beginning a review of electrical engineering.

The purpose for all of this common vocabulary was still unknown when the task force was summoned to present its status to a philosophically divided COPUOS.

* * * *

“The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will come to order.” Ambassador and chairman Juan Roderigo, although Harvard-educated, spoke in his native Spanish.

Only the steering committee had been invited, but Bridget had wangled Matthews a guest pass in view of his liaison duties. As a guest, he was expected to observe silently. He donned an earpiece, wondering how long it would take to adjust to English in one ear and whatever in the other. English was the worldwide language of technology, trade, and air traffic control; diplomats had no such standardization.

Undersecretary-General Kim spoke for his task force. The message summary passed quickly, boiled down to the diplomatic level of scientific literacy. Bobbing heads around the horseshoe-shaped table suggested that the summation had been understood. ET heard us; after an unexplained delay, he answered; he was now building a common vocabulary with us.

Roderigo paid the obligatory compliments to Kim for the hard work of the task force. The ambassadors from the US, Russia, Japan, Peru, and several western European countries followed suit. Then the manure collided with the ventilator.

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Categories: Edward Lerner