Beacon Of Centauri 2

Part 1 (Continued)

 

Prof Charles Bridges welcomes me into the control room of Parkes observatory in Australia. His team was instrumental in verifying the signal from the Centauri system in the weeks following its discovery, and in helping with the ongoing data gathering and analysis of the signal.

Parkes radio telescope is the largest in the southern hemisphere, and was able to keep an almost constant vigil over the Centauri system.

He is also probably one of the most charismatic figures involved in this event that I have had the fortune to interview.

“Well, I’ve got to admit, the first thing that went through my head was ‘well here we go again’. It was another run through of checks to make sure that it wasn’t some natural phenomena in the sky, signals bouncing back into the atmosphere, and checks on the hardware and software to see if this was a hoax or a bug. Although most times we are looking at something quite amazing in the universe, sometimes it’s tiresome to have to keep getting your hopes up just to deflate afterwards.

“It was a couple of days in though, that we started getting excited about it. Not too much, just a bit. We knew we were getting something.

Everything went onto the SETI website. We spent as much time uploading data and commenting online as we did collecting and analyzing data.

The emphasis on every post, though, was that we were confirming someone else’s discovery. There was never any interest in claiming it for ourselves.”

Prof Bridges is echoing what I’ve heard from pretty much all of the scientific community involved. It seems that this community values its integrity very highly. Quite possibly because the nature and usefulness of their chosen field has so often been brought into question. In a world seemingly full of adversaries it doesn’t bode well to make enemies.

“I was in constant contact with Joseph, comparing data, sharing hopes and fears. God bless the Internet. Without that technological revolution, it would have been years before we got anywhere. Not only did it help with exchanging information, but also the SETI@HOME program made it possible to analyze huge amounts of data in a fraction of the time.

“We were constantly sending streams of information through it. The people who signed up should be given medals. They helped advance our knowledge and understanding by amazing factors. To show our appreciation, Joseph and myself decided to send a print of the original signal to them to put up at home, along with a letter of gratitude. We couldn’t have got this far this quickly without them.”

Although Dr Lesley’s team at UC Berkeley retained their position at the hub of data analysis, the Parkes telescope became the natural centre for observation of the signal.

“It made sense really. Although Arecibo could see the system at this time of year, come the winter months it would be lost to them as it dipped behind the horizon – it’s almost a miracle they heard the signal at all. We were able to keep a year round track of the signal for them.

“Knowing we were such a major part of the operation gave us an enormous sense of head swelling ego.”

Prof Bridges is right to feel such pride. His team led the gathering of data making the decoding of the signal possible – leading to the presentation in the General Assembly, and subsequent discoveries and deciphering of signals with major importance in determining the nature of ETI and creating policies about the issues that became apparent.

But those first weeks verifying the signal were some of his most exciting.

“When you’re so use to getting nowhere, and yet you find that signal that just keeps defying all other explanation, and you finally begin to let yourself go with the anticipation of its logical conclusion, the feeling is ecstasy.

“Every day I could swear Joseph’s voice went up an octave in excitement, until he was nearly screaming like a schoolgirl!

“That’s not to say there wasn’t any confusion. The signal looked nothing like how we’d expect a signal sent to us would. That’s part of why it took us so long to believe it, and so to admit it and publicize it. Sure the press was there straight away, but we’re scientists. We take a lot of convincing.”

And convincing they got.

“I remember being on the phone to Joseph, I think he was actually living at Berkley at that time. He was screaming ‘this is it! This is fucking it!’. We had Berkeley on the conference line, so everyone could hear the champagne bottles popping, and the shouts. I know he says we weren’t fully convinced until later, but we were definitely convinced enough to party. It was the day after that I flew over to Puerto Rico, where we relived the celebration over again.

“I think we lost a good 2 hours of brain power the next day due to hangovers.”

Prof Bridges was called upon for a brief presentation at the conference in New York, and to help with the questions.

“Some of the questions we had, from members of the more sensationalist press, were just ludicrous: ‘What is the message?’, ‘What do they look like?’, ‘Are they peaceable?’, ‘what shall be our reply?’. No matter how many times we tried to tell them that our deciphering of the signal was substantially incomplete (not even started, to be honest) they still kept firing them at us.

“I remember thinking, ‘Doesn’t anybody speak English anymore?’. How can we answer these questions when we’ve only just confirmed the signal? These answers would take ages to formulate, assuming we even could.”

The Parkes observatory team didn’t let the mountain of work ahead of them daunt them though. They were riding on the crest of a wave, charting unexplored territory in astronomy.

I ask him, then, about the effect the Hat Creek incident had on him and his team.

“Bloody idiots! What’s the sense in trying to put back Man’s advancement in knowledge and reasoning? Where’s the sense in the bloody slaughter? I’m glad we don’t have such a high case of that type of whack job in Australia.

“The whole of the SETI community held a minute’s silence for the 2 researchers the next day. Bloody sad business, if you ask me. But for every person who stood against progress, many millions stood for it. That kept the community strong. The sense that we had a morale mandate. We were always receiving emails praising the work we were doing. It actually got a bit out of hand, and we were glad of Dr Shostak’s website idea, because the emails would just back up the system otherwise.

“But seriously, the people and their support were just fantastic. I felt like a movie star.”

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Jack Flacco

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