Beacon of Centauri
What follows are excerpts from a first draft of a novel I was writing, on the idea of an extraterrestrial signal being discovered.
I have begun to re-imagine the book, but I’ve decided to place up these excerpts, because they were fun to write. I hope they are just as fun to read.
Author’s note regarding abbreviations:
SETI – (the) Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
ETI – Extraterrestrial Intelligence
PART 1: DISCOVERY
I meet Dr Joseph Lesley at the Arecibo Radio Observatory, in Puerto Rico. After a brief look around the visitor’s centre (which has a very large display of the original signal signature in the foyer, which looks like a strange 3D multicoloured graph) he takes me on a short tour of the complex, explaining quite technically what goes on here. He explains some of the semantics of the graph, which comprises of three axes: Time, Power and Frequency. It mostly looks a mess, apart from just to the left of the centre, in which rises a strong uniform column. A clear indication of an intelligent signal, I am told. I’m very much lost in the physics and technological jargon, but I try my best to smile and nod in the right places. Truth be known, I’m a bit awe struck. I feel like a child who’s met Columbus after his return from the Americas.
We’re stood on the walkway overlooking the giant 1000 ft dish.
I think he realizes he’s going a bit over my head, and decides to settle down to the story I’m truly here for.
“I know the first question on every one’s lips,” he says, looking as if he can read my mind. “If it was from that close to us all along, why didn’t we notice it sooner? Well, there are a lot of reasons.
“Firstly, one of the major myths of SETI is that it is an organization. NASA did set up the SETI project many years ago, but that project was disbanded. Since then the SETI institute has been a privately funded affair, with donors such as microsoft’s Paul Allen. However, SETI is just an umbrella term for a project being undertaken by many different organizations. There is no real centralization. Certainly, the SETI Institute is seen as a galvanizing force, and central point, because of the funding we have, but we are by no means a true headquarters of an organization calling itself SETI. This means that there is a lot of talk going on between the various factors, which can make any signal’s confirmation quite lengthy.
“Secondly, we just didn’t have the means. The SETI projects have long been looking for a signal in the microwave frequency band, one that would not be confused with any other natural ‘background noise’. We didn’t have the means to accurately discern any normal communications transmissions – things like TV broadcasts – from anything else out there. We assumed though, and still assume to some degree that someone out there would use this narrow band signal. Part of this is because we believed – and again still believe – that there may be some form of life sending signals out to the universe about their existence, and this method makes most sense. But they weren’t sending that signal out. It was only recent technological breakthroughs that allowed us to truly ‘eavesdrop’ on ETI. Their ‘near closed’ communication paths – an increasing trend that we see in our own communications network – would have been impossible to listen to just 30 years ago.
“Thirdly, and tied in with this is an exposure of the myth of SETI – that myth being that we’re just a bunch of UFOlogists spending all our time looking for little green men. In fact, most of our time is spent listening to noises that aren’t from ETI, but are just natural phenomena, and cataloguing them. We also look at people’s submissions of possible signals, and ritually debunk them – not maliciously, just because it’s not ETI (sometimes it still turns out to be something amazing though, or at least something that enables us to recalibrate our ideas for future searches – such as what happened at Greenbank). SETI does as much to point out that there isn’t Alien life out there as it does to find it, much to our dismay. We are scientists, and as such we don’t jump on the first ‘Wow’ signal and start proclaiming we’ve found ETI. Each one has to be investigated and either verified or, in 99.9% of cases falsified. In this process we do a lot of other astronomy, finding new objects in the cosmos. We even do a lot of work finding extra solar planets.
“That’s what took us so long to find a signal. We didn’t have the means to discern it, and so any noise we got from that part of the cosmos we couldn’t feasibly say was ETI. Even when we detected the first evidence of an extra solar planet out there, we weren’t able to tell if we were hearing anything from ETI. Finding a planet is much easier than finding any signs of intelligent life, though we’re getting better.”
“Our main problems were with the Software and Hardware. Technology certainly has come a long way since we started this project. Once we had the means we were away. Not over night, you understand. It was a while before we looked back over the Centauri system. Even then, we weren’t as advanced as we are now – the signal was still faint, but we could discern it.
“When SETI first started we couldn’t tell ETI from much else around us. Now, given time to decode the signal, we could watch their TV.”
We certainly have come a long way. It is a very sobering thought, given past events. Our technological evolution has been bitter sweet in our very recent history. Many of us wonder if fate played us a cruel hand. Dr Lesley, though, is optimistic of the future – even if a little somber at the immediate loss. “Lessons have been learnt, and we have to move on with them,” he tells me. He espouses the notion that all here is not lost. He may be right, but only time will tell.
As we stand there, we begin reminiscing about the start. I’m forced to ask why it took so long to become public knowledge.
“Well, I wouldn’t say we took very long. We first got the signal on June 5th. There were strict procedures to go through before going anywhere near the public domain with it. Like I say, we spend most of our time ascertaining that possible signals aren’t actually from ETI. Take the 1997 Greenbank signal. We tracked that for about 24 hours before we realized it was just the SOHO satellite. The signal doesn’t come through and switch on a big light in the room labeled “ETI Calling”. If anything, there’s a lot of little lights that gradually get turned on, from “it’s probably just a quasar”, through “it looks slightly less natural”, up to “we’re about as certain as we can be that this is it” – and then we start trying to decode it. Even then, we still have to be ready for an elaborate hoax, or something else outside our present reference.
“Remember the first planet hunters? The Swiss team took forever to disclose their findings. For one thing, there had been so many false starts, they didn’t want to jump the gun. Also, they didn’t want anybody else to get there first if they gave away too much. Mind you, the latter wasn’t something we could afford to worry about, but the former was very much on our mind through almost the whole discovery process.
“In fact, this thing hit the public domain long before we were even confident.”
He’s right, within 48 hours of the discovery, tentative reports were leaking into the media about evidence of Alien life. Even the world’s broadsheets were publishing small articles in their science supplements about the discovery and its possible causes. In fact, it was the journalistic realm of gutter press – the kind that headlines “My Hubby’s an Alien” every week – that actually had its heyday in being right for once. Though only because they’d always jump the gun on these issues.
“Seth Shostak wrote a paper on this back in 2000. It was about the fact that within 24 hours of the Greenbank signal, the New York Times called him up about it. The problem has always been that the press will find out. He proposed a system, using an Immediate Reaction Plan (IRP) to control the flow of information surrounding any discovery. You’ll recall the SETI website everyone was watching when the discovery was made? That was his brain child. A simple way to try and manage what information we had and put it in the public arena. That was just for the public and press, and for sharing info between projects, not censorship.
“The problem with keeping it secret is that we need to verify the signal. Unlike the planet hunters, in order to do that as fast as we can (which we need to do), we pass anything that gets through our first checks around to other observatories that can scan the same patch of sky. They do their tests, which help make sure it isn’t something natural, or a hoax, and the project becomes global.
“Of course, involved in this process are a number of amateur star gazers and groups around the world – whose input is invaluable in confirming the results.
“Then there’s all the other bodies of people we had to contact when we could verify it- The UN, The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), The international academy of astronautics (IAA), the international institute of space law (IISL), the international council of scientific unions (ICSU)- the list is seemingly endless. Even with the best will in the world, it was always going to leak out that we thought we’d got something before we were ready to go public with any announcement.”
It wasn’t until mid July that the SETI community first reported to the world, as one, that they had found what they’d been searching for nearly a century. A real signal from Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
“To be honest, there were people in the program still unsure about going public then,” Dr Lesley tells me with a faint smile. “In some way we were pushed into confronting the issue. Public speculation was growing every day. People wanted to know what was going on. We left it as long as possible before we thought we were ready – many of us afraid that somebody might stand up and say ‘actually it was just me and my friends’. I was mostly certain, though.
“When you look at the work that went into making sure this was bone fide, we didn’t actually take very long to make it known to everyone.”
On July 11th, Dr Joseph Lesley stood in front of the world’s assorted press agencies at the UN in New York (joined by Prof Charles Bridges of the Parkes Telescope Observatory in Australia, who had flown in to San Francisco just 2 days before), and prepared to become the first man to tell humanity that it was not alone in the universe, and have hard proof to back him up.
“Well, it was a little nerve racking. I mean, I doubt there’s anyone in the program who never practiced their speech for the day they finally say to the world ‘I’ve found ET!’ like everyone in the film industry practices their Oscar speech – ‘I’d like to thank my family, my friends, my director, and Zargon from the planet Krung’ – but you can’t actually ready yourself for it. It also didn’t help that my plane had literally just landed a few hours ago, and I barely had time to get freshened up. I looked hideous – probably stank, too.
“In the end, all I could do was walk out after the Secretary General and show the befuddled media a load of slides of the signal, and all of the technical crap that went into getting to this point. I think they all expected something showier. They probably wanted some speech on the significance of this finding, it’s ramifications to human existence, a rundown of Alien lifestyles – maybe some TV shows. I couldn’t give them any of that. I wasn’t geared up for it (well not just yet for the TV shows). All I could do was present our simple findings, explain the technical jargon, and then stumble through the questions – thankfully with Charles’ help. Not the most evocative speech for one of the most poignant discoveries ever made.”
Again, Dr Lesley is right. He was no Churchill or Lincoln. He had none of the sound bite of Armstrong’s “Small step for man…” or even an Archimedes “Eureka”. His was a science lesson, given to a worldwide classroom, whose understanding of science paled in comparison. It was like having Einstein explain Relativity to a group of 9 year olds. The specialised journalists were mostly left to themselves to try and explain the process to those willing to try and get their head around it. But the message itself was clear. Intelligence was no longer unique to humanity.
I should point out that Joseph’s nerves got the better of him here, as well as having so much work still to do. Speaking to him now, he seems very removed from the man we all saw that day – More comfortable with this interview, and able to speak in a language I can understand.
“If I could go back and do it again, I’d probably have written a speech about how historic an occasion it is, how mankind will never be the same, and of the vast opportunities open to us – even about our privileged place in time. If anyone really remembers more than the first few sentences I actually said, I’d be amazed.”