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A SHORT MESSAGE FROM SPACE, OR WHY I CAN NO LONGER VISIT THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
The equipment on the SETI Institute started beeping at 2.47pm on an otherwise calm Saturday afternoon. By the time the beeping stopped, at 2.50pm, the whole station was euphoric, listening attentively to the beeps as if their entire lives had been lived for those brief minutes. By 3.30pm the parking lot outside the Institute was full of media vehicles, parked wherever they could, and reporters waiting to hear from the scientists inside. News had already spread around the globe, and people sat attentively in front of their computers, from bright office spaces in California to dimly lit rooms in Japan. The message was replayed inside the station multiple times, initially to verify whether or not it could have come from an alien source. By this point, however, there was no doubt about it. It was a binary message and it had come from space. The contents still had to be deciphered, but there could be no doubt it was artificially created. The scientists inside the institute seemed all to be in a trance, hearing the beeps over and over again. Never before have any of them been so euphoric. The confirmation came at 3.54pm, announced by the head of the Institute in front of a huge crowd gathered outside: “The SETI Institute has received a broadcast of extraterrestrial origin. It is too early to say what the message relays, but there is at this point no doubt that it was conceived and sent by advanced life forms from another galaxy.”
Speculation about the contents of the message started almost instantly. Doomsayers across the globe were waiting for a declaration of war, a prospect of enslavement for the human race, and insisted people repented and that governments started preparing themselves for the worst. Some were more optimistic, hoping for a benign message, a possible exchange of knowledge, even explanations for our own existence. Somewhat surprisingly, another good chunk of the Internet became convinced the message said something about a space highway being built through Earth. Nowhere did speculation run wilder, however, then within SETI itself. Betting pools sprang before the message had beeped for even one minute. By the time the bets closed at the end of the day, about 35% of each person monthly’s salary had been gambled. Bets on “Hello, World!” were leading, with “Death Threats” coming a close second. The day had been one of festivities for the scientists, but they all knew that even the most pressing matters would have to be put on hold. Translation of the message was to start as soon as possible and to take precedence over any other activities, except further monitoring for newer messages coming from that direction.
The translation of the message took over two years to complete. No other message arrived. By the time the work was done the media had already relegated the SETI message to the back burner, preferring to focus on the myriad of disasters, deaths, celebrity marriages and divorces happening almost daily.
After almost two years, the work of decoding the message was complete. The betting pool went unclaimed. Nobody guessed what the message contained. In fact, nobody came even close. The announcement made was very short: “The message has been made Classified Information and will not be published.” All personnel were sworn to secrecy. That was the last anybody heard about the message for eight years.
I took another drag of my cigarette while my friend finished his beer. “I thought it was a State secret”, I told him.
“Well, you asked about it. I’ve been longing to tell someone for years now, it might as well be you.” He looked at me, and then turned annoyed at a girl sitting next to us, who spilled her drink on him and issued a barely audible apology. I smiled. A busy bar on Williamsburg is not the kind of place where you expect secrets to be discussed like that, but it’s actually fairly safe. Anybody who overhears anything will either forget it or think it was just drunk talk.
My friend who was now cleaning a White Russian off his shirt had been head of department at the SETI Institute when one of the biggest stories of this century broke out. A message from another civilization had been intercepted, but as soon as it was decoded it was made Classified Information. Of course, the mainstream media wasn’t allowed to make further inquires on the matter after it was marked a State Secret, but the move only made everybody else more curious, although our resources were very limited. Nobody knew for sure how many people, besides those on high levels in the government, knew the contents of the message. There were at the time seven top-level scientists at the organization, but some estimate the number of people in the know to be a few dozen. Either way, the people who knew something didn’t talk, and the people who knew nothing didn’t shut up. The consensus among the “freelance investigative journalist” crowd is that the message warned the planet about an imminent invasion and the government wanted to avoid panic while preparing in silence for war. This guess was as good as any. Except, of course, for anything my now drunk friend felt like telling me. He ordered another beer and began talking.
“Nobody was more surprised than we were when the message arrived. SETI had been an expensive project with little prospects of succeeding, but we knew that if we ever received something it would make up for anything. Now the moment had finally arrived and nobody knew what to do with themselves anymore. Our equipment beeped for a bit less than three minutes, but those could well have been the three most important minutes in the history of mankind. It was a time of great excitement for us.” He sighed, “I wish we could return to those days.”
I had known him for a long time. He had been my roommate at university, and even back then we knew he was the smarter of the two. We eventually grew separated by age and distance, him working in California while I stayed in New York City. I re-ignited contact when I found out he was working on the message. He had been very friendly and helpful at first, but our relationship turned cold about a year after translation had started. He completely ignored me, and everybody else, from what I’ve heard, three months before the matter was classified. I was very glad to be hearing this story now – most people feared the knowledge would be lost after the news came that five of the seven top scientists had died, four of them having committed suicide. My friend held on strong, although talking about this now clearly bothered him.
“The newspaper complained that translation took a long time, but it was actually faster than we thought it would be,” he continued. “Of course the media didn’t have patience to stick around for that long while keeping enthusiasm high among the population. Eventually they moved on, and it was for the best, because otherwise they would never leave us alone, which is something the government wanted to avoid at all costs when the results were made secret.
“Anyway, the message itself was comprised mostly of pictures, organized in a rectangular fashion. It took us a while to put everything right, but it was obvious we had arrived at the right message at the end, since the pictures were very clear. The message being pictorial indicated that it was indeed probably meant for outsiders. Obviously, we wouldn’t be able to understand an alien alphabet or language, so they sent drawings from which we could logically deduce meaning. Most of them were fairly straightforward. The first line contained numbers in binary, one to twelve. The second line had numbers as well: 1, 6, 7, 8 and 15. These aren’t random numbers,” my face probably betrayed my confusion at the time, “they are the atomic numbers for the elements that make up our DNA: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus.”
“Shit.” I didn’t have much to say to that. I was too ashamed to tell him I thought those were the numbers from Lost.
“That wasn’t all. The next line contained groups of numbers, which we realized were the formulas for the sugars and bases that make up the nucleotides of DNA. The next image was a double helix, the unmistakable representation of a DNA. You can imagine how surprised we were when we realized what we were looking at, but it was the next image that sent a chill down our spines.
“Right below the double helix stood a figure very similar to a human. Exactly like one, actually, although it wasn’t detailed enough for us to say with certainty that it was meant to stand for one of us. But it contained all the right ingredients: one head, one torso, two arms, two legs, and two feet. Even the proportions were exactly right, too. Next to it was a very large number, which decoded to a few billion. There were more images below that we didn’t understand at the time.”
“Wait, wait, a human? Do they know we are here?”
“Very unlikely. This message was sent long before humans had made anything that a planet that far away would understand as a sign of intelligence.”
“In that case I don’t see why this message needed to be made secret. Then again, I don’t think I really get what the message meant.”
“Neither did we at the time. As I said, it was almost impossible that the message had been decoded wrongly – it looked perfectly right. A few people tried to re-arrange it some other way, but most of us were looking for meaning behind all this. Could they have predicted the rise of humans and wanted to tell us – or somebody else – about it? Everything we had managed to understand from the message so far seemed to point at this explanation, but somehow it didn’t feel right. Why would they put so much trouble into sending this message just to tell us that they knew we were here? It could seem like nitpicking now, but something definitely felt off about this explanation. What about the last lines? They had to be there for a reason, we needed to be able to explain them.
“Funnily enough, in spite of the brilliant minds we had working on the message, the answer came to us by accident, when one of our scientists doing some research of his own on intergalactic messages. It turned out we were looking at the whole thing from the wrong perspective. We shouldn’t be looking for an explanation from the stars, but rather within our own story.”
He paused for a bit. His excitement was growing and he was breathing heavily now. He drank a bit of his beer and looked at my cigarette with a curious face. I hadn’t moved at all since he started telling the story, and was now holding a cigarette filter with cigarette-shaped ashes. I shook them off and sat up straight, getting closer to him. I wouldn’t dare miss anything, as I was sure he wouldn’t tell this story again. He continued:
“Do you know the Arecibo message? It was a message we sent in 1974 from a radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The telescope had just been remodeled and a few scientists decided to send a message to space to celebrate. It was aimed at the star cluster M13 because this cluster happened to be close to us and within range of the telescope at the time. The message was composed in a way to showcase scientific achievements of the human race, such as physics, chemistry and biology. As it happens, the most significant discovery in these fields, at the time, was the existence and composition of DNA. The message we sent was very similarly to the one we received, except that we only sent the numbers from 1 to 10, and a few of the other numbers, as well as the last image, were also different. But suddenly the whole message made sense. The large number next to the human figure could be their planet’s population at the time the message was sent. The figure itself probably wasn’t meant to represent humans, but rather their own species, which just happened to look like us.
“The last lines, the ones we couldn’t decipher before, also made sense when compared to our own Arecibo message. The first line contained multiple dots organized in a weird pattern. Well, when we sent our own message, it was supposed to represent a map of the solar system, showing each planet’s relative size. It also highlighted the third planet, the planet where the message came from, our Earth. In their case, the proportions for the planets were different, and it was the fourth planet that was pinpointed, but it could certainly be indicating which planet it came from. You can imagine how much we celebrated when we realized what this meant. We knew where the signal had come from, but pinpointing an exact planet would be close to impossible. This map would give us exactly the planet we were looking for, which meant we were close to finding another advanced life form in the universe. The last lines showed a picture of the telescope the message was sent from, but at this point everybody’s attention was focused on finding the planet.
“The planet, as it turned out, wasn’t completely new to us. It had been found to be ‘potentially habitable’ a few years before. Of course, we had already found over 80 potentially habitable planets at that point, so the place wasn’t particularly remarkable. Not until we received evidence that it contained advanced life, at least. We turned all our most advanced equipment towards the small planet. They had sent the message over 50,000 years ago. Radio waves travel at the speed of light in a vacuum, but are slowed down somewhat when passing through physical objects. This means that when we looked at their planet we got a glimpse of the situation there about 10,000 years after they had sent the message.”
He stopped talking and his face had grown dark. My heart was racing. I took a deep breath and asked him: “And…?”
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“I mean there was nothing to see there. The planet looked completely ordinary, with no structures that could be visible from space, no artificial satellites, nothing.”
“I don’t see what makes you so afraid of this message, then. I thought maybe they said they were coming for us or…”
“What the message implied was very clear to all of us in the lab at that moment. The fact was that a planet that now contained nothing but rubble had once been at least as advanced as our own. The people from that planet, when reaching a similar level of development as us, sent a message similar to one we had sent ourselves. The first thing we all thought, before we even took a look at their planet, is that the message implied our own existence to be pre-determined. It implied that things happen following a logical pattern that we can’t escape from.
“Science, after all, is pretty logical. It follows that scientific discoveries would also seem logical for similarly advanced species in other planets. The aliens seemed to have applied the same strategy we did when sending the message – just shoot it in one direction and hope someone receives it. Only now we think nobody was really supposed to receive these messages, because what they reveal, while very small, is a bit too catastrophic.
“I mean, if the Arecibo Message is pre-determined, and it sure seems like it, why wouldn’t other moments of human development be “hard-coded” as well? Maybe all advanced species start exploring the space at around the same time that the DNA is discovered and then send the Arecibo message, which seemed logical at the time given the circumstances? I mean, you want to send a message to other planets, so you send something to show them you’re also an intelligent species. But if all civilizations send this message after discovering the DNA, wouldn’t they all think of sending a similar message? Mind you, their message wasn’t just similar; it was pretty much identic to our own.
“Of course, maybe not all of our actions are decided beforehand, maybe we do get to choose what we have for dinner and where to spend our vacations. But even if that’s the case, what we as a species do hardly seem to matter. Why should we bother with our own existence, why would we bother with work, with advancing technology, with having kids? Especially since, you know, our days are counted, and 10,000 years from now everything we built will have disappeared.
“Even if what I just told you is wrong, even if the message doesn’t imply that our existence is pre-determined, the fact still remains that a civilization that thought like us and reached the same point of technological advancement as we did was completely annihilated, leaving behind no greater works than, say, our own Ozymandias. Hell, they even looked like us! And whatever it is that ended them, could very well do the same to us. Humankind moves forward out of a belief that we are going to last. That people are going to benefit from our research, that our science isn’t going away, that our names will mean something even after we die. The blow of seeing into a possible future like that could be too much. At least that’s what we thought, and the government seems to agree with us.”
He looked down at his drink and fell silent. It was the first time he was talking about this to anybody, and it was obvious that it didn’t come easy to him.
“Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe you got the wrong planet?” I said, trying to comfort him somehow. He didn’t look up at me. “Yes, maybe”, he replied, his face containing the same expression as before. He had certainly thought the same thing before, as well as many other possibilities, for the past 8 years. None of those alternatives seemed to have convinced him, and I sure as hell wouldn’t think of something that he couldn’t have come up with.
I understood we had to steer the conversation somewhere else. Even thinking about this seemed to cause him discomfort, and I guessed he had put in constant effort over the last eight years not to think about this. We changed the topic to lighter themes, such as his recent promotion, my marriage, and his kids’ college education. Throughout the whole conversation he seemed to be far away, although he no longer had the same dark expression as before.
On my way home I thought about telling the world about our conversation. I wouldn’t name him, of course, but I felt people deserved to know. I could already picture the headlines, groundbreaking news right here folks. I could picture all the newspaper interviews and my image plastered everywhere. I could picture the history books mentioning my name alongside his, if he so wished. Hell, I could even picture…
No, no, I couldn’t picture anything else. Not anymore.
From where I was standing I could see the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. I suddenly felt very cold, although it wasn’t yet November. I got into a taxi and gave the driver my address.
My Work Experience