by Andrew Fraknoi
Trans-World Science Foundation Director Hayashi Itokawa was known for getting down to business. “Dr. Kaufmann,” he asked as soon as his guest had sat down, “How sure is your team that you have interpreted the message correctly?”
Bill Kaufmann tried to compose himself and not start with the first sarcastic response that came to mind. As if his team had not spent hours going through all the ways they might have gone wrong before ever putting together that damn report!
What he replied was, “Well, as you can imagine, the team was asking itself that question regularly. As we explain in our report, we had the best civilian and military code-breakers form three teams and work separately. All came up with essentially the same interpretation. The damn aliens made it easier by using many of the characteristics of the old message from Earth that they picked up.”
Thinking this was still a bit strong, he added, “Director, I know this message is not what anyone was waiting or hoping for. We have struggled with other possibilities, including the suggestion by Dr. Kavanaugh that it’s a practical joke or initiation prank played by an older civilization on a naïve younger one. With this in mind, we have been waiting to see if the message changes to some other contents. But this is all they keep sending, month after month.”
He paused, but decided to say a bit more, “Still, the message is of enormous scientific value. Provided it’s on the level, it not only tells us we are not alone in the Galaxy, but helps us calibrate the frequency of intelligent life for the first time. And it strongly implies that technological life is more common that even the most optimistic interpreters of the Drake Equation ever thought.”
Itokawa did not look the least mollified. “Yes, but to send such a reply. Did they not realize its effect on the morale of the recipients?”
Kaufmann knew what he meant. His assistant had spent many hours online and considerable sums buying sweet snacks at the Farside Bakery. Anything to cheer up his team as the analysis continued. “Director, the team’s best answer to that is to point to all the species of life we have allowed to go extinct on Earth. Sometimes, in our rush toward progress, it’s easy to forget where we came from.”
“But those were animals or plants. Here we are talking about species that have constructed advanced radio telescopes and built up an understanding of astronomy. Don’t these creatures have a feeling for the harm such a message can do?”
Kaufmann’s team had debated that question from many angles. The easiest answer was to point to analogous human behavior, of course, but everyone had assumed that interspecies behavior would be guided by the better angels of everyone’s nature.
“Director, I know what you mean. We all felt that way. But they may simply value truth more than the niceties of conversation.”
Itokawa looked at him for a while before speaking. With a flick, he brought up the message up on the tri-d platform next to his desk. “And what niceties of conversation do you suggest I use when I show this to the Director-General and the Council?”
Kaufmann knew Itokawa’s reputation well enough to realize that he was not just making a point about the situation they were in, but genuinely trying to find a way out of what would be a politically hazardous meeting for the Foundation. Trans-World Director-General Agrawal was actively trying to build a “good news administration” after all the years of bad news that the Earth and its colonies were just learning to reverse. The human species was only now emerging from decades that had demanded enormous societal and personal sacrifices.
“I wish I had an easy answer to that. I would stress the good news about our not being not alone… Even if our place in the scheme of things is perhaps not as we would want it to be.”
After a moment, he added, “And this discovery means the investment in the array of radio dishes on Farside has been justified.” As soon as he said it, he realized how petty and self-serving this sounded.
Itokawa sighed, and said, “Dr. Kaufmann, I know there is a long tradition that warns us not to blame the messenger for the message. It’s not your fault, or the team’s fault, that this is the first reply we got. Maybe we shouldn’t have sent messages a century ago to all those possibly habitable planetary systems. Still, you can’t blame me for wishing that this answer had come at a different time.”
“No sir, Kaufmann replied, “but there really never would have been a good time for this message, would there?”
Itokawa didn’t seem to have an answer for that, so he simply turned to the tri-D. Together they read again the first alien message humanity had ever received:
Best Translation of the Scorpius Message:
Dear Intelligent Beings:
We have received your transmission. Your message is important to us. Regrettably, your message has arrived at an unusually busy period. Many messages have reached us from the outer parts of the Galaxy at approximately the same time. We answer all messages in the order they are received, and will respond to yours as soon as our staff has the time. Currently, wait times for a response are approximately 500 orbital periods of your planet.
Andrew Fraknoi retired as Chair of the Astronomy Department at Foothill College near San Francisco in 2017, and now teaches short courses for retired people at the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco and the OLLI Program at San Francisco State University. He is the lead author of a free, open-source introductory astronomy textbook (published by the nonprofit OpenStax Project at Rice University) and has written two books for children and several activity manuals for teachers. He is on the Board of Trustees of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute and served for 14 years as the Executive Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The International Astronomical Union has named Asteroid 4859 Asteroid Fraknoi in recognition of his contributions to the public understanding of science. You can read more of his work and about his work at fraknoi.com.