If You Are Reading This

One of the most interesting experiences to come out of my trip to the States was that I was lucky enough to meet one of my idols since I was a very young child, an astronomer and science writer called Andrew Kowal. In 1983 Kowal wrote a science book entitled "Travellers in Time and Space" which took the reader on a hypothetical journey from Earth to the Moon, then the Sun and planets and on outwards to eventually reach the most distant quasars that were known at the time, before diving back in time to examine the Big Bang and the origins of the stars and galaxies. Essentially it was a guided tour of the entire known universe and while it was quite long and dense, it was written at a sufficiently simple level and with a nice readable font that I ended up reading the whole thing from cover to cover. I was very young at the time and I just devoured every word of it. I still remember almost all of it. I was at the age where everything I learned was being stored on the very lowest levels of my memory, where they were probably going to stay forever. It provided a starting point for almost everything that I've gone on to learn about modern space science and astronomy.

The book is out of print and way out of date and extremely difficult to get hold of now, but it was still a significant aspect of my childhood so I jumped at the chance to actually meet Kowal in person at the Rosino Observatory in Florida. Getting to the observatory involved landing in Gainesville and then driving for about two hours in a perfectly straight line across gorgeously sunny but befuddlingly repetitious pancake-flat grassland. I'm serious, at one point I stopped and checked my GPS because of deja vu, to make sure I hadn't blundered into some warp in spacetime which had unknowingly sent me back fifty miles. Until now I never knew that Scooby Doo trees were a real geographical feature.

Rosino the town is like fog; so spaced out that you barely notice you've entered it and then, after trying and failing to find something resembling a city centre, you can't help but think it must be made entirely of suburb. This is true of many towns in the States. I suppose it's just a country that there's more of. At first I approved of building cities on grid patterns because of how easy it makes it to find stuff, but now the lack of symphony and creativity drives me spare, as if every town was spat out by the same bored computer which nobody could find the enthusiasm to go back and program to be less predictable.

The observatory is a few miles out the other side of the town. It's not Arecibo or the VLA, one of those towering technological achievements which is miles in diameter and gets used in motion pictures to make astronomy look sexy (which it isn't, it's mainly difficult number crunching and extreme patience), it's just a reasonably large, 1.0m-aperture steerable Cassegrain reflector.

Jon Cutter is the reason why I managed to find Kowal again. He is someone whom I met way back when I first got onto the internet in the early 2000s, thanks to free school access. Jon used to run a videogame high score site on which we both used to compete, back in the days before games consoles had any sort of capacity to automatically (and verifiably) report their users' achievements to the rest of the world. The charts and forums were a hotbed of unreliable results (scraped and collated from player-hosted GeoCities pages), juvenile trolling and, in the absence of YouTube and widespread webcams and capture cards, Photoshopped photographic proof. I wound up pouring hundreds of hours of my life into that N64 and those rankings, as this also happened to be years before me getting a life.

I left when, for various reasons that I won't go into, things started to get really twisted and unhappy on the forums. It's a bad patch that they've pulled out of now but it was enough to make me leave semi-permanently. I go back to the old community now and then, and, while the participants are still all quite familiar names and the top scores have inched upwards and the total best times have ratcheted downwards, the level of proof isn't much higher and nobody involved seems to have mentally aged by more than a few months. Still, Jon was always the most likely one of us to grow into a responsible adult and here you go. We'd never met in reality on account of a little thing called the Atlantic Ocean but he'd happened to mention on AIM that he was working with Kowal and I was coming over to the US anyway so I thought I'd plot this detour. The boy is married now, and soon to be a father. That particular fad, a rising trend among my friends, frankly terrifies me. Anyway he's also now finished his doctorate and turned into a professional astronomer and evidently claimed his free beard and lurid wooly jumper.

I spent an hour or two being shown around the instruments and control panels for the telescope and I also got to climb up the gantry to the top of the thing and take a look down inside all the highly polished and ground optical geometry inside it. This was broad daylight so no observation was actually going on. Jon also took me up to the office and showed me some of the data he and the rest of the eight-man (zero-woman) staff had recorded over the last few years. 99% of astronomy, it seems, is geometry. Most of that is handled by powerful computers (and I did get a chance to look at their "server farm" which was actually just a few racks of processors mounted in a dangerously overheating cupboard which Wrightfield University (who owns the observatory) doesn't have the budget to air-condition). The remaining 1% is what occupies Jon's time and 99% of this, in turn, is recording gigs and gigs of very mundane observations, formatting and collating them and adding them to the gigantic and growing collection of raw data which forms the basic bedrock of modern astrophysics. Finding a new patch of sky to chart is not difficult at all because the sky itself is four pi steradians and a typical telescope can look at, let's say, a billionth of that at a time. (Also: I know what a steradian is now.) But actual envelope-pushing requires envelope-pushing technology, and a ground-based 1.0m Cassegrain reflector is not exactly envelope-pushing. Jon's thesis was on the fluid dynamic behaviour of planetary nebulae and he has some impressive false-colour time-lapse images as well as some engrossing computer simulations which I spent an embarrassing amount of time toying with and trying to break.

Jon put it like this: science is a tower which we are all trying to make taller. The lower levels are all filled in and sturdy, but the higher you go, the more gaps there are. The people right at the cutting edge looking for dark energy and Higgs bosons and symmetry violations are perched on the very top of the pile, hurling bricks into clear air to see what finds purchase. Meanwhile, Those Also Serve Who Stay Behind And Fill In The Gaps. They need filling. It is not unusual for scientists to uncover very interesting and hitherto-overlooked facts while filling in those seemingly trivial gaps. But it is much less unusual for the gap-fillers to just go entirely unsung even while superstar names go on to build amazing things on top of that laboriously collected data. It's just the way Science with a capital S goes. It's a thing you just have to adjust to. Or quit out of.

By this time I was growing restless and dusk was falling and I was idly wondering whether Andrew Kowal was likely to be turning up for a night's observations when Jon dropped the bombshell on me. Kowal actually hasn't been to work for a few months now, because he's in the hospital.

I'm used to the idea that my heroes and idols aren't immortal-- I was beating my Dad at Sonic The Hedgehog when I was eight, which is an experience I'm sure all of us have had, in some analogous form. It was the idea that I might have come such a long way and missed the guy entirely that frightened me the most. My first reaction was selfish, what does that say? I kind of hope that the fact that I thought long enough to have a second reaction - "Zarquon, cancer in America is the most expensive and unpleasant way I can think of to depart a notionally civilised country" - negates that. Jon told me he had anything from one to eight months left.

So I said can I come and visit him at the hospital?


I stuck around for half a shift at the observatory, spending most of the time re-reading the Night's Dawn Trilogy (it's exhaustingly grand in scope and if I have to read the words "neural nanonics" another time I may scream and throttle someone, otherwise fine) and not actually helping out much. Then Jon and I headed back to his house and ate some instant food ("food" is about as specific as Jon was prepared to get, it was orange and possibly edible, nothing else can be stated with certainty) and played Mario Kart 64, even though I loathe it with the heat of a thousand suns now, just for old times' sake, until around dawn. His wife was in bed when we got back and she'd gone out to work by the time I woke up so I managed to avoid actually meeting her. Jon had to work too (he's seen Kowal very recently anyway) so I got to the hospital in mid-afternoon, the middle of visiting hours.

In my head I'd built this picture of a lonely guy with not much other than a few fellow astronomers to keep him company - Kowal was never a Patrick Moore-level popular scientist - but it turned out the man was surrounded with family: wife, at least four grown-up kids, a few baby kids of theirs and even his own mum. Mom? I had to wade through gifts and balloons to reach the bed. His mom is incredibly ancient, minuscule and adorable. Before I could say anything she'd spotted that I'd brought along the book to be signed and introduced me to Kowal as a fan. I told him I found his family so loving as to be intimidating, and told him that getting four generations in one room was braggable.

Kowal was not in good shape. I don't know how much more descriptive I want to be. He seemed to be trapped at the core of this big cloud of cheer. I asked him about the work he'd done. He launched into great technical detail on subjects I didn't fully understand, but after a while the room was full of dense astrophysics jargon and the rest of the family - all either less scientific or clutching babies in need of attention - had quietly ducked out for coffee. And we got onto his life story. I don't know if that was a coded signal or a planned move or improvised or what, but five minutes of lens geometry and it was him, me and space, which was great.

The only way I can put this is that Kowal's life story isn't long enough. Even if largely unknown, the man has done tremendous work. He has actually been to the sexy arrays. He was partially involved in some fascinating, ridiculous thing in the 1980s at a radio telescope in Alaska where it turned out that one of the people working there was 1) a completely incompetent astronomer, 2) stealing data and 3) probably working for the CIA. This tale, I reckoned, had probably grown in the telling somewhat, but then I went and looked up a few of the old newspaper issues online and there are some pretty interesting police reports surrounding it. A little further Googling revealed that there are also some insane numerological ufologist types who think it was about aliens, but they're worth ignoring. It might be connected with Star Wars. It might be connected with Russia. It could be just some ridiculous misunderstanding. What matters is that the story is great and if you carry all the theories to their logical conclusion there's probably a great movie in it.

Kowal's other story is from a decade earlier and basically covers the reason why he left SETI. The thing is that late 1970s were the Bronze Age of computing. Stone knives and bearskins. (Well, bronze knives.) That era's supercomputer would probably fit in today's breast pocket. In fact, check your pocket now. That Android phone? Yeah. This was slightly before the point when computer time became less expensive than programmer time. It wasn't "bits and bytes entered manually using physical switches" but it wasn't far past "stacks of punch cards the size of dollar bills". It was monochrome dumb terminals and space-cadet keyboards and magnetic tape decks. It was still about the same amount of cash to buy.

This was Kowal's intro, not mine. His point was that a modern Android phone probably has a fast enough bus to write out to memory fast enough to record the whole thing, whereas 1978's magnetic tape decks couldn't. He and his colleagues (Geoff McCusker, who was pretty much Andrew Kowal to Kowal's Sam Hughes, and Matthijs van Artevelde, whose name's spelling I was careful to note down in full) sat there sharing one set of TDK headphones listening to the raw binary because there was no actual way to make sense of what was coming into the receiver that night.

I mean, to listen to a raw screech, you can tell it's binary. That's true regardless of the bitrate. I know that, so do you. The problem is that just because you can tell it's coherent binary doesn't mean you can pick out the ones and zeroes, which is what you need to actually decode it. So what Kowal and his colleagues actually picked up - and they did actually record the last few minutes of the thing, which wasn't actually repeating - actually actually - was put onto tape, except that the tape is useless. I mean, there isn't the raw granularity in the storage medium, nor is there the signal processing technology to restore that fine detail. It's like looking at a fractal through a pixellating filter.

Okay, bad example. All pixel representations of fractals hide detail. It's like looking at the Mona Lisa through a pixellating filter.

And I said "What?" and Kowal said eighty million, four hundred thousand (plus or minus two hundred thousand) years ago an intelligent species originating near a probable blue supergiant in NGC 3780 spent its expiring moments harnessing a substantial percentage of its parent star's power to broadcast an unknown message of indeterminate length to the entire listening universe and we missed every last bit of it.

Which, given the previous story, was some cracked pottery. This was beyond ufology, this was some certifiable Pierre de Fermat crap.

I said again, "What?"

Of course he couldn't prove it, he said. He could put the tape in my hands and let me play all fifteen minutes of it, he could walk me through the complete construction of the dish which received it and all of the measures that were in place to prevent stuff from being inserted into the feed and to ensure that signals recorded from outer space originated where they appeared to originate, and I still wouldn't believe him, he said. The fact that I hadn't been right there on that night, standing underneath the machine that made the recording, at the moment that the recording was made, with the intimate knowledge of the capabilities of that machine and intimate understanding of the the things which were, for the machine, impossible, means that there is no difference for me between the tape recording and one of modem static, he said.

So I smiled and thanked him for his time and thanked him for the autograph and checked my watch and managed to excuse myself without saying anything stupid like "Get well soon" or "See you around".



Of course I felt angry and embarrassed walking out of there. It's something I bet he tries - tried - on all his admirers. His whole family's probably in on it. They even sent me a tape in the post, having apparently got my address from Jon. I can't play the tape of course because it's the wrong shape and in any case who has a tape player in this decade? I never really figured out what the turnover point was when obsolete physical media suddenly becomes a valuable antique, but it's probably not for a while.

In case you've never read up on the history of supernova observation, supernova 1978H was, as a matter of public record, and by almost thirty years, the first supernova in history to be observed in its entirety, from start to finish. Its date (November 7, the day after Kowal's claim) and position in the sky (NGC 3780) are common knowledge.

McCusker died in 1989 and van Artevelde died in 2000. I haven't tracked Wild down yet, so I don't know whether he actually got lucky or what.

Forensic analysis is probably better now than it was thirty years ago. I sent the tape to some friends of mine at the University to see if they could do anything, or at least let me have a high-resolution rip.


I mean, supposedly, it was long, and it was non-repeating. Oh, and it was amplitude-modulated. That's all? Other than that, I can imagine people treating it as a piece of found art or found literature or found poetry and spending ridiculous amounts of paper just reading meaning into literal vacuum. My brother wanted to create some modern art and then put it under a hat, glued down. The hat isn't part of the art, the art is under the hat. This is basically the exact same thing. You know something is there, but you can't know what, you just have to speculate. My best suggestion was "another, smaller hat".

The thing is that all art is a product of its context and has to be evaluated in that context. That covers both social context and the literal container. It has to be this big. It has to be that heavy. It came in the form of a message and certain things are implicit in all messages, things like "I am here" and "I sent this" and "You are there" and "You are reading this".

Except that those are some pretty gigantic statements already.

And the other thing that I can't help thinking is that very few people have participated in serious attempts to make contact with other civilisations, and I've been part of subcultures before now.

And subcultures remember their own.

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Discussion (10)

2010-04-13 14:21:52 by bbot:


2010-04-13 19:17:21 by col:

I think it's a good story. That's probably enough.

2010-04-13 20:11:38 by Craig:

The worst of things, to the best of people. The story of Andrew Kowal's life is well-presented and respectful; even just reading I am sorry for the family's loss.

That said, I don't think Kowal himself, on some subconscious level, believes in his story in the entirety -- but stories are one of society's ways to express morals and opinions without seeming forced or faux-pas. There's quite a few such messages that come across in this story: that relegation to "We Were Here" status (also found, I think, in Last Ergs) due to total destruction; the (quite common) lament for the past and opportunities that slipped through one's fingers, especially near the end of one's life; the implication that humanity should, in the future, try to avoid this fate by remembering the past. Viewed like this, it doesn't matter whether the story is true or not, it matters only if you agree with the message you take from it.

I personally don't believe the claim is true (as if my, or anyone's opinion matters when it comes to factual accuracy) mostly because the whole "humanity lost the first contact from a dying alien civilization because X and Y happened" seems more like a cautionary tale than a historical event. There's a reason the rare does not happen every day while the mundane runs rampant, and it's the definitions of the words. If first contact were to happen some time before humanity (if it ever) learns how to travel or communicate efficiently in space, it would most likely happen in a (considering the subject matter, at least a little bit) mundane way -- again, the definitions of the words. This, combined with the general circumstances of his claim, result in my doubt.

Is it true? In the end, who cares? It's never going to become "the tale that everyone 'knows' is true", and the entire point of history is the same as a story: show people the mistakes others have made, and from the tale (historical or fictional) learn.

Of course, now you're going to prove me wrong by finding something coherent in the binary. If that's true, I'm betting on the message being: "Today, we begin the experiments on our sun, and though they could cause a supernova, we do sort of have all these anti-mass spectrometers lying around. Hope it goes well!"

Because that's as plausible as finding a message in the binary, I feel. And, hey -- you asked.

2010-04-14 08:32:54 by JMS:

That's a good story. Definitely one of those surreal, once in a lifetime events. I'm leaning towards some sort of terrestrial-radio communication interference, though the mind just races with the possibility of "What if?".

What type of tape is it? If you post a picture, one of your readers might be able to identify it. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if one of us had access to compatible hardware.

2010-04-14 08:56:58 by pozorvlak:

Very good piece. Especially nice to see you continuing some of the themes of your early e2 daylogs.

2010-04-16 14:28:24 by Dentin:

If you do manage to get a high resolution rip of it, please post. I do a small amount of DSP work in my off time...

2010-04-16 22:06:06 by skztr:

With such a huge amount of sky out there, and such a huge span of time, if ever there is a sign of intelligent life, it would be evidence of quadrillions of instances of life.

If you were going to send a message in such a huge void, it makes sense to do so at a time and place someone is likely to look. So it makes sense to put messages near events which are already noticeable, like supernovas. Of course, the downside is the obvious "once the supernova is noticed, there it probably less time than one would like to get a message out". So it all seems relatively plausible. If anything similar could ever be proven, I assume events would play out somewhat as they do in "retrospective", with one exception: We'd know what to look for, and so "signs of intelligent life" would become yet another thing to star cataloguing, just as the cataloguing of extra-solar planets has become pretty-much routine so soon after the first ones were detected.

Eventually, not from the first message, but from the thousandth message, or the millionth message, meaning is found in the noise, and some semi-universal rules about how to encode meaning is derived. Several of the previously-known messages are found to contain the same sort of structure, and for those fractions of percents of messages for which we can derive meaning out of those fractions of percents of messages which we can detect out of those fractions of percents of civilisations which can send messages out of those fractions of percents of civilizations which bother to send messages: we become part of the greater system. A real-life, galactic or intergalactic civilisation.
Sure, it's only one-way communication into the future, but how would that really lessen the significance? Each civilisation in the chain sticks its own message onto the front of a very slowly growing, often breaking, chain of messages. It's the closest thing to immortality which is likely possible, and personally, I think it's rather awesome.

So why not? What about it all is /really/ that implausible? Only the whole of it, of course, but when we're talking about the vastness of space, isn't implausible pretty much a guarantee that it's going to happen?

bonus points if the tape is a wildly obscure introduction to an ARG which precludes Halo WhateverNumberThey'reUpTo

2010-04-20 04:59:30 by DasSmiter:

I don't know that it really matters whether or not the story is true, unless that message is "Here's how we escaped the supernova." I'd like to believe that it's not something he just tries to pull on all his fans, but who can say.

2010-04-28 08:19:00 by Mardonius:

A fascinating story. I'm not sure I buy the whole alien thing, but the tape is at least worth having a look at. The 1978 supernova was a strange one, if the reports are right.

This may be at a slight tangent to the main thrust of the conversation, but there was another supernova detected in NGC3780 in 1992. It's doubtful any similar recording was made, and multiple supernovas in a single galaxy are pretty normal, but if a type 3 kardeshev civilisation is blowing up stars in order to send email to us, we might want to take a look.

2010-05-29 15:45:39 by jemand:

couldn't we pick up some echoes of this signal off of gas clouds on the other side of the supernova and get another crack at whether or not this is a binary encoded signal? Which is increasing faster, anyway, our technology or signal attenuation from bouncing off farther and farther gas clouds?