This is an older version of this story, from 2010. Here's the latest version, from 2022.
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, the astronomer and science writer Andrew Kowal. In 1990 Kowal wrote a popular science book Travellers in Time and Space, which took the reader on a hypothetical journey from Earth to the Moon and Sun, then the planets and on outwards to stars, galaxies and distant quasars, before diving back in time to examine the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. 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 had enough interesting pictures 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 those lowest levels of memory, where they're probably going to stay forever. That book 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The book is out of print and way out of date and extremely difficult to get hold of now, but it was still a significant aspect of my childhood so I jumped at the opportunity to actually meet Kowal in person at the Rosino Observatory in Florida.
Trevor Cutter is the main reason why I managed to find Kowal again. I met Trev back in the 2000s, when I first got internet access through school. Trev — going by "JCast" or "JCast391" — used to run a JSR0 high score site on which we both used to compete. The game JSR0 came out back in the days before most games consoles had any sort of capability to automatically (and verifiably) report their users' achievements to the rest of the world, so our high score charts consisted mostly of extremely low-quality video "evidence", doctored photographs, and times simply claimed without proof. And the forum behind the charts, which Trev ran, was a hotbed of juvenile trolling and idiocy. A percentage of that was me. I was a teenager. We all were.
It was a vaguely bad little community, but it had its high points. Some of the videos were legit. Collectively, we got pretty good at that one game, and of course this produced memorable moments. Epic records dethroned, absurd new glitch discoveries, titles exchanged, one-in-ten-thousand lucky runs. Every now and then skill and perseverance and improbability would combine and someone would produce some impossible number, a number with absolutely no significance at all outside of that one phpBB subforum.
I can't explain to you how big a deal 1:09.97 was. You don't know the context, you don't know that level. Not my time, I hasten to add. In an insane, almost mythological move, and for reasons we never found out, Cython never posted again after posting that time. It was, in one way or another, career-ending. I think my personal best on that level is still 1 minute 20-something.
That was a long time ago and the boards are a kind of ghost town now. Most of us have graduated. To other games, other interests, other parts of the Web. Graduated literally, in a lot of cases.
Anyway, a few of those friendships persisted and Trev was always one of the most likely ones of us to grow into a responsible adult and here you go. He finished his doctorate, and he is now a professional astronomer. We'd never met in reality on account of a little thing called the Atlantic Ocean but he 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.
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 déjà 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. I failed to find anything resembling a centre. I couldn't help but think it must be made entirely of suburb.
The observatory is a dozen 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.
It was good to meet Trev. He was much shorter than I had pictured, and it was strange to call him "Trev" to his face and not "JCast". We were able to pick up our conversation almost from the exact word where it left off on AIM. Apparently the astronomer career track includes a free beard and lurid wooly jumper. The guy is married now, and soon to be a father. Tremendous and startling developments.
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 taking place. Trev also took me up to the office and showed me some of the data he and the rest of the eight-person staff had recorded over the past few years. According to Trev, 99% of astronomy 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 overheated cupboard which Wrightfield University (who owns the observatory) doesn't have the budget to air-condition). The remaining 1% is what occupies Trev'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 4π 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. Trev'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.
Trev 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 night was falling and I was idly wondering whether Andrew Kowal was likely to be turning up for a night's observations when Trev dropped the bombshell on me. Kowal was out on long-term medical leave, and was very unlikely to ever come back to work. He was, I learned, at his home. He was upright and taking visitors, and it was fine for me to go, apparently, but he was not well, and not going to get well.
This shook me. Kowal wasn't old. In my perception, up until that point, he had been an ageless icon, the author picture from the book, but that was just because I hadn't thought about him properly as a person. But even in absolute terms, he wasn't old. He was not, in my opinion, of an age where he'd had a fair run of it. It shook me and saddened me. More selfishly, I found that it shook me that I could have missed him. I didn't know what to do with that other reaction.
At Trev's house I met his wife, Violet, who is lovely and very hospitable and as I write this is exactly due. We ate some food and yakked about the debatably good old days on the boards and our various life stories since then. After the dishes were done we descended into Trev's basement and carried out the obvious ritual of booting up his old console and playing some JSR0 for old times' sake. Both of us were rusty. Running that one level again after years, 1:09.97 seemed as astonishing and unobtainable as it ever had, if not more so. To this day, no one has approached the time. The game itself is a relic now so there's an excellent chance that the time will never be beaten. Trev's opinion is that Cython was hit by a bus the day after posting the video. I don't know what my opinion is but it's definitely something other than that.
The next day I went to meet Kowal.
His home was a lot busier than I was expecting. The man was surrounded with family: his wife, at least four grown-up kids, a few baby kids of theirs and even his own mother. His mom is incredibly ancient, minuscule and adorable. Before I could introduce myself or explain 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 needed the support he was receiving from his family but it didn't seem as if he wanted to need it. 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 to the kitchen for coffee. And we got onto his life story. I don't know if there had been some coded signal or it was a planned move or improvised or what, but five minutes of lens geometry and it was him, me and space, which was fantastic.
The only way I can put this is that Kowal's life story wasn't long enough. Even if largely unknown, the man has done tremendous work. He has actually been to the exotic 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 since then I've gone and looked up a few of the old newspaper issues online and there are some pretty interesting police reports surrounding it. A little further internet searching 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 the Soviets. 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. I'll write that up separately sometime, if I can get around to it.
Kowal's other story was from a decade earlier and supposedly covered the reason why he left SETI. The thing is that the late 1970s were the Bronze Age of computing. Stone knives and bearskins. (Well, bronze knives.) That era's supercomputer would 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.
That 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 me, 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. The tech that could have was years in the future.
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 succeed in recording the last few minutes of the thing, which was not repeating — 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 fine art through a pixellating filter.
And I said "What?"
And Kowal said that 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 failed to record every last bit of it.
Which, given the previous story, was some cracked pottery. This was beyond ufology, this was certifiable.
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 construction of the dish which received it and all of the measures that were in place to prevent signals from being recorded from anywhere but outer space, 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 which 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.
Of course I felt angry and embarrassed walking out of there. I didn't exchange more than a few words with his family on the way out, so I never found out if this was a stunt he tries on all his admirers. Or even if he has more admirers than me. Trev had no idea what I was talking about. It was a sour experience. Interesting in retrospect, mixed, maybe, but sour.
In case you've never read up on the history of supernova observation, SN 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 its position in the sky (NGC 3780) are common knowledge.
McCusker died in 1989 and van Artevelde died in 2000. Kowal is, I believe, still alive as I write this and I still haven't completely figured out what, if anything, I think of him.
I actually do have the tape, or at least a tape, or at least I had it. Apparently Kowal had his son pass it to Trev for Trev to post it to me, and I sent it to some researcher friends of mine to see if they could do anything with it, or at least let me have a high-resolution rip. Forensic analysis is probably better now than it was thirty years ago. I couldn't play the thing myself, of course, because who still has a tape player in this decade? And even if I did, playing the thing would cause wear and maybe even snap the thing. It certainly seemed old enough, and the handwriting on the inlay card too. It could have just been a random tape from Kowal's old collection.
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. A friend of mine wanted to create some modern art and then put it under a hat, glued down. The hat would not part of the art, you see, the art would be under the hat. This is basically the same thing. You know something is there. But you can't ever really know what, you just have to speculate.
The thing is that all art is a product of its 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 what if you have just the context, and no art?
Some things are implicit in all messages. Things like, "I was here." And "I sent this, on purpose." And "You are there, too." And "You received this. You are reading it."
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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