Chapter 1 — Messenger
In 2017 a small object approached our solar system and, over the course of a few months, journeyed towards our star, made a turn in its gravity, and continued out again into the empty space between the stars. By the time it had been detected it was already speeding away from us, scientists frantically focusing any available instrument on it as it departed. It was named ‘Oumuamua, meaning “messenger” or “scout,” and it remains one-of-a-kind: the first interstellar object humans had ever had the opportunity to observe. This fact alone would have been sufficient to generate a great deal of interest and, for a few years, it did: scientists published findings on ‘Oumuamua’s physical characteristics, and theorists of all types picked up this or that thread to examine in papers, books, and scientific conferences. Fascinating as these questions were (and still are among a certain small group of dedicated astro-archaeologists) each was relegated to the footnotes of history by the fact that the object had also, during its brief visit to our solar system, quite unexpectedly delivered a message.
Humans have a long history of looking to the stars and wondering whether we are alone. In a very real sense, we still don’t know the answer to that question as phrased, though that didn’t stop every paper on Earth from running with front-page spreads: ALIEN SIGNAL CONFIRMED / PROOF OF ALIEN INTELLIGENCE / MESSAGE FROM THE STARS SHOCKS WORLD… and so on.
Most of the articles accompanying each clickbait headline reflected the same basic facts about what had come to be known globally as, simply, “The Message”: it was not a natural phenomena, it was in all likelihood quite old, and it was extremely advanced. An international council of scientists, experts, educators and policy-makers had been formed to study The Message. Its charter was unique in human history: to provide full transparency to the global public as to origins, content and meaning of a definitively extraterrestrial communication. The International Council on Extraterrestrial Analysis (ICEA) maintained a website hosting its technical analysis, provided weekly updates, and created fact-sheets for all ages and audiences. ICEA staff briefed government officials around the world and appeared as guests on popular television shows, podcasts, and YouTube channels. The Message was explained as consisting of two parts: a map and a key. This was a significant simplification, but nonetheless accurate.
The Message was technically a repeated wide-band electromagnetic transmission that had been sent to Earth from ‘Oumuamua over the course of a few days in October, 2017 as it had swept past the Sun and inner planets. More precisely, our solar system had swept past ‘Oumuamua. Like a drop of cream stirred in black coffee, our vast Milky Way galaxy is constantly in motion: all of its stars and planets swirling and tumbling around the galactic core. ‘Oumuamua, however, had been practically at rest with respect to the galaxy’s general motion when our solar system drifted past it and collected The Message, like a speeding train snatching a bag of mail waiting on a hook. In order to begin to understand what we found upon opening that bag, it is worth considering a few facts about our universe, as we have come to know it.
In terms of communicating, humans have spent much of our history operating on small time scales, relative to matters of galactic significance. Speaking to one another face to face, we can almost ignore the passage of time: “How’s the salmon,” you ask a friend sitting across from you at a table; they think about their last bite, and respond a few seconds later. Not much has changed about the salmon since you inquired, and your friend is still very much present and attentive to respond. This is what conversations had been like for much of human history: information communicated face to face.
First through stories and then through writing, we created ways to speak across more time than that found at a dinner table. Thoughts were carried across distances, yes, but also, quite necessarily, across times as well. Letters, drafted and carefully sealed, were delivered from one city to the next by carriage, truck, train, and plane. For several hundred years, it became quite important for authors to consider not only what their messages contained, but also that it would be relevant at the time it was received by the intended party. Penpals would be wise to stick to conversational topics that would continue to hold relevance upon receipt. “How’s your salmon” in a letter delivered by courier becomes more about that year’s salmon migration upriver than about a dish recently prepared.
While somewhat charming, this issue of delay proved too frustrating for humans, who invented rudimentary light-speed communication in the form of the telegraph. Pulses of electricity could race down wires faster than any letter-carrier, once again allowing two distant humans to inquire as to the quality of dishes freshly prepared, and receive a timely response.
Humanity has since expanded to encircle the planet and even occupy a few points in our solar system, sending robotic devices to our neighboring planets and receiving all manner of data back from them. We’ve mastered various forms of light-speed communication: electromagnetic signals race over metal wires, bounce within glass thread, or pulse through open air and space. Emails sent from Australia can be mostly expected to arrive a few seconds later in California, the information they contain remaining fresh and relevant to the recipient. On the whole, we became quite skilled at moving information as fast as the universe appears to allow us. Objects, though, (much to our continued frustration) turn out to be quite stubborn about being moved at all.
The Voyager 1 probe, launched from Earth in 1977, represents the farthest humans have ever stretched from our home planet. 40 years after its launch it pierced the bubble of energy spreading out from our Sun and became the first human-made interstellar object. Curiously, just as Voyager 1 was leaving our solar system, ‘Oumuamua was arriving. Most scientists accept this as a remarkable but ultimately meaningless coincidence. Designed years before Armstrong first walked on the moon, the Voyager program consisted of two identical probes whose launch dates were carefully planned to take advantage of an upcoming alignment of several large gravity wells in our solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. Like a skateboarder briefly hanging on to a speeding truck to go faster than their legs could push, the Voyager probes approached each massive gas giant, picking up speed from their fall into the gravity well before sharply turning past and onward to the next. By the time Voyager 1 had received its last boost it was traveling over 38,000 miles per hour, and will continue at such a speed, perhaps indefinitely, on its journey towards the stars.
Despite our light-speed communication technologies, Voyager is now so far away from Earth that if you want to have a conversation with it, it’s going to take about a day to ask it a question, and another day before you hear its faint response. It becomes quite important indeed to send messages that are still relevant upon receipt.
One of the oldest pieces of recorded communication available to humans (prior to the discovery of The Message) is a complaint etched into a clay tablet, haranguing a duplicitous merchant for not following through with a delivery of copper ingots, paid for over 3,000 years ago. In fact, several different customer complains about this one merchant have been identified, each laying into Ea-nasir for not making good on trades, promising copper and taking money while never delivering. While endlessly amusing and somehow still resonant today for all its familiarity to humans still frustrated by untrustworthy merchants, it is fair to say that these messages have far outlived their author’s intent. Arbituram was not shouting “Why have you not given me the copper!” into the abyss of time and space, and yet here we are, the unintended audience receiving his message thousands of years later, at the very edge of being able to even understand the language he wrote in.
But let’s assume one did have the intention of speaking across a vast gulf of time and space, as the authors of The Message appear to have had. Perhaps you want to send a message to the next nearest star in our galaxy. What would even be worth sending? At the speed of light, your message would arrive about 4.2 years after you send it. Other stars are much, much farther away: thousands, or millions of light-years distant. Even sending a simple “Wish you were here!” greeting becomes quite complicated. The Voyager probes carry a golden record on them, and, should they ever be encountered, it would be over 40,000 years after they have journeyed towards the distant stars. The recipients will hopefully enjoy the messages contained within: listening to the sounds of our planet, seeing what we looked like, how some of us lived. Spoken greetings in 55 languages, one even in the language of Ea-nasir, will tell of how we existed, what we knew of the world and the universe around us then, in 1976. It is an eclectic multimedia collection: a mother breastfeeding a child, the Arecibo radio telescope (since collapsed from lack of funding), sheet music, a black woman peering into a microscope, our moon, a map of our planet and its location in the galaxy. Ultimately, though, these messages will boil down to “humanity was this, thousands of years ago.”
Not so with The Message delivered by ‘Oumuamua. Easily the most remarkable initial finding beyond its mere existence was the fact that The Message was timely. Though the most popular metaphor used when describing The Message was that of a map, it is more precise to say that The Message is a very advanced kind of map: one which was apparently intended to still be relevant upon receipt. The data burst contained a precise list of locations within the galaxy, but it is not enough to specify a location when working with galactic time scales, as the whole vast spray of matter is itself moving in an elaborate physical dance. In essence, any point must be specified in both space and time, much as the launch of the Voyager probes was reliant on precise calculations of the future locations of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune for its success. Launch too soon or too late and the planets would not be there when you arrive. It was quite clear from the specificity of The Message that its authors understood the movement of the galaxy very, very well. Each “entry” in the list represented a point in spacetime. That is to say, a place to be and the time to be there. This list covered a span of time approximately 4,000 years long, beginning about 100 years prior to ‘Oumuamua’s flyby, and extending deep into the future. Exact specificity is unknown because, to the endless frustration of the ICEA, not all of The Message had been captured. Approximately 35% of the total data burst was currently known. This fact alone spawned entire careers and fields of study.
The (arguably) second most interesting initial finding of the ICEA was regarding The Message’s accuracy, or resolution: it was almost incomprehensibly specific, given the scales involved and calculations implied, specifying positions down to approximately half an AU (the average distance between the Earth and Sun) and times of about 6 months for the majority of data points. A small percentage of data points (most notably those representing ‘Oumuamua itself and our Sun) were specified in even finer detail.
One of ICEA’s most popular data products was generated from this list of data points, and consisted of a web-based interactive viewer that operated much like a toy galaxy. Our familiar Milky Way was scaled to fit comfortably on the screen, its wide sweeping arms twirling about each other. But this was no “artist’s rendering,” it was a visual three-dimensional representation of the entire collection of data points recovered so far from The Message. For each point in the file, a dot on the screen, and a familiar time slider at the bottom. While quite complicated, with filtering and statistical tools manipulating terabytes of data, it operated much like a YouTube video covering about 4,000 years of what scientists had generally agreed was the most accurate map of the galaxy ever constructed. When first loaded, it looked much like any still image of the galaxy printed in textbooks from 1980, some points labeled and color coded by default; our own Sun a bright yellow dot with its own special label. Press play, though, and the whole mass began to gently swirl, the time counter rushing hundreds of years into the future. Pause, then click and drag, and the whole galaxy tumbled in three dimensions around the viewer, labeled dots racing past in the distance. One could zoom in all the way to the solar system level, or call up one or more data points curated by ICEA staff. Guided tours were available for hundreds of points of interest, with more being added every day as the data was analyzed. Every school child in the world was by then familiar with the animation sequence related to ‘Oumuamua’s arrival, flyby and departure, based on data it had itself delivered. There was our solar system, like a plate, the planets within it smoothly gliding in their orbits around the Sun, and here, then, was the tiny dot appearing to come from above the solar system disc, headed straight for the Sun in the center. It slid down into the mass of inner planets, curved sharply, and then silently glided off to the edge of the screen again.
A curious thing happens, though, when you toggle the layer named, simply, pulses. This was one of the newest ICEA data products, which was based on a very small percentage of data points, approximately 160 of the millions recovered to date. Only after intense deliberations had ruled out various conjectures that these points were spurious (perhaps the result of transmission or encoding errors) was this layer released for public consumption in 2037. But there it was, now, for anyone on Earth to see by clicking the “pulses” layer on: a sprinkling of twinkling dots on a very small section of the Milky Way galaxy.
In fact, these pulses covered an area that could only be considered small in comparison to the enormity of the entire galaxy, which stretches some 200,000 light-years edge to edge. The pulses covered an area roughly 2,000 light-years in the longest direction, and 800 light-years at the narrowest; the exact physical structure of the space occupied by these points was the subject of intense scientific inquiry, but to the casual observer playing with the ICEA viewer, they appeared throughout the arm of the galaxy containing our Sun, and the closest one to us was just over 10 light-years distant, pulsing with a period of about 3 years. Each dot in this collection had a slightly different period, some as rapid as every 5 months, others only flashing every 12 or so years. But one thing was quite consistent: when they pulsed it was for only 16.32 hours each, and if you ran the visualization at just the right speed, watching the galaxy gently drift, as the pulses sparkled one couldn’t help but imagine that a larger pattern was at work. Humans were, though, notorious for finding patterns in almost anything.
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