The Starfarer's Journal

Keith Alan

February 4, 2015

What if the light speed 'barrier' were irrelevant due to longevity?

Chapter 1 Signal

"It's a signal!"

Did I say that out loud? Glancing at my security system, I see I'm supposed to be alone. But just in case someone slipped a bug in, I decide to act like I meant to say it and repeat "It's a signal."

I've been studying this weird "star" for quite a while. It's quite faint and might not even show up in normal star surveys. Even if it were detected, in normal astronomical viewing the variations in the light would be averaged out and no one would think that there was a signal. However, since I'm specifically looking for very faint but rapid changes in light fluctuations, I've designed hardware to see exactly this sort of activity. I wasn't looking for signs of intelligent extraterrestrials though, but the passage of objects out in the Kuiper belt, or even Oort cloud, as they occlude background stars. This particular "star" (I no longer think it is one) had tripped my algorithms as something "interesting" so I'd been accumulating data on it for a while. Variable stars aren't that exciting, but all fast variable stars I'm aware of are extremely periodic, meaning they're like metronomes ticking away. This star seemed to be randomly varying, which didn't seem right. I plot the light intensity over time and got this very regular, yet random, sine wave looking curve. In fact, parts of it look very binary, hence my 'eureka!' exclamation.

Because I work by myself outside of the mainstream, I'm not about to shout out to the world that I've discovered a signal from deep space. At least not until I'm 1,000% certain. This curve, which looks periodic but clearly isn't, is intriguing to me. It almost looks familiar, but I can't seem to recall from what. I go back over my data again, this time looking at the actual image. It's almost blinking, but it doesn't go dark, sort of fluctuates between full intensity and half intensity. It isn't quite on the galactic ecliptic and seems to be outside of the solar system by a good bit. I decide to root around in some old databases and see if I can find evidence of it earlier, maybe there'll be enough parallax data to estimate a distance. Sure enough, I find what seems to be the very faint "star" and it has moved slightly against the background stars. Some pounding away at a spreadsheet and it seems it's originating some 30 light years away. At least it doesn't seem to be something someone is faking, unless they've gone to remarkable lengths to put the fake in old data.

I decide to look again tonight in "real time." My telescope is quite a bit different from the standard. I developed a spin casting technique that allowed me to produce a diffraction limited 10 meter mirror that only weighs a few hundred pounds. Then I built a football field-sized inflatable flying wing out of fabric and put my mirror on it, then, after covering the bottom of the wing with rectennas to supply it with power (via microwave lasers), I flew it up to around 100,000 feet. I have perfect seeing conditions every night; never any problems with poor weather. As I'm above almost all the atmosphere, I don't need to do anything fancy with deformable mirrors and in any case, with my super fast imaging, I can take advantage of the 'lucky shot' technique and simply discard any images that are blurred. I have special hardware that amplifies the photons that my mirror captures, then does some noise/error correction and provides me with a nice clean image of any spot in the heavens.

To kill time until this evening, I go lay down for a nap, but just can't get to sleep. My mind is buzzing with possibilities; how cool it will be to be able to have definitive proof of intelligent alien contact! Finally I give up on sleep and veg in front of the TV until the sun finally goes down. I issue the commands to the telescope to slew around to my mysterious signal; fortunately at this time of year it's already above the horizon and I'll have a good 5 or 6 hours to look at it.

As I stare at the computer screen watching it in real time, I just can't get the familiarity out of my head. I start to think, maybe if I convert the optical signal to audio I might get some inspiration, so I monkey around for a few minutes writing a program. It's a warbling sound and it's even more frustratingly familiar. I must be onto something, but my brain just can't put it together yet. I play around with the audio somewhat randomly, amplifying some parts, reducing others, as I let my subconscious root around for an explanation. All the sudden I get it! It's Morse Code! At first I'm so excited I can't sit still and start pacing around the room. Then it hits me: somehow some jackass has penetrated my security and set me up for a hoax. I start to look the wires going in and out of the computer in a desultory effort to find the offending bits. After a few minutes of this, I decide, as much as I'm embarrassed, at least it was a good joke; I should decode the signal and see what the punchline is. Morse code is fairly straightforward, but other than having read about it, I have no knowledge. I go back to my recordings from earlier, leaving the current signal to go to disk, figuring the "punch line" was just being repeated over and over again. I probably already had the whole thing.

I wrote another program to convert the sine wave-like data I had earlier to the dots and dashes of Morse code. Then I wrote a quick conversion program to convert that data to characters. I never gave a second thought to the Morse code being in anything besides English, I was totally convinced that I was being jerked around by someone, why would they put it in any other language? So, after doing this conversion, I now had a bunch of text. It looks like this:

I got to admit I'm not getting this punch line. What's the chance that this signal is random (though there is that strange bit that looks like noise) and it just happens to produce something human readable after I run my algorithms on it? If this is still a hoax, it's a very complicated one, that's for sure! Well, the "instructions" seem to indicate that the light signal has components in it, I guess I'll run it through a wavelength separator and see what I get. It doesn't take that long to issue the commands to the telescope and only a bit longer for the mechanical aspects to move into place; I amuse myself trying to think of who has the skills to get past my security. After a few minutes, I'm now looking at the spectrum of the light from the "star." Interestingly, the light is indeed made up of a number of lines. I squint a bit and there seems to be 10 of them. Man, this is one elaborate hoax! Now I'm starting to admire whoever did it. This shows a great deal of dedication. I haven't yet figured out how they managed to feed all these lies into my systems, though. No one has the resources to actually put something out in space 30 light years away.

I'm looking at the individual lines of the spectrum and they all seem to be fluctuating in tandem, I guess this is what added up to the whole white light signal I originally detected. My hardware can do quite a bit better than 10 Hz; no real reason, but I just thought that a million frames per second was a cool target to aim for and I was able to get really close. Anyway, I work on reprogramming the telescope to capture the signal from the various lines in the spectrum and dump it to disk. It sure is an elaborate hoax. I hope the punch line is worth all this effort. I decide to give my brain a rest and let my subconscious try and work out how my systems got hacked.

It's only midnight, I'm not tired, so I'm trying to think of a way to pass the time. I recall this escort I met a few months ago that seemed sincerely interested in astronomy. I call her Sally, since she reminds me of a more curvy version of Sally Field in Smokey and the Bandit. Perhaps she'll find this hoax amusing…

It's several days later before I think about the hoax again. I decide to see what clever thing the hoaxer has done. My paranoid hind brain hasn't come up with any security loopholes that would have allowed anyone enough control to lead me on this wild goose chase, but what else could it be? Aliens speaking English? How absurd! Anyway, it'll serve as a diversion for a while. And perhaps finding out who is behind this will allow me to find and fix the hole before I have to acknowledge I was hoodwinked. I now have a pile of binary data. I follow the directions to collect the chunks of data, verify the CRCs, then form them into files with the appropriate compress header, then decompress them. I tweak my program to look for redundancies and arrange them in collected order. Enough fun for tonight. It's starting to bother me that I can't figure out how my security got penetrated.

A couple of days later, I'm starting to really get vexed. I've looked over my security videos for several months back, run diagnostics up on the telescope and my hardware down here on the ground. Despite having very paranoid intrusion detection systems, none of them reveal how the intruder got in. I'm forced once again to hope that the punch line will reveal who my "nemesis" is. Perhaps, after enjoying the joke, they'll reveal how they got in. Heck, maybe I should hire them to red team me, but this time I'll be watching! I go back to my computers and start to sift through what the program produced. Despite the vast majority of them being valid as far as the CRC was concerned (by capturing the signal for several days I have a clean version of each message), decompress failed to work on them. This isn't as much fun any longer, now I have to somehow decrypt the joke. How tedious. Then I remember that last bit about using DES to decrypt. Duh! I write a program to run DES on them using the bit that looks like garbled data and one of the files turns into something that decompresses without error. Not sure what I'm doing wrong that the others don't decrypt, but what the heck. OK, now I can finally get to the punch line (I hope)...

Chapter 2 Decoded

Greetings Earth Human! I'm a traveler from another part of our galaxy. This will, of necessity, be a one-way conversation, as I'm currently more than 30 light years away and it'll be more than 600 years before I arrive.

Please allow me to introduce myself: I have selected the name "Bob." My actual name would be quite incomprehensible to you. It has components in the electromagnetic spectrum in addition to the audio. I like "Bob" because it's nice and short and rounded at both ends. It's silly to provide a name, but humans seem to require one. After some consideration, I decided not to describe myself, so let your imagination run wild.

My race is quite long-lived. I'm not quite a billion years old and yet am considered a young "punk," always running around investigating things my elders no longer have any interest in.

Why am I speaking English when I'm decidedly non-human? Well, if you assume that I've heard and understood every single electromagnetic emanation you've produced that's got above your atmosphere up to 30 years ago you would be very close to the reality. Why English instead of, say, Chinese (there being so many Chinese after all?), well according to my observations, the bulk of scientific data is published in English, and, since I'm targeting scientists, I figured English would be the most appropriate language. I may shift the language if it appears that another one is ascendant, but given my awareness is 30 years behind yours, it would just be a guess. I'm pretty good at guessing, though, and can predict your technological progress to a certain extent, so if it seems appropriate, I'll do so.

Why am I trying to contact you? Well, I'm hoping I can arrive before you destroy yourself or achieve your singularity. So far, I haven't been able to reach a technological civilization before it's vanished. Since I'm relatively close, perhaps you can manage to last another 6 centuries and I can visit yours. I've wandered around the galaxy for the bulk of my life, trying to arrive at the right moment. It's rather vexing. Though non-technological civilizations are quite stable and long-lived (your whales and dolphins have been around for 10's of millions of years, for instance) technological ones tend to evolve in an instant and vanish as fast. When I saw you were starting to build fire on purpose, I decided to head your way. But this isn't the first time I've been heading toward a civilization like yours, only to have it vanish before I get a chance to say "hi." I have no idea if my efforts to contact you will even be successful, let alone if they'll have any influence on your evolution. I've seen some indications that my previous attempts at contact other technological civilizations have been successful, but it hasn't appeared to make any difference. Sort of like a flash bulb, no sooner do I note the light, than it goes out. I've even been closer than 30 light years, to no avail. Sorry, there isn't much special about you humans, you're pretty much following the "script" to a "T." It's clear you have developed the capacity to extinct yourself in short order. Even if your governments don't manage to kill you when you run out of your fossil fuels, your biotechnology gives lethal tools to individuals that have none of the moderating effects of nation state actors.

Even if you don't kill yourself (I find about two thirds of the civilizations I discover have killed themselves) and manage to harness compact fusion energy, the singularity lurks right around the corner. I've tried communicating with the observer intelligences (in your case, it would be the whales and dolphins; too bad the octopi and cuttlefish have such short lives, they no doubt would be intelligent if they lived even a few years longer) but they don't have much to offer. I did find evidence that a few such observer intelligences got caught up in the singularity. Perhaps that will happen to yours as well and I won't have anyone but cuttlefish to talk to when I arrive. It's sad and frustrating, but I keep plugging away, hoping one of these times I'll get lucky.

Life, in case you are curious, is just about ubiquitous in the galaxy. I have to assume so for the rest of the universe, but I have only explored part of this galaxy, so can only state assurances for what I have seen. Pretty much every single place I have found that has liquid water, minerals in solution and energy gradients, has life. Life is quite tenacious once it's formed, and I've found it existing in some pretty strange places that it seems like it shouldn't have ever evolved (like comets in your Oort cloud). Your idea of Panspermia is interesting, but it just pushes the origin of life onto someplace else. While there may be elements of life moving between solar systems, life clearly doesn't need the assistance. It's spontaneous. Even stars are not required for life, or at least nuclear fusion isn't. I've found life on moons orbiting "rogue" planets that are independent of any solar system.

Your situation is a bit interesting in that it took so long to go from single celled life to multicellular. I have a theory for that: because your planet experienced the "late heavy bombardment" as your gas giants rearranged themselves, perhaps only that life that was particularly stable managed to survive, and the ones with less stable genomes died off. I've seen quite a few cases where the planet didn't have to wait 4 billion years to get complex life; I've found evidence of some planets having complex life in less than a billion years after the collapse of the star.

I've even found some tantalizing hints of life that seems to be made out of plasma, but haven't been able to convince myself I'm not imagining things.

Now, going from "life" to "intelligent life" is a relatively rare step. Perhaps less than a tenth of one percent actually develop intelligent life, at least in any form I can measure. Of course, that still means I've found millions of planets with intelligent life. Intelligence really isn't all that special, given life's ubiquity. Heck, your planet currently has several intelligent species on it, and several more that, but for an accident of nature, would almost certainly be so. Though I wasn't here when your dinosaurs were "ruling" the planet, I did find some evidence of intelligence when I happened by a few million years after that comet impact wiped them out. I've even found intelligence on planets that lacked any surface. Once I found what I call the "balloon people" living in the atmosphere of a gas giant much like your Jupiter. They were quite intelligent, and were able to communicate with my probes without any difficulty, but they entirely lacked the resources to produce any sort of technology.

So, if life is ubiquitous and intelligence is commonplace, why am I searching you out? Well, technological civilizations are quite rare. What makes technological civilizations rare? Whales and dolphins don't make technological things; they don't build radios, put satellites into orbit or produce telescopes. As such, any communication requires a personal visit. I've visited a number of such intelligences over my explorations. Indeed, as mentioned above, sometimes I find they observed the ending of the technological civilization they shared the planet with (and, as mentioned, sometimes they were caught up in that ending). Technological civilizations are rare because simply having intelligence is far from enough to produce technology. You need to have grasping appendages (hands in your case), capable of fine manipulation. In almost all the cases I've discovered, you need to live on land (it being nearly impossible to smelt metals under water). Your planet has to have some resources (uranium/thorium as well as the so-called fossil fuels you're burning through so quickly). A few intelligent species have evolved on land, with hand equivalents, but lacked the available resources to produce much more than the equivalent of your ancient Egypt. Non-technological species last until some event takes them out, such as an asteroid or comet, "nearby"' supernova or gamma ray burst, dramatic change in climate, perhaps due to volcanic activity, etc. Technological civilizations are quite rare, because they exist for such a brief period.

I have occasionally found evidence for two simultaneous technological civilizations; you should be able to decode my "The Centaur and the Squid" journal entry at some point. Generally, though, a technological civilization lasts for such a brief period that it's very unlikely that two will ever coincide.

I consider myself an archeologist for technological civilizations. The only time I see them "alive" is from afar, I have yet to study one in real time. I hope, but don't expect, yours will be around when I get there. I'll probably have to ask the whales and dolphins what they think happened. Most of the time, all I have to go with is my observations of the electromagnetic spectrum (interestingly, the closer you get to the singularity, the less emissions you produce; and what is produced has increasing levels of encryption), occasionally I have some optical records from my probes I scatter about the parts of the galaxy I visit. What I observe is technological change increasing at an increasing rate. And then blip! The civilization has either destroyed itself or vanished without any signs of violence (what I attribute to as the singularity). Most of the singularities I've investigated it seems like everyone stepped out for lunch at the exact same moment, the solar system is simply abandoned. The many cases of self destruction do leave a few individuals, but never enough to reproduce a stable population, so the species is gone a maximum of a few more generations. Thus, I wind up sifting through the shards of these left over civilizations, attempting to reproduce what happened at the end (well, I'm not that interested in species that destroy themselves) and try and understand this singularity.

Regarding my communication: if you're reading this, you no doubt wonder why the other files failed to decompress properly. Well I'm a bit vain. I'd like my bit of a diary to be read sequentially, so each document will have a key to decrypting the next document in the list. It's a key that requires some careful thought and is hopefully too complex for a computer program to figure out. My intention is for you read each entry and have a chance to think about while you figure out what the key is for the next one.

Chapter 3 Wrap-up

Well, isn't that interesting? By the way, my name is Harry, how do you do? So this hoax is either very elaborate indeed, or I am deep in some sort of psychotic breakdown and locked in a rubber room somewhere. I suppose it could be the real deal, but it just sounds absurd. Aliens should be, well, alien; "Bob" seems anything but alien. I'll take some time and work on figuring out the key and decrypt the next file to see if the joke continues...