It Says, “Hello”
“What does it look like?”
“It looks like copper and silicon? So, like our technology, then?”
“Almost certainly not.”
Gany began to arch his back as he lost the will to maintain a posture of professionalism on the medical-grade steel stool. “Why not? It can interface with our computers, surely that means it must operate on some fundamentally similar level!”
“An electric eel can interact with our technology, too. Fry it to bits if it tried as could a solar flare. One of those could punch right through and destroy all the little circuitry it touches. Does that mean they are fundamentally the same as our computers?”
“I suppose, not.”
“And when we use a chip to stimulate muscles into contracting, does that happen because our skin has the same architecture as a silicon wafer? No, no, it is most certainly not, and I wouldn’t put any amount of money on that…that thing, being similar to our technology at all.”
Amos could be cold at times. He could be condescending. That’s how he handled moments like these. All of Gany’s theories were just noise to be isolated so that Amos could capture the moment in its entirety; so that he could break it down and understand it. But he couldn’t. Gany’s voice broke through the mental barrier again.
“But what does it look like? Not it’s technology, It.”
“There is nothing inside that probe, Gany.” There it was again. A detached prepared response to end the intrusion as soon as it began.
“Why would they only send a probe, or, whatever that is? Why not send a person?” Amos perked up. He enjoyed lecturing people, as it helped him process through his inner dialogue.
“What year did Humans send the first radio transmission?” He always opened with a question, something to draw the audience in.
“1906, but what does that-” It was just a trivia fact the Amos knew Gany had in his back pocket, a holdover from his work exploring the boundaries of wireless communication. One had to know the history, first.
“So, Earth broadcast, for the first time, one hundred and fourteen years ago. Therefore, at our very most optimistic, we are detectable to stars within one hundred and fourteen lightyears, and that’s a very generous assumption.
Our first signal could barely be detected on the other side of our own planet; it will have fully decayed into the CBR by the time it reaches anyone. But, at least we have our range.”
Gany could see where he was going with this but didn’t have the energy to interrupt him.
“Within this range, is contained, at most, fifteen thousand stars, over eighty percent of which are dwarfs. The remaining twenty percent are mostly home to Hot Jupiters or are bound in a chaotic binary system. I would say that only a fraction of a percent of those remaining stars even has terrestrial bodies in a habitable region. And this is only counting the potential for our signal to have been received.”
No one knew what the probe was, or where it came from, or why. Not even Amos. As he talked, Gany could see him eliminate possibility after possibility of it being extraterrestrial at all. He was explaining it for himself just as much as he was describing it for Gany.
“Response time has to be equal to the distance from which they received it. That cleanly rules out half of all these recipients. At the end of it, we’re looking at maybe ten potential stars within fifty lightyears that could even send a response that we could’ve received already. And we’ve been watching them.”
Gany decided to play into Amos’ presentation. “And, have we detected anything from them?”
This seemed to irk Amos more than feed into the energy. He swung an oversized hand across the desk. He brought the monitor a slideshow of spectrograph readings from years of observation as if to make a point as if the obvious answer was contained within the black bars and annotations flickering through the screen.
“No, Gany, we have not.” His voice was strained, yet calm. It showed no awareness of the biting tension that had just snapped within him, just moments ago.
“You asked why I don’t believe there to be an organism visiting us right now because, of course, there isn’t. Sending a radio broadcast is one thing; sending matter is something else. It doesn’t matter how technologically advanced you are, traversing space takes time, Gany, it takes thousands of years. You can’t just accelerate towards a destination; you need to slow down before you reach it.
“You also have to account for how you sustain the cargo on the journey, how you maintain a single organism alive for those thousands of years, and how that organism will still be psychologically intact to carry out something meaningful on the other end.
“And even if you send an organism, what is it supposed to accomplish that a machine could not?” Amos pivoted his thoughts back to the probe, still desperately grasping for a workable theory.
“God damn it, there are too many fucking assumptions being made here! We have to assume they interact with the world as we do, they built a damned spacecraft. That implies hands, that implies terrestrial origins, that implies an understanding of physics, so why would they send a god damn probe here?
“It must have been launched thousands of years before humans even mastered agriculture. It can’t be here for us.
“That would explain why we didn’t receive a message. Perhaps they didn’t expect to find intelligent life here.
“But why send a probe? They singled earth out; it must be about life. If it’s about colonization, they would’ve sent a colony ship!” Amos sighed. It upset him to be faced with something he couldn’t immediately rationalize.
“Maybe it isn’t a probe?” Gany said, trying to keep pushing Amos towards new avenues of thinking.
“What if it isn’t an intentional probe? What if it’s their Voyager?”
“What if we simply can’t answer some of these questions?” Amos shot Gany a dismissive, condescending glance, then soften his brow.
“So, you’re suggesting we just stop? Go home?” He knew that wasn’t what Gany was suggesting. He had to consider that, wherever this satellite came from, it may be beyond human understanding. We have a human-centric view of the universe. It’s the only one we can have.
We presume whatever life we encounter will fit within our conception of life. It makes sense, logically. Perhaps the only kind of life we’ll ever truly be able to interact with will fit within our understanding, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t life out there that falls outside of it.
Perhaps the satellite wasn’t artificial at all. Perhaps it wasn’t created but secreted. Perhaps it was intelligence in itself.
Within the scientific community, it has been accepted for quite a while that, should we encounter life, it would indeed be quite different to what we know on earth. Unfortunately, that statement is all science was prepared to tell us.
We only know that life will very likely be unfamiliar to us, and nothing about what it will be like. While not yet an extant field, many biologists and astronomers enjoy exploring what the field of Exobiology might entail, and what assumptions are necessary, to begin with.
There were several “layers” to this thought experiment, each requiring a greater level of creativity to reach than the last. Among the surface layers is the assumption that we can not expect life to share our senses. That one is fairly easy to conceptualize. We encounter blind and deaf organisms all the time. It’s also not too hard to conceive of an organism that uses the same information to perceive the world, but just utilizes a different part of it.
Most organisms on earth, humans included, have evolved to pick up on scattered photons as a way to understand our surroundings. Science understands this to be just a small section of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Other organisms on earth utilize other sections of it for perception. We can conceive of an organism that is blind to the spectrum, but it’s a great deal harder to imagine what else something might use to perceive the world around it if indeed it is necessary for the organism to perceive the world around it at all.
This is the next layer, where we might struggle to conceive of a sensory organ tuned to something like gravitational waves or other errant information. Beneath this layer, we question what we consider to be actionable information in the first place.
As we move further down the layers, we start to question what we consider to be an organism at all. This is beyond understanding silicon or other similarly based life. Life on this level may not present itself as anything but inert if it presents itself at all.
It may exist as anything from non-localized clouds to a network that emerged from an as-of-yet undiscovered quantum field. It may have arisen from a fundamental aspect of the geometry of the universe and may not consciously interact with matter at all.
For all we know, our own star may be sentient, but has never experienced a drive to interact with us, if it’s even capable of doing so, or perhaps it simply has no concept of other life, similar to how many organisms on earth have no concept of object permanence.
It’s unclear how far down this rabbit hole extends. For some, that invites a perpetual challenge. That bottomless well is what drove Amos to study astrophysics in the first place.
Earth is miraculously finite when compared with the universe at large. Every field Amos prodded as a child returned a finite amount of information to be gleaned. It bored him. There were only so many types of volcano. There are only so many fossils left to dig up.
He understood that the universe was finite as well; he spent much of his career exploring theoretical avenues to circumvent or disprove the second law of thermodynamics. Still, at the end of the day, Amos knew that the universe was the least finite thing he could explore. He found joy in what was effectively a bottomless pit, in something he knew he could spend every day of his life unraveling and pondering.
So why, he wondered, was this structure on his front doorstep so frustrating to him? All of his trips down the existential rabbit hole of what could be considered life seemed to leave him empty when confronted with the real thing. He had no answers.
He only had what he knew, namely, that it had arrived too soon to be a response from a nearby civilization, and that its very existence implied an uncomfortably familiar origin.
Maybe it was fear. Not fear of invasion or apocalypse, but of the opposite, of nothing changing at all. Perhaps, he wondered, this puzzle is unsolvable, or that it may not be a puzzle at all.
They discovered the probe too late to be able to determine a point of origin, leaving them only with the orbiting structure itself.
“Amos, it sent out another pulse. My god, Amos, look at the screen!” Amos was too engrossed in his notepad, striking lines through ideas and jotting down new ones.
“What is it, Gany? What does it say now?”