Deciphering Alien Communications

Astronomers have discovered an intriguing fact:  an object in a galaxy 500 million light years away is sending us regular, repeating radio signals.

602x338_cmsv2_c88622f3-b54d-5980-a3e0-35b6c127b70c-3573104Fast radio bursts are not uncommon in the universe — observatories have recorded more than 100 in recent years — but repeating fast radio bursts are rare.  And this particular radio burst, which was first recorded in 2017, is the only one that is sending out fast radio bursts in a regular repeating pattern.  The bursts come in 16.35-day cycles, with 1-2 bursts per hour over a four- day period and then 12 days of silence before starting up again.

In short, the source is like the Old Faithful of fast radio signals.  And, intriguingly, at a distance of 500 million light years it’s the closest fast radio burst we’ve detected.

So, what’s causing this regular pattern of radio bursts?  Scientists have come up with several hypotheses:  it could be a natural radio signal-emitting object, like a neutron star or a binary system, where the frequency of the bursts is caused by the object’s wobbling or orbit or rotation.

Or, it could be aliens.  There’s no way to know for sure.

It raises a serious question:  if there are aliens out there, how do we know if they are trying to communicate with us, and what they are trying to say?  The 16-day cycle of radio bursts could be sending a clear, friendly greeting, or an important warning, using the alien version of Morse code, with the initial bursts being the dot-dot-dashes and the 12-day interval the method of letting us know that the message is repeating.  But without knowing the code, we can’t decipher the meaning — or even recognize the radio bursts as a message in the first place.  It’s similar to the inability to decipher ancient hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

It reminds me of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:

“As for the story itself, it was entitled “The Dancing Fool.” Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”

Unfortunately, a mysterious repeating radio signal is no more understandable than the farting, tap-dancing Zog.

Sherlock Holmes And The Ring Drop

There was some excitement on my flight to Houston last night, but it all ended well — thanks to Sherlock Holmes.

I was seated in the aisle seat in row 21.  Next to me was a friendly young woman who was traveling through Houston to catch a flight to Orange County.  As I did some work on the flight I heard a metallic clink, and then the young woman suddenly became frantic.  It turns out that she had been fiddling with a ring on her finger, and the ring dropped off and fell into the area between the seat and the window and plane’s fuselage.

sherlockholmesThat area of the plane promptly went into full search mode.  Led by the young woman and using our cellphone flashlights, we scoured the plane’s floor all the way back to the rear restrooms, looked under the seat cushions, and checked that the ring hadn’t gotten snagged on someone’s carry-on luggage.  Everyone in that section of the plane was cooperative and helpful during the search — which tells you that there are still a lot of nice people out there.  But after 15 minutes of fruitless searching, the ring was nowhere to be found.  The flight attendant said they would do a search after the plane landed and everyone had cleared out, and the young woman could fill out a form so that she would get the ring if it was found.

That was small consolation for the distraught and tearful young woman, however.  She explained that the ring that dropped was her sister’s wedding ring, and the young woman had been tasked with delivering the ring from a Columbus jeweler to her sister.  She was supposed to be the trusted messenger, and she was dreading the prospect of confessing to her sister that the ring was lost.

I wasn’t ready to give up, however.  “I don’t know if you’ve read any Sherlock Holmes,” I told her, “but in one of the original stories he explained that when you’re trying to solve a problem and you eliminate all of the possible outcomes, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the answer.  Since the ring isn’t on the floor of the plane or in the other places we’ve looked, I think it’s got to be somewhere in the slot between your armrest and the outer wall of the plane, — probably near a piece of metal since we heard a metallic sound when the ring dropped.  Let’s try again, just in that area.”

She looked dubious, but the logic of the suggestion seemed to persuade her.  She used her hand to grope around carefully in the nook, and sure enough the ring was there in the depths, next to an orphaned Lego piece.  She was overjoyed, and I was happy that I had helped her find her ring and avoid an unwelcome conversation with her sister.

“You know, you really should read the Sherlock Holmes stories,” I said.  “I will,” she promised.

The Lego piece can be retrieved through an inquiry to United Air Lines.

Mystery Flavor

Some Dum-Dums appeared by the fifth floor coffee station on Friday. I don’t like candy so I wasn’t tempted, but as I was waiting for my coffee I idly noted that some of the suckers were described as a “mystery flavor,” with a bunch of question marks on the wrapper.

That seemed weird to me. When I mentioned it to Kish that night, she patiently explained that Dum-Dums always have a mystery flavor, and that trying one is part of the fun.

Well, I guess you learn something every day. As for me, “mystery flavor” sounds uncomfortably close to the gray, formless “mystery meat” that we used to complain about at the high school cafeteria. I didn’t eat it because I didn’t know what it was. Similarly, not knowing what flavor you’re going to be tasting until you put a sucker in your mouth doesn’t seem very enticing to me.

Who knows? Maybe, like Dumbledore as he tried a Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean, I might draw earwax.

Heeding The Call Of The Water

Here’s something to remember the next time you are planning a vacation or an extended holiday:  being near the water is good for you.  In fact, it’s really good for you.  Whether it’s ocean, lake, pond, river, or stream, proximity to water has measurable benefits for people — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

img_8827An increasing body of scientific and medical evidence confirms the therapeutic effects of “blue spaces” and the state of “outdoor wellbeing.”  This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s taken a beach vacation or gone on a fishing trip.  The presence of the water tends to draw people outside, where they get more sunshine and enjoy the benefits of vitamin D.  They get more exercise because they are in attractive physical locations that motivate them to walk the beach or hike along the lakefront.  The sounds of ocean surf or running streams are calming.  The combination of exercise, fresh air, and pleasant sounds help visitors to get a good night’s sleep.

But there’s more to it.  Water tends to have a curious effect on the human psyche — a kind of positive vibe that is mentally refreshing and restoring.  Studies have consistently shown that people who are near water regularly maintain a better mood, feel less stress, and describe themselves as happier than inlanders.  Maybe it’s the sights, maybe it’s the sounds, maybe it’s the smells . . . or maybe it’s that it all works in combination to make people near water a bit dreamier, a bit more contemplative, and a bit more reflective.  Perhaps when you’re looking out over a vast ocean your problems just seem a lot smaller and therefore more manageable.

None of this is new — we’ve just forgotten it.  In the first chapter of Moby Dick, published in 1851, Herman Melville’s character Ishmael writes:  “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”  But, as Melville notes, it’s not just the ocean that humans find attractive — it’s water, period.  He writes:

“Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

So, you want to feel better?  Get out your calendar and plan a trip that allows you to answer the call of the water.

Condensed Books

One of the local shops in Stonington, The Dry Dock, always has a bookshelf in front of the store that offers free books.  It’s impossible not to stop and take a gander at what’s available, and yesterday I noticed a book that brought back memories — a volume of  Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

I’m not sure whether Reader’s Digest still comes up with “condensed books” — or, for that matter, whether Reader’s Digest itself is still published — but there was a time in the ’60s and early ’70s when our family subscribed to the magazine and got the condensed books, too.  I remember Mom reading the condensed books and remarking that you wouldn’t even have known that the books were condensed.  Of course, unless you had done a side-by-side comparison of the actual novel and the condensed book, you wouldn’t know what had hit the cutting room floor in the “condensation” process.  Significant subplots, back stories, ancillary characters, scenes that helped to fully flesh out the contours and personalities of the main characters — they all could be lopped out by the Reader’s Digest editors who wanted to shrink novels and non-fiction works down to a manageable size for the busy person who just didn’t have the time to read a full-blown book.

I don’t recall ever reading one of the condensed books that were delivered to our house, although I occasionally wished that Reader‘s Digest had done condensed versions of some of the ponderous tomes we had to read in high school.  (This was before I discovered Cliff’s Notes.)  I always wondered, though, how the authors involved reacted to the finished, condensed product.  I’m sure they liked the payment they received for allowing their work to be condensed, but how did they feel about the liberal editing that occurred as part of the process?  Did the authors actually read the condensed versions to see how their work was affected?  Did they think that the condensation cut the heart out of their books, or changed their focus, or did they feel deep down that the editing process had actually improved their work?  Given the amount of time and effort writers put into a novel, it would be tough to come to the conclusion that the book you labored over was better without some of the subplots and character-building scenes.

 

The Pioneers

I’ve just finished David McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers.  If you’re a native Ohioan, like me, it strikes home.  If you’re not an Ohioan, but you like history, you’ll find it an interesting exploration of the early American pioneer experience.

The Pioneers tells the story of the settlement of the Ohio territory in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a principal focus on the town of Marietta, on the Ohio River.  The book sketches the history of the Northwest Territory and Marietta from the days when the Ohio lands were viewed as a tempting, but dangerous, far western wilderness and advocates of settlement were seeking congressional approval of the Northwest Ordinance and settlements, through early settlement days and the Burr conspiracy on Blennerhassett Island, to Ohio statehood and the development of the state school system and early state colleges, to the role of Ohio as a principal stop on the Underground Railroad.  Along the way we meet many interesting characters, like Manasseh Cutler, a formidable preacher turned lobbyist who skillfully managed the interests of the advocates of settlement in Congress, his son Ephraim, a spelling-challenged champion of free public schools and opposition to slavery, Samuel Hildreth, a curious and inquisitive doctor, painter, scientist, and naturalist, and Rufus Putnam, the Revolutionary War veteran and common-sense general who held the Marietta settlement together during the early, difficult days.

If you’re an Ohioan of a certain age, like me, you’ll remember learning about some of this in your Ohio history classes in grade school.  The Pioneers is a reminder of our state’s early history, when Ohio was an untamed wilderness with gigantic trees and forest prowled by panthers, bears, and wolves.  And the story of Ohio is unsettling, as most pioneer stories are — unsettling because of the treatment of the native Americans who were forced from their ancestral lands by the flood of settlers and the massacres and battles that resulted from the inevitable clashes that occurred as the natives desperately tried to preserve their way of life.  The book is also a useful reminder of how close Ohio came to being a state that allowed slavery, as opposed to a bulwark against the spread of slavery and, ultimately, one of the chief supporters of the Union cause in the Civil War.

The Pioneers is a good read.

Completing Copperfield

Over the weekend, I finished Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  Three month, and 882 pages — 882! — of tiny, eye-squinting type later, I completed “Mas’r Davy’s” journey from birth to a happy adult life.

the-personal-history-of-david-copperfield-charles-dickens-first-edition-rare-originalI can’t say it was an easy read, because it really wasn’t, but I’m glad I did it.  It’s pretty clear that reading for enjoyment back in Dickens’ era was a lot different from leisure reading in our modern world.  Following the twists and turns of David Copperfield’s life — which apparently has a lot of autobiographical elements of Dicken’s own life in it — required a significant amount of focus and attention to detail to follow the different characters and the arc of the plots and subplots, and it wasn’t always easy to accept, or understand, the motivations of the characters living in a long-ago time.  David Copperfield is definitely not a “beach read.”

I confess that there were times, especially during the middle part of the novel, when I came home after a long day at work and just couldn’t face another encounter with the execrable Uriah Heep or another exposure to the elaborate manners and curious conversational gambits of people in Victorian England — which is one reason why it took me more than two months to finish the book.  (That tells you something, incidentally, about the demand for Dickens’ novels these days; I was able to renew the book multiple times without the library advising that I needed to return it because someone else wanted it.)  And yet the story was interesting enough that I kept at it, and as the novel progressed I found that the momentum of my reading increased because I wanted to see whether the plot ended the way I thought it would.  (It did.)

So now we’ve reached May, and I can check off one of my New Year’s resolutions.  There’s some satisfaction in that, but my next bit of reading is going to be something a little less taxing.  I’ve concluded that I’m not done with Dickens, however — his writing is intriguing, and after a detour into some recent fiction I’m going to tackle Great Expectations.