art by Seth Alan Bareiss
As If All Questions Have Answers
by David Barber
Pauli Neutrino Telescope, Antarctica, 23.05 GMT, 22nd July.
Particle-noir winds from Sattigarius blow through the superconductor array frozen deep under the Ross Ice Shelf, howling like ghosts in the machine.
Outside, it's thirty below. We huddle down and eavesdrop on physics inventing itself.
They say all this must run remotely, with a satellite uplink, the result of the latest round of cuts; even McMurdo Station is being mothballed.
We told them we need to stay on site. Privately, we know most of the electronics is a lash up, needing constant tinkering, but how can we admit that? They point to our record, the array down four months out of the last six. With more money and time we could fix it.
But of course we have neither.
The Boards Light Up, 01.22 GMT, 23rd July
Hans Beck is in Washington, pestering his contacts in the NSF, trying to persuade them to think again about funding. He skypes us from his hotel room.
"How's it going, Prof?" says Glen brightly. Glen's on his own circadian sleep cycle, stoked by coffee, the absence of sun and our poor spectrum fluorescents.
Through the window behind Beck, the skies are blue over Washington. It must be midmorning there. We have no windows, but if we did, they would peer out onto snow swirling through darkness.
"Things are bad here. Worse. This new Man in the Street policy..." Beck shakes his head.
Glen turns the laptop upside down and puffs over the keyboard, dislodging hair and flakes.
"For God's sake, Glen."
"...and if it's not useful it's not funded."
"Western edge of the array is acting up again," I say sleepily after a while.
"It's that bug in the phasing software," Beck insists. Here is a problem he can fix, something real, something that's not about the economy or the new Administration's attitude to science.
Then all our boards light up.
Wow, 01.58 GMT, 23rd July.
No one has time to answer Beck. His tinny voice rattles from Glen's laptop, repeatedly demanding to know what the hell's going on.
Tau and muon neutrino spikes race across the screens. Either the whole array has gone bad, or someone with a reactor in Beijing is playing tricks with technology we never heard of.
"That's a ternary code," mutters Glen, hours later, furiously scratching at his eczema. And the neutrino source moves across the sky as the planet spins beneath us.
The signal is so large we can switch off the parallel grid. Beck designed it to operate as a separate phased array, effectively a directional aerial. In ten minutes Glen has coordinates.
About two hundred thousand years ago, out in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a candle was lit in the dark.
End of Signal, 07.06 GMT, 24th July.
"It can't be natural," we tell Beck, helpless a world away. He is desperate that we don't make fools of ourselves, anxious about his project.
"It's in ternary," I repeat. "And there are no electron neutrinos. What physics can do that?"
"They're broadcasting," shrugs Glen, not taking his eyes off neutrino pulses like a heart in distress.