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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

As If All Questions Have Answers

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.
"And the power output. You'd have to tweak a sun."
"For God's sake, keep Glen away from the Internet," Beck implores me.
For thirty amphetamine hours we chase the signal star, until a vast tsunami of neutrinos throb out of its stellar heart. Type 1a supernova signature. Then silence.
"But you've got it all recorded?" Beck keeps asking. He gets on to the AU with the coordinates. There are still a few optical telescopes left that will observe the supernova light curve.
Glen's as high as a kite. I'm set to crash first, while he watches the boards.
"In case of what?" Glen asks. "It went supernova. There's nobody there now."
"Hans is right. We can't be sure it's a signal."
"Of course it's a signal." Glen sweeps his hand like the beam from a lighthouse. "We were just in the way."
I show him the software I tinkered up to convert it to numbers. Across my laptop unwinds an endless jumble of 0,1 and 2's. We watch for a while, until Glen sighs. We have no idea where to start.
Anomalous Neutrino Output From the Small Magellanic Cloud.
Beck says there's no point flying back from the States. He's heard bad weather means we're being closed down early, shipping out with the last personnel from McMurdo.
"There's still tons of gear to pack!"
"Leave it. Perhaps we'll go back one day."
"You know how long the array will last without us."
He looks away from the screen.
"What about the signal?" I know I'm angry with him for things not his fault.
"What about it?"
"It changes everything. Glen wonders if other supernovas were preceded by signals. And what if there's another one. What if there's a reply? The PNT's the only piece of kit able to..."
"You've spent too long with Glen. Code's on the Net and I'm writing up a paper. What else can we do?"
On his better days Glen has a theory. That they somehow pumped the star to generate neutrinos, like you pump the electrons in a ruby to make laser light. And of course they knew this would destabilize it, but it wasn't their sun. Those minds could still be out there, waiting for an answer.
Other times, he says forget all that anthropic crap. Glen doesn't have many good days.
We all had ancestors that survived the Pleistocene, struggling to make sense of the world, always looking for patterns, for shadows beneath the trees, thinking this was home. But what if it has no meaning, and suns burst with fathomless indifference, and nothing out there loves flesh that thinks?
I believe they saw the end coming, and tried to tell somebody something.
The brightness fades, it will soon be gone. A few weeks later and we would have missed it, the PNT shut down. Not all questions have answers.
Our headphones hiss with ancient radio noise from galaxies lost in time; guilty survivors who listen late into the night, all alone, for voices, for someone to tell us it is otherwise.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Author Comments

I have this niggling doubt that I'm not be immortal after all, and won't get to see boots on Mars or a wow signal from SETI. Science finds out the stuff I always wanted to know, so I worry about NASA, I worry about the Large Hadron Collider. What if people think it better to spend billions on cosmetics instead? The story was a poem once, and some of the bones show through. Still, a cry from the heart.

- David Barber
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