Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft
I'VE JUST completed my fiftieth unit for SETI at Home, the project for distributed processing of radio-telescope data and recognition of alien signals, representing several thousand hours of processing on the pile of guano I laughingly call a computer. I note from the letter column that the assembled superfluous technology of Plokta has just passed the 10,000-unit mark. And have we received a single alien message yet? Have we hell!
Things were different in the good old days. You pointed your radio telescope at the stars, spent a few weeks decoding messages, then got the parts list for an Interossitor, a death threat ("Eat hot plutonium death you disgusting alien weirdos"), a cry of "Uuuullllaaaaahh", a request ("Mars needs women "), alien religious propaganda, fraternal socialist greetings, or the secrets of FTL travel or immortality. If you were really lucky you got the plans for a computer that would build you Julie Christie (or Susan Hampshire in the sequel). If you were really unlucky the aliens would tell you how to build a gizmo that fried your brains, but hey, what would happen to the challenge of science if every experiment was a hundred percent safe?
Obviously there is something wrong with our methods. I've made an extensive study of the literature (and the films and the comics), and it seems certain that there are some basic shortcomings in the equipment we now use for SETI experiments and for the analysis of data afterwards.
First and foremost, where are the Jacob's Ladders? No self-respecting SETI project of the 1950s was complete without a few of these gizmos-basically, a couple of antennae that have a stream of huge high- frequency sparks rising between them. Perhaps the signals they put out happen to be the equivalent of a "Come and eat us" message in alien languages, or work like pheromones. Whatever, it's apparent that they are one of the keys to successful alien contact. Vacuum tubes may be another key, but this is less certain.
Second, where are the white coats and laboratory glassware? When was the last time you saw an expert on SETI wearing a lab coat, let alone drinking from a flask of bubbling green slime? The traditional SETI professor was a polymath, able to deduce the formula of an exotic chemical, extract an alien spleen, or translate binary to base 13 without using his fingers, active in at least four or five different fields of science. These days everyone seems to spend all their time in offices hunched over computers. Why should aliens respect scientists with such limited capabilities? Why should they talk to someone they don't respect?
Third, the typical modern computer is a boring box, singularly lacking in dials, knobs, reels of punched cards and tape, flashing lights, teleprinter terminals, and other 1950s goodies. Why should aliens want to talk to people with such an appalling lack of design aesthetics?
"It's wicked and evil, but it might just work"
Fourth, it seems unlikely that many of the scientists currently active in SETI have beautiful daughters working as their assistants. Most institutions would refuse the job application, to avoid charges of nepotism. But it is apparent that a beautiful, intelligent, and preferably surprisingly ignorant dependent is a prerequisite for success. Without her the professor can't explain the plot, aliens have nobody to kidnap, and the hero has nobody to rescue. Of course beautiful female scientists can manage without a daughter, if they have someone else handy for exposition purposes, but this seems to be a relatively unpopular career move.
What can be done to solve these problems and ensure successful alien contact? I propose a programme of improvements, which should together ensure that alien contact is achieved within the next few years.
Step one: All SETI ground stations must be fitted with several strategically-located Jacob's Ladder machines. If the budget for experimental equipment doesn't pay for them, it might be possible to justify them as art objects, or even as insect zappers by adding a strategically-placed ultraviolet light.
Step two: All SETI scientists must be trained in at least three totally unrelated scientific fields, possibly adding an art or business course to keep them on their toes. This should make them more interesting to aliens, and will also generate useful revenue for all of the academic institutions involved.
Step three: There is already a booming market in retro-tech motorbikes, cars, and hi-fi equipment; surely some entrepreneur can take on the design and production of appropriate retro computers. The basic requirements seem to be a couple of reels of wildly spinning tape, a few rows of lights, and a teleprinter. Optionally add a card sorter and oscilloscope displays. These needn't necessarily be wired into the works of the computer; at the simplest level, it'd be easy to build a standard PC casing inside an outer box containing the retro components and some valves, relays and gears to control them. True connoisseurs might want to go right back to the Babbage engine, but this is probably overkill for SETI purposes.
Step four: All SETI scientists must obtain appropriately nubile daughters. Since many are unmarried, and producing appropriately nubile daughters takes at least eighteen to twenty years, it is obvious that they must be supplied by other means. The government must take the initiative and fund the placement of suitably nubile young women, to be registered as Official Scientist's Daughters; they can be drawn from the pool of unemployed school-leavers, or imported if the local supply is exhausted, and trained to ask usefully ignorant questions and make tea or coffee. To be sure of success it's probably necessary to supply them to every site involved in SETI; I'd be happy to take a couple on if offered the opportunity.
If all of these modest proposals are acted upon it seems certain that alien contact will soon be achieved; with luck by 2001, pessimistically by 2010. And (hopefully) the world will then be a better place.
--Marcus L Rowland