“They’re going to defund us Jim.” My research assistant Nora says in her typically deadpan fashion.
“First the shuttle program and now SETI? Has the whole world stopped caring?” I reply. “When did science go out of style?”
“With the cold war.” Nora pulls out the rolling chair next to my station and gracefully sits down. “It’s time to start moving on Jim, half the research assistants have already left.”
“But we’re so close!” I reply, exasperated.
“You’ve been saying that for years. We’re always close Jim, discovery is always ‘just over the horizon.’” Nora’s imitation of my voice is both irritating and uncanny.
“I’m not leaving. I’ll run this place alone if I have to.”
“Jim, you’re not going to singlehandedly run a facility that costs nearly a million dollars a month to run.” Nora’s sarcasm is always irritating; even more so when she’s right. “The power bill alone is a quarter million. How are you going to maintain a two square kilometre telescope without help?”
“Damn it Nora! I’ll figure it out-“
The monitor at my station starts flashing red. “What’s that?” Nora asks.
“I don’t know. It looks like the telescope has detected an anomalous radio transmission.”
“It’s probably another pulsar.” Nora is always ready to add her personal flavour of pessimism to everything.
“Maybe. But this readout is strange, it’s not regular.” The signal displayed on my screen had all the hallmarks of a pulsar except one: it wasn’t a steady on / off. It was pulsing, but it seemed to be doing so erratically.
“You’re right.” Nora leans in to take a closer look at my screen, “what is the scope pointed at?”
“Pointed at? You know damn well-“
“I know Jim,” Nora interrupts, “what is it facing?” Under her breath: “damned physicists.”
“I heard that,” I smile, “let me check.” I pull up the astrometric data on the dish. “It looks like we’re focused on point zero two arc seconds off the Proxima Centauri binary system.”
“Could the eclipsing stars be causing this?”
“I’ve looked at the group hundreds, if not thousands of times. I think this behaviour would have been noticed before.” I pull my eyes off the screen, “I need to get in touch with one of the big interferometers, we need to get another pair of eyes on this.”
I pick up the phone and dial my contact at the ESA, Thomas. He picks up after the third ring “hello?”
“Tom, it’s Jim. I’m picking up some crazy readings off Proxima Centauri. Can you point one of your big interferometers at it?”
“What are you picking up?” Jim asks, incredulous.
“It’s like a pulsar, but not like any pulsar I’ve ever seen.”
“What’re the coordinates?”
I read the coordinates off to Tom. “I’m about to lose resolution. Can you point something at it soon? I don’t want any missed data.”
“Yeah, we’ve got a big scope in Chile, I’ll get them to take a look now. Can I call you back in 10?”
“For sure, I’ll be waiting by the phone.” I hang up and look back to my screen. Nora is intensely focused on writing something in her notebook. “What are you writing?”
“If you ever tell anyone I’ll deny it, but I think you’re right; this signal is definitely not coming from a pulsar.” I notice that Nora is listening to a pair of headphones she had plugged into my terminal. She’s glued to her note taking.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I think it’s a code. Listen to this.” Nora hands me the headphones.
Nora had programmed the terminal to register the peaks in the transmission as a beep, like a telegram. I listen to a series of beeps and silences, unable to make any sense of it. “What does it mean?”
“Shhh.” Nora hushes me and continues diligently writing in her notebook.
The phone rings, I answer it: “Tom?”
“Yeah. We’re picking up your signal in Chile, loud and clear.”
The signal was broadcasted for 30 days. Looping over itself every couple hours and stopping as suddenly as it had begun. Many of the worlds greatest minds argued over it’s meaning, some argued it was a message from the stars, others thought it was nothing more than an unknown stellar phenomenon. Scientist and layman alike were obsessed with deciphering meaning from what came to be known around the globe as: ‘Jim’s signal.’
“Jim, I think I’ve got it.” Nora’s sudden statement startles me. It had been nearly a week since the signal stopped. “I can’t believe it’s this simple.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. Nora is huddled over the same station she’d been using when we’d first detected the signal, using the same pair of headphones. Our budget woes had eased, but they were far from being totally eliminated.
“I’ve got it. It’s binary.”
I stand up and walk across our cramped office to see what Nora is talking about.
“Look, the beeps are 1’s and the silences are 0’s. It’s divided into bytes, the double silence after each group of eight signals each new byte.”
I’m flabbergasted, “how could it be so simple?”
“I don’t know, I’m not an alien.” Nora’s deadpan is in fine form.
“What does it mean?”
“Why do you keep asking questions I can’t answer?” Nora smirks at me, “why don’t you go grab one of the engineers in IT?”
“Good idea!” I practically sprint out of the room.
“Jim!” Nora shouts after me, “use the phone!”
“Right,” I blush as I re-enter our office. I pick up the phone and dial the IT department.
“Hello?” A young man answers.
“I’m going to need someone up in my office right now. I have an emer-“
“Sir, I’m sorry, but I forgot to bring my room divining crystal ball to work today. What is the nature of your emergency?” I’m pretty sure I can hear someone chuckling in the background.
“Listen, I’m not in the mood for any teenage shenanigans right now. I’m in room 874 and I need someone who can read binary code to come up as soon as possible.”
“Sir, no one can read binary. Only computers can. Have you tried using Google?” More laughter in the background.
“I didn’t think of that.” I hang up the phone and turn to Nora. “Search Google for a binary translator.”
“Good idea! Why didn’t I think of that?”
I could tell by her tone she had thought if it. “Nora, when will you grow up?”
She chuckles, “probably never.”
I sit down and roll my chair close to Nora’s terminal. I watch as she pulls up a binary translator and copies her data into the form. Within seconds a translation appears.
I read aloud: “Be quiet. They’re going to hear you.” I’m stunned “The aliens sent us a message in English?”
“It appears so.” Nora states flatly.
“Are you messing with me? If you’re messing with me you’ve gone too far-“
“I’m not messing with you Jim. I copied the signal exactly.”