Hearing exciting but unconfirmed rumours that scientists at the Arecibo Observatory – which monitors potential signals for the SETI programme (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in the remote hinterland of Puerto Rico – had picked up a series of unexplained sounds from deep space, I rang my contact there to try to find out what all the fuss was about.
Orville Leukowitz – who used to feed me stuff from Houston control centre during the Apollo Missions when I was a TV researcher back in the 70s – wasn’t too forthcoming. I imagined scenes reminiscent of the film Contact, based on Professor Carl Sagan’s novel, in which a complex burst of sonic activity was picked up by the very large array of 27 linked radio telescope dishes in New Mexico, sending Jodie Foster into a frenzy of excitement.
“Nothing so dramatic” said Orville. “But something strange is going on. A candidate signal was selected, and we fed it into our computers. There are signs that we may have picked up a mathematically coded message. You know what they say – mathematics is the universal language of the universe. And whatever it is, it ain’t local. The problem is, computers these days have such a degree of artificial intelligence that we think they might even be capable of the human weakness of wishful thinking.”
“So what’s the message, Orville” I asked. He ignored my question.
“This thing is by no means done and dusted” he said. “ We still need to run a lot more tests. But we have what seems to be a chain of Anglo-Saxon words which do not appear to be randomly produced.
It appears to us to have no meaning, but the rudimentary sentences do contain a subject, noun and verb. There’s no way it’s a natural phenomenon. It does sort of make sense, but it doesn’t, if you see what I mean”
I didn’t, but I let Orville continue. “The message – if indeed that’s what it is – appears to be coming from a source roughly 58 billion miles from earth.
“There are no known planets in that vicinity, but there is a star called Alpha Rameses which could support planets. The radio waves would have left their source approximately 24 years ago.
But Orville, what the hell was the message ? I asked frantically .
“I…I can’t tell you” he said, his voice dropping. “It’s classified. National security implications and all that. We daren’t go public with this yet. But I can tell you the jingle – if that’s what it is – which precedes it.”
“What d’you mean, jingle ?”
“Well, it sounds like a sort of tribal war dance in Morse-code. It’s much too regular to be random. It goes sort of “blam – blam – blam blam blam, blam blam blam BLAM – blam blam! The groupings of three blams and the last two blams are staccato. It’s like: ‘dash, dash – dot dot dash – dot dot dot DASH – dot dot.”
It didn’t make much sense to me, but it kept playing on my mind, so last week I called Orville again, at home this time, and attempted to prise the rest of the message out of him. This time, to my surprise, he was a little more compliant.
“Look” he said, “I’ll tell you. But it must be in the greatest secrecy. Unless someone is playing a gigantic practical joke on us, the message was: “Earthmen – you think it’s over. It is now! See what I mean? It makes sentences. But no sense”
“But that’s incredible, Orville!” I said. “Don’t you know where that’s from ? Something very similar was said by a British football commentator – a chap called Kenneth Woolstenholm – 48 years ago when England won the world cup. And Alf Ramsey was the manager.”
“My God” said Orville. “Are you serious ? Then that explains it. Perhaps it isn’t a practical joke !”
“What d’you mean?” I asked, hardly able to conceal my excitement.
“Well there’s another sentence in the message which I didn’t tell you about” said Orville. “It just didn’t make any sense in the light of what happened to your English football team in Brazil. But I can see it now ! It all makes perfect sense. If TV coverage of the 1966 World Cup was being monitored from deep space, it would have taken 24 years to reach Alpha Rameses. And a further 24 years for us to get their reply.”
“So what was the final part of the message, Orville?” I could hardly contain myself.
“This is unbelievable” he said. “It was: Congratulations England on winning the world cup !”
© Arnie Wilson