THE ALIEN SIGNAL FROM A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY
A CACOPHONY of radio and television signals transmitted over the past 100 years have effectively turned Earth into an astral megaphone, violating the tranquility of infinity with incessant pulses of sound and vision. Our naked exhibitionism is certainly worthy of an interstellar Asbo, with each and every broadcast escaping into space to pollute the entire galaxy.
Theoretically, any reasonably advanced alien civilisation could easily tune into this cosmic UK Gold for a comprehensive insight into Earth’s last century. It’s estimated that our oldest transmissions – the first radio broadcasts – have already reached a few hundred “nearby” stars. Prepare for imminent attack when Piers Morgan’s voice finally reaches Alpha Centauri.
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Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once wryly theorised that the first television broadcast with a signal powerful enough to reach extraterrestrials would have been Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. If this had somehow failed to profoundly depress our cosmic neighbours, perhaps watching the actual Neighbours – and remember the same episode was often repeated twice a day – may have given them no other option than to declare war. Or at least relegate us to the lowest rung on the ladder of universal consciousness.
Yet transmissions work both ways. It’s no secret that even this primitive outpost has been picking up radio broadcasts from deep space for decades. Interpreting and explaining them is another matter, with scientists taking decades to figure out that the vast majority of interstellar radio signals naturally emanate from neutron stars called pulsars. Yet major anomalies persist – the most famous example being a mysterious transmission picked up by astronomers last year.
In August, the discovery of FRB 121102 was excitedly announced – the first-ever “fast radio burst” that actually repeated itself. This was an unprecedented and deeply unusual phenomenon. The insistency of the signal made it possible for the world’s most powerful telescopes to discover where it originated, which turned out to be a galaxy far, far away – three billion light years from Earth. All that existed on Earth when these signals were first sent was Kirk Douglas.
Furthering the mystery, this perplexing broadcast very recently went into overdrive, with unimaginable amounts of focused energy being manically hurled through space and time – like Thor’s hammer being attacked by a woodpecker. The only solid fact scientists can deduce is that it is fortunate we’re so far away – a single millisecond-long blast radiates the same energy as our sun does in a day. “If this was even on the distant side of our own galaxy, it would completely disrupt radio on Earth and saturate signals on smartphones,” said Shami Chatterjee, senior research associate in astronomy at Cornell University. “Whatever is happening is scary. We would not want to be there.”
Speculation on the signal’s source focuses around new types of black hole, colliding stars, and, yes, the involvement of extraterrestrials. Not so far out a theory as it seems – these types of signal are exactly the type of universal emission scientists would expect from civilisations like our own. Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Centre, agrees. “We cannot rule out the ET hypothesis for FRBs,” he stressed.
With the FRB 121102 signal now three billion years old, any civilisation capable of transmitting it will be long gone, having either destroyed itself, being replaced by machines or incinerated by their dying sun. It’s certainly a sobering thought that we may soon meet a similar fate, and all to prove we ever existed might be an infinite loop of America’s Greatest Ever Police Chases 5 projected across the stars.
WE’LL ALL DOLITTLE IN THE FUTURE
L ET’S partake in a wee thought experiment. Most of us have casually swatted a fly at one time or another, but would you have beat it to death with a mallet had it been the size of a dog? If its blood spurted across your face with each blow, if you saw its wings twitch as it died and then had to dispose of its broken body – would you have regretted your actions?
Perhaps you’d admit you had been hoodwinked by a false perception, convinced of your larger physical form’s superiority, your prevailing intelligence, your privileged place in Elton John’s circle of life. In universal terms, all these factors are limited to human ego and ultimately meaningless.
Such flimsy, fascist excuses for casual brutality can perhaps be excused as an evolutionary hangover, where the desire to survive long enough to pass on DNA is married to an instinctive trait to destroy what is other. The wonder of human consciousness, it seems, evolved hand in hand with a desire to dominate. It’s a virus swimming in our collective psyche, responsible for most of our species’ shortcomings … but perhaps it’s impossible to drown.
Yet it seems a new dawn of compassion and empathy could soon be on the horizon. This is due to a technological breakthrough with the potential to burst our inflated egos once and for all. It seems the only way for all creatures great and small to earn our respect isn’t to increase their size … but to give them a voice.
The human desire to talk to animals like Dr Dolittle seems a whimsy long relegated to science-fiction, but Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University not only believes such communication is possible – but also that he’s figured it out. He is currently busy putting the finishing touches to a sophisticated artificial intelligence program that allegedly translates the vocalisations and body language of various animals into English.
Slobodchikoff has spent 30 years researching how differing animal species communicate – in particular prairie dogs – and his startling conclusion is that most, if not all, biological creatures use sophisticated languages.
Now, he plans to break down the walls between Earth’s myriad species – starting with our pets. Slobodchikoff’s company, Zoolingua, has already started stockpiling thousands of clips of cats and dogs “communicating” and AI will then translate this information into words. Will cruelty to animals stop when, like Caesar in Planet Of The Apes, they can simply say “no”? Of course not, we’re irredeemable monsters, but even hamster banter may be a seismic step up from Alexa.
And it’s not just the good professor who is homing in on an inter-species communication device. Marine biologists recently developed a dolphin “translator” that identifies individual whistles by converting them into words.
The Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) device has been developed by the global Wild Dolphin Project to give everyone Aqua Man’s superpowers. Researchers testing a prototype device recently confirmed its first successful use in the wild, where a bottlenose dolphin was apparently recorded talking about seaweed. Or perhaps its words were misinterpreted and it was simply warning the divers it had relieved itself in their vicinity.
IKEA ADVERT TAKES THE P**S
THE days of doctors pushing the health benefits of ciggies in newspaper ads are long gone, but TV commercials starring fit folk with great teeth guzzling cans of sugar prove the advertising industry still enjoys taking the p**s.
And like a snake swallowing its own tail, one agency went full meta last month with a magazine advert which demanded readers urinate on it for a special offer.
Featured in the otherwise innocuous pages of Swedish women’s magazine Amelia, this Ikea ad, once peed on, revealed if you were pregnant – then magically displayed a discount code for wooden cots if the result was positive. Imaginative, you’ll agree. It’s also fortunate the deep shame of handing over a urine-soaked coupon will be dulled by the shock of finding out you’re with child.
“In order to make the interactive functions of this ad work in reality, we had to make several technical advancements,” ad agency Åkestam Holst admitted with a poker face. “The pregnancy test strip was used as a starting point, but technical advancements made during the campaign also have the wider potential to improve medical diagnostics.”
Historically, major scientific progress often occurs by accident. Incidentally, it turns out I’m not pregnant, but will now be refused entry at all WH Smith stores.
One place I am now welcome, however, is Coatbridge police station, where I have been invited to attend each morning for the next five years.
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