by Ian Nichols


The dusty plains of western NSW, near Parkes, aren’t the normal run for a science reporter; I was more used to conferences in sumptuous hotels, or gleaming laboratories. I’d worked for ten years to get into a comfortable little sinecure with a major daily paper, and I’d been enjoying that sinecure for over twenty years. Then Peter Chambers had called me, and told me to come to Parkes.

We had been the same year at university. However, while I had devoted far too much of my time to the physiology of the nurses from the local hospital, Peter had dedicated himself to the stars. Since he had been little more than a moving nappy, Peter had been fascinated by things heavenly. When I graduated and left to begin my cadetship, he went on to his master’s, which soon became a doctorate, and then to Parkes. He’d been listening to the stars ever since, and regularly changed our view of the universe. I didn’t mind this one little bit, since he usually called me before the actual paper was published and let me know what particular theory he was about to overturn. We could run yet another science exclusive, and I’d get a nice pat on the head from the editor. Peter was universally know as the best scientist to never receive the Nobel Prize, even though he’d received just about every other honour the academic world could grant. He was just a little too flaky for some of the more staid scientists, being firmly convinced that there was life on other planets, a believer in flying saucers, and that Einstein was wrong about the light-speed barrier. Then again, he had enough runs on the board to command the respect of everyone in the field. That explained why I had caught the first `plane to Parkes, and was driving to meet Peter: when he said that he had the most important discovery of all time, I believed him.

I’d been there before, so I knew where to go, and I pulled the hire car up right outside the dusty house, about a kilometre from the nearest radio telescope. It was his whenever he wanted it, which was most of the time, although he’d allow it to be used for other projects when he didn’t need it. There really aren’t many radio astronomers in the world who have their own, personal, steerable dish. Peter did. It took him nearly ten minutes to answer my knock on the door, though.

“Sorry,” he said, “I was trying to get through to Arecaibo. I want them to verify my signals. The bastards tell me they can’t do that for three months.” He was the same skinny streak of misery I fremembered, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, thongs on his feet. Peter rarely smiled. “I just don’t think anything in the Northern hemisphere can get the angle. Jodrell Bank can’t even see that part of the sky, the Russians are hopeless, and Hawaii can’t move enough. Antarctica might be my last chance, and their bloody dish is tiny. Come on in.”

Throughout the years that I’d known Peter, his behaviour had remained much the same, as if the conversation had started some time ago, and you’d just not been paying attention. It irritated superiors and baffled co-workers, and just plain pissed off the majority of the press. It was almost impossible to get a coherent interview with him; you just had to take a lot of notes and wait for him to get to the point. That was not the stuff of which the ten second grab for television was made, so Peter, despite his immense accomplishments, remained almost unknown outside his field, despite my best efforts to publicise him, whilst other astronomers of lesser achievement but better presence were media stars. Not that it worried him. Peter wasn’t driven by a need for greatness or money or fame. He just wanted to find things out.

I wandered into the house and pulled the door to behind me, keeping the air-conditioner from having a hernia. It was still 90° in the waterbag outside. Peter gestured me to the `fridge, and I pulled a cold beer from it while he raved at someone called Smyrna on the telephone. I’d always thought that was some sort of fig. The tenor of the conversation was that Peter wanted Smyrna to change the orientation of the disk to a particular angle, and listen on a particular wavelength, and he wouldn’t tell her why, she’d know why after she’d done it. Smyrna’s response seemed to be in the negative, judging by what Peter told her to do with her disk, and he slammed down the `phone and threw himself into a chair opposite me. “I’ve got it,” he said.

“Can it be cured?” I asked. There was no point in inviting him to be any more obscure than he already was.

He grinned at me. “No, it bloody can’t. This time, they can’t make it go away, they can’t hide it, and when the news gets out, every radio telescope in this hemisphere will verify it.”

“Then why were you chasing verification before it does get out?” I sipped at my beer, which was a Grolsch, an affectation Peter had picked up at a conference in Holland. “And what, exactly is it?”

Peter jumped out of the chair, lurched over to his desk and punched a button on a tape deck. The music which played was far from what I would have expected of Peter, whose taste, if it could be called that, ran more to the least sophisticated Dixieland bands, such as Spike Jones. It seemed to be classic 60’s rock, although I was far from an expert in the field. A female vocalist with a sandpaper voice and a pounding beat behind it. There was some sort of elaborate guitar in there, as well. I raised an eyebrow and took another sip of the Grolsch.

“Do you recognise her?” Peter asked me.

I thought for a moment. “Janis Joplin?” The voice was, after all, quite distinctive.

“Yes! And there are more on the tape, tunes”, and Peter was one of the few people left who would use that word in connection with rock music, “by all the big names of the sixties.”

“An interesting selection. Most of them are dead. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, you know. One or the other did for most of them.”

“They’re just the names I happened to recognise. There are others there. I never had much interest in music, and that died after I started my doctorate. The point isn’t who they are, but where they came from.”

“Joplin was born in Texas, I believe.”

“Maybe she was, but her voice is coming from the second star to the right; at least, it was two nights ago.”

I put my beer on the upended crate that served Peter for a coffee table. According to the writing on the side, it had once contained a wave delaminator, whatever that was. In his personal life, Peter had never been the tidiest of people, even though his lab work was obsessively neat. The same was true of his observational work, which had always been so painstakingly precise as to defy any criticism of method. If he said something was true, then it bloody well was, at least to the limits of accuracy. All I needed to do was work out exactly what it was he was telling me that was true.

“Peter, I have no idea what you are saying. If you tell me that is Janis Joplin singing, I will believe you. If you tell me that it came from the second star to the right, I will believe you. Putting these two things together does absolutely nothing for me, though. What is their significance?”

He sat down and ran his hand through his thinning hair. He had always had difficulty communicating with mere mortals, which is why he gave me stories. Once he had explained to me, I could explain to the world, which would make appropriate noises of appreciation.

“They got it wrong, you see,” he said. “How would they know we were listening on the hydrogen frequency? We don’t use it for anything else, apart from sending out stupid messages that intelligent beings are supposed to work out by doing a sort of interstellar crossword puzzle. I mean, it seems obvious when you think about it from a non-scientific point of view. They’d listen for our earliest broadcasts, which would be like their earliest broadcasts, and there’s a sort of evolution in broadcasting. Start out with AM signals, or just with Morse code, then move into FM. The FM gets through the ionosphere, but most of it would be fairly low-power, too diffuse.”

I was starting to get the general gist of what he was saying, but I wasn’t exactly sure. “What about television?” I asked. He got up and whirled around, throwing his hands in the air. He seemed speechless until he got another beer from the fridge and took a sizeable slug from it.

“That’s that stupid film. I saw that. Couldn’t happen. We can’t even decode our own signals without special receivers. PAL, NTSC, not to mention the actual scanning lines; everything from 400 to 900. Colour would be even worse. How could anyone make sense of that shit. Girl was good, though, and I liked the wormholes, even if they can’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Because, even if they existed, they’d be more like pinholes than wormholes; diameter about the size of a proton, and it would take more energy than a supernova to keep one open for even a second. No, it was the sixties that did it.”

I had just enough grasp on the conversation to realise that he didn’t mean that the sixties had managed to open a wormhole when the power of a supernova couldn’t. I mean, there had been some loud bands, but that was a bit much, even for Deep Purple. “Did what?” I asked.

“Got enough FM stations up and running to give this planet a strong radio presence. What’s more, the FM signals are easy to decode; a radio is a damn sight simpler than a TV, for that very reason.”

I heaved myself out of the chair and grabbed another Grolsch from the fridge. As I sat back down, I asked Peter how this all tied in with Janis Joplin and the second star from the right.

“Because the little bastards are re-broadcasting our signals of thirty years ago. Not literally from the second star from the right, but from somewhere that’s about fifteen light years away, about twelve degrees off the south celestial pole. That’s why it’s old stuff, and old artists,” again, Peter was one of the few people who would use that word in connection with modern popular music, “because they’ve detected the signal, amplified it and sent it back where it came from.” He leaned closer, and his eyes gleamed “Fuck, Dan, this is it; this is contact, and there’s not a soul in the world who’ll be able to gainsay it.”

The enormity of what he was saying hit me. He had, on tape, a signal from another intelligent race that was saying hello by sending our own signals back to us. This was not the scoop of the year, or the decade, it was the scoop of all time! I knew better than to question Peter’s accuracy, but another thought occurred to me. “Surely, in all the time that radio telescopes have been pointed at the sky, somebody would have heard this before? And why music? Why not spoken word, speeches, the Goon Show?”

“No patterns,” Peter grinned. “Speech has little strong rhythm, but music does, particularly the rock music of the sixties. Drums and bass. I used to hear it from the pub when I was working late in the physics lab. All you could hear was the thump, thump, thump of the drums and bass. Translate that into a radio signal, and it sticks out like dog’s balls. Speech is chaotic; music is ordered.”

“Yes, but someone must have heard it before.”

“Why? If they just heard it, decoded it and sent it straight back, they might only have been transmitting for a little time. Plus the fact that there aren’t a lot of steerable radio telescopes that bother to listen for commercial radio frequencies coming from the stars, or have the software to filter out scatter from local sources. I did, and I have, and I’ve just been bloody lucky to be the first. In five years, the idea would probably have occurred to a hundred other blokes, but I’m the first. Right bloke, with the right gear, at the right time.”

The night became somewhat fuzzy after that, since Peter bought his beer by the container, rather than the carton. We sat and drank and listened to excellent sixties rock and roll, along with a few singers identified by the DJ as “golden oldies,” broadcast from the stars, and Peter mentioned that the only reason he’d had the idea was because he’d been driving along and listening to a golden oldies station on his way back from town. It had hit him like an epiphany. That night, he’d sketched out the project, and got his team together the next day to do the donkey-work. It had taken months of quartering the sky until they’d got a signal, then they just turned up the volume and listened. The last thing I remember before I passed out was Billie Holliday singing what the DJ had introduced as “Bert’s Blues.”

Despite the next morning’s hangover, I got to work organising the story and the press conference. I churned out several thousand words on the little laptop I’d brought, and faxed them straight to the paper. I set a press conference for midnight of that day, which was a diabolical time, and one which I knew would be poorly attended by the lazy swine in the electronic media. The radio stations might get there, but the TV crews would only turn out for a science item if it concerned the end of the world or a cure for AIDS. If it was a murder, fire or any other visually impressive story, they’d be fighting for space in the front row, but not for a science story. The other papers might send a cadet or the late-night hack, but they’d be too late to get the story into the morning edition. We would have the exclusive to end all exclusives, and I was the one who’d brought it into the paper.

It was a bit hectic, but we got everything organised in time, including holding back the early edition of the paper until after the press conference. When we hit the stands with this, we wanted to be FIRST; no question, the first newspaper to break the biggest story of all time. More people had turned up than I expected, from a variety of different sources. There was even the local stringer for Rolling Stone, which I thought was rather appropriate. Still, it was more usual hours for him. The others were the dusty bunch who were usually sent out by the night editor to relatively unimportant stories. The ABC had a couple from the local radio station there, fiddling with their audio equipment and sticking microphones in unlikely places. We had a perfectly good set up at the front desk, but it wasn’t good enough for them. We also had the best stereo system we could get our hands on at short notice. I believe it belonged to the features editor. Then, on the stroke of midnight, we were ready to go.

I heard the trucks rumbling out to deliver the early edition as I stood up to introduce Peter. “Ladies and gentlemen,” as I was talking to journalists, I was using these terms in the loosest possible sense, “I could deliver a great deal of hyperbolic commentary before I introduce Peter Chambers. I could list the breakthroughs he has made, and the awards he has won, but you undoubtedly have those in your obituaries, awaiting his demise, so I won’t trouble you with details you can pick up as soon as you get back to your desks. I will simply tell you that this press conference has been called to release a discovery which will be the story of all time. But, before Peter tells you what that discovery is, I would invite you to listen to something.”

I walked over to the stereo and flicked a switch. It was a live feed from the Parkes dish, courtesy of the best optical fibre lines Telstra could arrange, and the timing was fortuitous. The announcer was just back-announcing a previous track, before leading into another. His voice was deep and smooth as ironbark honey. “That was Phil Ochs, with ‘Berlin Road.’ Let’s continue that reggae feeling with Jimi Hendrix’ latest track, ‘At My Back.’”

The music started, and it was a curious synthesis, to my ears at least. Something about it must have woken up the Rolling Stone reporter, because he suddenly sat erect from his slumped posture on one of the couches at the back. I let the music play for about thirty seconds, then turned it down to barely more than a background noise and went back to the desk. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “it is my great pleasure to introduce Peter Chambers.”

We’d managed to stuff Peter into a suit, so he didn’t look quite as much like something out of Crocodile Dundee as usual. As the music played in the background, he began to speak: “What you’re hearing isn’t a local station. As a matter of fact, it isn’t even on this planet. The broadcast stems from about fifteen light years away, from a point just under twelve degrees from the celestial South Pole, in the direction of NGC 681. It is our own signals of thirty years ago, beamed back to us. This is first contact.” Peter raised his hands to stem the uproar this announcement produced. Almost everyone there was shouting questions and waving one hand while trying to dial their cellular `phone with the other. I heard the ABC radio reporter shouting something about going live to air into his. It didn’t worry me; my story would be hitting the stands right about now, and my byline would be on the story of forever. When the room had regained some semblance of order, Peter continued. “We detected the first signals five days ago. They were weak, terribly weak, but they could have been, just feasibly, picked up by a very sensitive FM receiver. They would have sounded like ghosts as you changed from station to station, drowned out by even the weakest of local community radio stations. A room to room FM intercom would have been enough. We were fortunate enough, out at Parkes, to have both a dish which be steered to the strongest point of the signal and software which could filter out the background clutter, plus the fact that there are few local radio stations in the area. What we found can be verified by any steerable dish in the southern hemisphere. We have made the software freely available on the web. I expect that confirmations should be in by this afternoon.”

That was about as far as I’d been able to coach Peter, so I grabbed the microphone from him and surreptitiously shoved him back into his chair. I signalled to a couple of assistants, who began to distribute packets of papers. “The information pack you’re being given contains all the details of this momentous discovery, including precise coordinates for the source of the signals. There’s also a tape of a couple of hours of the broadcast. Most of the technical questions are answered in there, but I’m sure Peter wouldn’t mind answering a couple of your most urgent questions.” As I expected, a forest of hands shot up, and banal questions were answered by Peter with the maddening precision and scope which made him such a difficult interview. His discussion of why the signals had taken fifteen years to travel fifteen light years was a masterpiece that began with relativity theory and ended with entangled pairs, all in about five minutes. I swear that I could see some of the journalists’ ears bleeding at the end of it. After about half an hour, I stood up and announced “I’m sure that you all want to get back to your various papers and stations, and Peter has had a long day, so we’ll make the next question the last one.” Oddly enough, it was the Rolling Stone man, who had been listening to his tape on a walkman, who stuck his hand in the air.

He took off his earphones and said: “uh, hey, man, like who’s on the tape? I mean, I don’t get it.”

I fielded this question. “There’s a list of the performers on the cover of the tape, and you can also hear the announcer introducing the tracks.”

“Yeah, I can see that, man, but, like, it’s got Jimi Hendrix doing a cover of Copperhead Road, man, and that can’t happen.”

I once had to do a story at the insect house at Taronga Park Zoo, and I stood watching a rock with a hole in it. Then I noticed a tiny glint in the hole, and, quite slowly, this immense, hairy black spider emerged. A funnelweb, the most dangerous spider in the world, and, even though I knew there was two inches of glass between me and it, I felt a cold trickle of fear down my back. I felt the same way when I heard that question. “And why, exactly can’t that happen?” Some innate don’t-be-a-stupid-prick alarm made me bite down on my tongue to prevent the words “And who are you to debate issues with one of the leading minds of our century” from escaping. I was, in later years, to light many candles to that little instinct.

“Well, like, Jimi died in 1970, man, and Steve Earl, he didn’t write that song until, like, 1988. And there’s another thing,” he went on, as I saw visions of a Walkley Prize wither and die, “it’s got, like, Stevie Ray Vaughn playing some song called Dragon’s Child, and Stevie Ray never recorded that, and he only died in 1990, so there’s no way that track, even if he’d recorded it, could have made a thirty-year round trip.”

All around that room, pencils stopped writing shorthand, micro tape recorders whirred, and the music in the background stopped, to be replaced by the voice of the announcer, describing the next track, something by Harry Chapin.

“So, man,” Bobo the Destroyer said, “what’s happening?”

In desperation, I turned to Peter, waiting for his mighty scientific brain to rescue us from this situation. He said: “who’s Stevie Ray Vaughn?”

I did, eventually, get an award, and so did Peter, after the source had been verified as not being earthly and the tapes had been analysed. It was true that all the artists were dead ones, but not all of them had been dead for fifteen years. Some of them had died quite recently. In fact it became a macabre way of finding out who had died most recently, because a recently dead rock star was always given a solid half hour in prime-time. Quite often, they played or sang things which they had never done before, working with a backing group which seemed to be composed of a who’s who of dead rock stars. The station became the most popular one in the world, particularly after the Vatican set up it’s own southern dish in Brazil and sent the music all around the world. The awards which Peter and I got were Papal Medals. Every year, around Christmas, the Pope releases a compilation CD called “Heaven’s Best,” and it always goes double platinum before the end of December.

Apart from the obvious revolution in people’s attitudes to things spiritual, there is now a rush back into good, old-fashioned rock and roll, and you can’t walk down the street for the din of garage bands practicing for their chance at eternal salvation. Two things remain as questions for me, though. The first is, how come there are no gangsta stars on the eternal airwaves? The second is, who, for heavens’ sake, is the DJ?



First published in ASIM, #1

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