We have a new fictional episode for you to enjoy, based around first contact with an alien civilization. This is The Message!

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Chris
Hey guys, in this episode, we’re bringing you a brand new fictional story. Sit down, relax and enjoy: “The Message”

SOMEWHERE IN THE U.N.

[KNOCKS ON  THE DOOR]

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Come in

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

Madame Secretary, here is Dr Andrea Eco, from the Square Kilometre Array analysing team

DR ANDREA ECO

Very nice to meet you

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Likewise doctor, This is the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, James O’Brian

James :

Nice to meet you, and I wish we could spend more time on pleasantries. But it’s been 72 hours, have we got any news?

DR ANDREA ECO

Yes, some certainties, some unsettling likelihoods, and a concern.”

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Is the signal… [you know] real? Is it really aliens?

DR ANDREA ECO

The signal is artificial in origin, and we have pinpointed it to a small star 35 light-years away. We are pretty confident of that

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

Ok, this is good. There is rampant speculation on its origin, so some clarification would help. How far is 35-light-years?

DR ANDREA ECO

330 trillion kilometres or about 200 trillion miles

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

That’s great. It sounds far.

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

What about what it means?

DR ANDREA ECO

Well… we might have something that is.. troubling. The signal has a lot of noise so every repetition we are improving it. But we have bits that are quite clear. It’s a binary signal

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

That’s greek to me, but I do not care for an explanation. And did you get something out of that?

DR ANDREA ECO

That’s the troubling bit. We might have found something. We have used a software that looks for patterns, and compared it to known codex just to provide an idea of what it was not. But if the software is right, it turns out, that it looked like something.”

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

Was it like a math puzzle?

DR ANDREA ECO

No, the software believes that it is a message… in English.”

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Are you telling me that aliens are talking to us… in English?

DR ANDREA ECO

If the software is correct, yes… It is not a certainty yet but it is not impossible. I know it seems very unlikely that we are seeing a sensible message in English…

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

What does it say?

DR ANDREA ECO

The first fragment is “one, the star is ours.” The second one appears to be “Ireland and we discovered that your planet is rich”

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

Are they threatening us? The Sun is ours and we will fight for it!

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

This cannot reach the public. People are already on the edge, this will push them over. There will be mass panic!!

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

How many people know of this?

DR ANDREA ECO

There are about 1200 in the collaboration!

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

Are you insane? Why would you share this with so many people?? 

DR ANDREA ECO

This is simply how science is done. Large collaborations, discussions, disagreements, checking each other work

[James and Damien talk to each other]

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

There is no way we can keep a lid on it. I’m surprised it’s not in every newspaper already. What are we going to do?

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

We should focus on the uncertainty. We cannot trust what’s being translated yet. We will need personalities that come up with other interpretations, and we will let the media debate that.

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

That could work. People might be worried but not terrified.

DR ANDREA ECO

What the hell?? You’re throwing us to the wolves. It’s as pathetic as it is unethical! You are planning to question the work of hundreds of dedicated scientists cause you can’t deal with the facts.

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

No, we are trying to keep billions of people safe and the price is the ego of a handful of scientists. Seems like a price worth paying.

DR ANDREA ECO

I guess people are always the hero in their own narratives.

SECRETARY OF THE UN – PRAYAS KHAN

Everyone! Shut! The! Fuck! Up!

Doctor, I have questions for you, and I want brief and clear answers.

First, how confident are you that this translation is correct?

DR ANDREA ECO

The data being what it is gives us a one in a 1,000 chance that we’re wrong.

But when we considered only the translated text, the fact that grammar and language fits so well, it drops down to less than one in a million.

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

And how correct is the text that we have?

DR ANDREA ECO

The repeating letters and the spaces all match, but we know that there’s more around it. We can’t tell if the word “one” in the first fragment is preceded by a letter or a space. 

The next two full recordings of the signal are being analysed as we speak, we should know very soon.

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

And finally, what the members of my staff seems to have missed in their Independence Day scenarios. Ireland?

DR ANDREA ECO

Yeah, that took us by surprise as well. But the only way for this species to have communicated with us in this form is to have studied us and our communication for years, maybe decades. This is a crowning achievement for them

CHIEF OF STAFF – Damien Carré

And they celebrated that with threats.

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

I’m not at all convinced that it is a threatening message. And I suspect me and the good doctor here, share the same concern.

DR ANDREA ECO

I don’t know if it’s the same, but this is my concern. They went to great length to study the English language and to transmit a message in a way that, over time, will hopefully become perfectly clear. I don’t think this is first contact. I think they’re replying to someone.

[A stunned silence lingers for a few second]

DIRECTOR – JAMES O’BRIAN

Someone on Earth, are you suggesting Ireland, sent a message and Aliens took years or decades to study us, got our abc songs and tv show just to understand it and reply.

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

I’m with the Aliens. I would have done the same. Doctor, you can go now, please keep this embargoed as much as you can and let me know as soon as possible when you have more translation. Here’s my number. Call any time.

[sounds of scuttling, leaving, standing up]

[Clock sound]

[Newscaster sound different voices “Has the message been translated?” “The Aliens want the Sun!” “Gli Alieni parlano inglese!” “etc”.]

[Phone rings]

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Hello?

DR ANDREA ECO

Madame secretary this is Dr Eco. I have the translation.

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

72 hours! Doctor! I know science doesn’t happen in an instant!But have you seen the news?

DR ANDREA ECO

Yes, I have and there’s no way of helping that without lying to the public, and I think neither of us were willing to cross that particular bridge.

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Very well. So, should I sit down? Call my wife?

DR ANDREA ECO

No, it is a benign message but we were right. It is a reply.

The message is as clever as it is simple. Brief radio pulses some short and some long, created a binary pattern. Each emission would have been crisp and clear. 

It obviously had to cross interstellar distances, the planet’s atmosphere, the inevitable flaws in the instruments, so when it was finally received it was a bit worse for wear. It took several observations from many radio observatories for it to become unequivocal to the human race.

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Ok, cut the preamble crap.

DR ANDREA ECO

Well, here it is.

“Abigail,

It took us many years to decode and reply to your message. We looked for communications from the world of Ireland and we discovered that your planet is rich in cultures and languages as is ours.

We couldn’t understand what you meant by “my star”. So let us state with the same cordial tone, the star is ours.

We hope you’re well too and live in peace,

Your interstellar friends”

SECRETARY OF THE UN –  PRAYAS KHAN

Ok, not evil conquerers. That’s good. Doctor, I have just one pressing question. Who the fuck is Abigail?

[Dramatic music ? Like “end of the story”?]

[Static radio sound]

[Sounds of dad/mum setting up the equipment. “Are you ready?”]

ABIGAIL (AN IRISH CHILD)

Hello,

I’m Abigail from Ireland. I’m talking to the Aliens around my star. My nan named this star after me  for my birthday and said I should send you a message to say hello! ! I hope you’re doing well and live in peace and that one day you reply to this message.

Your interstellar friend!

#### FIN ####

Alfredo

This episode was guest-edited by Dr Shaun O’Boyle. Secretary-General of the UN – Prayas Khan was played by Dr Suze Kundu. The Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs – James O’Brian was played by Karl Byrne, and the Chief of Staff – Damien Carré was Ben Couvin. Katelyn Gorrell was Abigail. Alfredo played Dr. Andrea Eco. The story was written by Alfredo with feedback & support from Trip Galey.

We hope you enjoyed the episode.

Chris
We had a lot of fun making that one.

Alfredo
Yeah, it was really really good fun.

Chris
I have a couple of questions.

Alfredo
Ok, go on.

Chris
First one. Why wasn’t I in this?

Alfredo
[laughs] Technically, you weren’t in the last one either!

Chris
Well, it’s about time, I’m in one really, isn’t it?

Alfredo
Okay, the next one is all yours.

Chris
Yes. Okay, cool. Write me a good character.

Alfredo
I’ll try my best. No promises, though

Chris
Science question!

Science question, go!

If we were to receive a message from aliens and before it reached the population, it did go through government channels. Do we have or do we know of any procedure that would be in place for such an eventuality?

Alfredo
No, there is actually no official policy

Chris
Is there no official policy or no official policy that we know of. Like, do you expect that they do have one behind the scenes? Or is that too X-files?

Alfredo
I don’t know. I think it would be a bit silly. There is like the IAA SETI Declaration of Principles on how ideally we should be dealing with receiving a message but that is like one organization that said “Hey, this is what it should be done.” And it’s like confirming that the message is truly from an extraterrestrial intelligence, sharing it with the public, not allowing anyone to reply before an international discussion can be had. It is fascinating, but it’s done by one organization. I think NASA some policies from the 60s, but there’s not been any… actually I was about to say there’s not been any real discussion. They’ve been a lot of discussion, but not from a political/diplomatic point of view, which I think it would be fascinating.

The reason why I went with this was a mixture between knowing that there is nothing set in stone so I could be a bit free on pretending stuff like, the UN were a little bit more in charge than the probably it would be the case in real life. I also I like the idea that there was this contrast between I mean, the scientists and the sorts of politician or the policymakers. And I don’t think that either were correct. I wrote the bit to have this disagreement. And it wasn’t just say “Oh, do you see the scientists was right in the end.” I don’t think that science can be done without policy, without ethics, without thinking about it. But ultimately, is that there is… Actually, a tiny tangent: the lack of policy leads to groups being able to send messages into space. So there is this

Chris
Like non-official-government group?

Alfredo
Yeah, there’s this group called METI, which is Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, like SETI = search, etc. They’ve sent a message in 2017 to a red dwarf, that is 12 light-years away and as for planets, and people got a bit annoyed on this because: this is a private group!

And there are scientists, philosophers, academics in the arts involved but still, this is not a decision that is being done and has been voted by the vast majority of the population. And I’m sure that we can go on a bigger tangent on how representative is any government or the UN, but at the same time I feel that if there is a private group that send messages is like they could have the best intentions, show the best of humanity, but it’s still a single group… I’m just not comfortable with that idea.

Chris
What was the message? Do you know?

Alfredo
Oh, Don’t remember top of my head.

Chris
Now, speaking of other messages as well, I mean, surely METI is not the first time that we’ve tried to contact aliens. What I’m thinking of is the golden disc.

Alfredo
Yes.

Chris
Which while it isn’t specifically intended as a right, we’re going to send this message to aliens. It is something that is there that if it happens to be found contains a record.

Alfredo
Yeah, but it is extremely unlikely that it’s going to be found.

Chris
I know it’s like a nano-needle in a infinite haystack.

Alfredo
Yeah. The Arecibo telescope in 1978. They sent a message to our global cluster and the message hasn’t even reached the global pastor yet so not that they expect to find life. It was more technological showcase that they could send a message. So I don’t know. I think it’s definitely such an interesting conversation. And I just wanted to do something that it was a bit, in a way simple, but also a little bit hopeful because for the last few years I’ve been thinking very negative of how are we communicating and who could communicate. It’s like the METI things, and I just feel like we shouldn’t be doing it, we should be thinking about it, etc, etc. And so this is why I chose to create it around Abigail, I wanted something that it was…

Chris
innocent.

Alfredo
Innocent! Not thinking: “oh that could be a risk!” It was the innocence and also the carelessness of youth.

Chris
It is quite interesting as well where you’re talking about with people like METI, and any other groups who might want to send a message directly to aliens. And because they would only be representative of maybe one group or even one person, we are concerned with how it’s going to come across to them. Whereas that sort of twisted in this play, because we have all of the different scientists in the group interpreting it differently. You have the people thinking this is a threat, or this is it might not be a threat. We just haven’t got the full picture yet. But there’s all these different angles, and it’s just quite a nice twist rather than oh, no, we shouldn’t be saying this because they the aliens might take it badly and try and eat us! You know?

Alfredo
I would say the only thing that may or may not be realistic, the fact that aliens are so nice and open minded, and appears to be unlike humanity. I think it’s my Catholicism! Being brought up Catholic. Just the fact that the believing that there is this absolute good out there that there is no risk. Although now that I really think about it, the fact that Abigail’s Irish was just for convenience sake for how we were going to record and it is not really realted to Catholicism. Or maybe it is! Maybe it’s just my subconscious1