Remember the “Arecibo Message,” that low-res computer graphic beamed via radio telescope into deep space 32 years ago at the globular star cluster M13? Yeah, that was a hoot. The message was comprised of 1679 binary digits because, you know, 1679 is the product of two prime numbers and thusly the message can only be broken down into 23 rows and 73 columns, thus rendering it legible. Apparently this is mere child’s play to alien cryptographers (and here I can’t even pronounce, let alone solve the Sun’s Sodoku puzzle, though I swear I ordered it at Shisho the other night).
After our space-correspondents get through the mathematical rigmarole, they are then presented something of a crossword puzzle: pixels stacked such to represent our numeric system, a handful of elements, a quick riff on human DNA, a map of our solar system and crude graphic of a dude that suggests the human race is made of Legos.
Like most messages in bottles sent into the universe, the Arecibo message was both ambitious and abstruse, looking more like a reject from primordial video game “Space Invaders” than an interstellar handshake. Given our current administration’s foreign policy it indeed may have been apropos to send Space Invaders – at least it would have been more honest. But then, like personal ads, honesty is never the best policy (I once testified in the case of an aspiring black-widow who listed “thrill killing” among her hobbies. Of course, she was demented but sexy in that way that only female serial killers can be).
I mention all this because when I came home the other night, waiting in my voicemail was the alien’s reply to the Arecibo message. They did the math wrong, but it turns out that if you multiply 1679 by 23, then by 73 the resulting seven digits are my phone number.
Butterflies erupted in my stomach the moment my voicemail prompt said in her weird staccato:
“You have one new message, from Globular Star Cluster M13 at 8:17 p.m.” Immediately thought,
“Crap, what if the Arecibo message we sent was improperly encoded and was inadvertently offensive? What if it was the M13 equivalent of ‘Your sister is a serial killer’ or something worse? And why do I suddenly have to represent humanity? I can barely represent myself – that’s why I have an agent.’
The thoughts reeled through my head: Did we have really have to put a return address on the message? I mean there’s no caller-ID in space, right? We could have pranked called them for millennia without them calling back.
Messengers have, historically, suffered for the contents of their missives. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to cameo as Alexander the Great’s messenger for the forthcoming History Channel series “Man, Moment, Machine.” In it, having delivered some apparently harsh words to Alex’s foes, I discovered that the reply was having my throat repeatedly slit, take after take, and being thrown off a cliff. A pal of mine pointed out that it was apropos that I should play a messenger seeing as writers are messengers of a sort. Fortunately for my colleagues and I, we’re seldom around if someone takes umbrage with our words (though I have occasionally ducked behind my laptop when certain persons have entered my field office at the Sunflower Caffe).
“Hey, this is Stacy from Globular Star Cluster M13,” the message began as my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. “Listen, we just got your message and well, this is awkward over the phone, but…”