Sunday, 4 September 2016


Dreams of a Distant Signal

When I was still living in Calgary the household received an unaddressed mailer from the City asking residents not to bag and dispose of their grass clippings. Who knew that shorn blades of grass were essentially 70-per-cent water and made fine natural mulch if left to decompose in the sun? Who knew that yard waste clogged landfill sites? Suddenly one of the most basic lessons of exterior property maintenance that my father instilled in me and which I diligently followed was fundamentally wrong. That moment was a minor epiphany.

The Observer last Sunday reported that Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) scientists were very interested in a strange signal, possibly purposely beamed from Hercules, a constellation 95 light years away from our home base. To add to the intrigue, the Russian Academy of Science had detected the anomaly apparently emitted from deep space over a year ago but had suppressed its findings.

I’d been playing foosball with this news since August 28th, kicking it around. First I considered the source: the Observer has been published every Sunday since 1791 and is not affiliated with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire of hysterical tripe. The scoop originated with a respected science blogger who had read the existing documentation. While Ivan Semeniuk, the Globe and Mail’s science reporter, had yet to weigh in on the story, the National Post did address it the following Wednesday morning albeit with an irksome brevity although skepticism was warranted: nothing was certain, nothing was proven, more research and study were obviously required. Still, two reputable publications have taken note.

Around the time my perception of grass clippings was changed forever, I remember riding a packed bus along Ninth Avenue into downtown Calgary. I was crammed up beside the driver, almost invading his space. He nodded at a billboard on our right which trumpeted an insane amount of millions to be won if we bought tickets for that week’s government lotto game. ‘What would you do with all that money?’ I said, ‘I’d get the Beatles back together and have them play in my backyard.’ He nodded, watched the traffic shifting in the lanes ahead, checked his review mirrors and said, ‘But two of them are dead.’ I said, ‘As if I’m going to win. I don’t even play. But if I’m going to dream, it might as well be the impossible.’

Reading the news daily my sense is that our planet is staggering toward the verge of an epochal reset. Progressive forces have secured some remarkable beachheads advancing human rights, social policy, environmental stewardship, and fewer restrictions on trade and migration. Digital technology may yet prove to be the great global equalizer. Artificial Intelligence may direct or influence a new phase of human evolution. The equal and opposite reaction consists of tired, sectarian wars, corporations with no greater goal than a positive quarterly report to shareholders, extreme nationalism, social unrest and a regressive entrenching of the boundaries of protectionism and isolation as government policy. Odds are even that we may yet extract ourselves from the quagmire of our basest, primordial muck. What is the solution and where is it?

HD164595 is a star in Hercules much like our own sun. The implications, ramifications and consequences of an artificial signal from somewhere in its vicinity would have been Earth shattering. Hold on to your tinfoil hat because everything, the foundation and essence of our existence, life, would have abruptly changed in a cosmic nanosecond. We are not alone; it’s time to pull ourselves together and look our best. There’s no app for that kind of wake up call. Come Friday morning the dream was over, worthy of a mere inch of newspaper column type. The mysterious signal’s source was confirmed to be terrestrial in origin, give or take a margin of error of 95 light years, faulty data. Radio telescopes are delicate instruments utilized by clumsy operators. This is us.

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