Science: Message from a Star...

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Intrigued by Bracewell's musings, Lunan searched back into the original reports published by Stormer and Van der Pol, who had kept records of the varying intervals between the original signals and their echoes. On the chance that these variations might represent a code, Lunan began to make graphs from them. He used one axis of the graph as a measure of the amount of time each echo was delayed. The other axis indicated the position of each echo in the sequence of echoes. Plotting the points determined by those coordinates yielded no recognizable pattern. But when Lunan reversed the axes, he got a striking result: a collection of dots that looked to him like a sky map of the constellation Boötis (pronounced boh-oh-tis). Only the star Epsilon Boötis (actually a double star system whose members are popularly called Izar and Pucherrima) was significantly out of place. But Lunan had a ready explanation for that displacement. He says that it may well have been the space probe's way of saying that Epsilon Boötis was its place of origin.

Encouraged by this somewhat flimsy evidence, Lunan plotted more radio echoes, including those reported by a French scientific expedition that went to Indochina in 1929 to observe an eclipse. These graphs not only showed the same constellation, but also indicated the number of planets around the probe's parent star. In fact, says Lunan, "the logical sequence" of one diagram is "so clear it can be represented in standard, even colloquial English." Unsatisfied with a simple translation, Lunan went on to more daring conclusions. He claims, for instance, that the constellation's brightest star, Arcturus, was slightly off to the side in roughly the place it occupied 13,000 years ago. For this too Lunan had a theory: that was the time when the probe arrived in the earth's vicinity and instructed its onboard equipment to scan the skies and draw up the star map. Lunan even speculates about the intelligent race that dispatched the probe: because their sun has now expanded into a hot ball of fire called an orange giant, they were not merely seeking contact with other creatures, but were actively looking for a new planetary home in more favorable surroundings.

Scientists are generally skeptical about Lunan's fantastic scenario. Says British Radio Astronomer Sir Martin Ryle: "Lunan gave no evidence, only beliefs." M.I.T. Physicist Philip Morrison, who believes in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, adds: "Chances are nine in ten the whole story is a hoax." Astronomer Bracewell himself doubts that the echoes were deliberate; he suspects that they were caused by a still-undiscovered natural effect in the atmosphere. Fanciful or not, Lunan's theory is not being dismissed altogether. At the London meeting, a leading British computer expert, Anthony Lawton, announced that Lunan's theory would soon be put to the test. For the next year, Lawton said, he will send off blip-like radio signals into space at regular 30-second intervals in hopes of stirring the putative probe into another response. As a precaution, however, he is keeping his operational frequency a highly guarded secret. Otherwise, he says, "someone might hoax the experiment right off."

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