They interrupted our TV show to deliver a news announcement: scientists had discovered alien life.
It came in the form of a radio signal, they said, from a star system they were calling Kepler-442. The signal was unlike anything they had ever encountered. It came in patterns that they were still trying to decode. It almost certainly wasn’t natural in origin.
It’s hard to describe those first moments of excitement we felt: we all called family and friends and felt our early skepticism gradually give way to pure giddy awe.
Over the coming days, we stayed glued to our TVs and learned more about Kepler-442, which scientists were now calling “Iris.” Iris was a blue dwarf star, smaller than our Sun. It was an invisible dot inside the constellation Libra. It was approximately 1,120 light years from Earth.
We bought telescopes during those early days, or visited with friends who had. All of us became more nocturnal, taking up stargazing and growing more adept at identifying Libra in the night sky. In the mornings, we all had tired eyes and craned necks.
A parade of experts came on the news stations to explain what they knew about the signal: it had been discovered by an amateur radio operator and confirmed by MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Groton, Massachusetts. It was broadcasting at 95GHz, a signal we use on Earth mainly for experimental microwave weapons. It broadcast at intervals and its content was different at each interval.
It sounded, when played through speakers, like a baby’s heartbeat.
“We are hard-pressed,” the MIT scientists said, “to think of a natural cause for signals such as these.”
The experts were all working hard to understand the content of the signals, but they said that until they could find a more regular pattern, they were at a loss to know what its message was, or if it was a message, or if it had been aimed specifically at us.
In the weeks that followed, we changed. The discovery of these signals made us different. We were excited and humbled and afraid, and we felt these things simultaneously, all of us, as a species. While we pushed our carts at the grocery stores, while we stood in line for our coffees, while we sat through meetings at work and dressed our children for school and lay in bed, we were bombarded invisibly by radio from alien intelligence, and we knew it. We had this in common. We looked up to the sky and we knew with certainty that we weren’t alone.
This change in us didn’t end war. It didn’t solve world hunger or poverty. But for a while, people seemed kinder to one another, more patient, more eager to come together to solve problems. Our world leaders agreed to simple things that had previously seemed intractable: repairing roads, funding hospitals and schools, helping the less fortunate.
The scientists made no progress decoding the signal. Its content wasn’t random, but it was too varied to discern any pattern of language. Top mathematicians, linguists, and encryption experts worked with the world’s most powerful supercomputers, but no one was able to crack the code. Instead, they reminded us that this signal was being sent by a civilization whose way of apprehending the universe was almost certainly vastly different from our own: their thinking was, by definition, alien, and we might never understand the signal’s content.
Additionally, the scientists pointed out, this signal had been traveling through space for more than a thousand years. It was created during a time that humanity had been in the Dark Ages, centuries before our invention of the radio: this signal was very likely not aimed at us at all, but had only found us by accident. The messages that we were broadcasting back at Iris (which scientists had reverted to calling “Kepler-442”) wouldn’t reach the star for another thousand years.
The aliens had no reason to believe that we exist.
That’s when things started to turn on Earth. Instead of making us feel less alone in the universe, the signal made us feel more alone than ever. A worldwide malaise set in. People gave up on the little things: We stopped recycling. We didn’t bother with our kids’ soccer matches or school plays. Many of us stopped showing up at work. Birth rates went down. People took up smoking. Religions grew stronger, more dogmatic, and more hateful. We bickered and fought. We had trouble sleeping at night: we dreamt about the vast emptiness of space.
Then, the signals from Kepler-442 stopped, just as suddenly as they’d started. The radio telescopes could no longer detect any trace of them. We didn’t know what this meant, any more than we’d known what the original signals had meant. There was plenty of conjecture, but there were no facts. All we knew was that we were alone again, in the quiet, with nothing but one another.