10:50:58 pm on
Wednesday 03 Jun 2020

500 Million Light Years
David Simmonds

Researchers, based in Vancouver, have generated quite a buzz with a paper describing their observation of something called Fast Radio Bursts (FRB). FRBs, also called Lorimar Bursts, are sudden pulses of radio waves that come from outside our galaxy and last only a fraction of a second. Using a telescope, first available in 2018, the scientists recorded twenty-eight bursts; not a bad haul, considering that FRBs were only discovered in 2007 by Duncan Lorimer and David Narkevic.


Fast Radio Bursts.

It’s one series of Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) that has set the cat among the pigeons. They come from a spiral galaxy some five hundred million light years away. These FRBs occur with a predictable interval of once every 16.35 days and last for five milliseconds. The regularity of the intervals has the scientific community puzzled and excited. The intervals, it seems, can’t be occurring by chance or from a single cataclysm.

Let’s put the time of origin of the FBS in context. It was the Permian period on Earth. An earlier life form, trilobites, had come and gone. Brachiopods managed to survive in the deep cold waters near the north and south poles and still do.

What’s the explanation of FRBs? Some people, cheered on by the chair of the department of astronomy at Harvard University, have speculated that aliens could be sending us FRBs. The authors of the study say they lean towards an explanation that is “astrophysical in origin”; something regarding the relative orbits of a star and a black hole. Those that favour the existence of extra-terrestrial life believe the possibility of this explanation remains open. 

The FRB project, financed by Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a privately funded organization, is teaming up with New Mexico’s Very Large Observatory, what a great name, by the way, and will shortly conduct the very first sweep of the entire sky using twenty-eight giant radio telescopes; the specific objective of looking for intelligent life. It’s an interesting time to be an astrophysicist.

I’m not sure I’m ready for news that intelligent life may exist beyond the bounds of Earth or our planetary system. I applaud the search for knowledge, but I fail to see how the discovery of intelligent life some 500 million light years away is going to affect me, other than negatively. I don’t want to spend the next 500 million years worrying about what we are going to do when we contact these aliens, if they are still alive; much can happen in 500 million light years. What if their civilization chose Betamax instead of VHS? What if they transmit disease and pestilence? 


The FRBs travel a barely imaginable distance.

Moreover, it would take so long just to visit them. The fastest spaceship we make can travel only one light year in 18,000 years. It would take that long times 500 million to get there, never mind the journey back; just like monarch butterflies, multiple men and women astronauts starting the journey would have to reproduce crews to finish it.

If we are going to meet aliens, we must trust they will choose to visit earth instead. How do we know that they will contact humans? What if they decide their prospects are better doing business with the cockroaches or elephants, crows, rats or trees?

If we meet them, are we prepared for how they will appear to us? The chances that they will in fact be little green men whose first words are “We come in peace. Take us to your leader!” are remote. They are just as likely to be a form of slime mold speaking a language we can’t comprehend and that is bridling with hostile intent. Cue the old Jodie Foster and Amy Adams movies for more speculation.

Should they choose to land here in Wellington County, Ontario, are we sufficiently prepared to host a visit? What form should the welcoming ceremony take? We can only hope that they will arrive during the hockey season so they can take in a Dukes game.

The aliens can be given the usual winery tour, with a designated driver paid for by the County from its road repair reserve. If they come during tourist season, we’ll have to find some way to give them priority access to the Sandbanks, so they don’t have to spend their day lining up to get in. One just never knows how to prepare to welcome aliens from outer space.

Perhaps the County can make plans to name a new roundabout in their honour or have a demonstration debate about the size of Council. Will they be appalled at the number of short-term accommodation properties? Will they share our fear for the future of the County’s roads? Will they deplore the state of our sewage treatment facilities?


Do we have enough time to prepare?

We need a lot more time before they are ready to host aliens. Give us another, say, 500 million years. That’s light years and almost enough time to prepare.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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