Ask the Aliens: False Positives


[Ask the Aliens is a monthly feature on Misreader that attempts to contact aliens in order to answer life advice questions here on Earth. Read the open call here or check out the previous letters here. If you have a question send it to misreaderblog at gmail dot com with "Ask the Aliens" in the subject line.]

Dear Alien Hivemind,

I run a modest literary journal with some friends that is kind of successful but not so successful that anyone would be able to to name it, even people in a genre-friendly space like literary Twitter. My problem is that I will frequently think that I have met someone who is cool as shit, and be so into them and their work that I ask them to be a part of what we do. These people will be really positive about the invitation, and tell me that this is probably the opportunity they have been waiting for. I take that as confirmation that yes, this person is as awesome as I thought, and that my journal is about to take a huge step forward.

Then comes the let down. These people inevitably turn out to be flakes. They never get back to me. Or they get back to me after I write to them and they tell me that they're really sorry, they can't do it. This has happened three or four times. I keep on getting let down by people who say they will do something and then either drop out of my life forever turn up empty-handed. Am I just getting a wrong read on people? Can I not spot flakes at all? Does my enthusiasm get in the way of my better judgement? And if that's a problem that I have with my (in the big picture) inconsequential literary thing, what about all the other people I want in my life, like partners and friends?

Why can't I find someone who is actually who they were supposed to be? Don't you let me down too, you're the aliens, you're supposed to be the ones with all of the answers.

Sincerely,

Flaked On

Dear Flaked,

I know what it's like to put your hopes into someone or some thing and then get let down: the aliens haven't directly responded to your question, just like they haven't answered any of the previous questions we've had here on Misreader. BUT, recent events in the search for alien life have given us something that we can construe as an answer, if you'll bear with me.

Take the recent news that a strong radio signal was picked up by SETI researchers in an observatory in Russia from a stellar system in the constellation Hercules scientists dubbed HD 164595. This signal was really strong! And plus, it was coming from a star system that is known to have a exoplanet in it. That planet has been described as Neptune-like, but never mind that, it's possible there could still be a more human-friendly, life-sustaining one in the system we haven't discovered yet.

But the science news media that reported on the new signal (which wasn't really all that new—it had been dusted off from 2015—something that's strange in and of itself) transformed this story into an event that looked less like an anomalous signal and more like the Singularity. Headlines fell across a spectrum, with responsible science reporting like "SETI has observed a “strong” signal that may originate from a Sun-like star" at one end and the borderline science fictional "Not a Drill: SETI Is Investigating a Possible Extraterrestrial Signal From Deep Space" at the other. The latter gives you the impression that the aliens have said hello, there is no stopping them, and they will soon be here. I for one welcome our new the Simpsons cliche overlords.

It only took another day or two for the story about our inevitable first contact to come plunging back down to earth. It turns out that the RATAN-600 radio telescope the Russians were using is not as accurate as other radio telescopes that do similar work. Because of its configuration, RATAN-600 is much more prone to picking up random noise from here on earth: microwave ovens, wifi signals, secret military tests, all that stuff. And when news of the signal broke and scientists turned their attention to HD 164595, no ongoing transmissions were detected coming from the star.

Another big astronomy story recently had science lovers and wonderers of all ages completely pumped: the discovery of an exoplanet revolving around the closest star to our own, Proxima Centauri. The stories themselves seemed glad to proclaim that, given the history of Proxima Centauri in pop culture, science fiction was about to become scientific word-is-bond. Unfortunately, there was a lot of bad news about this planet: one hemisphere might be locked in eternal darkness, with the other poisoned by constant solar radiation. And it's still very, very far away for human bodies to reach. Voyager 1, a space probe that I have written about extensively, will take close to 74,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri.

Your predicament, is not so much that things are not what they are supposed to be, but that you turn them into things that they are not. Like an overzealous content writer, you are taking a straightforward-though-remarkable science news item and turning it into the Singularity.

My guess is that you're probably only making this mistake about the part of your life you're complaining about: your literary journal. The partners and friends that could be flaking on you but as far as you know aren't is a good indication that you're the kind of person who can make okay judgement calls when it comes to most people. It's the literary community that is letting you down. That's not a-too huge surprise, but it is something that you need to plan for.

Just like anyone who is interested in science needs to be aware that the best sounding scientific headlines are probably totally bunk, you need to be aware that people who write and create art can imagine and promise things that they can't actually produce. The good news is that in either the search extraterrestrial life or for good contributors, the false positives and flakes won't keep you from finding what you're looking for, as long as you are careful and patient, and rational.

Images: [Top] Detail from "Allen Telescopes Soda Blasting" by Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

[Graph] " HD 164595 radio signal profile" by Gilster, Paul (Centauri Dreams) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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