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Future Tense: Re: Search

From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.

For some, data collecting will always be more rewarding than data mining.
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Re: Search, illustration

It had been a long time since anyone in the circular, domed building at the top of the hill had looked at a screen connected to a remote telescope in Chile or Hawaii; longer still, since anyone other than an excited schoolchild had looked through any of the building’s own telescopes. But it was still called an observatory, and within it astronomical discoveries were still being made.

"I’ve done it," said Nga. "Cracked it."

"What?" Heatherington asked.

The young Malaysian postdoc could not stop grinning. "Found the aliens, and cracked the Fermi Paradox."

Heatherington suspected a leg-pull. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence had long since become a weary joke; the Fermi Paradox, or challenge—"If there are aliens, why aren’t they here?"—accepted as unanswerable.

"That’s a big claim," she said.

"Oh, the biggest!" He gestured at his screen. "See for yourself."

Heatherington rolled her chair from the doorway to the desk. Nga stood behind her as she scrolled through the data. Even with her years of experience, the figures and diagrams were not easy to interpret. She leaned back and looked up.

"Go on," she said. "Talk me through."

Nga reached across her shoulder, fingers flicking as he tabbed and highlighted, zoomed or shrank.

"Start with terabytes of raw historic data, from the Hubble and Kepler and Spitzer and the Webb and all the rest—everything I could find. Focus on stars we know have habitable planets, whether or not we already detected organic signatures. The trick is we have decades—centuries, if we include the ground-based observations, as I have—worth of data to work with. Then apply the algorithms I’ve been building for the past few months, to tease out every tiny fluctuation. Far more subtle than those used to detect exoplanets. I’m wringing out the last drop of significance here, mind you!" His arm waved, making the screen lurch for a moment. "Sorry. Right. Here you go. Two cases of habitable planets that show multiple spikes of anomalous and clearly artificial wavelengths around them for a century or so, then settle in to a still anomalous but small but steady glow. The spikes indicate orbital activity, asteroid mining, and so forth; the glow, a self-contained, self-sustaining planetary civilization."

Heatherington snorted. "Or radioactivity from fallout!"

"No, no. The gamma’s too minor a component, and too steady."

"Hmm." Heatherington sat back. "And what’s your interpretation? Why did they stop space exploration?"

"For the same reason we did," said Nga. "They found that applying algorithms to existing datasets was a much more efficient way of generating new discoveries than accumulating more data. And that the new knowledge enabled better use of available material resources, which was a much more efficient way of creating new wealth than accumulating ever more new resources."

"Yeah, tell me about it," said Heatherington. She banged the side of her chair, steel-rigid and feather-light; smacked her thigh, to which the feeling was already coming back, mere weeks after her accident. Her knee moved reflexively—another improvement, another step to toward, well, a step… The nerve-regeneration technique had been found 10 years earlier, buried in the implications of an obscure and long-forgotten biochemistry paper from the 1990s, unearthed by an algorithm.

Even that metaphor would soon be obsolete. Just as biologists, astronomers, and cosmologists kept making discoveries in historic data, so archaeologists hardly ever needed to dig; they could reconstruct almost every ruin and artifact from ever more subtle implications of surface traces detected by satellite and aerial imaging. Research had become Re: Search. And the better its results, the smaller the budgets that could be justified for expensive new hardware, such as telescopes and space probes…

Heatherington spun her chair around and looked at Nga. "Very nice," she said. "What are you going to do with it? I think it needs some tightening up."

"Yes, of course!" said Nga. "I was rather hoping that you…"

"Oh yes," said Heatherington. She grinned, relaxing now that he cut her in on it. "Very nice, very nice indeed. It’s beautifully… self-referential, isn’t it? All this time people have been wondering about where the aliens were, and the answer was hidden in the data all along."

"The spikes indicate orbital activity, asteroid mining, and so forth; the glow, a self-contained, self-sustaining planetary civilization."

Their paper, "A Possible Resolution of the Fermi Paradox: A Preliminary Analysis of Historical Survey Data," was published, acclaimed, critiqued, and in due course stored on a prismatic crystal storage device about the size of a human fist and containing the complete astronomical records of every human civilization. Now, some 57 million years later, the storage crystal was drilled out of sedimentary strata from what had once been the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean by an exploration team of the Hrrlllth, the only intelligent species in the galaxy to have failed to invent the electronic computer. Driven by resource shortages to mine every moon and asteroid in their system, they had stumbled on the ancient fragments of exotic matter that had given them their warp drive, and the stars.

They had no idea what the crystal was. The team leader took it back to camp, where the science officer used it to build an optical telescope.

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