Genome - by Carl Frederick
(Original publication, Analog Magazine, December 2004)
.......Only the soft hum of the instruments and
the buzzing of a fruit fly broke the silence in the Telescope Control Room.
At the console of the Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, Alan sat motionless,
his eyes closed and ears enshrouded in headphones. His mind was a million miles
away--a million light-years away.
.......The fruit fly, darting erratically, found Alan, the only region of warmth in the air-conditioned room, and alighted on his face. The astrobiologist swatted, missed, and knocked his headphones askew. His concentration broken, Alan took off his phones, glanced over at an equipment rack to make sure the signal was still being recorded, and then stared at the director's door. There was no putting it off any longer. Yes, he was horribly excited and fully convinced--but convincing Dr. Dietrich Reinhardt Schroeder would be another matter entirely.
.......With a sigh, Alan pushed back from the console. He stood and glowered at the door for a few seconds before tromping over to it. He knocked, then waited with his hand on the doorknob.
.......Alan heard the familiar, "Come in. Come in," delivered in an affable, firm, and very Germanic voice. He turned the knob and walked in.
.......Dietrich sat at his desk, on the corner of which stood a small, green statuette--a fanciful rendering of a grade-B movie space-alien, replete with ray gun and eyestalks. A legend on the base read, 'Dr. Dietrich Schroeder--Bug Eyed Monster Hunter'. It had been presented to him by the faculty after he'd been appointed National SETI coordinator. It was meant as a joke, but Dietrich took it as a personal emblem. Aside from that bit of whimsy, Dietrich's desk was severe--antiseptically neat--pathologically neat.
.......Thin, athletic and graying, Dietrich looked out with an expression of surprised expectation, his eyes wide and his eyebrows bushy enough to ensnare insects. "Yes?"
......."I think," said Alan, standing just inside the door, "that I've found a SETI signal. In fact, I'm sure of it."
.......Dietrich leaned back in his swivel chair and placed his hands behind his neck. "Interesting," he said with a tired voice. "Quite interesting."
.......Alan let his glance drop from Dietrich to the floor. "You could at least pretend to take it seriously."
.......Dietrich chuckled. He snapped forward in his chair, dropping his hands to the armrests. "I'm sorry. But we've had so many alien signals that have turned out to be false alarms, that I can't allow myself to get my hopes up."
.......Alan hurried up to the desk. "Dietrich. I really think we've found it this time."
......."All right." Dietrich's voice sounded slightly less tired. "Tell me about it. What kind of signal?" He waved Alan to a seat.
......."A narrow frequency that changes in amplitude and also in on/off duty cycle." Alan pulled a chair up close to the desk and sat.
.......Dietrich wrinkled his brow, bringing his eyebrows together to create a solid line of bristles. "Strange. I’d never have predicted that. This is something different."
.......Alan could see a flicker of interest igniting in the man's eyes.
......."It seems to be a hybrid modulation scheme." Alan took a ballpoint from his shirt pocket, and without taking off its cap, sketched a waveform on the desktop. "Maybe a cross between amplitude and pulse code modulation. It might even have different signals depending on how one listens to them."
......."Logical." Dietrich sprang to his feet. "Logical, and I didn't think of it." He urged Alan to his feet. "You may be on to something." He circled to the front of the desk. "I assume you've detected the series of prime numbers we've all been expecting." He continued on to the door.
......."Actually not." Alan fidgeted. "In fact, it sounds rather like music."
.......Dietrich froze for an instant, then turned and started slowly back to his desk. "Music."
.......Alan, seeing Dietrich's eyebrows separate and rise, quickly added. "I'm sure though, that it's data--information of some sort."
.......Dietrich sank wearily to his seat, and waved Alan to sit as well. "Music?" Dietrich shook his head.
......."Well, that's what it sounds like," said Alan. "I slowed the signal to audio range, then ran it through a simple R.C. low pass filter, and fed it into an audio amp."
......."Why?" Dietrich cocked his head. "Whatever prompted you to do that?"
......."The eye is good for two-dimensional pattern detection." Alan tried not to sound like he was lecturing. "But I think for one-dimensional detection, the ear might be better."
......."What does this music of the spheres of yours sound like?" said Dietrich with obvious scorn. "Holst's, 'The Planets', maybe. Or maybe something more grand. Haydn's, 'The Creation'."
.......Alan did not rise to the bait. "Well," he said, "since it's just smoothed PCM, it sounds reedy--like an oboe, or maybe a kazoo. Yeah. Sort of like Bach played on the Kazoo."
.......Dietrich stood. "Show me."
.......Alan led the way back to the control console and handed Dietrich the headphones.
......."Have you ruled out random noise?" said Dietrich, staring down at the phones.
......."It's not noise. Wrong spectrum for noise. And I don't think it's exactly random." Alan pointed at the earphones. "Listen."
.......Dietrich nodded and put on the phones.
.......Alan watched the man. It would not be good if Dietrich thought it was all nonsense--not when he needed Dietrich's enthusiastic support on a grant application.
As he waited for Dietrich's reaction, Alan began to entertain doubts. Maybe he was deluding himself. Maybe it was simply noise, and not the long hoped for sign of an extraterrestrial intelligence.
.......Dietrich pursed his lips and nodded, his massive head looking bear-like with the heavy headphones. "Ach," he said, seemingly to himself. "So God doesn't play dice, but apparently he plays the kazoo." He took off the phones and handed them to Alan.
......."Well," said Alan, tentatively. "What do you think?"
......."Come." Dietrich clasped Alan around the shoulder. "We go back to my office."
.......As they walked, Alan stole an anxious sideways glance at his boss. The man, biting his lower lip, seemed to be thinking hard.
......."It does sound like music," said Dietrich when they'd returned to the office--Dietrich behind his desk and Alan sitting in front. "But maybe too much like music." He shook his head. "Maybe it's just side-lobe reception from some terrestrial source."
......."As far as I can tell," said Alan, "it comes from a fixed point in space."
......."As far as you can tell?"
......."Yes." Alan tried not to sound defensive.
......."You've observed long enough to be sure?"
......."Well, pretty sure."
.......Dietrich slapped a hand onto to the desk. "Look, Alan. I want this as much as you do. But if you're wrong, it will make our observatory a laughing stock." He gazed away out the window, onto the giant radio telescope that loomed over the Cheshire countryside. "You may have something, but for the sake of our funding, I've got to be sure."
......."Well, I'm sure," said Alan with somewhat more conviction than he really felt.
......."All right." Dietrich faced Alan and, like a schoolboy, folded his hands on his desk. "I'll authorize a request to ask Arecibo for signal confirmation--without mentioning anything about music, of course."
......."I wish we could. The source won't be in Arecibo's steerable range for another month."
......."A pity." Dietrich rubbed his forehead. "And there really isn't anyone else we can ask. Not on such short notice."
.......Alan worked up his courage. "Still," he said, "I think I should publish--before any other observatory beats us to it."
......."I'm not entirely sure that's a good idea--saying you've found aliens sending music to Earth." Dietrich chuckled. "Publish that and you might be writing your next paper in crayon from the soft comfort of a padded cell."
.......Alan crossed his arms over his chest. "The Times would love a story like this."
......."Might I remind you," said Deitrich, "We don't get our funding from The Times." He looked down at his folded hands. "The PPARC seems more interested in the solar system," he said softly, as if to himself. "And these days, it seems as if the life sciences are getting the lion's share of the funding." He blew out a breath, and looked Alan in the eye. "The last time I asked the Research Council for an increase, the Deputy Director recited Alexander Pope to me."
.......Alan laughed, bitterly. "'Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of Mankind is Man.'"
......."I hear that all the time." Alan stood. "Look. This isn't getting us anywhere."
......."Fine." Dietrich waved him back down to his chair. "Let's use reason. We've all believed that any alien data from space would consist of a series of prime numbers."
......."I know. I know." Alan sat. "But maybe we've stumbled on communication after the aliens have finished transmitting the prime numbers."
......."Fair enough," said Dietrich, "but why music?"
......."I don’t know." Alan shrugged. "Maybe the frequency ratios in a major scale are, well, universal."
......."Or maybe aesthetics is important to these folks."
......."I'm afraid," Deitrich leaned back slowly, producing a series of squeaks from his desk chair. "I'm afraid I don't buy it. I think that's the proper English expression." He glanced at his watch, then snapped forward and propelled himself to his feet. "Ach. I must run off to a meeting."
.......Alan stood as well. Dietrich was clearly bringing the conversation to an end--an unsatisfying end. Alan cast about frantically for an idea. "You know," he said. "You might be right."
......."Oh?" Dietrich guided Alan toward the door.
......."It might not actually be music." Alan refined the idea on the run. "Any organized information could sound like music. Yeah. That must be it. We're getting SETI data, and it just sounds like music."
.......They moved into the control room.
......."I don't believe alien data can sound like human music," said Deitrich. "More likely it's from a terrestrial source." He pointed at Alan's apparatus. "Because it sounds musical, I don't believe an alien intelligence produced it."
......."But music is a kind of data," said Alan. "Other kinds of data might very well sound like music."
......."Music is music." Dietrich waved dismissively. "Other types of data won't be musical."
......."No." Alan was beginning to take this personally. "I don't agree." Then he remembered something. "Wait," he said. "I read in the Times a few months ago, about a program that plays text--newspaper articles, essays, fiction. It plays it as music." Alan let out a breath. He felt vindicated.
.......Dietrich stopped walking. "Interesting." He bit his lower lip. "That's not a fair test," he said after a few moments. "Fiction and music are similar human endeavors--fiction might indeed be represented as music. And here, you're saying the data are from an alien species. For your argument to be valid, you'll have to use data not of human creation."
.......Under the pressure, Alan's memory became more focused. "You know--when I was in grad school, a friend took Earth magnetic field data and sent them through a digitizer. It sounded like music." As soon as he said it, Alan realized he'd made a mistake.
......."Just proves my point," said Dietrich. "One of them, anyway. Those data weren't intelligent, just magnetic field fluctuations. So here we have non-intelligent data sounding like music."
......."But.... But it wasn't very good music."
.......Again, a fruit fly came and buzzed around Alan's face. He batted at it in exasperation, but then got an idea. "Dietrich. I can give you some intelligent, but non-human data."
......."The fruit fly--Drosophila melanogaster."
......."I'll interpret the fruit fly genome as music."
.......Dietrich laughed. "The fruit fly genome?"
......."Yes," said Alan. "Why not? I've two specialties. I'm half an astrophysicist, and half astrobiologist."
.......Dietrich threw a glance at the ceiling. "A half-astrophysicist," he said under his voice.
.......Dietrich sighed. "Alan, my impetuous young colleague," he said, brightly. "Why don't you drop by my house Sunday afternoon," he said. "Say about two o'clock. We can play a few games of chess, have tea, and calmly discuss these matters. Yes?"
......."Good." Dietrich patted Alan on the shoulder. "And until then, let's not talk about this. Okay?"
.......Alan looked down at the floor. "Okay."
.......Dietrich softened. He smiled. "Ja. Go make fruitcake genome music," he said. "I'll be interested."
......."That's fruit fly."
......."Of course. Fruit fly." Dietrich gave Alan a curt bow, then turned and strode out of the control room.
.......Alan watched the man go, then started as the fruit fly dive-bombed his head.
......."Damn." Alan grabbed a copy of Astronomical Letters, rolled it up, and went after the insect. Then he noticed the buzzing. Using his ersatz fly swatter like a baton, he conducted the buzzing.
.......He was gratified; the buzzing did not at all sound like music.
.......That evening, Friday, Alan downloaded one of the four fruit fly chromosomes from the Web and printed out a page of the data. He studied the sheet filled with combinations of just four letters, A,G,C, and T--representing the bases, Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine. The trick was to make music out of them. Over a cup of tea, he wondered if he should use not the bases, but the amino acids instead. Three bases represent an amino acid. But where there are sixty-four combinations of three bases, there are only twenty amino acids. Multiple combinations of three bases represent the same amino acid.
.......Alan figured out a method; he'd force the music to be in c-major and represent the most important notes in the c-major scale by the amino acids that had the most number of base combinations representing them. As for sharps, flats, note duration and that sort of stuff, he'd use six base combinations--just for the sake of making the sound stream interesting.
.......Saturday, Alan wrote the program. As for the sound itself, he took the easiest solution--square waves. It was a first attempt, but it would give himself something to build on.
.......By early afternoon, he'd written the program, and by nightfall, after seven solid hours of debugging, he was ready to try it. He reminded himself it was just a first approximation; he shouldn't expect much in the way of 'music'.
.......As he mouse-clicked the 'run' button on his compiler, he noticed that his hand was shaking.
.......A few moments later, he expelled the breath he didn't realize he was holding. Thirty seconds further on, he let out another breath he'd not known he was holding. He could hardly believe it. His program was playing music--hummable, singable music. And what was better--unbelievably better, the music sounded much like the signal from the Lovell telescope. A different musical scale, but very similar.
.......It was late, almost ten at night, but even so, Alan phoned Dietrich with the news.
......."You won't believe it." Alan, paced the room while holding a cordless. "It's music. And in fact...." Alan froze with an idea.
......."In fact, what?" said Dietrich. "Alan. Are you there?"
......."Um..." Alan knew he was about to say something that would convince Dietrich he was indeed a fruitcake. He took a deep breath. "In fact," he said, "I think the signal could well be an extraterrestrial intelligence sending us their genome."
......."You can’t be serious."
......."Why not?" Alan threw himself into an easy chair. "Remember the plaque they sent up on Pioneer-10. The one Carl Sagan and Frank Drake designed."
......."That just had a few pictures of naked humans on it."
......."Yes. It was an effort to show who we are. But sending a genome would really show what we are. God, Dietrich. It makes so much sense."
......."You really believe this, don't you?"
......."It's a logical consequence of the extra-terrestrial origin of life theory."
.......There was silence on the line for a few moments. Then Dietrich spoke. "I want to hear it. Can I come over?"
.......Alan couldn't help feeling the excitement in Dietrich's voice.
......."Yeah. Great," said Alan. "I really want to show you--to get your ideas on all this."
......."I'll be over in ten minutes." Dietrich broke the connection.
.......Alan put down the phone and dashed to the kitchen to make tea--more tea. He'd probably drunk a couple of gallons of it during the last thirty hours. While filling the kettle, he whistled 'Sheep May Safely Graze', by Bach. He laughed with an idea. If a genome can be represented by music, then can music be represented by a gene? He wondered what amino acids that Bach tune represented, and wondered if it were a gene. And he wondered if he knew any geneticist who could tell him. He laughed. Don't get giddy. You're a scientist.
.......Eight minutes later, Dietrich rang the bell.
.......Alan let him in, led him to the study and sat him in front of the computer. Alan clicked on 'Play Chromosome' and then watched the man.
.......As Dietrich listened, his eyes widened and his expression became that of an excited kid.
......."It's beautiful," he said when the program had terminated.
......."It's not bad, is it?" said Alan. "And I only used exons in the signal conversion."
......."Exons?" Dietrich spread his hands. "I'm only a humble physicist--well, maybe not so humble."
.......Alan laughed. "Over eighty percent of the genome," he said, "is noise--garbage. It has no genetic information. Those parts are called 'introns'. The parts containing the actual genes are called 'exons'."
......."The introns have no function in the cell." Alan led the way to the kitchen. "In theory, you could encode tons of information into the introns without it making any difference. And the information would stay there throughout all of evolution." He poured two cups of tea and handed one to Dietrich.
......."Interesting." Dietrich took a sip of tea. "How do you tell these exons from the introns?"
......."Three base combinations don't make any amino acids. Those seem to indicate the end of a gene. And the acid, methionine, seems to be the start bit."
......."Clever, these genomes." Dietrich put down his cup. "I assume you played the--what did you call them--introns as well."
......."Actually, not," said Alan.
......."You should." Dietrich leaned forward. "If the introns sound like music, then you are probably wrong." He rubbed his chin. "The introns are not intelligent data, correct?"
......."Then if they sound like music, then that music must be an artifact of your implementation."
.......Alan had to agree. But it scared him. This could wreck his theory. He blew out a breath. "Yeah," he said. "I can do that. Just a change of a few lines of code."
......."Can you do it now?"
......."May as well." With Dietrich following, Alan trudged back to his computer. He fired up the compiler and stared at the code. "These two lines." He made the changes and recompiled the program. He moused to the 'run' button, and sat motionless.
......."A problem?" said Dietrich, standing behind Alan's chair.
......."No." Alan sighed. "No," he said again. "Time to face the music." Holding his breath, he clicked the mouse.
.......The notes cascaded from the computer speakers.
......."Wunderbar," said Dietrich after half a minute or so. "That is not only not Bach, it is not music."
.......Alan, feeling a great sense of relief, let out the breath. He laughed. "No, it's not. Is it?"
......."This is staggering," said Dietrich, softly.
......."All right. I'm sufficiently convinced." Dietrich clapped Alan on the back. "I do think we have an alien signal to analyze now. Publish! And as director of the observatory, I'll support your results." He chuckled. "Perhaps they'll give us adjoining padded cells."
.......Alan smiled. "I'll share my crayons." He stood. "Let's have a celebratory drink--something stronger than tea, this time." He and Dietrich moved to the living room.
.......Alan opened a cabinet, withdrew two glasses and a bottle of wine. He filled one glass, then as he was filling the second, he put down the bottle and stood gazing into space.
......."Something wrong?" said Dietrich.
......."I've spent much of my life searching for patterns," said Alan. "And no, the introns do not translate to music, but I can't help the feeling that there's some pattern there." He slapped the cabinet top. "I've got to go back and check."
......."Okay, let's go."
......."No," said Alan. "This is solitary work. Stay here and enjoy the Cabernet Sauvignon. I'll be back in fifteen minutes, max."
.......He swiveled around and went back to the computer.
.......Alan pulled up the chromosome file and this time, examined it by eye. He looked only at the sequences of introns. Thinking of each sequence as a separate word, he looked for patterns. After ten minutes or so, he found a representation. Each 'word' contained four subwords, each of which could be coded as a number. The first word gave a series of twos, and the second a collection of four threes. Coincidence maybe. He checked the third word and nodded in relief. The values were 5,5,4,5. Then came 7,7,7,7. No pattern, thank God. He checked the next word and found 11,11,11,11. Uh oh. The values after that were 13,12,13,13, and after that, 17,17,17,17.
.......Twenty minutes later, Alan walked slowly back to the living room.
......."What's wrong?" Dietrich asked. "Did you make a mistake? Do these introns sound like music after all?"
......."No," said Alan, softly. "No. They're not music. But the beginning introns of the chromosome show a sequence of prime numbers."
......."What?" said Dietrich, his eyes slowly widening. "Du lieber Gott," he said, quietly after a few seconds. He grasped the arms of his chair. "Are you sure?"
......."Why hasn't anyone else found this?"
......."Probably, no one ever looked." Alan, walked over to the wine cabinet. "Biologists don't generally look for SETI signals in DNA." He picked up his half-filled glass and belted down its contents. "Each prime is repeated four times. I'd say it's for signal redundancy in case of chromosome mutation."
......."And after the series of primes?" Dietrich spoke softly, almost in a whisper.
......."I don't know." Alan shook his head. "Who the hell knows? Perhaps way in the past, aliens had encoded signs of their existence into, the chromosomes of some early life--bacteria, or something. They'd still be in our DNA." Alan gave a bark of a laugh. "Who knows? Maybe the SETI signal is a phone call from home."
.......Dietrich shook his head slowly. "There must be another explanation."
.......Alan stared at his colleague, waiting for, indeed hoping for, a tenable theory.
.......In the silence, Alan noticed a soft, distant buzzing. He looked away and saw an insect flying in through the open kitchen door--another fruit fly.
.......Offended by the inefficiency of window screens, Alan gazed at the little creature. He felt his usual annoyance with flying bugs--but this time, an annoyance tinged with awe.
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