Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Wendll shifted his weight from right to left in an unsuccessful attempt to get comfortable as he straddled the stool. The stool was set slightly too high for him, but the adjustment mechanism was jammed. He didn’t mind when he was balanced in the middle so that all four of his feet dangled off the floor, but the rounded seat was polished so he tended to slide from one side to the other. Wendll sighed, dismounted, and put four books on the floor as footrests. He reseated himself. The books helped, but he resolved to fix the stool tomorrow. Tonight, he didn’t have the time. A paper for his Unified Studies Class at Purple River Preparatory School was due the next morning and he could put it off no longer.

The assignment was to write a footnoted report of at least 1000 words on any speculative matter of science, art, or history. The broad freedom to choose his own topic hadn’t made the task any easier for Wendll. He had chosen “On the Search for Extra-Sullenean Intelligence,” but now he was having second thoughts. Wendll pushed his reservations aside; it was too late to change his mind. After all, he already had finished up in the library where he had jotted his notes on index cards. In truth, for the general sense of his essay he was relying almost entirely on a single article in the Globe Book Encyclopedia, but he knew he needed to appear to have consulted more than one source, so he had flipped through two other books as well. From each of those he had copied quotes he could use and then cite in his footnotes. Wendll rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter, accidentally jamming his thumb-claw. He cursed, pulled out his claw, reset the paper, and began to type.

On the Search for Extra-Sullenean Intelligence
by Wendll Uodrenjn
Unified Studies 2-8 – Miss Yooldrn

Wendll stared at the paper for several minutes at a loss as to what to write next. At last, he decided any beginning was better than none.

Many people believe alien visitors have been part of the history and prehistory of our world Sully from the very beginning. They postulate that aliens even helped to found our ancient civilizations. Cave paintings seem to show strange creatures and objects in the sky. Most archaeologists interpret these as mythological images, but a few have suggested they might be depictions of ancient aliens. Support for this view is provided by the ongoing rash of Flying Sickle sightings, so many of which remain unexplained. The Defense Agency’s press liaisons continue to insist these sightings, even when they are documented and not faked, are of common objects such as weather balloons or of natural phenomena such as ball lightning. A cadre of believers in Flying Sickles, however, dismisses these explanations as deliberate deceptions by the government. Some of the more extreme conspiracy theorists claim our military is secretly in possession of a Flying Sickle that crashed at the time of the infamous Pendl Incident; they even consider rumors that one of the alien pilots was captured and is still alive to be plausible.

Confederal authorities do appear to have covered up something at Pendl, but it might have nothing to do with outer space. Some stories in foreign newspapers indicate an experimental propeller-less military airplane is what crashed at Pendl, which would explain the Defense Agency’s secrecy. Two civilians claim to have been at the crash scene and to have seen something extra-Sullenean there before army guards showed up and shooed them away; one even claims to have seen the dead bodies of bipedal aliens. Their claims are intriguing, but both witnesses have some credibility issues, not least because both try to make money by writing and speaking about their experiences and about Flying Sickles in general.

So, it must be admitted there is no firm evidence that Flying Sickles are real. Thus, by Fernl’s Razor, we must assume that the existence of Flying Sickles is unlikely

Wendll paused because he wasn’t entirely sure where Miss Yooldrn stood on the question. He decided to be on the safe side and added

at least tentatively.

Wendll worried the sentence structure was awkward, but he didn’t want to start over with a fresh sheet of paper.

Doctor Rondlf is best known as a science fiction writer, yet she was a practicing scientist before that. In fact, when she was still young enough to be a he, he was part of the team that discovered the radioactive isotope tritium.

Wendll included the gender detail because he, too, fantasized about earning a doctorate long before his own maturation and transformation into a female, though he doubted he had the discipline for such an early academic achievement.

Though Rondlf’s novels abound with aliens, she tries to be both cautious and openminded. She famously asked fellow scientists at Twin Mountain University where she teaches, “Where are they?” This is sometimes called Rondlf’s Paradox. If alien civilizations are out there, shouldn’t we see some evidence of them?

Rondlf, in her amusing autobiography Rented Space, recalls that her colleague Doctor Zanwlp responded to her query by saying, “Even if they exist, which I doubt, unless these hypothetical aliens have powerful communications lasers pointed in our direction, we wouldn’t see them even if they are only a few tens of light years distant.”

“Suppose they don’t use lasers. They could rely on some alternate technology such as radio waves,” Rondlf suggested.

“Impractical,” Zanwlp countered. “Radio waves propagate fine in space, but on the surface of any habitable world, ionization from magnetic fields makes a hash of them.”

“Suppose they live on a world that is quieter in those parts of the EM spectrum,” Rondlf speculated.

“Oh come now,” Zanwlp chuckled. “How could plant life exist without magnetosynthesis? It is a contradiction. Besides, think of the vast quantities of refined heavy metals required by radio technology if it is used on a large scale. Realistically, the fundamental technology of any advanced civilization will be based, as is ours, on ceramics. I know you’ve written fiction tales about iron-rich alien worlds with iron cores, but life is very unlikely anyplace like that.” She added, “The gravity would be crushing and the surface might be very unstable.”

“How can we be so sure?” Rondlf persisted. “We could send a probe into deep space that is designed to listen to the full radio spectrum, and it could laser its results back to Sully.”

“You are writing science fiction again,” Zanwlp complained to Rondlf. “The probe you describe would be very expensive. Try convincing the Confederal Council to spend money on such a silly idea in this economy. We are in a recession, you know.”

Despite her skepticism, the conversation did cause Zanwlp to consider what the requirements would be for extra-Sullenean civilizations. In the anthology, Speculations of Leading Stargazers, she says the following:

“Any plausible world with intelligent alien life must, like Sully, be a satellite of a gas giant much like our own Colossus. It must be in a very precise and stable orbit around the primary. Too close to the gas planet, and tidal forces will overheat the interior; too far, and the life-giving radiation and magnetic flux from the planet will be too attenuated to support magnetosynthesis. The orbit around the sun also is important. A world must have liquid water for life, which means the gas giant and its life-bearing satellite together must orbit the sun at a distance that will neither vaporize nor freeze water. The alien star surely would be, like ours, a red dwarf; anything larger would be unsuitable for gas giants in its habitable orbital zone.”

She then presents what is known as the Zanwlp Equation:

N = R* x fp x fpm x ne x fx fi x fc x L

This means the number of detectable galactic civilizations is equal to the rate of star formation times the fraction of stars that have gas giant planets, times the fraction of gas giant planets that have moons, times the fraction of moons that are habitable, times the fraction of those moons that develop life, times the fraction of those that develop intelligent life, times the fraction of intelligent species develop technical civilizations, times the length of time technical civilizations last.

“It is likely,” Zanwlp said bleakly, “that civilizations inevitably self-destruct not long after they become technical, which means the number of civilizations in our galaxy at present most probably is just one, our own.”

Wendll estimated the number words he had typed and figured he had met the requirement. He quickly wrapped up the paper.

In truth, there is a lot of guesswork when assigning numbers to any of the factors of the Zanwlp Equation, so some people, including Doctor Rondlf, have suggested there might be as many as 10,000 civilizations contemporary with our own. Our very existence proves it is not impossible for intelligent life to arise. Unless the pilots of a Flying Sickle see fit to land in full public view on the Executive Castle’s flower garden, however, we may never know for sure.

Wendll added his footnotes and typed a bibliography. He sighed in relief.

His best friend Berkjj from the neighboring dorm room stuck his beak in the door, and said, “Hey Wendll, let’s get a beer.”

“Sure, why not?”

Sully was tidally locked to its primary, and, at the longitude of Purple River Prep, a mere sliver of Colossus peeked above the horizon. So, on clear nights the sky always was dark enough for hundreds of stars to be visible. As Wendll and Berkjj strolled across the Hex toward town and its strip of bars, Wendll looked up at the stars. He wondered if anyone up there was looking back.

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