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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Pyrrvhian Probe

As I've noted on my other blog, Blog Mummies of Hollywoodland, the title of this blog, Father of Modern Bloggetry, is an homage to Robert Goddard, the Father of Modern Rocketry. He was instrumental in establishing the space program and developing the technologies that help launch satellites and shuttles into orbit. So, I've decided this blog will primarily be dedicated to all things space and sci-fi related; a haven for geek-dom.

This post is from a story I wrote in a Penn State class taught by Dr. Alex Wolszczan, an astronomer who co-discovered the very first planet outside of our solar system in 1992. Unfortunately, the planet he discovered orbited a pulsar, and the astronomy community wasn't terribly excited at his finding, because pulsars are stars that pulse like a beacon, and emit huge amounts of radiation, and certainly could never support life of any kind. However, in my humble opinion, his discovery was an historical breakthrough, and it encouraged other astronomers to search for planets within inhabitable star systems. Since then, over 200 planets have been discovered outside our solar system. Dr. Wolszczan's class focused on "The Drake Equation," a famous formula that predicts the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.

The equation states that the number of intelligent civilizations capable of interstellar communication equals the number of stars that are "born" each year in our galaxy times the percentage of those stars that have planets times the number of inhabitable planets orbiting each of those stars times the percentage of those planets that actually develop life times the percentage of those that develop intelligent life times the percentage of planets with intelligent life that transmit evidence of their existence into space times the duration of those intelligent civilizations that transmit signs of their existence into space.

Each scientist or astronomer or layperson plugs in their estimate for each of the variables into the equation. As you might have guessed, answers range from .00000000001 to 100,000,000,000. In other words, even with this equation, humanity is still divided into those who think our existence is a unique occurrence and those who think the galaxy should be teeming with intelligent civilizations. I think my personal answer to the Drake Equation was 38...and trust me, that's a weird answer. The vast majority of people (and astronomers) get numbers well below 1 or well above 100,000.

Anyway, this story has nothing to do with pulsars or the Drake Equation, I just thought I'd give you some background. And, FYI, Dr. Wolszczan gave me a 100% on this assignment:

The Pyrrvhian Probe

Vush was resting in his lab one evening lazily working on his computer system, checking on what was referred to as "star system 821" to the Pyrrvhian government. Plucking away at the moist lobes on his computer console with his tendril-laden arms, he accessed the files on the system's active history of fascinating pulsed emissions. Now Vush was a very intelligent Pyrrvhian, but he had a tendency to waste time tasting the newest flavors of Pyrrvhian dishes over the computer network of food samplers. (Pyrrvhian technology is so advanced, that the programs can manipulate the chemical formations of organic materials and provide and infinite variety of tastes over a sort of Pyrrvhian "internet.") So Vush's overseer made it a habit to check on him periodically to make sure he was earning his keep as the planet's foremost "skywatcher."

"Vush! Wow! You're actually doing some work for once." Vush. Yes, "Vush" is the closest approximation the average human would be able to make in trying to say his name. Of course Vush, or at least the sound of the word "Vush," was nothing remotely like his actual name--Vush's Pyrrvhian name was actually a series of chemical gases emitted through the Pyrrvhians' frontal torsoid appendages, received and interpreted by another's sensitive nasal canal as one's name. (This was how everything was communicated with the Pyrrvhians, but we will leave this story in English for the sake of simplicity.) The word "Vush" is just a human imitation of the sound that the aliens' scent appendages produce as they emit their series of chemicals.

Vush raised his long, slender head and turned towards Gyloc, his boss. "Of course!" he said, slightly insulted. "I'm checking out that weird system just outside the range of where our probe went a few years ago...that, uh, 821; System 821."

"Hmm. Let me see those files." Gyloc stepped closer to the computer. Vush cringed a little at the sound that Gyloc's torsoid scent appendage produced. Vush suspected he had not cleaned it for several days, and Pyrrvhian scent appendages tended to make an unpleasant little wheezing noise, which was audible at close proximity, if the appendage was not maintained properly.

The files flooded the screen. A myriad of unusual characters filled the monitor, each one representing a Pyrrvhian smell. Vush gently rubbed his tentacles on his tired, bony posterior end, which had been fused to a shallow indentation on the floor, (a cheap Pyrrvhian chair) for the past few hours.

"I figured we owed this little star another look, what with this planet they've found with spectral analysis and everything," explained Vush.

"Hmm...These patterns certainly are incredible," said Gyloc as he glanced over the star's past emission records. "Let's make a closer check around the 1420 MHz area again, shall we?"

Vush began rapidly prodding the tiny nodes as the characters on the computer changed. The pair of alien scientists adjusted their frequencies until something unusual flashed up on the screen. A series of "o's" and dashes rapidly flowed across the gelatin-covered monitor.

Gyloc and Vush waited intently as the sophisticated computer arranged the "o's" and dashes in hundreds of patterns until what appeared to be a picture of a humanoid being and nine circles beside him appeared to the curious aliens.

"Oh my heavens! There's a repeating pattern there. Call President Blaff!" exclaimed Vush.


It has been more than 110 earth-years since the probe Gyloc-Vush left Pyrrvhia. The probe was stocked with gallons upon gallons of Pyrrvhian communication chemicals. The probe's state-of-the-art fusion drive can propel it at 99% the speed of light. It was due to arrive in the system about 55 years ago, and the probe was programmed to directly transmit all information to Pyrrvhia upon entering the system, taking spectral analyses of any planets encountered in order to detect the presence of methane, molecular oxygen, or nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, and upon its detection of these chemicals, will attempt to land on the planet's surface. It is equipped with standard video equipment to document the encounters after landing.


Galdruk, the Pyrrvhian, was sitting at the head of the great scientific convention and watching, as the probe that his grandfather Vush helped launch sent back its transmission. The video footage warped back to the eager aliens, containing what many had hoped to be the Pyrrvhians' first contact with another civilization. The footage had already rolled through its findings on Jupiter, the gas giant that their spectral analyses had detected, and Mars, and now, the probe was approaching Earth. The detection of high amounts of methane and molecular oxygen on this planet brought the science community of Pyrrvhia to a standstill. The educators, the physicists, and the astronomers all perched themselves in the Great Gathering Hall as the screen revealed the probe's adventure. Relaying the smell through symbolic subtitles on the screen, they watched as the probe flared and flamed into Earth's atmosphere. Landing in a lush, green valley, the probe proceeded to hover across miles of grass and grain and stopped in front of a strange red box about ten meters wide, accompanied by two tall, silver, cylindrical structures to one side. The crowd of Pyrrvhians gazed in awe as a being appeared from within the strange red structure and cautiously approached the hovering probe. Hanging on the creature's every action, the Pyrrvhian scientists watched as the probe followed through with its programming and opened its communication hatch. A tube protruded from the opening in the side of the probe, as the human stood, trembling with fear. Reaching out slowly to touch the probe, the human was startled by the quick hiss of chemicals shooting out from the tube; a simple Pyrrvhian greeting. Suddenly, the man grimaced and lurched away from the probe. His face turned red, and he fell to the ground coughing, and within seconds lay motionless on the ground below the probe from the apparently noxious series of gases used in the friendly intergalactic message.

The crowd fell smelless and still. Galdruk solemnly placed his tendrils over his scent appendage, and his cranial lobe grew somewhat green, as it often did when he was grief-stricken or afraid. And now, he was both. And so he would remain until he knew that there was once again peace in the galaxy.

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