That 168 seconds of noise, now known as the Arecibo message, was the brainchild of the astronomer Frank Drake, then the director of the organization that oversaw the Arecibo facility. The broadcast marked the first time a human being had intentionally transmitted a message targeting another solar system. The engineers had translated the missive into sound, so that the assembled group would have something to experience during the transmission. But its true medium was the silent, invisible pulse of radio waves, traveling at the speed of light.
It seemed to most of the onlookers to be a hopeful act, if a largely symbolic one: a message in a bottle tossed into the sea of deep space. But within days, the Royal Astronomer of England, Martin Ryle, released a thunderous condemnation of Drake’s stunt. By alerting the cosmos of our existence, Ryle wrote, we were risking catastrophe. Arguing that ‘‘any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry,’’ Ryle demanded that the International Astronomical Union denounce Drake’s message and explicitly forbid any further communications. It was irresponsible, Ryle fumed, to tinker with interstellar outreach when such gestures, however noble their intentions, might lead to the destruction of all life on earth.
In the years after I left, the stories I told about this place were always fun and lighthearted, the dragon-boat races, Chinese dice games, Cantopop karaoke. Then I found an old leather-bound journal I had kept and was dumbfounded at the misery. Down and out wasn’t fun, getting rocked by a financial crisis didn’t feel like a roller coaster, losing your first job out of school, getting evicted and spending all your savings just to survive was romantic only in retrospect.
The city was too big, too expensive and too tough for me. What made it tolerable and, through the hazy tint of memory, a wonderful time, were the friends I made. Ng Chung led me down a back staircase, to a bar where they knew him as well as they used to know us at the Globe. His assistant left and we drank happily, as before, chattering away without comprehending the words but still understanding.
Where I’m standing now, State Route 58 is a four-lane highway separated by a twenty-foot-wide, deep ditch. Farther down the road, about a mile from Boron, California, the ditch disappears and the two lanes join together.
I figure the accident probably happened where the highway splits. The drunk driver probably mistakenly continued into the wrong lane, driving into oncoming traffic. I don’t know for sure, but that’s where I decided to park my car, since it’s close to where the accident report said it occurred.
There are farewells and farewells, but it must be said that ballet farewells are the best farewells. No one pulls off a final performance quite like a famous ballerina, particularly if she is Russian. The performance itself is only the beginning. Then comes the real event: the tears, the piles of flowers, the confetti raining down from the rafters, the roar of the audience. And that feverish sense that the audience just can’t let go.
Last Friday, the forty-year-old St. Petersburg-born ballerina Diana Vishneva gave her final performance with American Ballet Theatre, the company she has danced with for the past thirteen years. She’s not leaving dance altogether, just ending her formal relationship with A.B.T. Like many ballerinas at her age, she wants to slow down, travel less, focus her efforts.
But I read it in what felt like 10 minutes, and it left my mind feeling like it had been kissed by some sunburn. Its action is so vivid that you seem to be consuming (imagine Wolf Blitzer’s voice here) breaking news. Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight.