Some of my more fundamentalist scientific friends deride my obsession with music; One of them once asked me what the purpose of music was. Things need not have purpose to be beautiful, I had told him with self-ascribed wisdom in my voice and poetry in my eyes. But I have come to realize that my retort, as parnassian and poignant as it had seemed at the time, was ultimately untrue. Every cog in the machine of creation has a purpose. That we do not know its purpose does not imply that it lacks one.
In spite of my earnest love for music, I was born without the necessary talent to make any of my own. What I have instead is a gift for mathematics and a fondness for staring at the heavens. Music, stars and mathematics were first my three loves. Even in adulthood, I have managed to find a way to carry on my affair with all three in my capacity as a signal processing engineer for with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life institute (SETI). Indeed, my entire life has been influenced in many ways by these three things but the story I wish to tell you is the most important. And to be honest, it is not really about me. It is, for the most part, about my son.
He has always been a special child, Kola. It cost his mother her life to bring him into this world. My darling Teniola always was a blithe and strong woman; gracefully resisting the snide comments and disapproval of her parents that came with her decision to marry an American of Igbo descent and inspiring me to complete my Post-doctoral research when the workload was near-impossible to bear. She was the rock on which I built myself during the five years were shared a life together. Even in the hospital as she bled to death and the doctors struggled to save her; she fought on and gave our son to me before she gave up. I named him after her grandfather.
They first time that they told me my own son would never really be able to understand me, I did not understand them. He had seemed to be developing normally, despite a tendency to avoid looking at people and long periods of inattention, which I had taken to be insignificant quirks that he would outgrow. One day, Mrs Torrens, the head teacher at his care center had called me in for a talk. She said she had seen signs like those before and that I should see a professional. Early diagnosis was important, she had said with a strained smile and serious eyes. A few ‘professionals’ and tests later, Kola was diagnosed as autistic.
Everything became complicated after that. Teniola’s parents in Nigeria were well past the age where they could keep up with a child again, much less raise an autistic boy. Mine had long since passed away. Friends and colleagues offered lots of advice but no practical help. I managed on my own, a single parent and immigrant with an autistic son. It put an almost unbearable strain on me but after the first few wild oscillations, I somehow managed to find stability. It was just difficult, not impossible; thanks to an understandable supervisor and a reasonable workload that consisted mostly of making sure that the static signals SETI received from the farthest reaches of space were exactly that – static. And things proceeded quite placidly in this manner until the ‘BirdSong’ signal came and everything changed.
I quickly established that the short signal – a constant microwave beam transmitted from a source 6500 light years away from earth in the vicinity of a starbirth cloud called the Eagle nebula – was not static. It was a series of recurring three-second long pulses -a genuine signal from an extra-terrestrial source. The entire planet was soon caught up in a wave of speculation about this alien signal.
SETI suddenly demanded all of my time and energy as we struggled to understand what the signal meant. It was the most important work in signal processing history and I was at the forefront of it all. I barely had time to take care of Kola.
This became even more so after I discovered that there was more to the signal than we initially thought. While looking for relationships between constituent elements of the signal, I found something astonishing. Using Shannon analysis to search for relationships between the signal elements based on conditional probabilities, and classifying the relationships using ‘entropy levels’, I established that the ‘BirdSong’ was a language of some kind. Shannon analysis of chimpanzee communication is seen to teeter at about second order entropy, dolphin whistles usually get up to fourth order levels, human language reaches nine or ten. What I found with the ‘BirdSong’ indicated entropy levels well above forty. It was an alien language exponentially more complex than ours and we needed to understand it.
It became a monumental task that consumed me. I spent almost all the money I had on nurses and special teachers for Kola. I tried to see him every day when I could but decoding the eagle signal meant staying in the office very late most days, pumping the signal through language processing algorithms as fast as the linguistics programmers could write them and trying to decipher the results. By the time I returned home, he was usually asleep.
After almost eight months of barely seeing him, I started bringing him with me to work at night and on the weekends. I would lock myself away in my office and play Fauré and Debussy; occasionally walking over to the playpen I had installed in my office for him and attempting to extort a smile. Sometimes he would fall into a deep sleep while I worked and I would rise to watch him in his calm sopor, seeing his mother’s face staring back. In those moments, I was thankful he was not the aggressive type or anywhere near there on the autism spectrum. His autism only manifested as an inability to communicate or make eye contact with anyone. He was seven years old and I had still not heard him say ‘Papa’ or ‘Daddy’ or utter any intelligible words really. Even though he understood basic arithmetic, he still communicated like an infant. The realization almost always brought me to tears and it was in those moments I wondered what manner of life my son could have beyond the basic rudiments of biological function.
It was on one such evening that my three first loves music, the stars; mathematics conspired with my son to conjure up a miracle. Kola was playing in his corner and I had just run the ‘BirdSong’ through a processing algorithm I wrote myself, where I tried to set each group element of the signal to chords on a musical scale, hoping that it would somehow aid our ability to comprehend it. I was playing it back repeatedly and although the signal was now more euphonic, it was no less incomprehensible. As I sat there, listening to my alien transmission in E-minor, I heard the most curious sound; a faint scratching.
I turned around to see Kola drawing something on the floor with one of his crayons, toys abandoned by his side. Curious, I walked over to him and saw that he had drawn a circle and a square side by side, a plus sign between them with a line separating them from a circle below. Next to that, on the other side of an equality sign, was another circle above a square. He had drawn this same configuration six times, and was drawing it again with wide eyes and a smile. Realization dawned on me suddenly and I leaped to my desk to turn off the chord-enhanced transmission. Kola stopped drawing.
My breath caught. I did not dare hope that it was more than a coincidence but as I resumed playing the transmission, Kola picked up his crayon and continued drawing. Amazed, I watched as he drew the pattern over and over again. It only took me a few minutes to recognize his crude representation of the divine proportion for what it was. I swept Kola up from the floor, into my arms and began to dance gleefully around the room, tears streaming joyfully down my face.
It was in that moment that I came to the realization which I have now affirmed as a personal truth. Every cog in the machine of creation has a purpose. That we do not know its purpose does not imply that it lacks one.
Kola is not alone.
And neither are we.
Photo credit: palabradevida.wordpress.com
Wole Talabi is an engineer, science fiction aficionado and wandering spirit currently based in Abingdon. In his spare time, he writes and edits short stories most of which you may find at http://www.thenakedconvos.com/category/the-alchemists-corner