-Caveat Lector-

>From NATURE magazine, Nov. 5, 1999
> Improving the neighbourhood
> The death of a nearby star system comes as a relief -- and a warning.
> At last, after feats of information processing that taxed our resources to
the limit, we have solved the long-standing mystery of the Double Nova. Even
now, we have interpreted only a small fraction of the radio and optical
messages from the culture that perished so spectacularly, but the main facts
-- astonishing though they are -- seem beyond dispute.
> Our late neighbours evolved on a world much like our own planet, at such a
distance from its sun that water was normally liquid. After a long period of
barbarism, they began to develop technologies using readily available
materials and sources of energy. Their first machines -- like ours --
depended on chemical reactions involving the elements hydrogen, carbon and
> Inevitably, they constructed vehicles for moving on land and sea, as well
as through the atmosphere and out into space. After discovering electricity,
they quickly developed telecommunications devices, including the radio
transmitters that first alerted us to their existence. Although the moving
images these provided revealed their appearance and behaviour, most of our
understanding of their history and eventual fate has been derived from the
complex symbols that they used to record information.
> Shortly before the end, they encountered an energy crisis, partly triggered
by their enormous physical size and violent activity. For a while, the
widespread use of uranium fission and hydrogen fusion postponed the
inevitable. Then, driven by necessity, they made desperate attempts to find
superior alternatives. After several false starts, involving low-temperature
nuclear reactions of scientific interest but no practical value, they
succeeded in tapping the quantum fluctuations that occur at the very
foundations of space-time. This gave them access to a virtually infinite
source of energy.
> What happened next is still a matter of conjecture. It may have been an
industrial accident, or an attempt by one of their many competing
organizations to gain advantage over another. In any event, by mishandling
the ultimate forces of the Universe, they triggered a cataclysm which
detonated their own planet -- and, very shortly afterwards, its single large
> Although the annihilation of any intelligent beings should be deplored, it
is impossible to feel much regret in this particular case. The history of
these huge creatures contains countless episodes of violence, against their
own species and the numerous others that occupied their planet. Whether they
would have made the necessary transition -- as we did, ages ago -- from
carbon- to germanium-based consciousness, has been the subject of much
debate. It is quite surpprising what they were able to achieve, as massive
individual entities exchanging information at a pitiably low data rate --
often by very short-range vibrations in their atmosphere!
> They were apparently on the verge of developing the necessary technology
that would have allowed them to abandon their clumsy, chemically fuelled
bodies and thus achieve multiple connectivity: had they succeeded, they might
well have been a serious danger to all the civilizations of our Local Cluster.
> Let us ensure that such a situation never arises again.
> Dedicated to Drs Pons and Fleischmann, Nobel laureates of the twenty-first
> © Sir Arthur C. Clarke 1999.
> Sir Arthur C. Clarke is chancellor of the International Space University
and the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. He is the author of 2001: A Space
Odyssey and many other novels and stories, and was nominated for the Nobel
Peace Prize for inventing the communications satellite. His latest book is
Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! He lives in Sri Lanka.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
>  [Macmillan Magazines]  Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1999 Registered
No. 785998 England.


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