Paul McNamee: Heard the one about the cosmic signals?

As we spin into Brexit chaos, it's helpful to cast an eye to the skies

Cut into the hills in south China, about 2,000km from Beijing, is the world’s largest telescope.

It’s not one of those telescopes that you look through, the sort that non-science minds like mine think of as telescopes. It’s a radio telescope. Effectively it’s a massive dish (alright, cosmos lovers, there is unquestionably a more informed way to describe it, but I’m hardly Carl Sagan). It’s 500 metres in diameter. That’s very, very big.

It’s sitting there, ready to move a little to focus better, to pick up radio signals, signs from deep space, both of the origins of our universe and, more interestingly, really, of other life.

So far, it’s picked up evidence of a few new pulsars. And after I googled pulsars I felt that, frankly, our big Chinese telescope could do with pulling its socks up. Of course, space is pretty big, and it could take a while for messages to hit us, but still.

I find dipping into the vast amount of knowledge that is available to us, just to swim around in it, is refreshing

More interesting is what is going the other way. We are leaking noise. The Earth is a big transmitter, sending radio and TV waves out into the great wide yonder. Loads of them. It’s not intentional, they just head out and up. We’ve been doing this since Marconi got his act together a bit over a century ago. And scientists say that these first signals are around 100 light years away now. In space terms, of course, this is basically next door. It’s also, curiously, not far from HD 186302. That’s the snappy name for our sun’s twin.

Experts believe that this star was created from the same gas cloud that birthed our sun. And given how we came along, it’s not totally out of the question that up there is another life form. And around now, they’re beginning to receive faint radio signals, which when decoded will tell them about us.

Which means that in about 100 years, our pals up there (let’s say that dogs are in charge – why not!) will start getting messages about Brexit. It’ll take another 100 years for their response. By which time you and me will be long gone, but Jacob Rees-Mogg will be an automated head flip-flopping over decisions with Boris Johnson, a harrumphing hologram, holding out for that one last chance to lead the Tory party, and explaining why we need to take our country back.

But of course, by that time, the sea levels will have risen and the Earth will be scorched, so the colony on Mars will be the place to be. But still, ORDURRRRR!


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The Mental Health Foundation published a report recently saying that Brexit anxiety was damaging the mental health of the nation. They estimated that 22 million people felt powerless because of Brexit and that around 12 per cent had trouble sleeping.

I find dipping into the vast amount of knowledge that is available to us, just to swim around in it, is refreshing. And as you can see, this week, space is involved. That and boxing.

Britain’s two oldest men, Robert Weighton and Alf Smith, both turned 111 last week. Their secret to a long life? For Robert, laughter. For Alf, porridge.

So there you have it. Don’t worry, have your oats and find something unquestionably, scientifically funny – like The Odd Couple or Irish Alan.

Then send that info on a signal into space. The dogs will love it.