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How Do You Feel?

The interrogative mysteries of Deep Space.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Last June, scientists at the Astrolabe Institute in Houston made an electrifying discovery. While listening in on sounds emanating from deep space, they heard what seemed to be a conversation between two sentient creatures located on Nardalus X-50, a small, recently discovered planet. 

It was clear from the general rhythm of the conversation that one creature was asking questions and the other was answering them. The speakers had similar voices, cadences, and accents. But the creature posing the questions seemed to be animated and enthusiastic while his interlocutor seemed to be responding in a rote, mechanical fashion. As if he didn’t want to be there. As if he had answered the same question many times before. As if he had a plane to catch—if planes existed on his planet.

Initially, there was no way of telling what the two creatures were saying to one another. A phonetic record of the exchange looked something like this:


Speaker 1: Evgh, jjhty ghuoi sdhgry
     vvdf hkjgf dlgyh hjyt?

Speaker 2: Prt grggg.

Speaker 1: Ghrf evgh rhth, ghjrt chrg

Speaker 2: Prt grgggy ghrt.

The exchange was referred to the DeBeauvoir Foundation in France, which specializes in translating arcane texts. By assigning numeric values to the letters in the verbal exchanges, much as one would to crack a secret code, the researchers were able to piece together a general idea of what the two creatures were discussing. The language being spoken has 5,300 consonants and nine vowels, and is surprisingly heavy on diphthongs. The translation read like this:


Speaker 1: It must be great to start off
     the trip like this. On a positive note.

Speaker 2: It is. It is. 

Speaker 1: Tell us how it feels to start
     a trip like this. On a positive note.

Speaker 2: It feels great. It’s always
     good to start a trip on a positive note.

Speaker 1: How great is it for the other
     guys to start a trip like this on such
     a positive note?

Speaker 2: It’s really great. Really great.

On first hearing, the exchange seemed to be taking place between a TV or radio personality and a politician or entertainer. This suggested not only that there is intelligent life in Outer Space, but that there is fun. The shock waves rippled throughout the scientific community. 

Over the next few months, scientists at Astrolabe recorded many other conversations. The voices were always the same. And the structure of the conversation was always one creature interviewing another. More interesting, the first speaker was always animated, even peppy, while the second speaker was always terse, responding in clipped, measured tones: 


Speaker 1: How great is it to be so

Speaker 2: It’s great. I love being great. 

Speaker 1: Do you consider yourself
     in any way “blessed” to be so great?

Speaker 2: Yes, I consider myself
       blessed. Not everyone can be as great
     as I am. I am so, so lucky.

A third exchange ran along similar lines:


Speaker 1: That must have felt great
     out there today.

Speaker 2: It did. It felt great.

Speaker 1: How great did it feel to feel
     that great?

Speaker 2: Very great. Very, very, very

Speaker 1: Great. Thanks for joining
     us. Guys?

Until the first speaker pronounced the word “guys” in his abstruse language, the scientists at DeBeauvoir were not sure what they were dealing with. But “guys”—the universal shorthand for “back up to you guys in the broadcast booth”—is now viewed as a sort of Rosetta Stone, a cultural template allowing human beings to decode precisely what is being said in even the most enigmatic exchanges. All the evidence now suggests that the conversations are between a sideline reporter at an athletic event and the star of the particular event.

“That’s all we’ve been able to track so far,” says a somewhat dejected Mitch Collins, the Astrolabe Institute’s executive director. “We can’t pick up anything from the sports broadcasts themselves, and nothing from the rest of the planet. All we’re getting are these generic postgame interviews.”

But doesn’t this, at least, prove that there is life on other planets?

“No,” says a disconsolate Collins. “We think the creature conducting these interviews might be some sort of extraterrestrial parrot, simulating postgame interviews he heard while he was listening in to broadcasts from Earth. Another thing: We now have reason to believe that he’s playing both roles in the interview. The creature we’ve been listening in on, whether android, bird of prey, or humanoid, is a loner from Deep Space who has somehow, for whatever reason, transformed himself into a sideline reporter. He probably doesn’t even know what he’s saying. We’re also pretty certain that the sideline reporter this creature is mimicking probably worked on Monday Night Football, and perhaps covered the Sochi Olympics.”

Does this mean there is no intelligent life in Outer Space? “It doesn’t mean that there’s none,” says Collins, mulling over the question carefully. “But there’s certainly not a whole lot.”

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books

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