It was after midnight. I lay in the bottom bunk, my arm reaching out to the old radio on my nightstand. It was a brown plastic box warmed from within by glowing vacuum tubes, and the speaker was covered with disintegrating cloth. I lowered the volume a little before twisting the knob to find a new station. I didn't want the static and that wide warble the comes between stations to wake up Patty in the top bunk. She'd yell at me to turn it off, or worse, she'd tell Mum.
This was the best part of my day. I lay there in the dark with just the glowing radio dial and the stars out my window to look at. Every night, on WBZ, I listened to the Bob Kennedy Contact show and he had on people like Edgar Rowe Snow telling us ghost stories about places right there in Massachusetts. Or Jeanne Dixon predicting the future. Later, I'd twist my way through the radio spectrum, discovering in the static and warble a station all the way from Indiana, and one from Montreal, where the announcer was speaking French. I discovered news, music, stories.
I was by myself, but I wasn't alone.
The rest of my day was school and homework and some stupid TV programs. What a relief it was to reach for that smooth knob; it was like I was scanning the universe for signs of intelligent life. I couldn't find it in my house, that's for sure. My parents were so boring. And not in my school. My teachers were pathetic. The same stuff every day. Get out your homework. Open your book... Boring, boring.
But at night, in the dark, my thoughts spooled out into the universe like fishing line following a hook and lure. And which was more exciting: discovering something new, or the anticipation of discovering something new? Hard to say.
Well, decades have passed, and now I spend hours every day reaching out to my computer, the transparent blue plastic cover warmed by something mysterious within. I use it to write stories, to scan the world for news, and believe it or not, I am also searching for intelligent life in the universe. Really.
There's an organization of radio astronomers who are scanning the universe, looking for radio signals from alien civilizations. Just like Jody Foster in Contact. Only now, instead of just using the astronomers' computers to analyze all that information gathered from the heavens, someone had the brilliant idea of using the collective power of millions of our personal computers. And my trusty iMac is analyzing the radio signals that are coming from my own teeny-tiny sliver of sky. Together, we make up the mother of all computers. The project is called SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
If I don't touch my keyboard for a while, my SETI screen saver comes on, and it's during that idle time that the SETI software is doing its thing, crunching those numbers, and if ET does indeed phone home, the computers just might intercept it.
And, from time to time, the SETI program does phone home, downloading and uploading, hooking in with all the other computers.
This stuff is a long way from listening in the dark, searching for intelligent life in Indiana. I like to think that this generation of radio astronomers were also kids who were awake when everyone else was asleep, twisting through the radio spectrum, wondering what else was out there.