Stars, hide your fires

Retirement is a good time to reminisce about things that you don’t get a chance to do much anymore. ‘I spy with my little eye’, of course, was always one of my favourites when I was trapped in the back seat of the car on the long road-trips my parents seemed to enjoy. My mother was usually the one who tried to distract me from the rhythmic kicking of her seat or poking her neck -I had enough sense, even in my early days, not to mess with my father while he was driving. But as I got older and my vocabulary increased, I began to insist that the clue being given was not merely its first letter, but -in a moveable feast- a variable letter in the middle of the word -the fourth, say; or when it was my turn to choose it, a letter even further along the sesquipedalian ladder. I stopped being invited to accompany them, after a year or two of Olympian challenges, and my mother arranged for me to stay with friends.

But, of all my childhood memories, the best involved hide-and-seek adventures with the kids in the alley behind our house in pre-diluvial Winnipeg. It’s amazing how easy it is to hide in a metal trash can when you’re small and mouldable. Or to climb so high in a leaf-laden tree, that nobody on the ground could ever hope to spot you if you stayed completely still. In the autumn, of course, a pile of leaves was a favourite, but I always preferred something that didn’t allow any cheater who saw you, to jump on the leaves by mistake as they inevitably claimed. Same with snowbanks in the winter -it was all too easy for one of them to lie over the breathing hole in their parka until you admitted defeat by screaming at them (albeit a muffled surrender accompanied by a hastily dug escape route in case the perpetrator pretended they didn’t hear you).

But retirement offers an advantage not accorded to bygone years: the ability to wonder how whatever game we used to play could be modified to suit current technology. And no, I don’t mean using the iPhone to send cryptic pictures of your whereabouts, or texting misleading Emoji clues -that would be especially jejune to a self-respecting child with even a scintilla of pride.

I suppose we always had it in us to modify things, but seldom the perspective. Rarely the context. With hide-and-seek, we always considered the viewpoint of the seeker: where to hide so we wouldn’t be outed. Given that hiding was the paramount goal, it’s not surprising that the hider was looking for places where the seeker wouldn’t suspect; the purpose of the game, after all, was to continue being sought, not being found… Unless, that is, you were the seeker. Are you beginning to catch my drift?

For a moment, let us pretend that the purpose of the game did not really involve a seeker -or, rather, that the seeker was unaware that they were supposed to seek anything; they weren’t even aware they were in a game. So, the object of the non-game for the rest of us, then, would be to hide in plain sight -not by waving our arms or somehow doing something offensive to them -but merely to be noticed. The game, has now expanded: any person has the potential of being a seeker, and the purpose of the hider is to become unobtrusively noticed without seeming to have attracted their attention. Anybody can play, right?

The problem of always playing it in the same lane behind your house is that everybody pretty well knows everybody else, so it would likely lose a lot of its cachet. Clearly, the game would have to expand to another lane. Another neighbourhood. To pretend you’re lost, or something, and see if anybody notices.

Stupid game, I hear you whispering… But it’s thinking outside of the playground that scientists do all the time whenever they are looking for a research grant. In fact, it was one such idea that caught my eye in an article in Nature. It was summarized by a frequent contributor, Alexandra Witze about a fascinating paper (Nature 594, 505-507) by the authors L. Kaltenegger and J.K. Faherty titled ‘Past, present and future stars that can see Earth as a transiting exoplanet’.

‘In the search for life in the cosmos, transiting exoplanets are currently our best targets,’ write the authors -but we should similarly be visible to them under similar circumstances -if, that is, aliens actually live on some of those planets, and have at least a similar level of technology as our own. Oh yes, and curiosity -they’ve got to want to play the game.

‘Those aliens would be the natural choice for Earthlings to look for, say the scientists — because they may have already had a chance to spot us, and thus might be primed to be ready for communications from Earth… There are about 2,000 stars, some known to host planets, that in the recent past or future are in a location that allows them to see Earth passing across the Sun. Some are close enough that our radio waves have reached them.’

Why couldn’t every star in our Galaxy, or for that matter the Universe, have the same chance to see Earth transit in front of our Sun? Well, ‘because stars can slide in or out of the narrow slice of the sky that happens to line up with both Earth and the Sun.’ If you’re in a different lane from the seeker, good luck being seen, eh? Anyway, ‘The discovery was made possible by the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory, which has compiled the best 3D map of stars so far.’

And, ‘Of those stars, the authors further identified 75 that are close enough — within 30 parsecs — for radio waves from Earth to already have washed over them since humans started to produce them. Those might be particularly good targets, Kaltenegger says, because aliens there could have both seen and heard us by now.’

The old hide-and-seek days seem trivial compared to this, I suppose, but I’m still glad I grew up when I did: you just never knew what you were going to find hiding alongside you in the garbage can; and of course you also hoped you’d be found in time to hear your mom calling you for supper. Some things are still more important than the game…


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