Austria is the only country in the world that’s shaped liked a frying pan. The handle stretches west, pushing into the heart of Europe and sharing borders with Liechtenstein, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. This is Voralberg, which in German means “beyond the mountains.” It’s where Heidi was born and used to run around playing, in the region named Heidiland to be specific. Towards the east, however, leaving behind cities such as Innsbruck or Salzburg, the land of Mozart, we arrive to the frying pan itself, the place where things really heat up. That place is Vienna. Very close to Hungary and Slovakia. And something very important was about to get cooking.
Exobiology is a science which, for the moment, lacks any physical object of study. That’s because to date we have been unable to identify any living organism originating outside our planet (or dead one for that matter, unless the authorities are keeping us in the dark). All the same, it’s a specialism that can be studied at numerous universities across the globe, and also goes by the name of Astrobiology.
A group of lecturers from one of these faculties, specifically from a private institution named Life in Deep Space (LDS for short), which was secretly financed by some of the most influential fortunes in the world, had met up in Vienna.
They were staying at the sumptuous Palais Coburg, designed in 1839 by the architect Karl Schleps and also known, among those less able to afford its prices, as “Asparagus Castle” because of the columns decorating the main facade. The building was later turned into the city’s most expensive hotel and so the group of scientists, with almost unlimited funds at their disposal, were able to celebrate their conclave in practically unbeatable surroundings.
The meeting took place in the Blue Salon, recently in the news as the place where the nuclear deal was signed between Iran and the USA.
What’s more, Palais Coburg is located between Coburgbastei and Sellerstätte, very close to the park where we can view the famous statues of Johann Strauss and Frank Schubert, among other well-known composers. That’s why this venue couldn’t be more appropriate.
Serena, an elegant scientist with beautifully defined features that seemed to have been carved from ebony, presided over the secret gathering. With a marked South-African accent, she began to speak.
“The Leadership has sent us to Vienna because our associate astronomers across different points of the globe, such as Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in the Canary Islands or Mauna Kea in Hawaii, have confirmed that we are about to receive a sign of intelligent life.”
“Also at Arecibo, Kitt Peak and La Silla in Chile,” added Robert, her right-hand man.
“Everything seems to indicate that the first contact we have all spent decades so eagerly waiting for is about to be established,” continued Serena.
“Analysis of the full background radiation spectrum confirms this prediction,” whispered Hans, a quiet specialist in listening to and deciphering the sounds of the Cosmos, and key player in the SETI programme.
“However, in this city there is no radio telescope with any significant power or even a decent optical telescope,” added Beverly, a ginger-haired woman who had discovered a dozen potentially dangerous asteroids.
“Vienna’s old astronomical observatory is located in Sternwartepark. We’ve already contacted our mole inside that institution and we’ll have access to the telescope,” replied Serena.
“As to the coordinates, there’s no doubt at all. Whatever it is, it will arrive here. Or be visible here,” said Beverley.
“Or audible,” Hans pointed out, timidly.
“Exactly!” Serena exclaimed. “That’s a very solid possibility. Have you heard of the trend in music referred to as the Second Viennese School? That’s why we have the musicologists and twins Ander and Casper here with us.”
Ander began to speak, under the watchful eye of his identical brother Casper.
“Three great pioneers make up Second Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Two of them committed suicide.”
“Actually, their music, which is also called dodecaphony or twelve-tone serialism, isn’t exactly apt for all tastes,” his brother responded.
“Well I love Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night,” replied Ander. Everyone else present remained silent until Callum, a Scottish astrophysicist who had earned widespread respect for his articles on dark matter, decided to have his say.
“But if you came from another planet and you noticed this city, in order to communicate with its inhabitants would you choose this Schoenberg fellow or Strauss?”
“Without a doubt, Strauss is much more popular,” answered the twins in unison.
A pensive silence spread among the group until Serena once again took the reins.
“We’ll divide up across different locations as we’re not exactly sure what form this manifestation will take. On the banks of the Danube stands the imposing Millennium Tower, at over 200 metres tall. It’s the highest point in Vienna. We’ll set up one team there in case this first contact has some visual component to it.”
Night descended on the city. Vienna’s luxurious and inviting historical cafes were already full of clients and the pulse of the streets began to speed up, oblivious to what was about to take place.
The team were equipped with expensive apparatus for detecting broadcasts from outer space. Small in size, so as not to attract attention, and fitted with precision headphones, these devices hacked the frequencies of radio telescopes located hundreds of kilometres away so as to use them without being detected. In this way, the team managed to combine the power of many different bases, forming a listening network that pointed straight into deep space.
“The Leadership was right. Vienna is the place and tonight is the time,” mumbled Hans.
Beverly then turned to Ander and Casper, who seemed a little out of place.
“You two are musicologists and you’ve been invited here because we need your knowledge. The Leadership knows that contact will not happen via the language of mathematics, nor through supposedly universal equations such as E=mc2. Because it may well be that they’re not universal at all.”
“But the magic of numbers…” protested Igor, a Russian mathematician and winner of the Fields Medal, the highest distinction awarded in this discipline.
“I know, Igor,” Serena cut in. “Pi, the Fibonacci sequence… But there is a language more universal than numbers, according to our Leadership’s predictions. And that language is music.”
“In that case it has to be a ternary rhythm. You know. One, two, three; one, two, three…” said the musicological twins at the same time, each conducting an imaginary orchestra with their right hand, the “one” coinciding with a downward movement to the bottom left corner of a triangle traced in the air.
“Of course! A waltz!”
Panspermia, the theory that claims life on Earth is extraterrestrial in origin, was confirmed when they heard the chords of The Blue Danube, perfectly recognisable although performed on bizarre instruments that the twins were unable to identify.
“Who turned the radio on? Is that Spotify?”
“No! The signal’s coming from beyond our solar system.”
Stanley Kubrick was right when he chose this waltz to accompany the images of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
We are not alone.
There’s music in the stars.