‘Say Cheese’ by James Tucker


My name isn’t important, what I have to say is. I am telling the world this not out of bravery but simply because I know not what else to do. I am too old to bear this secret; it crushes me. The second I hit send I will have committed treason (though I am not sure to which side) and, as I am no survivalist I will be hunted, found, and terminated swiftly.

In the early 80’s I was one of many scientists working in tandem with Harvard University using the Harvard/Smithsonian radio telescope at Oak Ridge Observatory as part of the SETI project; code named “Sentinel” with the goal of finding transmissions from extraterrestrial civilizations. Astonishingly, we did; only not as anyone ever expected. What we discovered were rasterized grids of pixels, though they were not called that at the time. What was perplexing—soon to become frightening—was that we did not intercept these transmissions from space to earth but from earth to space.

It took the indefatigable effort of a team of scientists, engineers, and code breakers to create the algorithms, hardware, and software to decompress an intercepted stream of bytes back into an image. The work expedited a technological innovation— commonly known today as a JPEG. The great shock was that after a year of labor the image we were finally able to discern was not of our nuclear sites, Washington seats of power or any military installations. It was of a normal family standing next to the Grand Canyon.

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