I’m trying to remember a short story dealing with SETI. A computer scientist, taking advantage of slack time around Christmas, launches a program that crawls through the internet, looking for messages from extraterrestrial intelligences. He intended it to analyze signals recorded from radio telescopes (the typical SETI approach), but through mistake/laziness it searched through the entire scientific literature. The punchline was that a clear unambiguous message from aliens was found, encoded in the order of bases in a segment of our DNA.

This was not written by a famous author, and I am sure I read it online instead of in a book. I suspected it was a Nature Futures story, but I have found nothing useful there. Possibly it was connected with the ending of the human genome project, which would date it to the early 2000s which feels about right to me.

As an added detail, which I hope may jog someone's memory, I think the story contained the pun "The answer is not in the stars, but in our shelves", a play on the quote from Julius Caesar ("The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves").

  • Not enough for an answer, but could it be related to Paul Davies' essay "Do we have to spell it out?" that explores that idea, published in New Scientist in August 2004? I haven't been able to find the complete text, it's consistently hidden behind paywalls.
    – SQB
    Aug 20 at 16:31
  • Also, I've checked the list of Nature Futures stories (if those are indeed what you meant) and saw nothing on there that looked like it.
    – SQB
    Aug 20 at 16:46
  • 1
    There's a similar story The Genesis Code from 2007, but it's a novel, not a short story, and the person who discovered the message was a geneticist, not a computer scientist.
    – DavidW
    Aug 20 at 21:30
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    Thank you @DavidW , but although it has a similar base concept, this is not the story I'm thinking of. Aug 20 at 21:49

By googling various versions of the pun, I eventually found the story We'll return, after this message by John Walker, better known as a programmer and a co-founder of autoCAD. He maintains a website named fourmilab, where among other things, he posts short science fiction stories. I must have visited the site before, because several of the other stories were very familiar.

I had most of the main details correct. The story deals with a programmer named Art Crane, and his scheme to find a message from extraterrestrials by combing through online scientific data. The key phrase (for me) was

“The facts, dear Clifford, are not in our stars, but on our shelves.” he said, “Why don't we look there?”

The company he and the narrator work for has a tradition of an "Annual Week of Rest" at Christmas, when "programmers would use a week devoid of managers, marketeers, meetings, and memoranda to try to out-do one another in huge bursts of concentrated effort to impress each other". They set a program scanning data on the internet, looking for patterns that would constitute an extraterrestrial message, and just before the search ends they encounter an image:

The figures on the right were humanoid, but not human. They were simply the best aliens I'd ever seen: there wasn't a single missing or disproportionate characteristic about them, but they were all wrong to be humans. There were two adults, male and female—the female was holding a little one. On the left was what was clearly a conversion table between binary numbers represented by “−” and “|” and eight digit symbols. The middle of the picture was divided into four boxes, three with a large central dot, curved lines, and nomenclature using the eight digits. The fourth contained what could only be an orrery presentation of a planetary system. At the bottom were four rows of 64 of the digits given at the left of the picture.

They found the image by accident, being sloppy in the choice of which databases to search.

If I'd been more selective in choosing data to scan, we'd never have found it. There could be no doubt; the Message was real, and it was right smack in the middle of where it most definitely didn't belong. We had found it in the NIH Human Genome database.


Could you be thinking of "The Albian Message" by Oliver Morton? It was originally published in Nature, December 1, 2005 as a "Futures" column. It appears to be available to read online. (It was reprinted in Year's Best SF 11.)

Thing is, the story doesn't really concern the discovery of the message. It's a letter from "Stefan K." to "Eva P." discussing his suspicions about what will be found, and returned, from an alien-marked Trojan asteroid that a mission called Odyssey is investigating.

But the aliens (named "Albians") did leave a message encoded in our DNA 100 million-odd years ago (before the K-T event) that pointed to a specific asteroid.

(It's possible that this is a follow-up to a previous story that discussed the discovery, but I haven't found one yet.)

  • Again this is close, but it's not the story - I've already checked through Nature Futures Aug 21 at 8:32

Possibly, How Crock and Witson Cracked a Code by Martin Gardner.

This was one of a series he wrote for IASFM. Each was essentially a mathematical puzzle that he challenged the readers to solve. In this particular story, the challenge was to decode an alien message encoded in DNA.

You can read it (and the whole series) here.

  • the stories by Martin Gardner are entertaining, but this is not it. The story I'm looking for was a proper short story, not just a framing device for a puzzle Aug 21 at 7:31

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