Hearing exciting but unconfirmed rumors that scientists at the Arecibo Observatory - which monitors potential signals for the SETI programme (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in the remote hinterland of Puerto Rico - had picked up a series of unexplained sounds from deep space, I rang my contact there to try to find out what all the fuss was about.
Orville Leukowitz - who used to feed me stuff from Houston control centre during the Apollo Missions when I was a TV researcher back in the 70s - wasn't too forthcoming. I imagined scenes reminiscent of the film Contact, based on Professor Carl Sagan's novel, in which a complex burst of sonic activity was picked up by the very large array of 27 linked radio telescope dishes in New Mexico, sending Jodie Foster into a frenzy of excitement.
"Nothing so dramatic," said Orville. "But something strange is going on. A candidate signal was selected, and we fed it into our computers. There are signs that we may have picked up a mathematically coded message. You know what they say - mathematics is the universal language of the universe. And whatever it is, it ain't local. The problem is, computers these days have such a degree of artificial intelligence that we think they might even be capable of the human weakness of wishful thinking."
"So what's the message, Orville?" I asked. He ignored my question.
"This thing is by no means done and dusted," he said. "We still need to run a lot more tests. But we have what seems to be a chain of Anglo-Saxon words which do not appear to be randomly produced. It appears to us to have no meaning, but the rudimentary sentences do contain a subject, noun and verb. There's no way it's a natural phenomenon. It does sort of make sense, but it doesn't, if you see what I mean"
I didn't, but I let Orville continue.
"The message - if indeed that's what it is - appears to be coming from a source roughly 58 billion miles from earth. There are no known planets in that vicinity, but there is a star called Alpha Rameses which could support planets. The radio waves would have left their source approximately 24 years ago."
"But Orville, what the hell was the message?" I asked frantically.
"I... I can't tell you" he said, his voice dropping. "It's classified. National security implications and all that. We daren't go public with this yet. But I can tell you the jingle - if that's what it is - which precedes it."
"What d'you mean, jingle?"
"Well, it sounds like a sort of tribal war dance in Morse-code. It's much too regular to be random. It goes sort of "blam - blam - blam blam blam, blam blam blam BLAM - blam blam! The groupings of three blams and the last two blams are staccato. It's like: 'dash, dash - dot dot dash - dot dot dot DASH - dot dot.'"
It didn't make much sense to me, but it kept playing on my mind, so last week I called Orville again, at home this time, and attempted to pry the rest of the message out of him. This time, to my surprise, he was a little more compliant.
"Look" he said, "I'll tell you. But it must be in the greatest secrecy. Unless someone is playing a gigantic practical joke on us, the message was: 'Earthmen - you think it's over. It is now!' See what I mean? It makes sentences. But no sense"
"But that's incredible, Orville!" I said. "Don't you know where that's from? Something very similar was said by a British football commentator - a chap called Kenneth Woolstenholm - 48 years ago when England won the World Cup, and when Alf Ramsey was the England manager."
"My God," said Orville. "Are you serious? Then that explains it. Perhaps it isn't a practical joke!"
"What d'you mean?" I asked, hardly able to conceal my excitement.
"Well, there's another sentence in the message which I didn't tell you about," said Orville. "It just didn't make any sense in the light of what happened to your English football team in Brazil. But I can see it now! It all makes perfect sense. If TV coverage of the 1966 World Cup was being monitored from deep space, it would have taken 24 years to reach Alpha Rameses. And a further 24 years for us to get their reply."
"So what was the final part of the message, Orville?" I could hardly contain myself.
"This is unbelievable," he said. "It was: 'Congratulations England on winning the World Cup!"