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His Master's Voice, Page 11

Stanisław Lem

  Let me just emphasize that from penetrating to the "sense"—or, to put it even more colloquially, to "what the letter was about"—I remained as distant as I had been before starting this work. Out of the innumerable features of the "letter," I recognized, and recognized only indirectly, one, one that had to do with a certain general property of the structure as a whole. Because I had succeeded so well, I later tried to attack that "second problem"—the resolution of the structure in its "closure"—but during my tenure at the Project I came up with nothing. Three years later, no longer with the Project, I renewed my efforts, because the problem had been pursuing me like a stubborn ghost. I achieved only this: I proved that using the apparatus of the topological and transformational algebras would NOT enable one to solve the problem. Which, of course, I had no way of knowing when I first sat down to the task. In any case, I provided a powerful argument in support of the contention that we had indeed received from the Cosmos the sort of thing to which could be attributed—considering the degree of concentration and cohesion that produced "closure"—the qualities of an "object" (that is, of the description of an object—I am abbreviating here).

  I presented my work not without apprehension. It turned out, however, that I had done something that no one else had thought of—for the reason that during the preliminary discussions the idea had won out that the letter must be an algorithm (in the mathematical sense) and therefore a general-recursive function, and the search for the values of that function had swamped all the computers. This made sense to the extent that, if the problem were solved, the solution would carry with it information pointing, like a road sign, to further stages of translational work. But the order of complexity of the letter-as-algorithm was such that the problem was not solved. Meanwhile, the "circularity" of the letter had indeed been noticed, but it was considered of no great importance, not promising—in that initial period of great hopes—any quick or appreciable success. Then, later on, everyone became so mired in the algorithm approach that they could not free themselves from it.

  One might think that I had achieved no little triumph at the very beginning. I proved that the letter was the description of a phenomenon, and inasmuch as all the empirical research was going in precisely that direction, I gave it, so to speak, the blessing of a mathematical proof, guaranteeing that this was the right track. I thereby brought together those who were divided, because between the information theorists and the information engineers a breach had grown. The antagonists, finally, were referred to me. The future was to show how little I had accomplished—emerging well from an encounter with only my terrestrial rivals.


  IF YOU ASK a scientist what he associates with the concept of a circular process, most likely he will reply: life. The suggestion that we had been sent the description of something living, and which we would be able to reconstruct, was both unsettling and intriguing. For two months after the events described above, I passed my time in the Project as a student, learning what in the prior year all the "applied" groups had done. The applied groups were also called "shock troops." We had a great many of these—in biochemistry, biophysics, solid-state physics—which later were to some extent combined in the laboratory, for syntheses. (The Project's organizational structure, in the course of its existence, grew more and more complicated, until some said that it had become more complex even than the "letter" itself.)

  The theoretical section, comprising the informationists, linguists, mathematicians, and theoretical physicists, operated independently of the applied. All the findings of all the research were assessed and collated on the highest level—in the Science Council, where the group coordinators sat, along with the "Big Four," which became five upon my arrival.

  The Project, when I made my appearance, had two concrete achievements to show for itself; they were actually one and the same, repeated independently in the biochemistry and biophysics departments. In both places there was produced—first on paper, or, rather, in the memory banks—a substance that had been "read off" from the letter, though named, by that principle of autonomy, twice: "Frog Eggs" and "Lord of the Flies."

  The duplication of effort might appear wasteful, but it had its good side. If two people not communicating with each other analogously translate an unknown text, one tends to think that they have truly got to its "invariants," that what they have obtained is objectively inherent in the text and does not merely reflect their personal preconceptions. Granted, this statement, too, can be debated. For two Mohammedans, the same small "fragments" of the Gospel are "true"—as opposed to all the rest of it. If people's preprogramming is identical, the results of their investigations may coincide, even though they have not consulted each other. Since limits are placed on what may be accomplished, in any given historical period, by the general level of knowledge. It is for this reason that the atomistic and independent conclusions arrived at by the physicists of East and West, for example, have been so similar, and that one side could not discover the principle of the laser and have that principle remain unknown to the other. Therefore we should not exaggerate the cognitive importance of such coincidence.

  Frog Eggs—its name among the biochemists—was a semiliquid substance under some conditions, a gelatinous mass under others; at room temperature and normal pressure, and in not too great a quantity, it appeared as a shiny, sticky fluid, quite similar to the mucus-coated granules of the amphibian's spawn—hence the name. The biophysicists immediately manufactured about a hectoliter of the pseudo plasm, but it behaved—in an evacuated vessel—differently from Frog Eggs, and they christened it, alluding to a certain strange effect, with a more diabolical name.

  Carbon played an important role in the composition of this artifact, but so did silicon, and heavy elements practically nonexistent in earthly organisms. The thing reacted to certain stimuli; it produced energy, which it dispersed in the form of heat, but had no metabolism—not in any biological sense. At first it appeared to be—a materialization of an impossibility—a perpetuum mobile, albeit in the form of a colloid and not a "machine." Standing in flagrant violation of the sacred laws of thermodynamics, it was subjected to very rigorous study. At last the nucleonics people found that the energy supporting it—supporting what was a kind of "circus trick," an acrobatic juggling of gigantic molecules that were unstable in isolation—was being drawn from nuclear reactions of the "cold" type. The colloid initiated them when it reached a certain critical mass. Important, in this, was not only the quantity of the substance, but also its configuration.

  These reactions were difficult to detect, because the energy liberated through them—the radiant energy as well as the kinetic energy of the freed subatomic particles—was absorbed completely by the substance and used "for its own needs." To the experts this revelation was staggering. Basically, atomic nuclei are, within every terrestrial organism, "foreign bodies," or at least neutral. The life process never touches the energy potentials contained in them; it is unable to make use of that enormous, stored-up force. Atoms, in living tissue, are in effect only electron shells, because the shells alone participate in biological (chemical) reactions. Consequently, radioactive atoms that get into the system, carried there by water, food, or air, play the role of intruders "disguised" by their outer similarity (i.e., in their electron shells) to ordinary, normal—nonradioactive—elements, and the living tissue is not capable of telling the difference. Their every "explosion," any kind of nuclear decay of such an uninvited guest, constitutes for the cell a microscopic catastrophe—always damaging, though to a very small degree.

  Meanwhile Frog Eggs could not do without such processes, which were its sustenance, the air it breathed, for it required no other source of energy, and indeed could make use of no other. Frog Eggs became the foundation for an edifice of hypotheses—a veritable Tower of Babel of hypotheses, unfortunately, because of the disparity between them.

  According to the simplest, Frog Eggs was the protoplasm of which the Senders of the stellar code were composed
. To manufacture it, as I indicated, only a small portion of the code was utilized—certainly no more than 3 or 4 percent—the portion that allowed itself to be "translated" into synthesis operations. The proponents of this first view believed that the entire code was the description of one Sender and that, if we succeeded in materializing him in toto, he would stand before us as a live and intelligent being from another civilization in the galaxy, telegraphed to Earth's receivers via a stream of neutrino emissions.

  According to other, related, conjectures, what had been sent was not so much an "atomic blueprint" of an adult organism, as a kind of spore or egg capable of development, or even an embryo. The embryo would be suitably programmed genetically and, if materialized on Earth, could turn out to be as competent a partner for mankind as the adult specimen from the first possibility.

  And there was no dearth of radically different approaches. According to another group, or family, of hypotheses (because the ideas of each circle were connected by their own consanguinity), the code described not an "individual" of any sort, but an "informational machine"—a type of tool rather than a representative of the race that transmitted it. Some conceived of such a machine as being a kind of library made of the stuff of Frog Eggs, i.e., a "plasmic container of memory," able to communicate the data stored in it or possibly even to carry on a "conversation" about the data. Others posited a "plasmic brain"—an analog, digital, or hybrid type—which would not be able to provide answers to questions concerning the Senders, but which would represent a sort of technological gift. The code, then, was the act of handing across space, to one civilization by another, the latter's finest instrument for the processing of information.

  These hypotheses all had, in turn, their black or demonic variations, which arose—some said—from the reading of too much science fiction. Whatever had been sent, whether "individual," "embryo," or "machine," upon materialization would—according to these variations—attempt to take over the world. And, again, within this segment of beliefs was division—because some of the followers of the conquest-of-Earth theory held that this was a galactically planned "act of invasion," while others said no, an act of "cosmic friendship," this being the way in which advanced civilizations undertook to perform, with respect to others, an "obstetric intervention," facilitating the birth of a more nearly perfect social structure—for the local benefit, and not in the interest of the Senders.

  All these hypotheses (and there were more) I considered not just wrong but ridiculous. In my opinion, the stellar code denoted neither a plasmic brain nor an informational machine nor an organism nor a spore, because the object it designated simply did not figure in the categories of our conceptualizations. It was the plan of a cathedral sent to australopithecines, a library opened to Neanderthals. In my opinion, the code was not intended for a civilization as low on the ladder of development as ours, and consequently we would not succeed in doing anything meaningful with it.

  I was called a nihilist on account of this, and Eugene Albert Nye complained to his superiors that I was sabotaging the Project—of which I learned even without possessing my own network of hidden microphones.

  I had been working almost a month on His Master's Voice when the matter took on a completely new light, thanks to the efforts of a team of biologists. We had at the Project what was called the Book of Canis Minor; in it anyone could enter his postulates, his criticisms of the theories of others, his own proposals or ideas, or the results of his research. The contribution of the biologists occupied a prominent if not central place there. It was Romney who came up with the notion of conducting experiments of a sort totally different from those that were absorbing his colleagues. Romney was (like Reinhorn) one of the few scientists in the Project of the older generation. Anyone who has not read his Rise of Man knows nothing of evolution. Romney searched for the causes of intelligence—and found them in combinations of accidents which, though neutral when they occurred, later took on a sardonic significance: cannibalism turned out to be a spur to mental development; the threat of glaciers, a prerequisite for civilization; the gnawing of bones, the inspiration for the origin of tools. And the junction of the organs of generation with those of elimination, taken from the fish and reptiles, became the topographic map not only for eroticism but for metaphysics, too, which oscillates between defilement and divinity. He drew from the zigzag course of evolution all its magnificence and wretchedness, and demonstrated how random series, in their deviations, turn into laws of nature. But the book is surprising most of all for the spirit of compassion that pervades it—though never given explicit expression.

  I do not know how Romney hit upon his great idea. When asked, he would only mutter. His team directed its attention not to the letter recorded on the tapes but to the "original"—that is, the neutrino emission itself, streaming unceasingly from the sky. My guess is that Romney addressed the question of why it was neutrino waves that had been chosen by the Senders as the carrier of information. As I have said, there exists a natural neutrino emission in space, originating from the stars. The emission that, by means of the appropriate modulation, conveys the letter is a very narrow band in that totality. Romney must have wondered whether the band (corresponding to the notion of "wavelength" in radiotechnology) had been selected by the Senders randomly, or whether some special reason lay behind that decision. So he set up a series of experiments in which a great number of substances were exposed first to the ordinary neutrino radiation from the stars, and then to the stream of the letter. He could do this because the provident Baloyne, reaching deep into government coffers, had supplied the Project with a battery of high-resolution neutrino inverters. In addition, the radiation from the heavens was amplified several hundred million times—the physicists built the necessary equipment.

  Neutrinos are the most penetrating of the elementary particles. They all, and particularly those at low energies, pass through galactic space and—with no greater difficulty—material objects, planets, stars; because matter is far more transparent to them than glass is to sunlight. The experiments really should not have produced any result worth mentioning. But they did.

  In chambers placed at a depth of forty meters (quite shallow for an experiment with neutrinos) stood mammoth amplifiers connected to inverters. The increasingly concentrated neutrino beam, issuing from a metal cylinder the size of a pencil, hit various solids, liquids, and gases that were put in its path. The first series of tests, in which a great variety of substances was irradiated in this fashion by the natural emission from the sky, yielded nothing of interest—as was expected.

  But the neutrino beam that carried the letter revealed an astounding property. Of two groups of macromolecular solutions, the more stable chemically turned out to be the one that had been subjected to the ray. The ordinary neutrino "noise," I should emphasize, did not possess such an effect. Only the stream that was modulated by information possessed it. It was as if its neutrinos, penetrating everything in an invisible rain, nevertheless entered into some interaction—for us imperceptible and unknown—with the molecules of the colloid and, in so doing, rendered the colloid less vulnerable to the factors that normally caused its decomposition, the unraveling and tearing of the seams of its chemical bonds. It was as if that neutrino emission "favored" large molecules of a certain type; as if it assisted the rise—in aqueous solutions saturated with particular substances—of those atomic configurations that constituted the chemical backbone of life.

  The neutrino stream by which the letter reached us was too attenuated for the effect to have been discovered directly. Only its concentration by many hundreds of millions of times allowed the effect to be observed—in solutions, moreover, that had been irradiated for weeks on end. Even so, this suggested strongly that the emission, when not intensified, still had the same "life-favoring" property, except that the property would manifest itself in periods measured not in weeks but in hundreds of thousands—no, in millions—of years. Back in the prehistoric past, that all-penetrating pre
cipitation increased the chances, in however fractional a way, of life forming in the oceans, because it wrapped certain types of organic molecules, as it were, in an invisible armor that made them resistant to the chaotic bombardment of Brownian motion. The stellar signal did not itself create life, but assisted in life's earliest, most elementary stage, hindering the dissolution of what had become combined.

  Möller, a physicist and Romney's coworker, showing me the results of these experiments, used the image of comparing the Senders to a tenor who is able to sing a note in such a way that a glass held before his mouth will shatter from the created resonance. What the man sings about has no bearing, obviously, on this consequence of his song. Similarly, the cut, color, and weight of the paper on which a letter is written need have no particular connection with its content. But a connection can equally well exist between the information proper and its physical medium. When, for example, we receive a small, sky-blue, subtly perfumed note from a woman, we hardly expect to find in it a torrent of abuse or a diagram of the city's sewer system. The question of whether a connection exists, and whether its existence is of special significance, usually is decided by the culture, the context in which the communication takes place. The Romney-Möller Effect was one of our greatest achievements; yet at the same time, as was typical in the Project, it was a maddening puzzle that caused the scientists many a sleepless night. The number of theories that welled up on this score was no less than that of the theories that wound about, like a vine, the substance "derived" from the information itself, that is, from the content of the stellar message—the substance that was Frog Eggs. Whether between that "nuclear ooze" and the "biosympathy" of the neutrino code there was any connection—and if there was, what it meant—that was the question!