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His Master's Voice, Page 17

Stanisław Lem


  "Then the fact that you nevertheless succeeded, in part, shows that the letter is written in a language similar to the language of genetics."

  "If that were all there was to it, we would be home free. The reality is worse, because it is, as usual, more complex. The difference between a 'cultural language' and an 'acultural language' is not an absolute thing, unfortunately. Our faith in the absoluteness of that difference belongs to a whole series of illusions that we find extremely difficult to give up. The fact that I was able to work out the mathematical proof that you referred to shows only that the letter was written in a language that does not belong to the category of the language we are now using. We do not know of languages beyond the genetic code and natural languages, but that does not mean there are none. I believe such 'other languages' exist and that the letter was composed in one of them."

  "And what is this 'other language' like?"

  "I can convey that to you only in a general way. Let me simplify. Organisms, in evolution, 'communicate' by 'uttering' certain sentences, which are genotypes, and the 'words' in them correspond to the chromosomes. But when a scientist presents to you the structural model of a genotype, you are no longer dealing with an 'acultural code,' because the scientist has translated the code of genetics into the language of symbols—chemical symbols, let us say. Now, to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin to suspect that an 'acultural language' is something more or less like Kant's 'thing-in-itself.' One can fully grasp neither the code nor the thing. What comes from the culture and what comes from 'nature'—or from 'the world itself'—appear, when we examine any utterance whatsoever, as a two-component 'mixture.' In the language of the Merovingians, or in the political slogans of the Republican Party, the percentage of the 'culture' ingredient is very high, and what does not depend on culture—the ingredient 'straight from the world'—is present only in small quantities. In the language used by physics, we have, you could say, the opposite: there is much of 'what is natural,' of what comes from 'nature itself,' and little of what has been shaped by culture. But a state of complete 'acultural' purity in principle cannot be achieved. The idea that, in sending to another civilization an envelope containing models of atoms, it would be possible to eradicate from such a letter all traces of culture—that idea is based on an illusion. The trace can be greatly reduced, but no one, not in the entire Cosmos, is or ever will be able to reduce it to zero."

  "The letter is written in an 'acultural' language, but still possesses an element of the culture of the Senders. Is that right? Is this where the difficulty lies?"

  "Where one of the difficulties lies. The Senders differ from us both in culture and in knowledge, and let us call that knowledge scientific. For this reason the difficulty is at least two-level. We cannot divine their culture—not now, and not, I believe, in a thousand years. They must know this perfectly well. Therefore they have sent the sort of information for whose deciphering no knowledge of their culture is required. That is almost definite."

  "And so the cultural factor should present no obstacle?"

  "Senator, we do not even know what is presenting the obstacle to us. We have evaluated the entire letter with respect to its complexity. The complexity is such that it corresponds roughly to a class of systems known to us—social and biological. We have no theory of social systems, thus we were forced to use, as models 'placed against' the letter, genotypes—or, rather, not the genotypes themselves, but the mathematical apparatus employed in the study of them. We learned that an object even more similar to the code is a living cell—or a whole living organism. From which it does not follow that the letter is actually a kind of genotype, but only that out of all the things known to us which, for comparison, we 'set against' the code, the genotype is the most helpful. Do you see the tremendous risk this carries with it?"

  "Not exactly. It would seem that the only risk is that if the code is not, after all, a genotype, then your deciphering will not succeed. There is more?"

  "We are proceeding like a man who looks for a lost thing not everywhere, but only beneath a lighted street lamp, because there it is bright. Have you ever seen a tape for an automatic piano—a player piano?"

  "Of course. It comes in a roll, with perforations."

  "By chance, a program tape for a digital computer might also fit into a player piano, and although the program has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with music—it might refer to some fifth-order equation—nevertheless, when it is put in the machine, it produces notes. And it might also happen that not all the notes thus produced will be in total chaos, but that here and there one will hear some musical phrase. Can you guess why I use this example?"

  "I think I can. You believe that Frog Eggs is a 'musical phrase' caused by inserting in a player piano a tape that really belongs in a digital machine?"

  "Yes. That is exactly what I believe. One who puts a digital tape in a player piano is making a mistake, and it is entirely possible that we have taken precisely such a mistake for success."

  "Yes, but your two research teams, wholly independently of each other, produced Frog Eggs and Lord of the Flies—one and the same substance!"

  "If you have a player piano in your house, and are unaware of the existence of digital computers, and the same is true of your neighbor, then, if you find some tape from a digital computer, it is very probable that both of you will do the same—you will conclude that the tape is meant for the player piano, because you possess no knowledge of other possibilities."

  "I understand. This is, then, your hypothesis?"

  "This is my hypothesis."

  "You spoke of a tremendous risk. Where is it?"

  "Substituting a computer tape for a player piano tape does not, obviously, involve risk; it is a harmless misunderstanding. But in our case it could be otherwise, and the consequences of a mistake could prove incalculable."

  "How so?"

  "I do not know. What I have in mind is the kind of error whereby someone reads, in a kitchen recipe, the word 'amanita' instead of 'amandine,' and concocts a dish that sends all his guests to their graves. Please keep in mind that we have done what lay within our power to do, and so imposed our knowledge—our perhaps simplified or erroneous notions—on the code."

  McMahon asked how this was possible if it was so very like the breaking of a cipher. He had seen Lord of the Flies. Could one decipher a code incorrectly and still obtain such astounding results? Could the fragment of the translation that was Lord of the Flies be completely false?

  "It is possible," I replied. "If we were to send, telegraphically, the genotype of a man, and the receiver were able to synthesize, on the basis of that, only white blood cells, he would end up with amoebalike things as well as an enormous amount of unused information. One cannot say that he who produces corpuscles, having before him the human genotype, has read the message correctly."

  "The difference is on that order?"

  "Yes. We made use of two to four percent of the entire code; but that is not all, because within that small percent there could be a full third that is guesswork: i.e., all that we ourselves put into the translation, from our knowledge of stereochemistry, physics, and so on. If the genotype of man were read to a similarly low degree, one could not even construct white blood cells. At the most, something in the nature of a lifeless protein suspension—nothing more. I think, incidentally, that conducting precisely such experiments with the human genotype—which already has been deciphered to about seventy percent—would be extremely instructive for us; but we cannot do this, because we have neither the time nor the resources."

  When he asked me what I thought was the difference in development that separated us from the Senders, I said that although the statistics of von Hoerner and Brace indicated that the highest probability was for a first encounter to be with a civilization having an age of about twelve thousand years, I believed that there was a real possibility that the Senders were as much as a billion years old. Otherwise, the transmitting of a "life-causi
ng" signal would not have any rational justification, since it could produce no effect in the course of a mere millennium.

  "They must have governments with rather lengthy terms of office," observed McMahon. He also wanted to know my opinion as to the value of continuing the research, if matters stood as they did.

  "Suppose a young thief robs you," I said, "of your checkbook and six hundred dollars in cash. Although he can do nothing with the checks and cannot touch the millions in your account, he will not consider that he has done badly, because for him six hundred dollars is a lot of money."

  "And we are the young thief?"

  "Yes. The crumbs from the table of the higher civilization can feed us for centuries … provided we behave sensibly."

  I could have added something to this, but bit my tongue.

  He wished to know my private view of the letter and the Senders.

  "They are not practical—at least not in a way that we can understand," I said. "Do you have any idea, Senator, of what their 'personal expenses' must be? Let us say that they have at their disposal energy on the order of 1049 ergs. The power of a single star—and that is the power needed to send the signal—is for them what for us, in this country, would be the power of one large hydroelectric plant. Would our government agree to expend—for hundreds, for thousands of years—the power of a facility like Boulder Dam in order to make possible the emergence of life on the planets of other stars, assuming such a thing, given so microscopic a supply of energy, were possible?"

  "We are too poor…"

  "Yes, but the percentage of energy to be consumed in this deed of altruism would be the same in both cases."

  "A dime out of a dollar is not the same, financially, as a million dollars out of ten million."

  "And we have those millions, don't we. The physical space separating us from that civilization is less than the moral distance, because we on Earth have starving masses of people, while their concern is that life should arise on the planets of Centaurus, Cygnus, and Cassiopeia. I do not know what the letter contains, but—from this standpoint—it cannot contain anything that would bring harm to us. The one would be at too great a variance with the other. Yes, of course, it is possible to choke even on bread. This is the way I see it: if we, with our political systems and our history, represent a cosmic average, then nothing threatens us from the 'letter.' That is what you asked about, I believe? Because they must be well aware of this 'psychozoic constant' of the Universe. If we constitute a slight aberration, a minority, then that, too, they will take—must have taken, that is—into account. But if we are an extraordinary exception to the rule, a deviant form, a monstrous abnormality that occurs in one galaxy per thousand, once in ten billion years—such a possibility they would be right, in their calculations and in their intentions, not to take into account. In other words, one way or the other they will not be to blame."

  "Spoken like Cassandra," McMahon said, and I saw that he was dead serious. But, then, so was I. We talked some more, but I told him nothing that might arouse the least suspicion, nothing that might indicate that the Project had entered a new phase. Still, I felt uncomfortable when we parted, having the impression that I had said too much—particularly toward the end. I must have been Cassandra-like in pantomime, in expression more than in words, because I had kept a tight rein on the words.

  The Senator had not yet left when I returned to my calculations. I did not see Baloyne until after the Senator's departure. Yvor was morose.

  "McMahon?" he said. "He came anxious, but left content. Do you know why? You don't? The Administration fears success—too much success. It fears a discovery that will have military application."

  This astonished me.

  "He told you this?" I asked. Baloyne threw up his hands at my naïveté.

  "How could he tell me any such thing? But it is obvious. They are hoping and praying that we will fail completely, or at least that in the end it will turn out that all we have received is a postcard with greetings and best wishes. Yes, then they will announce this with great fanfare and furor and exaltation. McMahon went very far—you don't know him, he's an extremely cautious man. And yet he took Romney aside and grilled him on the long-range technological implications of Frog Eggs. Long-range, yet! And with Donald, too, the same thing."

  "And what did they say?" I asked. About Donald I did not need to worry. He was like an armored safe.

  "Nothing, really. I don't know what Donald told him, and Romney only said to the Senator that he could confess his bad dreams but that was all, because, awake, he saw nothing."

  "That's good."

  I did not hide my satisfaction. Baloyne, however, showed every symptom of depression: he ran a hand through his hair, shook his head, and sighed.

  "Lerner is supposed to come here," he said. "With some theory for us, some idea of his own. What exactly, I don't know, because McMahon mentioned it literally at the last moment, as he was getting in the chopper."

  I knew Lerner—a cosmogonist, one of Hayakawa's former students. Former because, some said, he had outgrown his preceptor. What I did not understand was what connection his field could have with the Project—and how, anyway, had he learned of the Project?

  "And where have you been? Don't you realize the Administration is duplicating our work? It's not enough that they keep looking over our shoulder—now this!"

  I did not want to believe it. I asked him how he knew this. Was it possible that they had some Alter-Project, a kind of parallel verification of our activities? Baloyne, it seemed, knew nothing specific, and, because he hated to admit to ignorance, he worked himself up to the point that, in the presence of Dill and Donald, who came in, he exclaimed that really his duty, in the situation, was to tender his resignation!

  Such threats fell from time to time, to the accompaniment of thunder—for Baloyne cannot live on a small scale, and a certain operatic panache is indispensable to his vital energy—but this time we joined in persuading him, until, acknowledging our arguments, he quieted down, and was about to leave when suddenly he remembered my meeting with McMahon and started questioning me about what I had said to the man. I repeated more or less everything, but left out the Cassandra part. And such was the epilogue to the Senator's visit.

  Shortly thereafter, it became evident that the preparation would take Donald more time than he had thought. Things were not going that well for me, either—the theory became tangled; I set various little tricks in motion; the personal calculator console (that was what they called it) was insufficient; I had to keep going to the computer center, which was not the most pleasant thing, because the winds were hurricane-force then, and merely crossing a street—a hundred feet—was enough to get sand in your ears, mouth, nose, and down your collar.

  The mechanism by which Frog Eggs absorbed the nuclear energy it produced was still unclear; equally unclear were its means of ridding itself of the residues of those microexplosions, and these were all isotopes emitting hard gamma rays—rare-earth isotopes, mainly. Donald and I put together a phenomenological theory that did not do too bad a job of predicting the results of the experiments—but only retrospectively, as it were, within the compass of what we knew already. As soon as the scale of the experiment was increased, the predictions parted company with the results. Donald's effect, named by him "TX" (tele + explosion), was remarkably easy to produce. He flattened a small blob of Frog Eggs between two panes of glass, and when the layer became monomolecular, the decay reaction moved across the entire surface; at greater "doses" the apparatus (the older, previous model) underwent destruction. But people, somehow, paid no attention: there was such a racket in the laboratory, there was so much shooting, it was like an arsenal testing out munitions. When I asked him, Donald explained—without cracking a smile—that his people were studying the ballistic wave propagation in Frog Eggs. That was the topic he had thought up for them, and with the cannonade effectively camouflaged his own endeavors!

  Meanwhile the theory slipped through my fing
ers; I saw that actually it had been eluding me for quite some time, but I had not admitted this to myself. The work on it was extremely demanding—all the more difficult in that I had little stomach for it. As sometimes happens, the words I had spoken in my meeting with McMahon came back to haunt me. Often our fears are not altogether present, not dangerous, you could almost say, until we give them clear expression. This is exactly what happened to me. Frog Eggs without question now appeared to me to be a human artifact, the result of a false reading of the code. This was how I saw it: the Senders definitely had had no intention of sending us a Pandora's box; but we, like burglars, forced the lock, and stamped upon the plundered contents everything that in Earth's science was mercenary, predatory. And did not success in atomic physics (I thought) take place precisely in that area where the opportunity opened up for us to obtain the most destructive possible energy?

  Nuclear reactors always limped behind the production of bombs; we had hydrogen warheads but still no hydrogen piles; the entire microworld revealed to man its interior—distorted by that one-sided approach—and therefore we knew far more about the strong interactions than about the weak. I discussed these topics with Donald; he did not agree with me, being of the opinion that if anyone should "shoulder the blame" for the "one-sidedness of physics" (though he did not believe in that one-sidedness, either), it was not we, but the world, by virtue of its structure. The simple fact was that it was easier, from any objective standpoint—easier if only by the law of least resistance—to destroy than it was to create. Destruction was a gradient consistent with the main direction of processes in the Universe, whereas creation always had to go against the current.

  I reminded him of the Promethean myth. In his picture of things, the marches of science, worthy of respect and even reverence, should all converge, as at a source; but the myth praised not disinterestedly comprehending but seizing hold, not knowledge of but mastery over. This was the foundation of all empiricism. He said to me that with such suppositions I would delight a Freudian, seeing as I reduced the thirst for knowledge to aggression and sadism. I can see now that I had indeed lost a little of my common sense, my circumspection, and the coolness that comes from the directive of proceeding sine ira et studio—and that I had, with my speculations, shifted the "blame" from the unknown Senders onto humanity, incurable misanthrope that I was.