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His Master's Voice, Page 4

Stanisław Lem

  Given that our civilization is unable to assimilate well even those concepts that originate in human heads when they appear outside its main current, although the creators of those concepts are, after all, children of the same age—how could we have assumed that we would be capable of understanding a civilization totally unlike ours, if it addressed us across the cosmic gulf? The metaphor of an army of tiny creatures that put to good use their encounter with the corpse of a philosopher—still seems to me very fitting. Until such an encounter took place, my view might have been judged extreme, the attitude of a crackpot. But the meeting did come to pass, and the defeat we suffered in it represented a true experimentum crucis, a proof of our resourcelessness, and still the result of that proof was ignored! The myth of our cognitive universality, of our readiness to receive and comprehend information absolutely new—absolutely, since extraterrestrial—continues unimpaired, even though, receiving the message from the stars, we did with it no more than a savage who, warming himself by a fire of burning books, the writings of the wisest men, believes that he has drawn tremendous benefit from his find!

  And so the recording of the history of our vain efforts may prove useful—if only to some later, future student of the First Contact—because the published accounts, those official reports, concentrate on the so-called successes, that is, on the pleasant warmth that emanates from the burning pages. Of the hypotheses we tried, one after another, practically nothing is said there. Such a course of action would have been permissible—I alluded to this already—had the thing investigated been kept separate, in the end, from its investigators. Those who study physics are not burdened with information about what incorrect, imprecise hypotheses, what false notions, were advanced by its creators; for how long Pauli groped about before he formulated, in the right way, his Principle; or the number of abortive conceptions Dirac tried before the fortunate guess of his electron "holes." But the history of His Master's Voice is the tale of a defeat: of wrong turns that were not followed by a straightened path. Thus one should not wipe away the zigzags of our journey, because those zigzags are all that is left us.

  A considerable amount of time has passed since these events. I have waited patiently for a book like this one. But I cannot wait—for reasons purely biological—any longer. I availed myself of certain notes taken immediately after the closing of the Project. As for why I did not include them in one of my papers, that will become evident. There is one thing I would like to make clear. It is not my intention to raise myself above my colleagues. We stood at the feet of a gigantic find, as unprepared, but also as sure of ourselves, as we could possibly be. We clambered up on it from every side, quickly, hungrily, and cleverly, with our time-honored skill, like ants. I was one of them. This is the story of an ant.


  A PROFESSIONAL COLLEAGUE to whom I showed my preface remarked that I had painted myself black in order to be able afterward to give free rein to my outspokenness, on the principle that those whom I took to task could not easily hold it against me if first I did such honors for myself. Though said half in jest, the observation struck me. So devious a design had not entered my head, and yet we are familiar enough with the mechanics of the mind to know that such protestations are worthless. It is possible that the remark was true, that an unconscious cunning had been in operation. The ugliness of my malice I made public; I localized it, in order to divorce myself from it—but I did this only in words.

  Meanwhile, by stealth, it penetrated, permeated my "good intentions," and all the time guided my pen, so that I proceeded like a preacher who, calling fire and brimstone down upon the foulness of man, finds a secret pleasure in at least describing what he dares not participate in actively himself. In this diametrically opposed view of the matter, what I held to be an unpleasant necessity dictated by the gravity of the subject becomes the primary motive, while the subject itself—His Master's Voice—is a pretext that came conveniently to hand. But the framework of this reasoning, which one could call carrousellike—in that it goes in circles, the premises and conclusions changing places—can in turn be attributed to the very substance of the Project. Our thinking must come up against some hard focal point of facts that sobers it and corrects it; in the absence of such a corrective, it easily turns into a projection of private flaws (or virtues, it doesn't matter)—onto the plane of the thing studied. The reduction of a philosophical system to the biographical vicissitudes of its creator is considered (I know something of this) an occupation as petty as it is unsporting. But at the core of philosophy—which always wants to say more than is possible at a given time, because it represents an effort to "capture the world" in a closed conceptual net—even in the works of the most illustrious thinkers, there lies hidden an acute vulnerability.

  Man's quest for knowledge is an expanding series whose limit is infinity, but philosophy seeks to attain that limit at one blow, by a short circuit providing the certainty of complete and inalterable truth. Science meanwhile advances at its gradual pace, often slowing to a crawl, and for periods it even walks in place, but eventually it reaches the various ultimate trenches dug by philosophical thought, and, quite heedless of the fact that it is not supposed to be able to cross those final barriers to the intellect, goes right on.

  How could this not drive the philosophers to despair? One form of that despair was Positivism, remarkable in its hostility, because it played the loyal ally of science but in fact sought to abolish it. The thing that had undermined and destroyed philosophy, annulling its great discoveries, now was to be severely punished, and Positivism, the false friend, passed that sentence—demonstrating that science could not truly discover anything, inasmuch as it constituted no more than a shorthand record of experience. Positivism desired to muzzle science, to compel it somehow to declare itself helpless in all transcendental matters (which, however, as we know, Positivism failed to do).

  The history of philosophy is the history of successive and non-identical retreats. Philosophy first tried to discover the ultimate categories of the world; then the absolute categories of reason; while we, as knowledge accumulates, see more and more clearly philosophy's vulnerability: because every philosopher must regard himself as a model for the entire species, and even for all possible sentient beings. But it is science that is the transcendence of experience, demolishing yesterday's categories of thought. Yesterday, absolute space-time was overthrown; today, the eternal alternative between the analytic and the synthetic in propositions, or between determinism and randomness, is crumbling. But somehow it has not occurred to any of our philosophers that to deduce, from the pattern of one's own thoughts, laws that hold for the full set of people, from the eolithic until the day the suns burn out, might be, to put it mildly, imprudent.

  This initial equating of oneself with the norm of the species—an unknown—was, to be plain, irresponsible. One justification for it became the incessant desire to understand "everything"—a desire having only psychological value. Thus philosophy speaks of human hopes, fears, and longings at much greater length than it does of the essence of the completely indifferent world, a world that is an eternal constant of laws only for the news media.

  And even were we to find such laws, laws that future advances would not supplant, we would not be able to distinguish them from those that eventually will be discarded. For this reason I could respect philosophers only as people driven by curiosity, never as propounders of truth. When, in formulating their theses of categorical imperatives, of the relationship of thought to perception—when did they conscientiously undertake to question, first, a large number of human subjects? No—they consulted always and only themselves. It is this repeated self-enthronement of theirs, this tacit setting up of themselves as models of Homo sapiens, that has always aggravated me and made it hard for me to read "profound" works—because in them I quickly reach the place where the author's obvious is no longer mine, and thereafter he speaks only to himself, tells only of himself, appeals only to himself, and loses the right t
o deliver pronouncements that are valid for me, not to mention the rest of the bipeds that populate the planet.

  I had to laugh, for instance, at the assurance of those who determined that all thought was linguistic. Those philosophers did not know that they were creating a subset of the species, i.e., the group of those not gifted mathematically. How many times in my life, after the revelation of a new discovery, having formulated it so solidly that it was quite indelible, unforgettable, was I obliged to wrestle for hours to find for it some verbal suit of clothes, because the thing had been born, in me, beyond the pale of all language, natural or formal?

  I call this phenomenon "surfacing." It defies description, because what emerges from the unconscious with difficulty, slowly, finds nests of words for itself; it exists as an entity before it settles inside those nests; yet I can give no indication, no hint, to explain in precisely what form that non- and preverbalness appears; it is heralded only by a keen presentiment that the expectation of it will not be in vain. The philosopher who does not know such states from introspection is, with respect to the quality of certain mechanisms in the brain, a man unlike me; we may belong to the same species, but we differ far more than such thinkers could wish.

  It was precisely with regard to the vulnerability and the huge risk that the philosopher takes upon himself that the situation of the people of the Project was similar, in the face of its central problem. What did we have to work with? A mystery and a jungle of guesses. From the mystery we chipped off a few slivers of fact, but when they did not increase, or amount to any solid edifice that could correct our hypotheses, the hypotheses began gradually to assume the upper hand, and in the end we wandered lost in a wilderness of conjectures, of conjectures based upon conjectures. Our constructs became more and more inspired and bold, more and more removed from the store of accumulated knowledge—we were prepared to raze that store, to lay in ruins the most sacred principles of physics or astronomy, if only we could possess the mystery. So it seemed to us.

  The reader who has plowed his way to this point and is waiting, with growing impatience, to be led into the inner sanctum of the famous enigma, in the hope that I will regale him with thrills and chills every bit as delightful as those he experiences viewing horror movies, I advise to set my book down now, because he will be disappointed. I am writing no sensational story, but telling how our civilization was subjected to a test of cosmic—or at least of more-than-terrestrial—universality, and what came of this. From the beginning of my work in the Project, I believed that the Project was just such a test, quite apart from the question of what benefits were anticipated from my activity and that of my friends.

  He who has been following me closely may have noticed that in shifting the problem of "carrousellike reasoning" from the relationship between myself and my theme, to the theme itself (i.e., to the relationship between the scientists and His Master's Voice), I extricated myself from an embarrassing position, widening the accusation of "undisclosed sources of inspiration" until it covered the entire Project. But that had been my intention even before I heard such criticism. With an exaggeration that is necessary for the clarification of my meaning, I will say that in the course of my work (it is difficult to say exactly when this occurred) I began to suspect that the "letter from the stars" was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the colored blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is "on his mind," so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.

  This suspicion hampered my work, and now has compelled me to make confessions I would have much preferred not to make; I realize, however, that a scientist baffled to that degree can no longer regard his professional ability as a kind of isolated gland or molar; he may not, therefore, conceal even the most embarrassing of his personal problems. A botanist who classifies flowers has not much of a field on which to project schemata of his fantasies, illusions, and perhaps even dishonorable passions. The researcher of ancient myths runs a greater risk, because—given their abundance—the very choice he makes may testify more to what pervades his dreams and unscientific thoughts than to what constitutes the structural invariables of the myths themselves.

  The people of the Project were forced to take the next, reckless step—accepting a risk of the nature mentioned above but on a scale hitherto unknown. None of us knows, therefore, to what extent we were the instruments of an objective analysis, to what extent the delegates of humanity (in that we have been shaped by and are typical of our society), and to what extent, finally, each of us represented only himself, with the inspiration for his hypotheses about the contents of the "letter" being supplied by his own—possibly raving, possibly wounded—psyche in its uncontrolled regions.

  Misgivings of this kind, when I voiced them, were treated by many of my colleagues as pure drivel. They may have used other words, but that was what they meant.

  I understood them perfectly. The Project constituted a precedent in which, like those Russian wooden dolls-within-dolls, sat other precedents, and primarily this: that never before had physicists, engineers, chemists, nucleonicists, biologists, or information theorists held in their hands an object of research that represented not only a certain material—hence natural—puzzle, but which had been intentionally made by Someone and transmitted, and where the intent must have taken into account the potential addressee. Because scientists learn to conduct so-called games with nature, with a nature that is not—from any permissible point of view—a personal antagonist, they are unable to countenance the possibility that behind the object of investigation there indeed stands a Someone, and that to become familiar with that object will be possible only insofar as one draws near, through reasoning, to its completely anonymous creator. Therefore, though they supposedly knew and freely admitted that the Sender was a reality, their whole life's training, the whole acquired expertise of their respective fields, worked against that knowledge.

  A physicist never thinks that Someone has set the electrons in their orbits for the express purpose of making him, the physicist, rack his brains over orbital configurations. He knows that the hypothesis of a Setter of Orbits is, in physics, completely unnecessary—more, altogether inadmissible. But in the Project such an impossibility turned out to be an actuality; physics stood by useless in its prior posture; genuine agonies were suffered because of this. What I have said should, I think, make it clear that inside the Project I occupied a rather isolated position (in the theoretical, general sense, of course, not administratively).

  I have been accused of being "counterproductive" because I constantly had my two cents' worth to stick in, and did so in the course of other people's reasonings, causing those to grind to a halt; whereas I introduced little of my own of any use, few ideas that "someone could do something with." Baloyne, though, speaks highly of me in the Congressional Report (not only out of the friendship that unites us, I hope), which may in part have stemmed from his position (administrative as well as scientific). In each particular research group different views, after a period of oscillation, converged to some collectively held opinion, but anyone who sat (as Baloyne did) on the Science Council saw clearly that the opinions of the various groups were often diametrically opposed. The organizational structure of the Project, with its mutual isolation of the different groups, I considered wise, because it prevented any kind of "epidemic of error." This informational quarantine, however, did have its negative aspects. But here I am entering into details—prematurely. It is time we went on to an account of the events.


  WHEN BLADERGROEN, NORRIS, and Shigubov's team discovered the inversion of the neutrino, a new chapter in astronomy was opened up, in the form of neutrino astrophysics. Overnight it became extremely fashionable; throughout the world people began to study the cosmic emission of
these particles. The observatory on Mount Palomar installed one of the first apparatuses, a thing highly automated and with a resolution, for those days, of exceptional power. At this apparatus—more precisely, at the so-called neutrino inverter—there formed a line of eager scientists, and the director of the Observatory, who at that time was Professor Ryan, had his hands full with astrophysicists, young ones in particular, each of whom felt that his research project should be given priority.

  Among the fortunate few was a duo of such youngsters, Halsey and Mahoun, both ambitious and quite capable (I knew them, though only briefly); they recorded the maxima of the neutrino emission from certain selected patches of the sky, looking for traces of the so-called Stöglitz Effect (Stöglitz was a German astronomer of the previous generation).

  This effect, supposed to be the neutrino equivalent of the "red shift" in photons, somehow never was found; and indeed, it turned out several years later that Stöglitz's theory was wrong. But the young men had no way of knowing this, so they fought like lions to hold on to the apparatus; thanks to their initiative, they had the use of it for almost two years—only to leave, in the end, empty-handed. Miles of their recording tape went into the Observatory archives at that time. Several months later a considerable portion of those tapes found their way into the hands of a shrewd but not particularly talented physicist—actually, the man had been dismissed from a little-known institution in the South, in connection with the commission of certain immoral acts; the matter was not taken to court, because it involved several highly respected persons. This physicist manqué, by the name of Swanson, obtained the tapes in circumstances that remain unclear. He was questioned afterward, but nothing was ever learned, since he kept changing his testimony.