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His Master's Voice, Page 5

Stanisław Lem

An interesting individual, nevertheless. He made his living as a supplier, and banker, and even spiritual comforter for the kind of maniacs who in earlier times confined themselves to building perpetual-motion machines and squaring the circle, but who nowadays discover various forms of health-giving energy, think up theories of cosmogenesis, and devise ways of commercially utilizing telepathic phenomena. Such people need more than pencil and paper; to construct "orgonotrons," detectors of "supersensitive" fluids, or electronic dowsing rods that locate water, petroleum, and buried treasure (dowsing rods of ordinary willow are an anachronism now, worthless antiques), one needs numerous raw materials, which are often expensive and difficult to obtain. Swanson was able, for an appropriate amount of cash, to move heaven and earth to get them. His bureau was frequented by paraphysicists and ectoplasmologists, builders of teleportation stations and of pneumatographs that made possible the opening of communications with the spirit world. Circulating in this way in the lower regions of the kingdom of science, where it merges imperceptibly with the realm of psychiatry, he acquired an amount of quite useful information; he knew, with surprising accuracy, where lay the greatest demand among his crippled titans of intellect.

  Not that he turned up his nose at more mundane sources of revenue; for example, he supplied small chemistry laboratories with reagents of unknown origin. There was no period in his life in which he was not involved in legal difficulties, although he was never jailed, managing to balance at the very brink of criminality. The psychology of people like Swanson has always fascinated me. As far as I can tell, he was neither a "simple crook" nor a cynic who preyed on the aberrations of others, though he must have had intelligence enough to know that the great majority of his clients would never carry out their ideas. Some he took under his wing and gave equipment on credit, even when that credit was worn awfully thin. Apparently, he had a weakness for his protégés, just as I have for individuals of his type. His aim was to serve his client well, so if someone absolutely had to have horn of rhinoceros, because the instrument assembled with any other horn would remain deaf to the voice of the departed, Swanson did not deliver bull or ram—or so, at least, I have been told.

  Receiving—perhaps purchasing—the tapes from an unknown person, Swanson showed good business sense. He had enough of an acquaintance with physics to know that what had been recorded on them represented what is called "pure noise," and he hit upon the idea of producing—with the aid of the tapes—tables of random numbers. Such tables, also known as random series, are used in many areas of research; they are produced either by specially programmed digital computers or with the help of rotating disks marked with numbers on the rims and illuminated by an irregularly flashing beam of light. And there are other ways to produce them, but anyone who undertakes this frequently runs into problems, because the series obtained rarely are "sufficiently" random. Upon closer examination they display, more or less plainly, regularities in the appearance of particular numbers, because—in long series, especially—certain numbers "somehow" tend to show up more often than others, which is enough to disqualify such a table. No, deliberately creating "complete chaos," and in a "pure state" at that, is not easy. At the same time, the demand for random tables is constant. Therefore Swanson counted on turning a nice profit, all the more so since his brother-in-law was a linotype operator in a university print shop. The tables were printed up there, and Swanson sold them by mail, avoiding the middleman of a bookseller.

  One of the copies of this publication ended up in the hands of Dr. Sam Laserowitz, another very dubious individual. Like Swanson, he was a man of uncommon enterprise, possessing also, in his own way, a touch of idealism; not everything that he did was for money. He belonged to—and occasionally had also founded—numerous organizations, on the order of the Flying Saucer Society, and was in and out of financial hot water, since the budgets of those associations often showed unaccountable losses; embezzlement, however, was never proved. It is possible that the man was simply careless.

  Despite the "Dr." before his name, he had completed no course of study and received no degree. When people tried to pin him down about this, he would say that the letters were merely an abbreviation of his first name—Drummond—which he did not use. But it was as "Dr." Sam Laserowitz that he appeared in a number of science-fiction magazines; he was also known, in the circles of the fans of that genre, as a lecturer, and spoke on "cosmic" themes at their many conferences and conventions. Laserowitz's specialty was earthshaking discoveries, which he happened upon two or three times a year. Among other things, he established a museum in which the exhibits were items allegedly left by passengers of flying saucers at various locations in the United States. One of these was a shaved, dyed-green monkey fetus floating in alcohol—I saw a photograph of it. We really have no idea what a multitude of con men and crackpots inhabit the domain that lies halfway between contemporary science and the insane asylum.

  Laserowitz was, in addition, the coauthor of a book about the "conspiracy" of the governments of the Great Powers to suppress all information on saucer landings, not to mention contacts between our high-placed political figures and emissaries from other planets. Collecting all possible (more or less ridiculous) "evidence" of the activity of "Others in the Universe," he finally hit on the trail of the recordings from Mount Palomar and sought out their present possessor, who was Swanson. Swanson did not wish to lend them to him at first, but Laserowitz presented him with a powerful argument in the form of six hundred dollars—one of Laserowitz's "cosmic foundations" was backed by a generous eccentric.

  Before long, Laserowitz was publishing a series of articles with screaming headlines, declaring that on the Mount Palomar tapes certain areas of noise were interspersed with sections of silence, so that together they formed the dots and dashes of Morse code. Then, in increasingly sensational pronouncements, he cited Halsey and Mahoun, authorities in astrophysics, as proof of the authenticity of his revelation. When this news was reprinted in a few local papers, an angered Dr. Halsey sent them a correction. He advised them, with an economy of words, that Laserowitz was a complete ignoramus (how would the "Others" know Morse code?), that his society for communicating with the Universe was imbecilic, and that the "sections of silence" on the tapes were blanks that occurred because from time to time the recording machine would shut off. Laserowitz would not have been himself had he borne meekly such a dressing-down; unfazed, he added Halsey to his blacklist of the foes of "cosmic contact," which already contained quite a number of enlightened people who had unwisely stood in opposition to Laserowitz's past triumphs.

  Meanwhile, independently of this business, which in the press had acquired a circulation of sorts, a truly curious incident came about. It began when Dr. Ralph Loomis, a statistician by education, who had his own agency, doing, mainly, market research for smaller companies, wrote to Swanson with a complaint. It seemed that nearly a third of volume two of Swanson's random tables was a perfect duplication of a previous series found in volume one. Loomis suggested that perhaps Swanson, not wanting to labor over the systematic transcription of "noise" into columns of figures, had done it only once, and then, instead of providing further random sequences, mechanically copied the first series, bothering only to shuffle a couple of pages. Swanson, at least in this particular case, had a clear conscience; he rejected Loomis's demand for reimbursement and in indignation wrote him a few choice words. Loomis, in turn indignant, and considering himself swindled, took the matter to court. Swanson was fined for personal abuse; moreover, the court agreed with the plaintiff that the second installment of the series tables was a fraudulent repetition of the first. Swanson appealed, but five weeks later withdrew his appeal and, paying the fine, disappeared without a trace.

  The Topeka Morning Star several times gave coverage of the litigation of Loomis versus Swanson, because it was the silly season then and there were no better stories. One of these articles was read by Dr. Saul Rappaport of the Institute for Advanced Study on his way to work (as h
e told me, he found the paper on a seat in the train—he never would have purchased it).

  It was Saturday, and the Morning Star, having additional column space to fill that day, included, besides the court proceedings, Laserowitz's "Brothers in Reason" declaration, along with an irate rebuttal from Dr. Halsey. Rappaport therefore was able to see the whole of this strange if insignificant affair. As he put down the paper, a thought came to him, a thought so queer that it was comical: Laserowitz, taking the "sections of silence" on the tapes for signals, was without question raving. And yet it was conceivable that at the same time the man could be right, seeing in the tapes a "communication"—if that communication was the very noise!

  An insane idea, but Rappaport could not rid himself of it. A stream of information—human speech, for example—does not always tell us that it is information and not a chaos of sounds. Often we receive a foreign language as complete babble. Individual words can be distinguished only by someone who understands the language. For someone who does not, there exists but one way to make possible that all-important recognition. In the case where we receive true noise, individual signals never repeat themselves in the same order. In this sense a "noise series" would be, say, a thousand numbers that show on a roulette wheel. It would be quite impossible for the next thousand turns of the wheel to repeat, in the same sequence, the results of the preceding series. This is precisely the essence of "noise," that the order of appearance of its elements—be they sounds or other signals—is unforeseeable. If, however, the series repeats itself, it proves that the "noise" quality of the phenomenon is superficial, that in fact we have before us a transmitter acting as a channel of information.

  Dr. Rappaport thought to himself that, just possibly, Swanson had not lied to the judge and had not copied, in a circle, one single tape, but had used sequentially the tapes that resulted from those many months of recording cosmic radiation. If the radiation was an intentional signaling, and if, in that period of time, one series of emissions of the "communication" concluded and then the transmission of the communication was resumed from the beginning, the result would be what Swanson swore to. The subsequent tapes would record the exact same series of impulses, which by their repetition would reveal that their noise aspect was only an illusion!

  It was in the highest degree unlikely, but nevertheless possible. Whenever he experienced brainstorms like this, Rappaport, usually an easygoing sort of person, showed unusual initiative and energy. The paper gave the address of Dr. Halsey, so it was simple to get in touch with him. The main thing Rappaport needed was to get his hands on one of the tapes. He wrote to Halsey, but without revealing his idea—it would have sounded too fantastic—and asked only whether Halsey would mind lending him the tapes that remained in the archives of Mount Palomar. Halsey, put out by having got involved in the Laserowitz business, refused. It was then that Rappaport took up the matter in earnest; he wrote directly to the Observatory. His name was well enough known in scientific circles, and in no time he acquired a good kilometer of tape, which he handed over to his friend Dr. Hense, so that he could run a computer analysis of the frequency distribution of its elements.

  But the problem, even in this phase, was much more complex than I have presented it here. Information resembles pure noise to a greater degree the more thoroughly (economically) the transmitter makes use of the channel of the transmission. If the channel is made use of totally—if, in other words, there is no redundancy—the signal, for one uninformed, in no respect differs from utter chaos. As I have said, it is only possible to reveal such noise as information if the emissions of the message repeat themselves in a circle and one can set them side by side for comparison. That was exactly Rappaport's intention. He was to be assisted in this by equipment at the computer center where Hense worked. Rappaport did not tell Hense at first what he was about, preferring to keep it quiet; this way, if his idea fizzled, no one would ever know. This amusing beginning of what later became a most unamusing affair was related by Rappaport many times; he even kept, like a sacred relic, a copy of the newspaper that had led him to his famous revelation.

  Hense, burdened with work, was not particularly eager to take on an arduous analysis without even knowing the purpose; so Rappaport finally decided to let him in on the secret. Hense's first reaction was to laugh at Rappaport; but, impressed by the latter's arguments, he at length agreed to the request.

  When Rappaport returned, several days later, to Massachusetts, Hense greeted him with news of negative results, which, in Hense's opinion, refuted the fantastic hypothesis. Rappaport—I know this from him—was ready to abandon the whole thing, but, nettled by the gibes of his friend, began to argue with him. After all, he told him, the entire neutrino emission of one quadrant of the firmament is a veritable ocean covering an enormous spectrum of frequencies, and even if Halsey and Mahoun, combing that spectrum once, had by sheer luck pulled out from it a "piece" of emission that was artificial, coming from an intelligent sender, it would be a miracle indeed for them to accomplish the same thing—again by luck—a second time.

  Therefore they should try to get the tapes that were in Swanson's possession. Hense went along with this reasoning, but observed (he, too, wanted to be right) that, given the alternative of "message from the stars" versus "Swanson's fraud," the second proposition had a probability a few billion times greater than the first. He added that obtaining the tapes would do Rappaport little good: Swanson, when he received the court summons, and no doubt wanting to build himself a good defense, could simply have copied the tape he had and then presented that copy as another original neutrino recording.

  Rappaport had no answer to that, but he knew someone in the field of long-sequence semiautomatic recording devices. He telephoned the man and asked if it was in any way possible to distinguish a tape on which certain natural processes were registered from tapes onto which similar impressions had been transferred secondhand. (In other words, what was the difference—if any existed—between an original recording and a copy of it?) It turned out that such a distinction could sometimes be made. Rappaport then went to Swanson's lawyer and in a week had the full set of tapes at his disposal. As it turned out, all were pronounced original by the expert; thus Swanson had committed no fraud, and thus the emission had in fact repeated itself periodically.

  Rappaport informed neither Hense nor Swanson's lawyer of this finding, but that very same day—or, rather, that very night—he flew to Washington. Well aware of the hopelessness of trying to force his way through the bureaucracy's obstacle course, he went straight to Mortimer Rush, the President's science adviser and the former director of NASA, whom he knew personally. Rush, a physicist by education, a man with a first-rate head on his shoulders, received Rappaport despite the lateness of the hour. For three weeks Rappaport waited in Washington while the tapes were examined by specialists of increasing importance.

  Finally, Rush requested his presence at a conference in which a total of nine people participated, among whom were the shining lights of American science—Donald Prothero the physicist, Yvor Baloyne the linguist and philologist, Tihamer Dill the astrophysicist, and John Baer the mathematician and information theorist. At that conference it was decided, informally, to set up a special commission to study the "neutrino letter from the stars," which was given then the code name—Baloyne's half-joking suggestion—His Master's Voice. Rush urged discretion on the participants of the conference, for the time being, because he feared that the media's giving the matter a sensational cast could only harm its chances of gaining the necessary funding; the thing would immediately become a political football in Congress, where Rush's position, as he represented a much-criticized administration, was shaky.

  It appeared that the matter had been put on as sensible a course as possible, when, without warning, who should become mixed up in it but Dr. Sam Laserowitz. From the whole account of Swanson's trial, the one thing Laserowitz noted was that the court expert had said nothing in his testimony to the effect that the
"sections of silence" on the tapes were "blanks" brought about by the periodic shutting-off of the apparatus. He drove, then, to Melville, where the trial was in process, and sat in the hotel lobby laying siege to Swanson's lawyer; Laserowitz wanted the tapes, feeling that they should be placed in his museum of "cosmic curiosities." The lawyer, however, refused to give them to Laserowitz, a person of no importance. Laserowitz, who smelled "anticosmic conspiracy" everywhere, hired a private detective to tail the lawyer; he thereby learned that some man from out of town, who had arrived on the morning train, was closeted with the lawyer at the hotel, received the tapes from the lawyer, and subsequently took them away with him, to Massachusetts.

  The man was Dr. Rappaport. Laserowitz dispatched his detective on the trail of the unsuspecting Rappaport, and when the latter turned up in Washington and paid several visits to Rush, Laserowitz decided it was time to act. And a most unpleasant surprise it was, too, for Rush and the HMV candidates, that article from the Morning Star reprinted by one of the Washington tabloids, in which, under a suitably shrill headline, Laserowitz revealed how the administration was using every dirty trick at its disposal to hush up a tremendous discovery—exactly as, more than ten years earlier, it had buried beneath the official statements of the Department of Aviation the so-called unidentified flying objects, the famous saucers.

  Only now did Rush realize that the matter could take on an ugly aspect in the international arena if the thought occurred to anyone that the United States was attempting to conceal from the world the fact that it had established contact with a cosmic civilization. He was not greatly concerned about the article itself, since its ludicrous tone discredited not only the author but the information as well; he calculated, therefore, relying on his considerable experience in the field of publicity, that if silence was maintained, the commotion would soon die down of itself.