Contact by Carl Sagan
“Uh, thank you. Yes. It’s called the Deep Space Network, and we’re very proud of it. We have stations in the Mojave Desert, in Spain, and in Australia. Of course, we’re underfunded, but with a little help, I’m sure we could get up to speed.”
“Spain and Australia?” the President asked.
“For purely scientific work,” the Secretary of State was saying, “I’m sure there’s no problem. However, if this research program had political overtones, it might be a little tricky.”
American relations with both countries had become cool of late.
“There’s no question this has political overtones,” the President replied a little testily.
“But we don’t have to be tied to the surface of the earth,” interjected an Air Force general. “We can beat the rotation period. All we need is a large radio telescope in Earth orbit.”
“All right.” The President again glanced around the table. “Do we have a space radio telescope? How long would it take to get one up? Who knows about this? Dr. Garrison?”
“Uh, no, Ms. President. We at NASA have submitted a proposal for the Maxwell Observatory in each of the last three fiscal years, but OMB has removed it from the budget each time. We have a detailed design study, of course, but it would take years—well, three years anyway—before we could get it up. And I feel I should remind everybody that until last fall the Russians had a working millimeter and submillimeter wave telescope in Earth orbit. We don’t know why it failed, but they’d be in a better position to send some cosmonauts up to fix it than we’d be to build and launch one from scratch.”
“That’s it?” the President asked. “NASA has an ordinary telescope in space but no big radio telescope. Isn’t there anything suitable up there already? What about the intelligence community? National Security Agency? Nobody?”
“So, just to follow this line of reasoning,” der Heer said, “it’s a strong signal and it’s on lots of frequencies. After Vega sets over the United States, there are radio telescopes in half a dozen countries that are detecting and recording the signal. They’re not as sophisticated as Project Argus, and they probably haven’t figured out the polarization modulation yet. If we wait to prepare a space radio telescope and launch it, the message might be finished by then, gone altogether. So doesn’t it follow that the only solution is immediate cooperation with a number of other nations, Dr. Arroway?”
“I don’t think any nation can accomplish this project alone. It will require many nations, spread out in longitude, all the way around the Earth. It will involve every major radio astronomy facility now in place—the big radio telescopes in Australia, China, India, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Western Europe. It would be irresponsible if we wind up with gaps in the coverage because some critical part of the message came when there’s no telescope looking at Vega. We’ll have to do something about the Eastern Pacific between Hawaii and Australia, and maybe something about the Mid-Atlantic also.”
“Well,” the Director of Central Intelligence responded grudgingly, “the Soviets have several satellite tracking ships that are good in S-band through X-band, the Akademik Keldysh, for example. Or the Marshal Nedelin. If we make some arrangement with them, they might be able to station ships in the Atlantic or the Pacific and fill in the gaps.”
Ellie pursed her lips to respond, but the President was already talking.
“All right, Ken. You may be right. But I say again this is moving too damn fast. There are some other things I have to attend to right now. I’d appreciate it if the Director of Central Intelligence and the national Security staff would work overnight on whether we have any options besides cooperation with other countries—especially countries that aren’t our allies. I’d like the Secretary of State to prepare, in cooperation with the scientists, a contingency list of nations and individuals to be approached if we have to cooperate, and some assessment of the consequences. Is some nation going to be mad at us if we don’t ask them to listen? Can we be blackmailed by somebody who promises the data and then holds back? Should we try to get more than one country at each longitude? Work through the implications. And for God’s sake”—her eyes moved from face to face around the long polished table—“keep quiet about this. You too, Arroway. We’ve got problems enough.”
The Ethanol in W-3
No credence whatever is to be given to the opinion…that the demons act as messengers and interpreters between the gods and men to carry all petitions from us to the gods, and to bring back to us the help of the gods. On the contrary, we must believe them to be spirits most eager to inflict harm, utterly alien from righteousness, swollen with pride, pale with envy, subtle in deceit…
The City of God, VIII, 22
That Heresies should arise, we have the prophesie of Christ; but that old ones should be abolished, we hold no prediction.
Religio Medici, I, 8 (1642)
SHE HAD planned to meet Vaygay’s plane in Albuquerque and drive him back to the Argus facility in the Thunderbird. The rest of the Soviet delegation would have traveled in the observatory cars. She would have enjoyed speeding to the airport in the cool dawn air, perhaps again past an honor guard of rampant coneys. And she had been anticipating a long and substantive private talk with Vaygay on the return. But the new security people from the General Services Administration had vetoed the idea. Media attention and the president’s sober announcement at the end of her press conference two weeks before had brought enormous crowds to the isolated desert site. There was a potential for violence, they had told Ellie. She must in future travel only in government cars, and then only with discreetly armed escorts. Their little convoy was wending its way toward Albuquerque at a pace so sober and responsible that she found her right foot of its own volition depressing an imaginary accelerator on the rubber mat before her.
It would be good to spend some time with Vaygay again. She had last seen him in Moscow three years before, during one of those periods in which he was forbidden to visit the West. Authorization for foreign travel had waxed and waned through the decades in response to changing policy fashions and Vaygay’s own unpredictable behavior. Permission would be denied him after some mild political provocation about which he seemed unable to restrain himself, and then granted again when no one of comparable ability could be found to flesh out one or another scientific delegation. He received invitations from all over the world for lectures, seminars, colloquia, conferences, joint study groups, and a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, he could afford to be a little more independent than most. He often seemed poised precariously at the outer limits of the patience and restraint of the governmental orthodoxy.
His full name was Vasily Gregorovich Lunacharsky, known throughout the global community of physicists as Vaygay after the initials of his first name and patronymic. His fluctuating and ambiguous relations with the Soviet regime puzzled her and others in the West. He was a distant relative of Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, an old Bolshevik colleague of Gorky, Lenin, and Trotsky; the elder Lunacharsky had later served as People’s Commissar for Education and as Soviet Ambassador to Spain until his death in 1933. Vaygay’s mother had been Jewish. He had, it was said, worked on Soviet nuclear weapons, although surely he was too young to have played much of a role in fashioning the first Soviet thermonuclear explosion.
His institute was well staffed and well equipped, and his scientific productivity was prodigious, indicating at most infrequent distractions by the committee for State Security. Despite the ebb and flow of permission for foreign travel, he had been a frequent attendee at major international conferences including the “Rochester” symposia on high-energy physics, the “Texas” meeting on relativistic astrophysics, and the informal but occasionally influential “Pugwash” scientific gatherings on ways of reducing international tension.
In the 1960s, she had been told, Vaygay visited the University of California at Berkeley
Once, during a vigorous discussion on the relative merits of the two political systems, Ellie had boasted that she had been free to march in front of the White House protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War. Vaygay replied that in the same period he had been equally free to march in front of the Kremlin protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War.
He had never been inclined, say, to photograph the garbage scows burdened with malodorous refuse and squawking seagulls lumbering in front of the Statue of Liberty, as another Soviet scientist had when for fun she had escorted him on the Staten Island ferry during a break in a meeting in New York City. Nor had he, as had some of his colleagues, ardently photographed the tumble-down shanties and corrugated metal huts of the Puerto Rican poor during a bus excursion from a luxurious beachfront hotel to the Arecibo Observatory. To whom did they submit these pictures? Ellie wondered. She conjured up some vast KGB library dedicated to the infelicities, injustices, and contradictions of capitalist society. Did it warm them, when disconsolate with some of the failures of Soviet society, to browse through the fading snapshots of their imperfect American cousins?
There were many brilliant scientists in the Soviet Union who, for unknown offenses, had not been permitted out of Eastern Europe in decades. Konstantinov, for example, had never been to the West until the mid-1960s. When, at an international meeting in Warsaw—over a table encumbered with dozens of depleted Azerbaijani brandy snifters, their missions completed—Konstantinov was asked why, he replied, “Because the bastards know, they let me out, I never come back.” Nevertheless, they had let him out, sure enough, during the thaw in scientific relations between the two countries in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and he had come back every time. But now they let him out no more, and he was reduced to sending his Western colleagues New Year’s cards in which he portrayed himself forlornly cross-legged, head bowed, seated on a sphere below which was the Schwarzschild equation for the radius of a black hole. He was in a deep potential well, he would tell visitors to Moscow in the metaphors of physics. They would never let him out again.
In response to questions, Vaygay would say that the official Soviet position was that the Hungarian revolution of 1956 had been organized by cryptofascists, and that the Prague Spring of 1968 was brought about by an unrepresentative anti-socialist group in the leadership. But, he would add, if what he had been told was mistaken, if these were genuine popular uprisings, then his country had been wrong in suppressing them. On Afghanistan he did not even bother quoting the official justifications. Once in his office at the Institute he had insisted on showing Ellie his personal shortwave radio, on which were frequencies labeled London and Paris and Washington, neatly spelled out in Cyrillic letters. He was free, he told her, to listen to the propaganda of all nations.
There had been a time when many of his fellows had surrendered to national rhetoric about the yellow peril. “Imagine the entire frontier between China and the Soviet Union occupied by Chinese soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, an invading army,” one of them requested, challenging Ellie’s powers of imagination. They were standing around the samovar in the Director’s office at the Institute. “How long would it be, with the present Chinese birthrate, before they all passed over the border?” And the answer was pronounced, in an unlikely mix of dark foreboding and arithmetic delight, “Never.” William Randolph Hearst would have felt at home. But not Lunacharsky. Stationing so many Chinese soldiers on the frontier would automatically reduce the birthrate, he argued; their calculations were therefore in error. He had phrased it as thought the misuse of mathematical models was the subject of his disapproval, but few mistook his meaning. In the worst of the Sino-Soviet tensions, he had never, so far as Ellie knew, allowed himself to be swept up in the endemic paranoia and racism.
Ellie loved the samovars and could understand the Russian affection for them. Their Lunakhod, the successful unmanned lunar rover that looked like a bathtub on wire wheels, seemed to her to have a little samovar technology somewhere in its ancestry. Vaygay had once taken her to see a model of Lunakhod in a sprawling exhibition park outside of Moscow on a splendid June morning. There, next to a building displaying the wares and charms of the Tadzhik Autonomous Republic, was a great hall filled to the rafters with full-scale models of Soviet civilian space vehicles. Sputnik 1, the first orbital spacecraft; Sputnik 2, the first spacecraft to carry an animal, the dog Laika, who died in space; Luna 2, the first spacecraft to reach another celestial body; Luna 3, the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the Moon; Venera 7, the first spacecraft to land safely on another planet; and Vostok 1, the first manned spacecraft, that carried Hero of the Soviet Union Cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin on a single orbit of the Earth. Outside, children were using the fins of the Vostok launch booster as slides, their pretty blond curls and red Komsomol neckerchiefs flaring as, to much hilarity, the descended to land. Zemlya, it was called in Russian. The large Soviet island in the Arctic Sea was called Novaya Zemlya, New Land. It was there in 1961 that they had detonated a fifty-eight-megaton thermonuclear weapon, the largest single explosion so far contrived by the human species. But on that spring day, with the vendors hawking the ice cream in which Moscovites take so much pride, with families on outings and a toothless old man smiling at Ellie and Lunacharsky as if they were lovers, the old land had seemed nice enough.
In her infrequent visits to Moscow or Leningrad, Vaygay would often arrange the evenings. A group of six or eight of them would go to the Bolshoi or the Kirov ballet. Lunacharsky somehow would arrange for the tickets. She would thank her hosts for the evening, and they—explaining that it was only in the company of foreign visitors that they themselves were able to attend such performances—would thank her. Vaygay would only smile. He never brought his wife, and Ellie had never met her. She was, he said, a physician who was devoted to her patients. Ellie had asked him what his greatest regret was, because his parents had not, as they had once contemplated, emigrated to America. “I have only one regret,” he had said in his gravelly voice. “My daughter married a Bulgarian.”
Once he arranged a dinner at a Caucasian restaurant in Moscow. A professional toastmaster, or tamada, named Khaladze had been engaged for the evening. The man was a master of this art form, but Ellie’s Russian was bad enough that she was obliged to ask for most of the toasts to be translated. He turned to her and, foreshadowing the rest of the evening, remarked, “We call the man who drinks without a toast an alcoholic.” An early and comparatively mediocre toast had ended “To peace on all planets,” and Vaygay had explained to her that the word mir meant world, peace and a self-governing community of peasant households that went back to ancient times. They had talked about whether the world had been more peaceful when its largest political units had been no larger than villages. “Every village is a planet,” Lunacharsky had said, his tumbler held high. “And every planet a village,” she had returned.
Such gatherings would be a little rauco
There were many women in the Soviet scientific community, proportionately more so than in the United States. But they tended to occupy menial to middle-level positions, and male Soviet scientists, like their American counterparts, were puzzled about a pretty woman with evident scientific competence who forcefully expressed her views. Some would interrupt her or pretend not to hear her. Then, Lunacharsky would always lean over and ask in a louder voice than usual, “What did you say, Dr. Arroway? I didn’t quite manage to hear.” The others would then fall silent and she would continue about doped gallium arsenide detectors, or the ethanol content of the galactic cloud W-3. The quantity of 200-proof alcohol in this single interstellar cloud was more than enough to maintain the present population of the Earth, if every adult were a dedicated alcoholic, for the age of the solar system. The tamada had appreciated the remark. In their subsequent toasts, they had speculated on whether other forms of life would be intoxicated by ethanol, whether public drunkenness was a Galaxy-wide problem, and whether a toastmaster on any other world could be as skillful as our Trofim Sergeivich Khaladze.
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