Contact by Carl Sagan
Floodlights brilliantly illuminated the Ishtar Gate. It was covered with representations in glazed tile of some blue animal. The archeologists had called them dragons.
Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.
Scepticism and Animal Faith, IX
IT WAS on a mission of insurgency and subversion. The enemy was vastly larger and more powerful. But it knew the enemy’s weakness. It could take over the alien government, turning the resources of the adversary to its own purpose. Now, with millions of dedicated agents in place…
She sneezed and tried to find a clean paper tissue in the bulging pocket of the terry-cloth presidential bathrobe. She had no makeup on, although her chapped lips revealed patches of mentholated balm.
“My doctor tells me I have to stay in bed or I’ll get viral pneumonia. I ask him for an antibiotic, and he tells me there’s no antibiotic for viruses. So how does he know I have a virus?”
Der Heer opened his mouth to answer, a gesture in the making, when the President cut him short.
“No, never mind. You’ll start telling me about DNA and host recognition and I’ll need what resources I’ve got left to listen to your story. If you’re not afraid of my virus, pull up a chair.”
“Thank you, Ms. President. This is about the primer. I have the report here. There’s a long technical section that’s included as an appendix. I thought you might be interested in it also. Briefly, we’re reading and actually understanding the thing with almost no difficulty. It’s a fiendishly clever learning program. I don’t mean ‘fiendishly’ in any literal sense, of course. We must have a vocabulary of three thousand words by now.”
“I don’t understand how it’s possible. I could see how they could teach you the names of their numbers. You make one dot and write the letters O N E underneath, and so on. I could see how you could have a picture of a star and then write S T A R under it. But I don’t see how you could do verbs or the past tense or conditionals.”
“They do some of it with movies. Movies are perfect for verbs. And a lot of it they do with numbers. Even abstractions; they can communicate abstractions with numbers. It goes something like this: First they count out the numbers for us, and then they introduce some new words—words we don’t understand. Here, I’ll indicate their words by letters. We read something like this (the letters stand for symbols the Vegans introduce).” He wrote:
“What do you think it is?”
“My high school report card? You mean there’s a combination of dots and dashes that A stands for, and a different combination of dots and dashes that B stands for, and so on?”
“Exactly. You know what one and two mean, but you don’t know what A and B mean. What does a sequence like this tell you?”
“A means ‘plus’ and B means ‘equals.’ Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Good. But we don’t yet understand what Z means, right? Now along comes something like this”:
“Maybe. Give me another that ends in Y.”
“Okay, I think I got it. As long as I don’t read the last three symbols as a word. Z means it’s true, and Y means it’s false.”
“Right. Exactly. Pretty good for a President with a virus and a South African crisis. So with a few lines of text they’ve taught us four words: plus, equals, true, false. Four pretty useful words. Then they teach division, divide one by zero, and tell us the word for infinity. Or maybe it’s just the word for indeterminate. Or they say, ‘The sum of the interior angles of a triangle is two right angles.’ Then they comment that the statement is true if space is flat, but false if space is curved. So you’ve learned how to say ‘if’ and—”
“I didn’t know space was curved. Ken, what the hell are you talking about? How can space be curved? No, never mind, never mind. That can’t have anything to do with the business in front of us.”
“Sol Hadden tells me it was his idea where to find the primer. Don’t look at me funny, der Heer. I talk to all types.”
“I didn’t mean…ah… As I understand it, Mr. Hadden volunteered a few suggestions, which had all been made by other scientists as well. Dr. Arroway checked them out and hit paydirt with one of them. It’s called phase modulation, or phase coding.”
“Yes. Now, is this correct. Ken? The primer is scattered throughout the Message, right? Lots of repetitions. And there was some primer shortly after Arroway first picked up the signal.”
“Shortly after she picked up the third layer of the palimpsest, the Machine design.”
“And many countries have the technology to read the primer, right?”
“Well, they need a device called a phase correlator. But, yes. The countries that count, anyway.”
“Then the Russians could have read the primer a year ago, right? Or the Chinese or the Japanese. How do you know they’re not halfway to building the Machine right now?”
“I thought of that, but Marvin Yang says it’s impossible. Satellite photography, electronic intelligence, people on the scene, all confirm that there’s no sign of the kind of major construction project you’d need to build the Machine. No, we’ve all been asleep at the switch. We were seduced by the idea that the primer had to come at the beginning and not interspersed through the Message. It’s only when the Message recycled and we discovered it wasn’t there that we started thinking of other possibilities. All this work has been done in close cooperation with the Russians and everybody else. We don’t think anybody has the jump on us, but on the other hand everybody has the primer now. I don’t think there’s any unilateral course of action for us.”
“I don’t want a unilateral course of action for us. I just want to make sure that nobody else has a unilateral course of action. Okay, so back to your primer. You know how to say true false, if-then, and space is curved. How do you build a Machine with that?”
“You know, I don’t think this cold or whatever you’ve got has slowed you down a bit. Well, it just takes off from there. For example, they draw us a periodic table of the elements, so they get to name all the chemical elements, the idea of an atom, the idea of a nucleus, protons, neutrons, electrons. Then they run through some quantum mechanics just to make sure we’re paying attention—there are already some new insights for us in the remedial stuff. Then it starts concentrating on the particular materials needed for the construction. For example, for some reason we need two tons of erbium, so they run through a nifty technique to extract it from ordinary rocks.”
Der Heer raised his hand palm outward in a placatory gesture. “Don’t ask why we need two tons of erbium. Nobody has the faintest idea.”
“I wasn’t going to ask that. I want to know how they told you how much a ton is.”
“They counted it out for us in Planck masses. A Planck mass is—”
“Never mind, never mind. It’s something that physicists all over the universe know about, right? And I’ve never heard of it. Now, the bottom line. Do we understand the primer well enough to start reading the Message? Will we be able to build the thing or not?”
“The answer seems to be yes. We’ve only had the primer for a few weeks now, but whole chapters of the Message are falling into our lap in clear. Its painstaking design, redundant explanations, and as far as we can tell, tremendous redundancy in the Machine design. We should have a three-dimensional model of the Machine for you in time for that crew-selection meeting on Thursday, if you feel up to it. So far, we haven’t a clue as to what the Machine does, or how it works. And there are some funny organic ch
“Well, Lunacharsky and the Russians. And Billy Jo Rankin, of course. There are still people who worry that the Machine will blow up the-world or tip the Earth’s axis, or something. But what’s impressed most of the scientists is how careful the instructions are, and how many different ways they go about trying to explain the same thing.”
“And what does Eleanor Arroway say?”
“She says if they want to do us in, they’ll be here in twenty-five years or so and there’s nothing we could do in twenty-five years to protect ourselves. They’re too far ahead of us. So she says. Build it, and if you’re worried about environmental hazards, build it in a remote place. Professor Drumlin says you can build it in downtown Pasadena for all he cares. In fact, he says he’ll be there every minute it takes to construct the Machine, so he’ll be the first to go if it blows up.”
“Drumlin, he’s the fellow who figured out that this was the design for a Machine, right?”
“Not exactly, he—”
“I’ll read all the briefing material in time for that Thursday meeting. You got anything else for me?”
“Are you seriously considering letting Hadden build the Machine?”
“Well, it’s not only up to me, as you know. That treaty they’re hammering out in Paris gives us about a one-quarter say. The Russians have a quarter, the Chinese and the Japanese together have a quarter, and the rest of the world has a quarter, roughly speaking. A lot of nations want to build the Machine, or at least parts of it. They’re thinking about prestige, and new industries, new knowledge. As long as no one gets a jump on us, that all sounds fine to me. It’s possible Hadden might have a piece of it. What’s the problem? Don’t you think he’s technically competent?”
“He certainly is. It’s just—”
“If there’s nothing more, Ken, I’ll see you Thursday, virus willing.”
As der Heer was shutting the door and entering the adjacent sitting room, there was an explosive presidential sneeze. The Warrant Officer of the Day, sitting stiffly on a couch, was visibly startled. The briefcase at his feet was crammed with authorization codes for nuclear war. Der Heer calmed him with a repetitive gesture of his hand, fingers spread, palm down. The officer gave an apologetic smile.
• • •
“That’s Vega? That’s what all the fuss is about?” the President asked with some disappointment. The photo opportunity for the press was now over, and her eyes had become almost dark-adapted after the onslaught of flashbulbs and television lighting. The pictures of the President gazing steely-eyed through the Naval Observatory telescope that appeared in all the papers the next day were, of course, a minor sham. She had been unable to see anything at all through the telescope until the photographers had left and darkness returned.
“Why does it wiggle?”
“It’s turbulence in the air, Ms. President,” der Heer explained. “Warm bubbles of air go by and distort the image.”
“Like looking at Si across the breakfast table when there’s a toaster between us. I can remember seeing one whole side of his face fall off,” she said affectionately, raising her voice so the presidential consort, standing nearby talking to the uniformed Commandant of the Observatory, could overhear.
“Yeah, no toaster on the breakfast table these days,” he replied amiably.
Seymour Lasker was before his retirement a high official of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. He had met his wife decades before when she was representing the New York Girl Coat Company, and they had fallen in love over a protracted labor settlement. Considering the present novelty of both their positions, the apparent health of their relationship was noteworthy.
“I can do without the toaster, but I’m not getting enough breakfasts with Si.” She inflected her eyebrows in his general direction, and then returned to the monocular eyepiece. “It looks like a blue amoeba, all…squishy.”
After the difficult crew-selection meeting, the President was in a lighthearted frame of mind. Her cold was almost gone.
“What if there was no turbulence, Ken? What would I see then?”
“Then it would be just like Space Telescope above the Earth’s atmosphere. You’d see a steady, unflickering point of light.”
“Just the star? Just Vega? No planets, no rings, no laser battle stations?”
“No, Ms. President. All that would be much too small and faint to see even with a very big telescope.”
“Well, I hope your scientists know what they’re doing,” she said in a near whisper. “We’re making an awful lot of commitments on something we’ve never seen.”
Der Heer was a little taken aback. “But we’ve seen thirty-one thousand pages of text—pictures, words, plus a huge primer.”
“In my book, that’s not the same as seeing it. It’s a little too…inferential. Don’t tell me about scientists all over the world getting the same data. I know all that. And don’t tell me about how clear and unambiguous the blueprints for the Machine are. I know that too. And if we back out, someone else is sure to build the Machine. I know all those things. But I’m still nervous.”
The party ambled back through the Naval Observatory compound to the Vice President’s residence. Tentative agreements on crew selection had been painstakingly worked out in Paris in the last weeks. The United States and the Soviet Union had argued for two crew positions each; on such matters they were reliable allies. But it was hard to sustain this argument with the other nations in the World Message Consortium. These days it was much more difficult for the United States and the Soviet Union—even on issues on which they agreed—to work their way with the other nations of the world than had once been the case.
The enterprise was now widely touted as an activity of the human species. The name “World Message Consortium” was about to be changed to “World Machine Consortium.” Nations with pieces of the Message tried to use this fact as an entree for one of their nationals as a member of the crew. The Chinese had quietly argued that by the middle of the next century there would be one and a half billion of them in the world, but with many born as only children because of the Chinese experiment on state-supported birth control. Those children, once grown, would be brighter, they predicted, and more emotionally secure than children of other nations with less stringent rules on family size. Since the Chinese would thus be playing a more prominent role in world affairs in another fifty years, they argued, they deserved at least one of the five seats on the Machine. It was an argument now being discussed in many nations by officials with no responsibility for the Message or the Machine.
Europe and Japan surrendered crew representation in exchange for major responsibility for the construction of Machine components, which they believed would be of major economic benefit. In the end, a seat was reserved for the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and India, with the fifth seat undecided. This represented a long and difficult multilateral negotiation, with population size, economic, industrial, and military power, present political alignments, and even a little of the history of the human species as considerations.
For the fifth seat, Brazil and Indonesia made representations based on population size and geographical balance; Sweden proposed a moderating role in case of political disputes; Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia argued on grounds of religious equity. Others suggested that at least this fifth seat should be decided on grounds of individual merit rather than national affiliation. For the moment, the decision was left in limbo, a wild card for later.
In the four selected nations, scientists, national leaders, and others were going through the exercise of choosing their candidates. A kind of national debate ensued in the United States. In surveys and opinion polls, religious leaders, sports heroes, astronauts, Congressional Medal of Honor winners, scientists, movie actors, a former presidential spouse, television talk show hosts a
By long tradition, ever since the Vice President’s residence was moved to the grounds of the Naval Observatory, the house servants had been Filipino petty officers on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Wearing smart blue blazers with a patch embroidered “Vice President of the United States,” they were now-serving coffee. Most of the participants in the all-day crew-selection meeting had not been invited to this informal evening session.
It had been Seymour Lasker’s singular fate to be America’s first First Gentleman. He bore his burden—the editorial cartoons, the smarmy jokes, the witticism that he had gone where no man had gone before—with such directness and good nature that at last America was able to forgive him for marrying a woman with the nerve to imagine that she could lead half the world. Lasker had the Vice President’s wife and teenaged son laughing uproariously as the President guided der Heer into an adjacent library annex.
“All right,” she began. “There’s no official decision to be made today and no public announcement of our deliberations. But let’s see if we can sum up. We don’t know what the goddamn Machine will do, but it’s a reasonable guess that it goes to Vega. Nobody has the slightest idea of how it would work or even how long it would take. Tell me again, how far away is Vega?”
“Twenty-six light-years, Ms. President.”
“And so if this Machine were a kind of spaceship and could travel as fast as light—I know it can’t travel as fast as light, only close to it, don’t interrupt—then it would take twenty-six years for it to get there, but only as we measure time here on Earth. Is that right, der Heer?”
“Yes. Exactly. Plus maybe a year to get up to light speed and a year to decelerate into the Vega system. But from the standpoint of the crew members, it would take a lot less. Maybe only a couple of years, depending on how close to light speed they travel.”
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