Contact by Carl Sagan
“You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.”
He looked up once more at the cold flickering blue-white light from Vega, and then turned to her.
“Don’t you ever feel…lost in your universe? How do you know what to do, how to behave, if there’s no God? Just obey the law or get arrested?”
“You’re not worried about being lost, Palmer. You’re worried about not being central, not the reason the universe was created. There’s plenty of order in my universe. Gravitation, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, superunification, they all involve laws. And as for behavior, why can’t we figure out what’s in our best interest—as a species?”
“That’s a warmhearted and noble view of the world, I’m sure, and I’d be the last to deny that there’s goodness in the human heart. But how much cruelty has been done when there was no love of God?”
“And how much cruelty when there was? Savonarola and Torquemada loved God, or so they said. Your religion assumes that people are children and need a boogeyman so they’ll behave. You want people to believe in God so they’ll obey the law. That’s the only means that occurs to you: a strict secular police force, and the threat of punishment by an all-seeing God for whatever the police overlook. You sell human beings short.
“Palmer, you think if I haven’t had your religious experience I can’t appreciate the magnificence of your god. But it’s just the opposite. I listen to you, and I think. His god is too small! One paltry planet, a few thousand years—hardly worth the attention of a minor deity, much less the Creator of the universe.”
“You’re confusing me with some other preacher. That museum was Brother Rankin’s territory. I’m prepared for a universe billions of years old. I just say the scientists haven’t proved it.”
“And I say you haven’t understood the evidence. How can it benefit the people if the conventional wisdom, the religious ‘truths,’ are a lie? When you really believe that people can be adults, you’ll preach a different sermon.”
There was a brief silence, punctuated only by the echoes of their footfalls.
“I’m sorry if I’ve been a little too strident,” she said. “It happens to me from time to time.”
“I give you my word. Dr. Arroway, I’ll carefully ponder what you’ve said this evening. You’ve raised some questions I should have answers for. But in the same spirit, let me ask you a few questions. Okay?”
She nodded, and he continued. “Think of what consciousness feels like, what it feels like this minute. Does that feel like billions of tiny atoms wiggling in place? And beyond the biological machinery, where in science can a child learn what love is? Here’s—”
Her beeper buzzed. It was probably Ken with the news she had been waiting for. If so, it had been a very long meeting for him. Maybe it was good news nevertheless. She glanced at the letters and numbers forming in the liquid crystal: Ken’s office number. There were no public telephones in sight, but after a few minutes they were able to flag down a taxicab.
“I’m sorry I have to leave so suddenly,” she apologized. “I enjoyed our conversation, and I’ll think seriously about your questions… You wanted to pose one more?”
“Yes. What is there in the precepts of science that keeps a scientist from doing evil?”
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
Leaves of Grass
“Song of the Open Road” (1855)
IT TOOK years, it was a technological dream and a diplomatic nightmare, but finally they got around to building the Machine. Various neologisms were proposed, and project names evocative of ancient myths. But from the beginning everyone had called it simply the Machine, and that became its official designation. The continuing complex and delicate international negotiations were described by Western editorial writers as “Machine Politics.” When the first reliable estimate of the total cost was generated, even the titans of the aerospace industry gasped. Eventually, it came to half a trillion dollars a year for some years, roughly a third of the total military budget—nuclear and conventional—of the planet. There were fears that building the Machine would ruin the world economy. “Economic Warfare from Vega?” asked the London Economist. The daily headlines in The New York Times were, by any dispassionate measure, more bizarre than any in the now defunct National Enquirer a decade earlier.
The record will show that no psychic, seer, prophet, or soothsayer, no person with claimed precognitive abilities, no astrologer, no numerologist, and no late-December copywriter on “The Year Ahead” had predicted the Message or the Machine—much less Vega, prime numbers, Adolf Hitler, the Olympics, and the rest. There were many claims, however, by those who had clearly foreseen the events but had carelessly neglected to write the precognition down. Predictions of surprising events always prove more accurate if not set down on paper beforehand. It is one of those odd regularities of everyday life. Many religions were in a slightly different category: A careful and imaginative perusal of their sacred writings will reveal, it was argued, a clear foretelling of these wondrous happenings.
For others, the Machine represented a potential bonanza for the world aerospace industry, which had been in worrisome decline since the Hiroshima Accords took full force. Very few new strategic weapons systems were under development. Habitats in space were a growing business, but they hardly compensated for the loss of orbiting laser battle stations and other accoutrements of the strategic defense envisioned by an earlier administration. Thus, some of those who worried about the safety of the planet if the Machine were to be built swallowed their scruples when contemplating the implications for jobs, profits, and career advancement.
A well-placed few argued that there was no richer prospect for the high-technology industries than a threat from space. There would have to be defenses, immensely powerful surveillance radars, eventual outposts on Pluto or in the Oort Comet Cloud. No amount of discourse about military disparities between terrestrials and extraterrestrials could daunt these visionaries. “Even if we can’t defend ourselves against them,” they asked, “don’t you want us to see them coming?” There was profit here and they could smell it. They were building the Machine, of course, trillions of dollars’ worth of Machine; but the Machine was only the beginning, if they played their cards right.
An unlikely political alliance coalesced behind the reelection of President Lasker, which became in effect a national referendum on whether to build the Machine. Her opponent warned of Trojan Horses and Doomsday Machines and the prospect of demoralization of American ingenuity in the face of aliens who had already “invented everything.” The President pronounced herself confident that American technology would rise to the challenge and implied, although she did not actually say, that American ingenuity would eventually equal anything they had on Vega. She was re-elected by a respectable but by no means overwhelming margin.
The instructions themselves were a decisive factor. Both in the primer on language and basic technology and in the Message on the construction of the Machine nothing was left unclear. Sometimes intermediate steps that seemed entirely obvious were spelled out in tedious detail—as when, in the foundations of arithmetic, it is proved that if two times three equals six, then three times two also equals six. At every stage of construction there were checkpoints: The erbium produced by this process should be 96 percent pure, with no more than a fraction of a percent impurity from the other rare earths. When Component 31 is completed and placed in a 6 molar solution of hydrofluoric acid, the remaining structural elements should look like the diagram in the accompanying figure. When Component 408 is assembled, application of a two megagauss transverse magnetic field should spin the rotor up to so many revolutions per second before it returns itself to a motionless state. If any of the tests failed,
After a while you got used to the tests, and you expected to be able to pass them. It was akin to rote memorization. Many of the underlying components, constructed by special factories designed from scratch by following the primer instructions, defied human understanding. It was hard to see why they should work. But they did. Even in such cases, practical applications of the new technologies could be contemplated. Occasionally promising insights seemed to be available for the skimming—in metallurgy, for example, or in organic semiconductors. In some cases several alternative technologies were supplied to produce an equivalent component; the extraterrestrials could not be sure, apparently, which approach would be easiest for the technology of the Earth.
As the first factories were built and the first prototypes produced, pessimism diminished about human ability to reconstruct an alien technology from a Message written in no known language. There was the heady feeling of arriving unprepared for a school test and finding that you can figure out the answers from your general education and your common sense. As in all competently designed examinations, taking it was a learning experience. All the first tests were passed: The erbium was of adequate purity; the pictured superstructure was left after the inorganic material was etched away by hydrofluoric acid; the rotor spun up as advertised. The Message flattered the scientists and engineers, critics said; they were becoming caught up in the technology and losing sight of the dangers.
For the construction of one component, a particularly intricate set of organic chemical reactions was specified and the resulting product was introduced into a swimming pool-sized mixture of formaldehyde and aqueous ammonia. The mass grew, differentiated, specialized, and then just sat there—exquisitely more complex than anything like it humans knew how to build. It had an intricately branched network of fine hollow tubes, through which perhaps some fluid was to circulate. It was colloidal, pulpy, dark red. It did not make copies of itself, but it was sufficiently biological to scare a great many people. They repeated the procedure and produced something apparently identical. How the end product could be significantly more complicated than the instructions that went into building it was a mystery. The organic mass squatted on its platform and did, so far as anyone could tell, nothing. It was to go inside the dodecahedron, just above and below the crew area.
Identical machines were under construction in the United States and the Soviet Union. Both nations had chosen to build in fairly remote places, not so much to protect population centers in case it was a Doomsday Machine as to control access by curiosity seekers, protesters, and the media. In the United States the Machine was built in Wyoming; in the Soviet Union, just beyond the Caucasus, in the Uzbek S.S.R. New factories were established near the assembly sites. Where components could be manufactured with something like existing industry, manufacturing was widely dispersed. An optical subcontractor in Jena, for example, would make and test components to go to the American and Soviet Machines; and to Japan, where every component was systematically examined to understand how it worked, so far as was possible. Progress out of Hokkaido had been slow.
There was concern that a component subjected to a test unauthorized in the Message might destroy some subtle symbiosis of the various components in a functioning Ma-chine. A major substructure of the Machine was three exterior concentric spherical shells, arranged with axes perpendicular to each other, and designed to spin at high velocities. The spherical shells were to have precise and intricate patterns cut into them. Would a shell that had been whirled a few times in an unauthorized test function improperly when assembled into the Machine? Would an inexperienced shell, by contrast, work perfectly?
Hadden Industries was the American prime contractor for Machine construction. Sol Hadden had insisted on no unauthorized testing or even mounting of components intended for eventual assembly into the Machine. The instructions, he ordered, were to be followed to the bit, there being no letters per se in the Message. He urged his employees to think of themselves as medieval necromancers, fastidiously following the words of a magic spell. Do not dare to mispronounce a syllable, he told them.
This was, depending on which calendrical or eschatological doctrine you fancied, two years before the Millennium. So many people were “retiring,” in happy anticipation of Doomsday or the Advent or both, that in some industries skilled laborers were in short supply. Hadden’s willingness to restructure his work force to optimize Machine construction, and to provide incentives for subcontractors, was seen to be a major factor in the American success so far.
But Hadden had also “retired”—a surprise, considering the well-known views of the inventor of Preachnix. “The chiliasts made an atheist out of me,” he was quoted as saying. Key decisions were still in his hands, his subordinates said. But communication with Hadden was via fast asynchronous telenetting: His subordinates would leave progress reports, authorization requests, and questions for him in a locked box of a popular scientific telenetting service. His answers would come back in another locked box. It was a peculiar arrangement, but it seemed to be working. As the early, most difficult steps were cleared and the Machine actually was beginning to take shape, less and less was heard from S. R. Hadden. The executives of the World Machine Consortium were concerned, but after what was described as a lengthy visit with Mr. Hadden in an unrevealed location, they came away reassured. His whereabouts were unknown to everyone else.
The world strategic inventories fell below 3,200 nuclear weapons for the first time since the middle 1950s. Multilateral talks on the more difficult stages of disarmament, down to a minimum nuclear deterrent, were making progress. The fewer the weapons on one side, the more dangerous would be the sequestering of a small number of weapons by the other. And with the number of delivery systems—which were much easier to verify—also diminishing steeply, with new means of automatic monitoring of treaty compliance being deployed, and with new agreements on on-site inspection, the prospects for further reductions seemed good. The process had generated a kind of momentum of its own in the minds of both the experts and the public. As occurs in the usual kind of arms race, the two powers were vying to keep up with one another but this time in arms reductions. In practical military terms they had not yet given up very much; they still retained the capability of destroying the planetary civilization. However, in the optimism generated for the future, in the hope engendered in the emerging generation, this beginning had already accomplished much. Aided perhaps by the imminent worldwide Millennial celebrations) both secular and canonical, the number of armed hostilities between nations per year had diminished still further. “The Peace of God,” the Cardinal Archbishop of Mexico City had called it.
In Wyoming and Uzbekistan new industries had been created and whole cities were rising from the ground. The cost was borne disproportionately by the industrialized nations, of course, but the pro rata cost for everyone on Earth was something like one hundred dollars per year. For a quarter of the Earth’s population, one hundred dollars was a significant fraction of annual income. The money spent on the Machine produced no goods or services directly. But in stimulating new technology, it was deemed a great bargain, even if the Machine itself never worked.
There were many who felt that the pace had been too swift, that every step should be understood before moving on to the next. If the construction of the Machine took generations, it was argued, so what? Spreading the development costs over decades would lessen the economic burden to the world economy of building the Machine. By many standards this was prudent advice, but it was difficult to implement. How could you develop only one component of the Machine? All over the world, scientists and engineers of varying disciplinary persuasions were straining to be let loose on those aspects of the Machine that overlapped their areas of expertise.
There were some who worried that were the Machine not built quickly, it would never be built. The American President and the Soviet Premier had committed their nations to the construction of the
All the early subsystems were based on elementary technologies described in the first part of the primer. The prescribed tests had been passed readily enough. As the later, more complex subsystems were tested, occasional failures were noted. This was apparent in both nations, but was more frequent in the Soviet Union. Since no one knew how the components worked, it was usually impossible to trace backwards from failure mode to identification of the flawed step in the manufacturing process. In some cases the components were made in parallel by two different manufacturers, with competition for speed and accuracy. If there were two components, both of which had passed tests, there was a tendency for each nation to select the domestic product. Thus, the Machines that were being assembled in the two countries were not absolutely identical.
Finally, in Wyoming, the day came to begin systems integration, the assembling of the separate components into a complete Machine. It was likely to be the easiest part of the construction process. Completion within a year or two seemed likely. Some thought that activating the Machine would end the world right on schedule.
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