Scientists attempt to decode what may be a message from intelligent beings in outer space.
By pure chance, scientists detect a signal from space that may be communication from rational beings. How can people of Earth understand this message, knowing nothing about the senderseven whether or not they exist? Written as the memoir of a mathematician who participates in the government project (code name: His Master's Voice) attempting to decode what seems to be a message from outer space, this classic novel shows scientists grappling with fundamental questions about the nature of reality, the confines of knowledge, the limitations of the human mind, and the ethics of military-sponsored scientific research.
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HIS MASTER'S VOICE
By Stanislaw LEM, MICHAEL KANDEL
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 1968 Stanislaw Lem
All rights reserved.
THE MASTER'S VOICE Project has an enormous literature, more extensive and diverse than ever had the Manhattan Project. Upon its public disclosure, America and the world were inundated with articles, treatises, and essays, so numerous that the bibliography alone is a tremendous tome, as thick as an encyclopedia. The official version is the Baloyne Report, which the American Library later published in ten million copies; but the essence of it appears in the eighth volume of the Encyclopedia Americana. And there have been books about the Project by others who held high positions in it, such as Rappaport's The First Interstellar Communication, Dill's Inside His Master's Voice, or Prothero's HMV: The Implications for Physics. This last work, authored by my late friend, is among the most accurate, though it really belongs more to the professional literature—professional meaning that the thing studied is clearly separated from the one who studies it.
There are too many historical treatises even to mention. The four-volume work of the historian of science William Angers, 749 Days: A Chronicle, is monumental. It amazed me with its meticulousness; Angers had got hold of all the former workers of the Project and done a compilation of their views. But I did not read his opus to the end—that seemed to me as impossible as reading a telephone book.
In a separate category are books not factual but interpretive, ranging from the philosophical and theological even to the psychiatric. The reading of such publications never fails to weary and annoy me. It is no coincidence, I am sure, that those who have the most to say about the Project are the ones who have had no direct contact with it.
Which is similar to the attitude physicists have regarding gravitation or electrons—as opposed to that of the "well-informed" who read popular science. The "well-informed" think they know something about matters that the experts are reluctant even to speak of. Information at second hand always gives an impression of tidiness, in contrast with the data at the scientist's disposal, full of gaps and uncertainties. The writers on HMV who come under the interpretive heading as a rule crammed the information they acquired into the corsets of their convictions; what did not fit they lopped off without ceremony or hesitation. A few such books one can at least admire for the authors' inventiveness. But this type imperceptibly turns into a characteristic form that one might term the graphomania of the Project. Science, from its very beginning, has been surrounded by a halo of pseudo science, which rises like steam from various half-educated heads; it is not surprising, then, that HMV, as a phenomenon completely unprecedented, evoked so violent a ferment among addled minds, a ferment crowned by the appearance of a series of religious sects.
The amount of information that is necessary for even a general grasp of the questions dealt with in the Project exceeds, to tell the truth, the brain capacity of a single individual. But ignorance, while it checks the enthusiasm of the sensible, in no way restrains the fools; thus in the ocean of published papers that His Master's Voice has called into existence, a man can find whatever suits him, as long as he is not overly concerned about the truth. And even the most venerable personages have tried their hand at literature devoted to the Project. The New Revelation, by the respected Patrick Gordiner, is at least logical and lucid, which I cannot say of The Epistle of the Antichrist by Father Bernard Pignani. The pious priest reduces HMV to demonology (using for the purpose the nihil obstat of his church superiors), and its concluding failure he attributes to Divine Intervention. This resulted, I guess, from Lord of the Flies, that name jokingly made up at the Project, which Father Pignani took seriously, acting like a child who thinks the names of the stars and planets are written on them, and that the astronomers read these off through their telescopes.
To say nothing of the swarm of sensational versions—which are like those frozen meals one heats and serves, practically prechewed, which look a great deal better under the cellophane than they taste. The ingredients are seasoned with an ever-novel but always fabulously colored sauce. Look used the spy-political to season its series of articles (putting into my mouth words I never said); The New Yorker served up a dish more refined, adding certain essences of philosophy; and, again, in HMV: Between the Lines, Dr. Shapiro provided a psychoanalytic interpretation, from which I learned that the people of the Project were driven by a libido made unnatural by the projections of the newest—cosmic—mythology of sex. Dr. Shapiro is also in possession of precise information concerning the sex life of cosmic civilizations.
I cannot for the life of me understand why, while people without driver's licenses are not allowed on public roads, in bookstores one can find any number of books by persons without decency—let alone knowledge. The inflation of the printed word has been caused, no doubt, by the exponential increase in the number of those writing, but in equal degree by editorial policies. In the childhood of our civilization only select, well-educated individuals were able to read and write, and much the same criterion held after the invention of printing; and even if the works of imbeciles were published (which, I suppose, is impossible to avoid completely), their total number was not astronomical, as it is today. Today, in the flood of garbage, valuable publications must go under, because it is easier to find one worthwhile book among ten worthless than a thousand among a million. Moreover, the phenomenon of pseudo plagiarism becomes inevitable—the unintentional repetition of the ideas of others who are unknown.
I can have no certainty that what I write is not similar to what already has been written. This is one hazard of an age of population explosion. If I have decided to present my reminiscences in connection with the work of the Project, it is because nothing I have read on the subject so far has satisfied me. I do not promise to "tell the truth and nothing but the truth." Had our labor been crowned with success, that might have been possible, but success at the same time would have made such an undertaking unnecessary, for then the concluding truth would have eclipsed the circumstances of its attainment; it would have become a material fact nailed in the center of our civilization. But the failure somehow has cast all our efforts back to their sources. Since we do not understand the mystery, nothing really remains to us but those circumstances that were to have been the scaffolding—and not the edifice itself—or the process of translating—and not the content of the work. And yet the former turned out to be all that we returned with from our quest for the Golden Fleece of the Stars. It is here that I part company as well with the versions that I called objective, beginning with the Baloyne Report, because the word "failure" does not appear in them. Did we not leave the Project incomparably richer than when we entered it? New chapters opened up in the physics of colloids, in the physics of strong interactions, in neutrino astronomy, in nucleonics, biology, and, above all, the new knowledge of the Universe—this represents but the first interest that has accrued to us from the informational principal, which, according to the experts, promises huge profits to come.
No doubt. But there are benefits and there are benefits. Ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him. If the example is shocking, I intend it to be. Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea. It turns out, however, that freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?
I had not a little to say about the Project, but hesitated a long time before sitting down at my desk, aware that I would be adding to what already was a swollen sea of paper. I had assumed that someone more adept with words would perform the task for me; but after years passed I realized that I could not remain silent. The most important works dealing with His Master's Voice, the objective versions, with the Congressional at the head, admit that we did not learn everything; but the amount of space devoted to the achievements, with occasional footnote mentions of what remained unknown—those very proportions suggested that we had mastered the Labyrinth, with the exception of a few corridors—dead ends, no doubt, probably buried in rubble—whereas in fact we did not get as far as the entrance. Doomed forever to conjecture, having chipped a few flecks from the lock that sealed the gate, we delighted in the glitter that gilded our fingertips. But of what was locked we know nothing. And yet, surely, one of the first duties of a scientist is to determine the extent not of the acquired knowledge, for that knowledge will explain itself, but, rather, of the ignorance, which is the invisible Atlas beneath that knowledge.
I have no illusions. I fear that I will not be listened to, because no longer are there universal authorities. The distribution—or disintegration—of specialization has advanced so far that the experts declare me unqualified whenever I encroach upon their particular territory. It has been said that a specialist is a barbarian whose ignorance is not well-rounded. My pessimism is based on personal experience.
Nineteen years ago I published, with a young anthropologist named Maxwell Thorpe, who later died tragically in an automobile accident, a paper in which I proved the existence of a complexity threshold for finite automata with algedonic control, to which class belong all the animals as well as man. Algedonic control means an oscillation between punishment and reward, as between pain and pleasure.
My proof showed that if the number of elements of a regulatory center (a brain) exceeds the maximum of four billion, the set of such automata displays a distribution between the opposing parameters of control. In each such automaton one of the poles of control can become dominant; or—to put it in more popular language—sadism and masochism cannot be avoided, and their appearance in the anthropogenetic process was inevitable. Evolution "chose" such a solution because it operates statistically: what matters to it is the survival of the species, and not the defective states, the ills, the sufferings of separate individuals. Evolution is, as an engineer, an opportunist, not a perfectionist.
I was able to show that in any human population, assuming panmixia (random interbreeding), at most 10 percent will manifest a good equilibrium of algedonic control, while the rest must deviate from the norm. Inasmuch as I belonged, even at that time, in the forefront of the mathematical world, the impact of this proof on the communities of anthropologists, ethnologists, biologists, and philosophers was equal to zero. For a long time I could not understand it. My work was no hypothesis but a formal—therefore irrefutable—proof demonstrating that certain human characteristics, over which a legion of thinkers through the centuries had racked their brains, were accounted for entirely by a process of statistical fluctuation, a process—whether in the construction of automata or of organisms—impossible to circumvent.
Later I expanded the proof to include, as well, the phenomenon of the appearance of ethics in social groups, and there I was able to rely on the excellent material that had been prepared by Thorpe. But this paper, too, was ignored. After a number of years, having had a great many discussions with the specialists who dealt with man, I came to the conclusion that my discovery had failed to gain their recognition for the reason that none of them wanted that kind of discovery. The style of thinking that I represented was in those circles a repugnant thing, because it provided no scope for rhetorical counterargument.
It had been tactless of me to prove something on the topic of man—mathematically! At the very best my work was called "interesting." Not one of those specialists was willing to accept that the venerable Mystery of Man, the unexplainable aspects of his nature, is a consequence of the General Theory of Regulation. Of course, this opposition was not expressed outright, but the proof was held against me. I had behaved like a bull in a china shop, because that which could not be figured out by anthropology and ethnography, with their field research, or by the profoundest philosophical reflection-meditation on "human nature," and which defied propositional formulation in both neurophysiology and ethology, and which provided fertile ground for ever-proliferating metaphysics, for psychological abstrusity, and for psychoanalysis classical and linguistic, and God knows what other esoteric study —I had attempted to cut through, like the Gordian knot, with my proof contained in nine printed pages.
They had grown accustomed to their high office of Keepers of the Mystery, whether the Mystery was called the Transmission of Archetypes, Instinct, the Life Force, or the Death Wish; and I, crossing out these holy words with some sort of transformational groups and ergodic theorems, claimed to possess the solution to the problem! Therefore they took a decided dislike to me (though scrupulously concealed)—an indignation toward that crude heathen who lifted his hand against the Enigma, who sought to stop up its perennially vital wellspring, and silence lips that with such satisfaction posed unending questions. Since the proof allowed no refutation, it became necessary to ignore it.
These remarks are not occasioned by a wounded vanity. The works for which I was hoisted up on a pedestal belong in another field—that of pure mathematics. But the experience was most enlightening. We tend to underestimate the inertia of the style of thought in different branches of science. Psychologically, of course, it is to be expected. The resistance we offer to the statistical model is much more easily overcome in atomic physics than in anthropology. We gladly accept a lucid, well-constructed statistical theory of the atomic nucleus, if experimentation supports it. Becoming acquainted with such a theory, we do not ask, "Fine, but how are the atoms actually behaving?"—because we know the foolishness of such a question. But similar revelations in the realm of anthropology we will fight with our last breath.
It has been known, for forty years now, that the difference between a noble, upright man and a maniacal degenerate can be pinpointed at the site of a few clumps of white matter in the brain, and that the movement of a lancet in the supraorbital area of the brain, if it damages those clumps, can transform a splendid soul into a loathsome creature. Yet what an enormous portion of anthropology—not to mention the philosophy of man—refuses to take cognizance of this circumstance! But I am no exception here; whether scientists or laymen, we agree finally that our bodies deteriorate with age—but the mind?! We would like to see it different from any earthly mechanism subject to defect. We crave an ideal —even one carrying a minus sign, even one shameful, sinful, so long as it delivers us from an explanation worse than the Satanic: that what is taking place is a certain play of forces perfectly indifferent to man. And because our thinking moves in circles from which it is impossible to leap free, I admit that there is some truth in the words of one of our foremost anthropologists. He said to me once—I remember it well—"The satisfaction with which you parade your proof of the lottery origin of human nature is not pure. It is, besides the joy of knowledge, a pleasure in befouling that which others consider lovely and hold dear."
Excerpted from HIS MASTER'S VOICE by Stanislaw LEM, MICHAEL KANDEL. Copyright © 1968 Stanislaw Lem. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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“Lem is a philosopher of science fiction. His imagination takes his work to a higher level than other science fiction, expressing his profound concern and insight into our relationship to the universe. When we enter his world, Lem leads us to a deeper, distant place.”Liu Cixin