Commentary Magazine


R. S. V. P.—A Story

The project began with high hopes, excitement even. Though people later came to think it just dumb, founded on a mistake so obvious that those who started it deserved its consequences, no one raised objections until well after the project was operating. True, everyone said it would be a long venture, probably not producing results for many generations. But at the beginning the newspapers carried frequent reports on its progress (“Nothing yet”). Practical jokers would call saying, “Is this the Interstellar Communications Project? Well I’m a BEM you’d be interested in talking to,” or “I have a collect call for the Interstellar Communications Projects from the constellation of Sagittarius. Will you accept the charges?” It was in the public eye, looked fondly upon.

Much thought had been given to deciding what listening devices to use and what sorts of signals to study intensively. What would be the most likely wavelengths for messages to come on? Would the messages be something like TV signals rather than consecutive prose? How would one tell that a signal was sent by intelligent beings rather than produced by some natural process? Investigating this last problem produced the Theological Project as a side-effect, for proponents of the argument from design, one traditional argument for the existence of God, had long wrestled with the same difficulties: couldn’t any pattern, however intricate and wonderful, have been produced by some unknown mechanism? How could one be sure that an intelligence was behind it? Some foolproof test was needed, especially since, with a sufficiently complex manual of translation, any glop coming across could be decoded into an interesting message. Sending a return message and receiving a reply would take many years, perhaps generations, and it wouldn’t do to have everyone on earth jumping for joy and holding their breath if they were just talking to the interstellar equivalent of the bedpost. The solution lay in abstract mathematical patterns, not realized (so far as anyone knew) in any actual causal mechanism and which (it was thought) couldn’t be so realized. For example, there’s no known causal process that generates the sequence of prime numbers in order; no process, that is, that wasn’t expressly set up by an intelligent being for that purpose. There doesn’t seem to be any physical significance to precisely that sequence, to a sequence which leaves out only the non-primes, and it’s difficult to imagine some scientific law containing a variable ranging only over primes. Finding that a message began with groups of prime-numbered pulses, in order, would be a sure sign that an intelligence was its source. (Of course, something might be the product of an intelligent being even though it didn’t exhibit such an abstract pattern. But a being wishing to be known to others would do well to include one.) With alacrity, the theologians jumped on this idea, gaining their first National Science Foundation grant. Among themselves they called their project “Hunting for God,” and the idea (about which other theologians had their reservations) was to look at the fundamental lineaments and structures of the universe, the clustering of galaxies, relationships among elementary particles, fundamental physical constants and their relationships, etc., searching for some abstract non-causal pattern. Were one found, one could conclude that a designing intelligence lay behind it. Of course, it had to be decided precisely which abstract patterns would count, and which features of the universe were fundamental enough. Discovering prime-numbered heaps of sand on some heretofore uninhabited island wouldn’t do the trick, since one would expect to find something like that somewhere or other; what the significance would be of finding such patterns in cortical functioning or in the structure of DNA was a matter of dispute, with those viewing man as no more fundamental than the heaps of sand accusing their opponents of anthropocentrism. Theologians establishing the Reverend Thomas Bayes Society became expert in forming complex and intricate probability calculations and in debating delicate issues about assigning a priori probabilities. The results of the “Hunting for God” project being well known, no more need be said here.

The initial excitement aroused by the Interstellar Communications Project was connected with a vague hope that other beings would enlighten people about the meaning and purpose of life, or with the hope that at least people would learn they weren’t alone. (No one explained why the “we” group wouldn’t just expand, leaving people plus the others still quite alone.) After the project was set up, the best scientists went on to other more challenging tasks, leaving the rest to wait and listen. They listened and they examined and they computed and they waited. No qualifying abstract pattern was detected, nor was any message that looked intelligent even minus such a pattern. Since newsmen do not find a uniform diet of “no progress” reinforcing, the project was reduced, in order to fill the auditorium for their third annual press conference, to inviting reporters from college newspapers, Sisterhood bulletins, and the like. Up gets this woman to ask why they should expect to hear anything; after all, they were only just listening and not doing any sending, why wouldn’t everyone be doing the same?; maybe everyone else was just listening also and no one was sending any messages.

It is difficult to believe that the project had reached this point without anyone’s having thought about why or whether extraterrestrial beings would want to try to make their presence known to others. Even though during the Congressional debate on the subject, in all the newspaper columns and editorials, no one once suggested setting up a transmitting station, no questioner asked whether other beings would. Little thought is required to realize that it would be dangerous simply to start sending out messages announcing one’s existence. You don’t know who or what is out there, who might come calling to enslave you, or eat you, or exhibit you, or experiment on you, or toy with you. Prudence dictates, at a minimum, listening in for a while to find out if other parties are safe and friendly, before making your presence known. Though if the other parties are at all clever, they would send reassuring messages whatever their intentions. They most certainly would not beam out TV signals showing themselves killing and eating various intelligently behaving foreigners. And if they’re really clever, then (by hypothesis) they’ll succeed in deceiving anyone not adhering to a policy of staying silent no matter what. Such considerations were neither explicitly formulated nor publicly expounded, but it must have been some feeling about the foolhardiness of broadcasting first (how else can one account for it?) that led to the notable but not-then-noted absence of proposals to establish broadcasting stations in addition to the listening posts.

_____________

 

Once again the project was a topic of conversation. “Of course,” everyone said, “it’s ridiculous to expect anyone to broadcast; it’s too dangerous. No interplanetary, interstellar, intergalactic civilization, however far advanced, will broadcast. For they won’t know that an even more advanced and hostile civilization isn’t lurking at the other end of their communications beam.” Interest in flying-saucer reports diminished considerably when the conclusion was drawn that the sending out of observation ships presents hazards similar to those of broadcasting messages, since the process of a ship’s returning information to its source can be tracked. (Even if a ship were designed to give information to its makers by not transmitting any physical signal, or even returning to its base, there must be some contingencies under which it would do so, since nothing can be learned from a detection device that gives the same response no matter what it detects.) It was said that if its planning committee had included some psychologists or game-theorists or even kids from street gangs in addition to the scientists and engineers, the project never would have gotten started in the first place. The legislature wouldn’t openly admit its blunder by ending the project completely. Instead they cut its funds. They did not authorize the broadcasting of messages. The members of the staff had various reasons for staying with the project ranging, one mordantly remarked, from masochism to catatonia. All in all, they found their jobs agreeable. Like night clerks in completely empty resort hotels, they read and thought and coped comfortably with the lack of outside stimulation. In that manner the project continued, serenely, for another eight years, with only a few comedians desperate for material giving it any mention at all; until the receipt of the first message.

Studious observation of reversals in public opinion and their accompanying commentaries has never been known to enhance anyone’s respect for the public’s intellectual integrity. (As for its intelligence, this would be a late date, indeed, to proclaim the news that the public adopts a view only after it is already known to be false or inadequate, or to note the general inability to distinguish between the first-person present tense of the verb “to believe” and the verb “to know.”) People just refuse to admit that they have changed their minds, that they have made a mistake. So the very same people who said at first, “How exciting, I wonder when the messages will begin arriving,” and who later said, “How silly to listen for a message; it’s too dangerous for anyone to broadcast,” now said, after the receipt of the first message, “Of course a civilization will broadcast, even though it’s dangerous, if it’s even more dangerous for it not to broadcast.”

The first message picked up and decoded was a call for help. They were threatened by a coming supernova outburst of their star. No spaceships could escape the wide perimeter of destruction in time, and in any case they could not evacuate all of their population. Could anyone advise them about what to do, how to harness their star to prevent the outburst? Their astronomical observations had shown them that occasionally such outbursts didn’t take place as predicted, and since they could discover no alternative explanation for this anomaly, they thought it possible that some civilizations had mastered a technique of inhibiting them. If no one told them how to do it, or came to their aid, they were doomed.

Over the next year and a half they beamed out their literature, their history, their accumulated wisdom, their jokes, their sage’s sayings, their scientific theories, their hopes. Mankind was engulfed in this concentrated effulgence of a whole civilization, enthralled, purified, and ennobled. To many they became a model, an inspiration. Their products were treasured and they were loved. Did they view this outpouring as a gift to others, an inducement for others to help, a distillation for its own sake of the essence of themselves? No person knew or was prone to speculate as each, silently with them, awaited their tragedy. Never before had the whole of humanity been so greatly moved; never before had persons been so jointly elevated as in experiencing these beings.

At the end of a year and a half came a renewed call for aid; and in addition a call for some response, even from those lacking technical knowledge to help with the supernova. They wanted, they said, to know their messages had been received and understood, to know that what they held most important and dear would be preserved. They wanted to know, as they died, that others knew of them, that what they had done would continue, that it would not be as if they had never existed at all.

Only to the misanthropic can the ensuing debate have brought pleasure, the debate that raged among persons, and within some.

“It might be a trick, don’t reply, it’s too dangerous.”

“Beings capable of that civilization couldn’t be up to trickery.”

“Perhaps they are quoting another civilization they’ve conquered, or an earlier phase of their own; Nazis could and would quote Goethe.”

“Even if they’re not tricking us, perhaps some other aggressive civilization will overhear our message to them.”

“How can we let them perish without responding?”

“If we could help them escape their fate then certainly we should send a message telling them what to do, even though this would mean running serious risks. But we can’t help them, and we shouldn’t run risks merely in order to bid them a sentimental farewell.”

“We can save them from believing, as they die, that they are sinking into oblivion.”

“Why the irrational desire to leave a trace behind? What can that add to what they’ve already accomplished? If eventually the last living being in the universe dies, will that mean that the lives of all the rest have been meaningless? (Or is it vanishing without trace while others still remain on that is objectionable?)”

“How shall we face our children if we don’t respond?”

“Will we have grandchildren to face if we do respond?”

No government sent a message. The United Nations issued a proclamation beginning with a lot of “whereas’”s but containing near the close a gathering of “inasmuch’”s. so it didn’t proclaim its proclamation of regret very loudly. But it did issue an order, in its stated role as guardian of the interests of the earth as a whole, that no one endanger the others by replying. Some disobeyed, using makeshift transmitters, but these were seized quickly, and their signals were too weak to reach their destination intact through the interstellar noise.

Thus began the grim watch and countdown. Watching for their rescue, listening for some word to them from elsewhere. Waiting for their doom. The time, for which their astronomers and earth’s also had predicted the supernova outburst, arrived. Some persons paused, some prayed, some wept. All waited, still.

The existence of a finite limit to the velocity of causal signals had been of some interest to physicists. Epistemologists had worried their little heads over the question of whether what is seen must be simultaneous with the seeing of it, or whether people can see far into the past. Now came the turn of the rest. The fate of that distant planet was already settled, one way or the other, but knowledge of it was not. So the wait continued.

_____________

 

For another year and a quarter, remembering their debates, mulling over their actions and inactions, contemplating the universe, and themselves, and the others, people waited. Poetically just things could have happened. A message could have arrived saying it was humanity that had been tested, it was the sun that was due to outburst, and since the earth’s people hadn’t ventured to render others aid or comfort, others would not help them. Or, they could have been rescued. (How greatly relieved people then would have felt about themselves. Yet why should someone else’s later acts so alter one’s feelings about one’s own?) But the universe, it would appear, is not a poem. No messages to them were detected. Light from the out-bursting of their star reached earth as their broadcasts (should they have terminated them a year and a quarter before the end?), as their broadcasts and their plays and their science and their philosophy, their hopes and their fears and their courage and their living glow ended.

Some people used to think it would be terrible to discover that human beings were the only intelligent beings in the universe, because this would lead to feelings of loneliness on a cosmic scale. Others used to think that discovering intelligent beings elsewhere would remove their own last trace of uniqueness and make them feel insignificant. No one, it seems, had ever speculated on how it would feel to allow another civilization to vanish feeling lonely, insignificant, abandoned. No one had described the horrendousness of realizing that the surrounding civilizations are like one’s own; of realizing that each neighbor remaining in the universe, each of the only other ones there are, is a mute cold wall. Limitless emitlessness. Lacking even the comfort of deserving better, facing an inhabited void.

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