Carl sagan – contact. chapter 13 – babylon


THE CRAY 21 mainframe computer at Argus had been instructed to compare each day’s harvest of data from Vega with the earliest records of Level 3 of the palimpsest. In effect, one long and incomprehensible sequence of zeros and ones was being compared automatically with another, earlier, such sequence. This was part of a massive statistical intercomparison of various segments of the still unde-crypted text. There were some short sequences of zeros and ones – “words” the analysts called them, hopefully – which were repeated again and again. Many sequences would appear only once in thousands of pages of text. This statistical approach to message decryption was familiar to Ellie since high school. But the subroutines supplied by the experts from the National Security Agency – made available only as a result of a presidential directive, and even then armed with instructions to self-destruct if examined closely – were brilliant.

What prodigies of human inventiveness, Ellie reflected, were being directed to reading each other’s mail.

The global confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union – now, to be sure, easing somewhat – was still eating up the world. It was not just the financial resources dedicated to the military establishments of all nations. That was approaching two trillion dollars a year, and by itself was ruinously expensive when there were so many other urgent human needs. But still worse, she knew, was the intellectual effort dedicated to the arms race.

Almost half the scientists on the planet, it had been estimated, were employed by one or another of the almost two hundred military establishments worldwide. And they were not the dregs of the doctoral programs in physics and mathematics. Some of her colleagues would console themselves with this thought when the awkward problem arose of what to tell a recent doctoral candidate being

courted by, say, one of the weapons laboratories. “If he was any good, he’d be offered an assistant professorship at Stanford, at least,” she could recall Drumlin once saying. No, a certain kind of mind and character was drawn to the military applications of science and mathematics – people who liked big explosions, for example; or those with no taste for personal combat who, to avenge some schoolyard injustice, aspired to military command; or inveterate puzzle solvers who longed to decrypt the most complex messages known. Occasionally the spur was political, tracing back to international disputes, immigration policies, wartime horrors, police brutality, or national propaganda by this nation or that decades earlier. Many of these scientists had real ability, Ellie knew, whatever reservations she might have about their motivations. She tried to imagine that massed talent really dedicated to the well-being of the species and the planet.

She pored over the studies that had accumulated during her absence. They were making almost no progress in decrypting the Message, although the statistical analyses now stacked into a pile of paper a meter tall. It was all very discouraging.

She wished there were someone, especially a close woman friend, at Argus to whom she could pour out her hurt and anger at Ken’s behavior. But there was not, and she was disinclined even to use the telephone for this purpose. She did manage to spend a weekend with her coUege friend Becky Ellenbogen in Austin, but Becky, whose appraisals of men tended to be somewhere between wry and scathing, in this case was surprisingly mild in her criticism.

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Carl sagan – contact. chapter 13 – babylon