Carl sagan — contact. chapter 14 — harmonic oscillator

Harmonic Oscillator

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 sec 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, III indicate their words by letters. We read something like this (the letters stand for symbols the Vegans introduce).” He wrote:

1A1B2Z 1A2B3Z 1A7B8Z

“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”:


“You see?”

“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 — ”