Carl sagan — contact. chapter 15 — erbium dowel

CHAPTER 15
Erbium Dowel

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.