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Sphere(9)
Author: Michael Crichton

Many theorists argued that communication with extraterrestrials would prove impossible, because human beings would have nothing in common with them. These thinkers pointed out that just as human bodies represented the outcome of many evolutionary events, so did human thought. Like our bodies, our ways of thinking could easily have turned out differently; there was nothing inevitable about how we looked at the universe.

Men already had trouble communicating with intelligent Earthly creatures such as dolphins, simply because dolphins lived in such a different environment and had such different sensory apparatus.

Yet men and dolphins might appear virtually identical when compared with the vast differences that separated us from an extraterrestrial creature - a creature who was the product of billions of years of divergent evolution in some other planetary environment. Such an extraterrestrial would be unlikely to see the world as we did. In fact, it might not see the world at all. It might be blind, and it might learn about the world through a highly developed sense of smell, or temperature, or pressure. There might be no way to communicate with such a creature, no common ground at all. As one man put it, how would you explain Wordsworth's poem about daffodils to a blind watersnake?

But the field of knowledge we were most likely to share with extraterrestrials was mathematics. So the team mathematician was going to play a crucial role. Norman had selected Adams because, despite his youth, Harry had already made important contributions to several different fields.

"What do you think about all this, Harry?" Norman said, dropping into a chair next to him.

"I think it's perfectly clear," Harry said, "that it is a waste of time."

"This fin they've found underwater?"

"I don't know what it is, but I know what it isn't. It isn't a spacecraft from another civilization."

Ted, standing nearby, turned away in annoyance. Harry and Ted had evidently had this same conversation already. "How do you know?" Norman asked.

"A simple calculation," Harry said, with a dismissing wave of his hand. "Trivial, really. You know the Drake equation?"

Norman did. It was one of the famous proposals in the literature on extraterrestrial life. But he said, "Refresh me."

Harry sighed irritably, pulled out a sheet of paper. "It's a probability equation." He wrote:

p = fpnhflfifc

"What it means," Harry Adams said, "is that the probability, p, that intelligent life will evolve in any star system is a function of the probability that the star will have planets, the number of habitable planets, the probability that simple life will evolve on a habitable planet, the probability that intelligent life will evolve from simple life, and the probability that intelligent life will attempt interstellar communication within five billion years. That's all the equation says."

"Uh-huh," Norman said.

"But the point is that we have no facts," Harry said. "We must guess at every single one of these probabilities. And it's quite easy to guess one way, as Ted does, and conclude there are probably thousands of intelligent civilizations. It's equally easy to guess, as I do, that there is probably only one civilization. Ours." He pushed the paper away. "And in that case, whatever is down there is not from an alien civilization. So we're all wasting our time here."

"Then what is down there?" Norman said again.

"It is an absurd expression of romantic hope," Adams said, pushing his glasses up on his nose. There was a vehemence about him that troubled Norman. Six years earlier, Harry Adams had still been a street kid whose obscure talent had carried him in a single step from a broken home in the slums of Philadelphia to the manicured green lawns of Princeton. In those days Adams had been playful, amused at his turn of fortune. Why was he so harsh now?

Adams was an extraordinarily gifted theoretician, his reputation secured in probability-density functions of quantum mechanics which were beyond Norman's comprehension, although Adams had worked them out when he was seventeen. But Norman could certainly understand the man himself, and Harry Adams seemed tense and critical now, ill at ease in this group.

Or perhaps it had to do with his presence as part of a group. Norman had worried about how he would fit in, because Harry had been a child prodigy.

There were really only two kinds of child prodigies - mathematical and musical. Some psychologists argued there was only one kind, since music was so closely related to mathematics. While there were precocious children with other talents, such as writing, painting, and athletics, the only areas in which a child might truly perform at the level of an adult were in mathematics or music. Psychologically, such children were complex: often loners, isolated from their peers and even from their families by their gifts, for which they were both admired and resented. Socialization skills were often retarded, making group interactions uncomfortable. As a slum kid, Harry's problems would have been, if anything, magnified. He had once told Norman that when he first learned about Fourier transforms, the other kids were learning to slam-dunk. So maybe Harry was feeling uncomfortable in the group now.

But there seemed to be something else. ... Harry appeared almost angry.

"You wait," Adams said. "A week from now, this is going to be recognized as one big fat false alarm. Nothing more."

You hope, Norman thought. And again wondered why.

"Well, I think it's exciting," Beth Halpern said, smiling brightly. "Even a slim chance of finding new life is exciting, as far as I am concerned."

"That's right," Ted said. "After all, Harry, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy."

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