Review of His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem


The book is an autobiographical tale by one of the mathematician-scientist who looks at a mysterious signal from the cosmos. The title is from the title given to the top secret project which tries to decipher this signal. The signal in the form of a neutrino stream is discovered accidentally and is hidden well in the general noise of neutrino signal. Only if you know where to tune in to is the signal readable/recordable/visible. The signal is attacked upon by a team of experts from different domains like physics, chemistry, biology, language, mathematics. They are able to know that the signal has an “alphabet” but are not able to crack the code as a whole. Though they discover some properties of the signal to interact with matter. For example, they discover that this letter from cosmos has a positive effect on the formation and consolidation of large protein molecules. They also discover a “recipe” for building a substance which is dubbed as “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the flies”. This substance with a consistency of frog eggs can absorb energy from radioactive fission within itself and has some peculiar properties.

even though, receiving the message from the stars, we did with it no more than a savage who, warming himself by a fire of burning books, the writings of the wisest men, believes that he has drawn tremendous benefit from his find!

That not withstanding, the entire operation is under government supervision and there are plots and counter-plots of bureaucracy enmeshed within the narrative. This also includes an effect termed as “TX” in which a small nuclear detonation can have its energy transmitted to another place. But large scale implementation fails as the energy is dissipated over a very large area rendering any weapons created from them unusable. After these initial success, there is not further “code-breaking” possible and things come to a standstill

We are proceeding like a man who looks for a lost thing not everywhere, but only beneath a lighted street lamp, because there it is bright.

They also discover there is another parallel team working on the same problem but under the command of the military. Finally, the two units are merged.

At this point, various theories are put forth which try to explain the origin of the “letter”. Doubts are even raised to know if the signal is “natural” or “artificial”.  One of the military members uses the oscillating universe model to suggest that the neutrino signal is information from the past universe, from a ‘fissure” in between the universes, to the current one. One more hypothesis is given in the form that the frog eggs naturally evolved and the neutrino signal is just a by-product and the “organisms” do not know if this signal is being sent. A closer example of this is plants doing photosynthesis, they are not aware that their photosynthetic activity is helping other organisms grow, they do it nonetheless.

And surely it was unintentional on the part of the grass to give us the opportunity to exist!

While the author genuinely believes that the signal is from a very old and highly evolved “civilisation”, and we are at a stage such that we cannot understand the letter fully. We are not meant to, not at this stage of our technological evolution. The signal has been there for billions of years, and it takes an enormous amount of power (at least by our standards) to send it, so whoever (or whatever)  is sending it must have a purpose, just that we don’t know ( and perhaps will never know) what the purpose is.

 We will make it undecipherable for all who are not yet ready; but we must go further in our caution — so that even a false reading will not be able to supply them with any of the things that they seek but that should be denied them.

The book is an interesting take on the status of technological progress and its ramification for civilisation as a whole. Some of the themes that one can identify is the survival of the species and not of a particular nation. The concerns expressed over the “TX” discovery make the smaller group privy to this very anxious as we would then have a weapon which at the speed of light can deliver an atomic explosion anywhere. Some of the musings about the senders of the signal and the kind of evolution the civilisation that must have are interesting to read.

Heaven and Hell

Circle Limit IV
Heaven and Hell

by M C Escher

Yesterday I have put up Escher’s Circle Limit IV – Heaven and Hell on my new desk. The Circle Limit series of drawings was drawn by Escher are essentially what are known as his hyperbolic tesselations. The new computer table that I have got has an odd shape. On one end the side is circular and it smoothly metamorphises into rectangle on the other side. Though it is not at all comparable to what Escher has accomplished, I feel bad even when I use the word metamorphosis for this, but I have not found anything better. The table is designed for use with a desktop. So it has sections for different parts of the desktop like the monitor, CPU keyboard etc.
Anyways the main point that I want to tell is that the table at one end is circular. Since I had put Escher’s Three World on another table, I thought it would be a good idea to use a ciruclar print of Escher for this part of the table. Of all the prints I had, which I had taken when I had at my disposal A3 sized printers, the one which fitted the purpose seemed to be Circle Limit IV – Heaven and Hell.

Let us see what Escher himself has to say about this series of works viz. The Circle Limits:

So far four examples have been shown with points as limits of infinite smallness. A diminution in the size of the figures progressing in the opposite direction, i.e. from within outwards, leads to more satisfying results. The limit is no longer a point, but a line which border’s the whole complex and gives it a logical boundary. In this way one creates, as it were, a universe, a geometrical enclosure. If the progressive reduction in size radiates in all directions at an equal rate, then the limit becomes a circle. [1]

And he says this about Heaven and Hell:

CIRCLE LIMIT IV, (Heaven and Hell)
[Woodcut printed from2 blocks, 1960, diameter 42 cm]
Here also we have the components diminishing in size as they move outwards. The six largest (three white angels and three black devils) are arranged about the centre and radiate from it. The disc is divided into six sections in which, turn and turn about, the angels on a black background and then the devils on a white one, gain the upper hand. in this way, heaven and hell change place six times. In the intermediate, “earthly” stages, they are equivalent. [1]

Like most of Escher’s drawings this one also takes you to a different world. A world which is far away from the reality. A world of mathematics. A world of abstraction. But then as always we can make connections between this abstract world and the real world. The connections that we can make are dependent on the world view that we have. Some people fail to make the connection. They cannot `see’.

The Circle Limit series is what brought Escher to the eyes of the mathematicians. H. S. M. Coxeter used Circle Limit II as an illustration in his article on hyperbolic tesselations. Since then the other works of Escher have been examined by the mathematicians, and we find that very deep and fundamental ideaso of mathematics are embedded in them. As to how Escher did it is amazing. The kind of clear insight that Escher exhibits in his artwork is astounding. He could visualize the mathematical transformations in his head and then transform them onto the artwork he was working with. Escher has said

I have brought to light only one percent of what I have seen in the darkness. [2]

This must be certainly true, as most of his artwork is nowhere close to what we see in the light. I rate the artwork of Escher as greater than that of the renessaince artist’s as they had just beautifully drawn what one could “see.” But with Escher we go a step beyond, imagination takes the control. What interests me in Escher is that he can make you imagine the unimaginable. What you know is not possible is demonstrated just in front of your eyes. Logic is discarded. Rather it is kept in the basement which is upstairs for Escher.

Yesterday you start to believe what you thought was impossible tommorow.

The way different things merge for Escher is just unparalled in the work of other artists. What has now become known as “Escheresque” is just the typical of his style. Lot of later artists are influenced by the works of Escher, I have found one Istvaan Orosz particulary good. There are others who are equally good but I don’t remember their names now….

Coming back to Heaven and Hell. The main artwork is in a woodcut format in black and white. For me this is a kind of dyad which represents the world. The idea of two opposing forces one termed to be evil and the other good are all permeating in the Universe. Here also the bat-devils and the angels are the representative of the same. There is no part of the Universe where these two are not present. It might seem that somewhere far out there there is nothing, but it is not so. Even there, the design is the same, it is just too far for us to see. This is what harmony in the universe is about. It is the same everywhere, when you have a broad enough world-view. The cosmologists say that the Universe is homogenous and isotropic, if you choose to “see” it at the right scale. The cosmologists often use Heaven and Hell to illustrate this point. For me introduction to Escher came in a talk by a cosmologist who used The Waterfall to illustrate the idea of a perpetual motion machine. Since then I have become addicted to Escher, as has everybody else who has some sense of imagination. For those who cannot appreciate Escher, I can just pity at their miserable imagination.


[1] The Graphic Work of M C Escher by M C Escher
Ballantine 1975, ISBN 345246780595

[2] M. C. Escher (Icons) by Julius Wiedemann (Editor)
Taschen 2006, ISBN 3822838691