Conto: “O grande silêncio” de Ted Chiang

 

 

 

The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence.Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve createdan ear capable of hearing across the universe.

But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t theyinterested in listening to our voices?

We’re a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them.Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?

*

The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisenmany times. The universe is also so old that even onetechnological species would have had time to expand and fill thegalaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth.Humans call this the Fermi paradox.

One proposed solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligentspecies actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid beingtargeted by hostile invaders.

Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly toextinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.

It makes sense to remain quiet and avoid attracting attention.

*

The Fermi paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. Theuniverse ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’sdisconcertingly quiet.

Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct beforethey can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hushof the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.

Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Rio Abajoforest resounded with our voices. Now we’re almost gone. Soonthis rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe.

*

There was an African Grey Parrot named Alex. He was famous forhis cognitive abilities. Famous among humans, that is.

A human researcher named Irene Pepperberg spent thirty yearsstudying Alex. She found that not only did Alex know the wordsfor shapes and colors, he actually understood the concepts ofshape and color.

Many scientists were skeptical that a bird could grasp abstractconcepts. Humans like to think they’re unique. But eventuallyPepperberg convinced them that Alex wasn’t just repeating words,that he understood what he was saying.

Out of all my cousins, Alex was the one who came closest to beingtaken seriously as a communication partner by humans.

Alex died suddenly, when he was still relatively young. Theevening before he died, Alex said to Pepperberg, “You be good. Ilove you.”

If humans are looking for a connection with a nonhumanintelligence, what more can they ask for than that?

*

Every parrot has a unique call that it uses to identify itself;biologists refer to this as the parrot’s “contact call.”

In 1974, astronomers used Arecibo to broadcast a message intoouter space intended to to demonstrate human intelligence. Thatwas humanity’s contact call.

In the wild, parrots address each other by name. One bird imitatesanother’s contact call to get the other bird’s attention.

If humans ever detect the Arecibo message being sent back toEarth, they will know someone is trying to get their attention.

*

Parrots are vocal learners: we can learn to make new sounds afterwe’ve heard them. It’s an ability that few animals possess. A dogmay understand dozens of commands, but it will never doanything but bark.

Humans are vocal learners, too. We have that in common. Sohumans and parrots share a special relationship with sound. Wedon’t simply cry out. We pronounce. We enunciate.

Perhaps that’s why humans built Arecibo the way they did. Areceiver doesn’t have to be a transmitter, but Arecibo is both. It’san ear for listening, and a mouth for speaking.

*

Humans have lived alongside parrots for thousands of years, andonly recently have they considered the possibility that we mightbe intelligent.

I suppose I can’t blame them. We parrots used to think humansweren’t very bright. It’s hard to make sense of behavior that’s sodifferent from your own.

But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrialspecies will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can lookus in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alienintelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred lightyears away?

*

It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the actof breathing.

When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give ourthoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneouslyour intentions and our life force.

I speak, therefore I am. Vocal learners, like parrots and humans,are perhaps the only ones who fully comprehend the truth of this.

*

There’s a pleasure that comes with shaping sounds with yourmouth. It’s so primal and visceral that throughout their history,humans have considered the activity a pathway to the divine.

Pythagorean mystics believed that vowels represented the musicof the spheres, and chanted to draw power from them.

Pentecostal Christians believe that when they speak in tongues,they’re speaking the language used by angels in Heaven.

Brahmin Hindus believe that by reciting mantras, they’restrengthening the building blocks of reality.

Only a species of vocal learners would ascribe such importance tosound in their mythologies. We parrots can appreciate that.

*

According to Hindu mythology, the universe was created with asound: “Om.” It’s a syllable that contains within it everything thatever was and everything that will be.

When the Arecibo telescope is pointed at the space between stars,it hears a faint hum.

Astronomers call that the “cosmic microwave background.” It’s theresidual radiation of the Big Bang, the explosion that created theuniverse fourteen billion years ago.

But you can also think of it as a barely audible reverberation ofthat original “Om.” That syllable was so resonant that the night skywill keep vibrating for as long as the universe exists.

When Arecibo is not listening to anything else, it hears the voiceof creation.

*

We Puerto Rican Parrots have our own myths. They’re simplerthan human mythology, but I think humans would take pleasurefrom them.

Alas, our myths are being lost as my species dies out. I doubt thehumans will have deciphered our language before we’re gone.

So the extinction of my species doesn’t just mean the loss of agroup of birds. It’s also the disappearance of our language, ourrituals, our traditions. It’s the silencing of our voice.

*

Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, butI don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They justweren’t paying attention.

And humans create such beautiful myths; what imaginations theyhave. Perhaps that’s why their aspirations are so immense. Look atArecibo. Any species who can build such a thing must havegreatness within it.

My species probably won’t be here for much longer; it’s likely thatwe’ll die before our time and join the Great Silence. But before wego, we are sending a message to humanity. We just hope thetelescope at Arecibo will enable them to hear it.

The message is this:

You be good. I love you.

 

Allora & Calzadilla’s video installation The Great Silence (2014) centerson the world’s largest radio telescope, located in Esperanza, Puerto Rico,home to the last remaining population of a critically endangered species ofparrots, Amazona vittata. For the work, Allora & Calzadilla collaboratedwith science fiction author Ted Chiang, who wrote a script in the spirit of afable that ponders the irreducible gaps between living, nonliving, human,animal, technological, and cosmic actors.

Allora & Calzadilla in collaboration with Ted Chiang The Great Silence

Science-fiction writer Ted Chiang

Science-fiction writer Ted Chiang

 

Irene Pepperberg and Alex                                                      

Irene Pepperberg Wiki