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© V. Zhuravleva "Moscow news", January 1, 1960. – p.7
STARLIGHT RHAPSODY

That New Year’s Eve the weather in Moscow was strangely calm. The clouds which had been overhanging the city since the previous day, parted slowly like the curtains at a theatre, revealing the star-studded sky. The snow covered fir trees along the Kremlin wall had a silvery sparkle as they stood waiting for the New Year, straight and motionless like a guard of honor. From time to time a faint gust of wind whipped a handful of snowflakes from their branches and scattered them in the air.

But the people did not seem to notice the beauty of the night. They were in a great hurry - in another half an hour it would be New Year. The noisy and excited human stream was moving more and more swiftly, everyone carrying packages of every shape and size.

Only one man did not seem to be in a hurry. His hands were thrust deep into his coat pockets, and his eyes shone keen and attentive from under the brim of his soft hat. Many people in the crowd recognized his lean face and his short dark beard, and he consequently turned into a side street. Here he did not have to reply to countless greetings or to explain to his acquaintances why he preferred to wander around the streets on New Year’s night. Poet Konstantin Rusanov could not have told himself what unknown force made him seek loneliness.

At the moment he did not feel like thinking of poetry. Possibly it was merely a sign of tiredness. Possibly it was sadness, because this New Year would be the sixtieth in Rusanov’s life.

Rusanov walked on, listening to the crunching of the snow under his feet. Suddenly he found his way barred by a snow castle, its turrets glittering with frosty diamonds under the streetlights.

"Left unfinished," he thought, noticing a child’s sledge and shovel lying nearby. Suddenly he was struck by the absurd idea of finishing the fortress wall. Wouldn’t that give the children a surprise on New Year’s morning!

Rusanov stooped to pick up the little shovel, but at that moment someone bumped into him from behind. Falling into the soft snow, he heard the sound of breaking glass and the exclamation.

"Oh, I’m so sorry!"

There was so much embarrassment in the voice that Rusanov couldn’t work up any anger. A pair of hands helped him to his feet. A short girl was standing in front of him, with a distressed look in her eyes.

"I’m so sorry," she murmured again.

She took a cautious step forward and picked up a small parcel lying on the snow near a lamppost.

"Broken... Just as I thought," the girl said regretfully.

These words somehow made Rusanov feel guilty.

"What’s the matter?" he asked.

"I was carrying a photographic plate," she explained. "A negative, you see..."

The girl unwrapped her parcel. A rather odd negative, he thought, as he saw a black background and upon it lighter band with white thin lines crossing it.

"What is that?" Rusanov asked in surprise.

"A spectrum. It’s the spectrum of the star Procyon."

Rusanov looked at the unknown girl with some interest.

"About sixteen," he thought, and immediately corrected himself: "No, she must be older! Much older-nearer twenty-five or twenty-six..."

"Listen," he said aloud, "where were you running to in the middle of the night with a photograph?"

"To the post office," the girl replied. "It’s such an important discovery."

Rusanov laughed softly, for he liked nothing better than unexpected and unusual meetings. His spirits suddenly rose. "A discovery?" he echoed.

The girl looked askance at Rusanov’s face. Should she tell him, or shouldn’t -she?

"You see," she began, "I’ve found in the spectrum of Procyon… but do you know enough about spectra? Wait a moment, I’ll explain it all to you."

Rusanov did not straightaway grasp the meaning of her rather incoherent account. She spoke quickly, from time to time demanding: "Are you sure you understand?" She by no means kept to chronological order in her narrative and Rusanov had to resort to guesswork more than once.


It appeared that she had been fascinated by astronomy while in school, and had later entered the Physics Faculty of Moscow University. After graduating, she went to work at an observatory in the Altai Mountains. It was a disappointment - instead of making world-shattering discoveries she found herself doing painstaking and rather tedious work on the classification of stellar spectra. After four months she thought that she had made a discovery, but the director of the observatory dryly explained that it was simply a mistake. Another three months, another flash of joy, and again it turned out to be a mistake, another disappointment. The months went by. It was work, work and work, quite prosaic, not in the least romantic. Countless stellar photographs, computations, classifications, and there was not a single discovery. It seemed that her whole life would be spent in the same monotonous way. And suddenly...

"I hope you understand me," she went on, "at first I could hardly believe it myself... There were three hundred and fifty spectra of Procyon lying in front of me, and as I studied them a picture seemed to form from a number of small details. Such things do happen, don’t they? From the three hundred and fifty spectrograms I had I selected ninety. All of them had the same background: the lines of non-ionized metals. This is the spectrum of Procyon, which has been known for a long time. But on each spectrogram I saw a line of some element. The first had a hydrogen line, the second, a helium line, the third, lithium... They went on in the natural order, up to the ninetieth element of the periodic table - thorium. You see it looked as though someone had purposely placed the elements in a strict sequence -that of the periodic table. There was no way such a fact could be explained by natural causes, no way at all! Except for one thing: those lines were signals sent by some reasoning creatures."

"You really think so?" asked Rusanov, very earnestly.

"Of course I do!" the girl exclaimed. "Take individual sounds, for instance,
which you can often hear in nature. If the same sounds were arranged as a scale, wouldn’t you get the impression that a creature endowed with reason must be responsible? I was afraid to tell anybody about this discovery – suppose it turned out to be another error? Then I started my holiday, feeling as if it were all a dream. Throughout the journey I kept scolding myself for not having told anybody after all. Although I’ve to Moscow all my thoughts are still there, at the observatory."

They were still standing under the lamppost in the quiet back street, Rusanov contemplating the snow castle in silence.

"You... don’t believe me, do you?" the girl asked.

To be quite frank, Rusanov did not believe her any more than he would if anyone had told him that a seventh continent had been discovered somewhere in the Caspian.

"Wouldn’t you tell me your name, scientific maiden, who knocks down people and takes pictures of stars?" he asked, evading the issue.

"Alla," she replied, "Alla Junkovskaya, astronomer."

"Alla Junkovskaya, astronomer," Rusanov repeated to himself and thought: "No, she doesn’t look any more than sixteen!"

After that he felt he just had to say something kind to her.

"Let’s look at that... that spectrogram," he finally proposed.

"Delighted," the girl said, "let’s go to my place. You can see it there."

So far Rusanov realized one thing only: his new acquaintance was a surprising combination of adult and adolescent. Life had taught Rusanov to size people up.

"Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings…’" he smiled inwardly. "But she isn’t a babe after all. An astronomer!"

The girl evidently felt an urge to speak.

"You see," she said, "any discovery seems simple and understandable once it has been made. Just think about it. Let’s suppose that Procyon has a planetary system of its own. Let’s suppose that reasoning creatures on one of the planets have decided to send out signals into space. Radio waves are useless: they disperse too easily. Nor can gamma or X-rays be used - they are quickly absorbed. This shows that the thing to be used most easily are electromagnetic waves, or in other words, light waves. Take the idea further. What should they transmit - it must be something understandable to all reasoning creatures. Letters? But they’re different. Figures? But there are different systems of numerals. Generally speaking, there may be no two things alike in different worlds, except for one thing - the periodic table of elements. That’s something all worlds have in common."

Rusanov raised his hand as if inviting her to listen, and the girl became silent. The Kremlin chimes sounded clearly in the frosty air."

"New Year!" Rusanov said, and Alla replied with a silent smile.

They stood silent for another moment, listening to the sounds of the chimes dying away in the distance. Then they started walking.

"Tell me, venerable custodian of the stars," Rusanov said, "couldn’t all this be due to some kind of process occurring on the star?"

"Oh, no! The temperature of Procyon is merely 8,000 and according to the lines on the spectrum the radiation source has a temperature of over one million degrees. There must be some kind of artificial flashes produced on one of the planets in the Procyon system. Its power is so tremendous that it is hardly conceivable... And yet... This way please!"
She led him into her little room in which a piano and a big bookcase took up nearly half the space. There was a chart of the sky hanging on the wall, and on the table stood a green-shaded lamp.

Alla asked Rusanov to sit down and brought him an album, quite an ordinary looking affair that might have contained the family photos. This was the first time in Rusanov’s life that he had been shown spectrograms, and they meant nothing to him.

"The whole thing seems to be so incredible," she said. "Sometimes it seems to me that I’m still asleep, that I’ll wake up and everything will disappear."

She was silent. The muffled strains of music came to them from a distance.

"I’ve collected twenty-two spectrograms apart from these," she went on after a pause. "All of them are different from the usual spectrum of Procyon. You see, Procyon is a star something like our Sun. Its spectral class is five. The lines of neutral metals such as calcium and iron are quite distinct. As for the spectrograms I’m referring to now, their backgrounds are as usual, but they contain some very unusual lines, and what is more, those of several elements at once. This made me think that the ninety preceding spectrograms were something like an alphabet. And these twenty-two are messages, with some kind of information..."

"And you have deciphered it?" Rusanov interrupted.

Alla shook her head.

"No. This task was too difficult for me. From the viewpoint of logic there should be some very simple system. I don’t know what it is. I’ve tried... and nothing ever comes of it. But two spectrograms... You see, I’m not quite sure myself... Don’t laugh at me, please. Maybe it is merely a case of autosuggestion - who knows? These two spectrograms immediately attracted my attention. I had the feeling of seeing something very familiar, but written in an unknown language. And it was only aboard the train bringing me to Moscow that I guessed what it was... You probably know that in the periodic table the properties of elements are repeated at intervals of eight. If we jump the last number, we get an octave, just as in music where the sounds are repeated at intervals of seven. I somehow saw this octave in the spectrogram. It is often said that it is dangerous for scientists to be prejudiced. But I wanted to find a music score in the spectrograms, and I seem to have really found it."

"Did you ... write it down?" Rusanov asked with a start. To his own ears, his voice sounded strange, as if it were coming from a distance.

"Yes, I did," said the girl rising and going to the piano. "If you’d like to hear it."

"Yes," said Rusanov softly. "Do play it."


He did not know anything about spectral analysis, but he knew music. It was for the music to tell whether the girl was really right or not.

Alla lifted the lid and her hands paused for a second above the keyboard. Then she touched the keys and the first chord sounded in the room. There was something restless in it: the sounds rose fitfully and slowly faded away, only to be followed by other chords in quick succession.

In the first few moments Rusanov heard nothing but a wild combination of sounds, but presently a melody - even two of them - emerged. They were closely intertwined, and one of them - smooth and slow - seemed to carry the other, which was rapid and tumultuous. The sounds burst out like flashes of fire and died away and there was something painfully familiar about them and at the same time unfamiliar and incomprehensible.


At times the hands of the pianist lingered on the keys and in another moment they suddenly seemed to regain strength and then the strange double melody flashed up again. It sounded louder and more confident. It seemed to call, and Rusanov obeyed this appeal. Hardly conscious of what he was doing he went over to the piano.

He did not seem to see the walls, or the table with the lamp upon it - he saw nothing but the fingers feverishly running over the keyboard. His heart was beating frantically as if trying to keep pace with the music.

And the music urged him on, sometimes rushing skyward like a whirlwind, sometimes ending in a painful moan. It was brimful of all human feelings, and there was no feeling in it, just as sunlight remains though it combines all colors.

For a moment the music stopped and then flared up again with new force. No, flaring up was not the right word, it exploded. The sounds rose in a wild motion, mingled and stopped. Only one of them- soft and tender-died away slowly like the last ember of an extinguished campfire.

Then an incredibly tense silence fell in the room. It was soon broken by quite mundane sounds, the far-away whistle of a train and the hubbub of voices.

Rusanov stepped to the window. A bright star was quivering above the rooftop, and its light seemed to emit a mysterious and solemn music.


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