© 1985 Carl Sagan
“We could be in the middle of an intergalactic conversation — and we wouldn’t even know.” – Michio Kaku, “Our Place in the Universe“.
Dr. Eleanor Arroway, known as “Ellie” to her few intimates, is long accustomed to being marginalized. She’s a woman in a field dominated by men, and her interest in using radio telescopes to search for intelligence life in space further isolates her. Even those who take note of her brilliance do so only to suggest that perhaps she’s wasting her time looking for “little green men”.
And then….the signal. Steadily pulsing, it cannot be tracked to a satellite in Earth orbit, nor is the region of space it appears to emanate from a source of pulsars. This signal comes from outside — and it comes with purpose. The initial signal contains prime numbers, but as Ellie and her coworkers begin to dissect the data, they find a recording of the first signal from Earth to find its way into space — and then, The Message, a massive transmission of data that unites the world’s scientific, political, and economic authorities as they search for the Message’s meaning.
While Contact is in part a science fiction tale that depicts humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life, Sagan also offers a story about the human search for meaning. He does this by bouncing the nonreligious Ellie, who finds meaning in science, off of Christian guru and television personality Palmer Joss, who sees a transcendental deity and revealed truths as the source of ultimate meaning. Later, Sagan puts Ellie into the position of defending what might be called a religious experience.
To my knowledge, Contact is Carl Sagan’s only fictional work. I first read it in 2005 or 2006, and Sagan’s depiction of radio astronomy changed the way I thought about extraterrestrial life. In the years since, my readings in astronomy and physics have convinced me that Sagan’s Contact scenario is more likely than say First Contact. Contact is among the more interesting novels I’ve read, and it’s one I can recommend. While the opening premise is interesting by itself, the role of scientific wonder and the advocation of the human spirit make it all the better.
“She had studied the universe all her life, but missed the clearest message: for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” – 429
- Contact, a film adaption of the book that stars Jodie Foster. Although it takes a few liberties with the plot , the visuals are solid and the acting makes even the more despicable characters fun to watch. The intro, in which the camera soars through space, following the advance of Earth’s oldest television transmissions, is particularly memorable.
- The Symphony of Science videos, all starring Sagan in part. “Our Place in the Cosmos” has a line that neatly refers to the pretext of Contact.