Contact by Carl Sagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A couple of weeks ago, on June 25, the Pentagon did something rather unusual: It released a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a subject that has long been associated with alien spacecraft. This was the culmination of the public and political interest piqued by the 2017 release of videos, taken by the United States Navy, of strange flying objects. The content of these videos was not especially groundbreaking—indeed, like all the amateur UFO videos before them, they feature grainy blobs—but their source was. It is one thing when the neighborhood loony says they were abducted; it is another when the most powerful military on the planet admits they cannot identify something in their airspace.
Opinions will differ as to whether report is interesting or boring. Of the 144 reported sightings (quite a lot), 143 remain unexplained. The investigators conclude, tentatively, that these objects are real (i.e. not optical illusions or sensory errors, since they were picked up on many different sorts of sensors, not to mention seen by eyewitnesses), but do not rule out technological malfunction in accounting for the remarkable flight patterns recorded in some instances. Of course, no rational person could conclude that any of this constituted evidence of a visitation by aliens, or even their drones. Still, it is difficult to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the sightings, for example, without one’s curiosity getting piqued. Even Obama seems interested.
In this spirit, I picked up Carl Sagan’s Contact, a physicist’s imagined version of how first contact with an alien species would play out. The book functions on two levels: as a novel and as a thought experiment. Considering that Sagan was no novelist, it is easy to imagine Contact being quite deficient as a work of fiction. Surprisingly, however, the story pulls its own weight. Yes, there is too much exposition and not enough characterization; and yes, the style is more akin to a work of nonfiction than of fiction. But the imaginative plot pulls the reader into the story quite effectively, making the book a pleasurable read.
As a thought experiment, the book is even more compelling. From the details of the message, to its decryption, to the assembly of the machine, to the social and political ramifications of the discovery alien life, Sagan has taken great pains to imagine how his scenario might realistically play out. Unlike so much science fiction, this book does not insult the reader’s intelligence by asking her to suspend disbelief or accept bizarre premises. And as the book is set in the (then) near-future, it is also fun to compare Sagan’s predictions with how events actually turned out. We have not, for example, made as much progress with commercial space flight as he thought we would. And our space billionaires are not nearly so enlightened as Sagan anticipated.
The main theme of the book is the conflict between religion and science: faith vs. reason. I cannot say that Sagan was especially insightful here, as he takes the fairly standard view that science is superior because it is based on evidence. What is more, if I am not mistaken, this issue has lost some of its teeth within the last few years. Nowadays, American conservatives are more concerned with preventing children from learning about racism than about evolution. And as the pandemic revealed, cultural resistance to science is just as likely, if not more so, to come from secular conspiracy theories, social resentment, or political affiliation as from traditional religions.
Above all, this is an immensely optimistic book. Sagan describes all of humanity coming together when faced with intelligent alien life, leading to the triumph of the better angels of our nature. I greatly admire Sagan for this hopefulness; it is one of his best qualities. Personally, though, I doubt that a message from outer space would prompt humanity to come together in the way he describes. A common threat—in the form of a virus—was not even enough to make Republicans and Democrats work together, much less Americans and Russians. At this point, I think even unambiguous contact from an alien race could be absorbed into our polarized politics.
As a last note (and warning, spoiler ahead), though interesting, I did not exactly follow Sagan’s idea of there being a message in π. If you were searching an unlimited string of random numbers—using arithmetic in multiple bases—then is it not inevitable to find a long string of, say, 0s and 1s? And even if a particular string is improbable, how could you rule out a statistical fluke? I suppose a message of sufficient complexity and length, with significant content (say, blueprints to make a Ford Model T), would be difficult to disbelieve. But being able to arrange a circle using 1s and 0s in base-11 arithmetic does not strike me as a clincher.
This is just a quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. Like Sagan’s series, Cosmos, Contact left me full of hope for the human future, and full of wonder for the universe. He was a treasure of a man.
Sagan imagines billionaires living in luxurious space hotels, or chateaus. But as I learned from a recent story in the news, even now, astronauts in space do not even clean their clothes. They wear them until the stink becomes unbearable, and then throw them away. So it is not exactly opulence above the clouds.
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Contact by Carl Sagan