Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Contact" by Carl Sagan (1985)

This is one of those rare cases when you actually saw the movie WAAAAYYYY before you read the book. But you are certain Sagan would have forgiven you. He actually first wrote "Contact" as a treatment for a movie, so it's a totally forgivable sin. Plus the movie was fantastic. But you should still feel a little bit ashamed. Read the book first from now on, okay?

Carl Sagan is a modern day nerd hero. He was an astronomer who dealt in mathematics and physics but who was also endowed with the soul of a poet. There were better astronomers than Sagan, there are smarter physicists. But what made him so wonderful was his knack for communicating the awe that studying the cosmos instills in us all. He wrote "Cosmos" and was responsible for swinging the camera on the Voyager 1 probe back towards home to snap the photo of earth that is now famous as the 'pale blue dot.' He was a genius at contextualizing how profound our discoveries in astronomy were, how small it made all of our differences seem, and how great it made our efforts to learn more.

Unsurprisingly, the book is better than the movie. Sagan's prose is much more intimate, more nuanced. The movie combined some of his characters for the sake of simplicity, but some of the richness and subtlety is lost in the translation. Besides, Carl Sagan was famous for painting pictures with words, for allowing you the luxury of contemplating vast and impossibly beautiful cosmic events within your own mind. Seeing it all as dated special effects on a silver screen almost cheapens what the author can do with words on a page.

Sagan peppers every chapter with extraordinary quotes.

"Contact" is not a sci-fi adventure story in the classical sense. The main character, Eleanor Arroway, is an astronomer who deals in boring numbers and graphs all day. There is no war among the stars in this book. Ellie does not save the world from destruction. But it is a phenomenal read, nonetheless. Sagan seasons every chapter with a random and extraordinary quote or two. Some are drawn from the likes of Walt Whitman and John Keats, some from Aristotle and Cicero, and others as disparate as Bertrand Russel and the Bible. These quotes alone are reason enough to have read the book. You were tempted to copy them into a file on your phone as a sort of meditative philosophical missive, a reminder for those times when you are feeling anything less than reverent for the miracle of human consciousness that there is no greater gift in all the worlds.

Sagan begins the book at the moment of his heroine's birth and chronicles her development into adulthood in succinct yet pithy snapshots. Her natural curiosity is insatiable and her intelligence provides her with the ability to go further in discovering the answers to her questions than the average child. Ellie's father dies when she is still small and her relationship with her step father remains aloof throughout the story. She wrestles with the religion that is forced on her by society and her step father and she becomes a devout atheist, or maybe an agnostic. Eleanor soon discovers the complexity and the clarity of mathematics, the secrets that calculus can unlock. A bit of a loner, Ellie finds herself often gazing at the night sky and pondering the mysteries above us all and the promises of profound answers hiding in plain sight for all of humanity to see.

Eleanor enters into the world of academia, acing her entrance exams got her a scholarship to Harvard. She sought a broad education but focused on math, science and engineering. Sagan was familiar with this world, being a creature of academia himself, and describes how difficult it is for a woman to do well there. The glass ceiling is there not because of any lack of feminine aptitude, but because of the latent sexism of the predominantly male colleagues. He describes how Ellie learned to literally speak louder in order to get the attention of men who reflexively ignored her, expecting her to remain silent and demure, as if she were not their equal. Sagan does not spend a lot of time on this point, nor does he make it a huge cross for his protagonist to bear. He simply states that it was one more thing she had to overcome, one more puzzle for her to solve in order to find the answers she sought.

In forty pages, Sagan takes his main character from birth to adulthood, succinctly summarizing her pragmatic views on politics, religion, and romantic relationships. And suddenly Eleanor Arroway is in charge of giant radio telescopes that scan the sky in their Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It seems to make sense that if there is intelligent life out there and they are interested in communicating with other intelligent life (assuming the quixotic notion that they would even recognize humans as fellow intelligent creatures, which is pretty unlikely) they would attempt to communicate by using radio signals. Information broadcast via radio is easily manipulated and easily received. The message travels at the speed of light and requires no spacecraft or propulsion to arrive at its intended target. So both Eleanor and Carl Sagan operated huge telescopes and scanned the skies looking for the likeliest spots that might be transmitting the first interstellar "Hello" anyone has ever picked up.

Sagan never received any message, but he had Eleanor discover one emanating from a star just 26 light years away, from a star called Vega, one of the brightest in our sky. The Message, as it soon becomes known, speaks in the only universal language we can conceive of, mathematics. Initially it appears it is a repetition of prime numbers, which could not be a purely naturally occurring sequence of radio pulses. Quasars are rarely so well educated. Soon it becomes clear that the Message is much more than a simple string of numbers. It is a complex instruction manual for building a machine. The world debates the merits of doing so, but of course, humans being naturally insatiably curious, we eventually do it anyway. Of course we would!

The machine takes a group of five individuals on an extraordinary journey through the stars. The aliens have a far more advanced understanding of the manipulations of time and space than we do and are able to pull the team of humans through worm holes that land them on a picturesque beach somewhere near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Each of the five encounter someone whom they love more than all others, or facsimiles of them. Eleanor meets her long dead father who tells her that he is merely an image the aliens created to allow Ellie the comfort level to listen to what they have to say. Humans are not alone. The universe is populated with ancient culture who are actively engineering the fabric of reality and who are cultivating whole star systems. But even more than that, the alien/father figure reveals that the universe has even deeper signs of grander designers. The worm hole system that brought the humans to meet this new species has existed as long as any culture has ever known. No one knows who built it. But even more profound than that are the messages hidden in the fabric of reality itself, within certain transcendental numbers like pi.

When the team returns home their colleagues tell them that they were not gone for the day and a half they experienced, they were merely out of radio contact with the outside world for 20 minutes. No one believes their fantastic stories of worm holes and aliens who appear on pristine beaches in the guise of long lost loved ones to teach humanity that they are part of a larger, more beautiful reality than they ever imagined. The powers that be, including influential religious leaders, demand that the five forever keep their mouths shut about what they claim to have experienced.

And so Eleanor Arroway, the woman who has always been skeptical of those who profess a religious faith, is now claiming to have had an experience she cannot deny and those whom she has always doubted now doubt her. This whole book, written by a famous skeptic (though Sagan was not a self-described atheist) is about faith. Sagan is arguing that while healthy skepticism is the only way humanity will advance its knowledge, pure skepticism is useless. At some point we must all make a leap of faith. Ellie did not believe in a god because there was never any evidence presented to her to suggest one existed, but she never claimed to know that there was no god at all for the very same reason. Anyone who believed her incredible tale had to set aside their own skepticism and believe without empirical evidence, just as all who believe in God must do. This is what faith is, belief without overwhelming evidence.

Carl Sagan never found the evidence for a greater designer of the universe he spent his life looking for, but he created a hero who did. He was teaching us all that some day even the greatest of skeptics might be satisfied, even as those who have faith today may be disappointed. "Contact" was a nuanced and respectful work, one with intellectual challenges, narrative surprises, and even a twist ending. When you finished the book you were not filled with that usual ecstatic post-literary glow. It didn't feel as if the story had ended. Sagan managed to include you in his story, and the story goes on and on. Your kids will carry it on after you and so will theirs after them and so on.

"Contact" is a celebration of the awe and wonder that the cosmos conveys upon the human mind. It is reminder that one of the greatest things the universe has ever accomplished was to create minds that can contemplate itself. By that regard, there have been few minds greater than that of Carl Sagan.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is an article on how and why Sagan refused to label himself as an atheist. Fascinating.

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