Thursday, March 7, 2013

Staying in 'Contact' with Carl Sagan

Though one of my personal heroes has been deceased for many years, he still touches base with me every so often through the amazing body of work that he left behind.  Carl Sagan, science guru extraordinaire, penned some tremendous science non-fiction, from Cosmos to Demon-Haunted World, but also a fair bit of science fiction.  I just finished reading Contact (1985), his first novel, which would eventually become a feature film (1997, the year after he passed) that I have yet to see.

Contact is a tremendous novel by many standards, but one measure is the extent to which it has permeated my consciousness, and it has a great deal.  While reading this tale of a message from an alien civilization and an eventual visit, and in the weeks since, I have stared a bit longer at the stars at night, captivated by the scale of the universe.  I wonder if there are beings on another planet looking up in similar awe at a view not so different from mine.

Drake's equation predicts the number of communicable civilizations that co-exist in the universe.  Though it is fraught with uncertainty, reasonable assumptions yield a relatively high number.  Still, the high distance that separates Earth from its nearest neighbour, wherever it is, makes one wonder whether contact with an alien species is reasonable to even consider.  But man, even today, can envision faster than light travel (NASA is currently attempting this on a very small scale).  If such travel could be done practically, there would no longer be such a thing as large distances.  And, as for the limit of information (communication) speed to that of light, I have a hard time believing that it will never be overcome.

Regardless, it is fun to bypass the details, the 'whether or not', and truly explore the 'what if'?

Sagan presents a realistic portrayal of how an alien encounter could very well play out, from the nature of the message that earthlings receive to the machine that they build in order to meet the senders.  One need not adjust much in the novel to make it applicable to 2013, with the exception of the constant references to telefaxes everyone is sending and receiving (emails), and the many characters from the powerful Soviet Union.

The novel is full of intriguing science ideas, such as underevaluated chemical elements and faster than light travel by way of black hole.  Still, the sociological consequences of making contact with an alien civilization remain, for me, the most fun aspects of the book.  For example, how might religious groups respond to a message from the heavens?  Would congress approve trillions of dollars to build a machine to visit the aliens?

I remain stunned at the beautiful conclusion of the story, when the aliens suggest that they too are searching for a message from the creator(s) of the universe.  They are searching within irrational (never-ending) numbers, like pi.  What a great concept!  That God might have hidden messages deep inside numbers - fascinating.  After all, pi, the ratio of the circumference and diameter of a circle, is built into the fabric of our universe.  I believe that God does not interfere with the goings on in the universe, but I have no trouble believing that he could have left some kind of quantitative fingerprint within its mathematical code.

I read a lot of science, both fiction and non-fiction, but choose only to comment on my blog on the ones that struck me, that affected me.  Contact falls into such a category.

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