Contact, written by Carl Sagan in 1985, is a novel centered around the discovery of the first scientifically-verified extraterrestrial communication. The book was adapted for screen in 1997, was directed by Robert Zemekis
and starred Jodie Foster
and Matthew McConaughey
The movie version of Carl Sagan's book is a sappy piece of crap. The science is too stilted. The scenes of Ellie's childhood are straight out of a made-for-afternoon-TV kids' show. The excitement, too artificial. Everything about it seems forced. Nothing is natural. And I still watch it over and over because it reminds me of the book which I remember and love.
For all of his raging skepticism about things non-physical, Carl Sagan managed to write a book of such perception and sensitivity one must conclude that in his self-examination he did not dismiss the spiritual aspects of human existence. At the minimum, he gave it serious thought. As a philosopher, he conjured scenarios for the existence of the soul and the Creator the more scatter brained among us could hardly conceive.
No crystal-toting new-ager could have developed the story "Contact". It took a scientist to explain with numbers how our hearts may actually work. It took a scientist to envision a sequence of events which would "prove" in four dimensional space-time what due to a many-dimensional character is otherwise unprovable.
Science is the technique by which we make human experience transferable between us with specificity. When something is experienced which cannot be transferred to other people, it cannot be science. Religious experiences typically fall into this realm. Anything associated with feeling. Interpretation. With intuition. With all those aspects of being human we take for granted every day that in the brilliant light of analysis are nothing short of miraculous -- those things are not science.
Carl knew that, and yet he hypothesized his fiction (where it was safe for him to do so) that it might be impossible for human scientists to encode the meaning of life within the framework of their scientific method. That the "meaning of life", contact with alien intelligences, or with God, may involve something deeply personal and not-transferable.
"I can't prove it, but I know it happened," Ellie says.
"If you can't prove it, how do I know you didn't make it up?" asks her inquisitor.
Answer: she can't. But because she's a scientist and knows her own powers of reason and skepticism, she refuses to disbelieve. And this is the brilliance of Sagan's plot. Science is about discovery, and relating those discoveries to others. What if mankind's place in the universe dictates that some universal discoveries can only be made with the inner self? It invalidates them as science, but does it invalidate them completely?
The essence of the book is left out of the movie. I'm sure the filmmakers did this to make the product consumable. Movies about scientists are a tough sell unless the scientist is mad, building a bomb or a monster. Filmmakers have to be careful not to appear to be talking down to an audience who will not be scientific, and who are inherently self-conscious they don't measure up intellectually. This can happen unintentionally by failing to simplify difficult plot points. By relying on subtlety instead of explosions.
"Contact" includes the explosions. The in-your-face "We're here" signal from a superior intelligence. And the inevitable denial followed by suspicion followed by paranoia that would/will inevitably occur when mankind first learns he's not the only kid in God's playground.
There are theories about what will happen when people first consciously apprehend extraterrestrial life. They range from a complete dissolution of civilization as we know it, to the undermining of the world's great religions, to nothing. The former theories are written, and world leaders have taken them under advisement. Carl Sagan's version of what happens is probably much less tragic than reality could be, but then, Carl's characters believe in the fundamental goodness of mankind, and that our mere existence is evidence of our ownership of our place in the universe.
After all, why would an alien intelligence capable of contacting us bother to contact us? Why would beings capable of interstellar travel await an archaic electromagnetic transmission before initiating a dialog? If you can traverse light-years and teach proto-apes to transcend space time with machinery why do you need to intercept and play the record on the Voyager spacecraft to figure out how to communicate?
Maybe you've been talking to us all along. Maybe you send a signal to get our brains working in one direction we're used to working, so that when the time is right for us, we get past our denial and paranoia, and realize you've been talking all along. And some of the time we thought it was the wind, and some of the time we thought it was ghosts and some of the time we thought it was God.
The key part of the book which is given all of a 6-word quip by Jodie Foster in the film, is exactly that.
In the book, Jodie's character needs to find a source of perfect randomness. White noise.
She needs a random signal so that she can compare the "static" she gets from her radio telescopes to sense for something that seems constructed. Non-random signals may appear random for a while but over long periods of time may display organization. An organized signal is the signature of a construction, either natural or the result of intelligent life. Pulsars emit radiation like ticking clocks. Novae emit great bursts of energy. These things stand out against a perfectly random, purely thermal background. Intelligence, who is presumably attempting NOT to hide, will stand out even more so.
Ellie needs a random baseline. She compares her telescope signals and when they deviate from totally random, she knows she's found something worth looking into.
It's much harder than you might think to find something that is absolutely random. Everything we create is biased in one way or another. You could flip a coin a gazillion times and take the heads/tails events that come out and call that a string of random "data", but over some long period of time we might find the coin isn't perfectly symmetrical, so we get 0.0000001% more heads than tails. Or that the table the coin lands on isn't exactly flat. Or that our flipping thumb isn't perfect.
Similarly, our electronics all exhibit certain "biases" due to the qualities of our transistors and integrated circuits. Source of random signals that are pure to within millionths of a percent are extremely expensive (and highly prized by the intelligence community -- because a true source of random numbers can be used to create a code which is nearly impossible to break).
In the book, Ellie has programs that detect non-randomness in otherwise white noise coming from her radio telescopes. To calibrate her programs she needs a white noise source for the program to analyze. Ellie is working on a very limited budget so she uses her ingenuity to generate random patterns. Static on an untuned television channel, for instance, is reasonably random. If she sets her program on analyzing the TV static and it comes up with something, well, then her program has a bug. It should detect nothing. So she has to adjust her program to find nothing when it gets TV noise. Then she won't get all sorts of "false positives" when she sets her program on analyzing the telescope output.
The problem for Ellie in the book is that the program keeps finding candidate non-randomness in the TV white noise. Maybe it's not as random as she would like. So she looks for something else to generate randomness.
The number pi is irrational. When you calculate it, you get 3.14159... and the numbers after the decimal point go on forever, and they never repeat in sequence. We have simple computer programs you can run on your PC to generate pi to millions of decimal places. People have calculated pi to incredible numbers of digits. Billions and trillions of digits and the numbers seem random and never repeat.
The thing about pi is that it's a fundamental constant of the universe. The ratio of a circle's circumference to it's diameter is pi. It's built into the fabric of our reality. Humans didn't invent it. It was here when we got here.
In Sagan's book, when Ellie sets her analyzer on the random digits of pi it detects an intelligent "signal". She tries to recalibrate her program to not "see" the message. After all, it's simply an irrational number. There's no signal in the digits of a number.
But in fact, Ellie discovers an extraterrestrial intelligence has hidden a message in the digits of pi, the same message being received through the radio telescope. As if Sagan is saying that God has hidden the means to visit him within the very structure of the universe. And because we, ourselves, are part of the universe, those instructions must be inside us as well.
When Ellie comes back from her journey and can't prove to the scientific community that she's gone anywhere, there's a huge segment of the population who's willing to believe her. The regular people. The religious people. Anyone who's seen a ghost or a baby born is ready to say to her that they understand. Things happen inside you and just because you can't transfer that experience doesn't mean it didn't happen, or that you're suffering from a mental illness, or that it isn't something other people might experience one day.
The wise men and poets have been saying this for eons. And all true scientists have had those moments of absolute ecstasy when nature reveals itself to them in the most intimate setting. When the mind clicks and the realization is made that something - is - happening.
I have hope that in "Contact" Carl was intending that one day his chosen profession would find a way to codify experience of the infinite in a way that could be accepted without distrust or disdain. Because without it, our intellectual growth is limited to that which the ego dictates instead of what God wrought.
I once saw Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in a park in San Francisco. They were close, at the junction of the trail I was on. I was jogging with a friend in the Presidio. We rounded a grove of eucalyptus trees, and there were Carl and Ann, silently strolling down a path.
"That's Carl Sagan," I said to my lifelong pal, Ed, who was working as an anesthesiologist at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio at the time.
He said, "Yeah. How about that. Billions and billions." And we kept running.
Carl Sagan died the next year.