Contact (novel)

From Academic Kids

Contact is a science fiction novel written by Carl Sagan and published in 1985. Some of Sagan's character traits are evident in the main character, Ellie Arroway, and the novel serves as an entertaining platform in which he encapsulates ideas surrounding many of his life's interests, especially the first contact with extraterrestrials.

A film adaptation of Contact, starring Jodie Foster, was released in 1997.

Plot summary

Ellie is the director of "Project Argus," in which scores of radio telescopes in New Mexico are used to intensely search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI).

Before long, the project does, indeed, discover the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings, a repeating series of the first 261 prime numbers (a sequence of prime numbers is a commonly predicted first message from alien intelligence, since mathematics is considered a "universal language," and it is conjectured that algorithms that produce successive prime numbers are sufficiently complicated so as to require intelligence to implement them). Further analysis of the message reveals that two additional messages are contained in different forms of modulation of the signal. The second message is a primer, a kind of instruction manual that teaches how to read further communications. The third is the real message, the plans for a machine that appears to be a kind of highly advanced vehicle, with seats for five human beings.

A subplot has Ellie interacting with a pair of Christian preachers, and informally debating God's existence. Applying the scientific method, she states that "there isn't compelling evidence that God exists... and there isn't compelling evidence that he doesn't."

Ultimately, a machine is successfully built and activated, transporting five passengers — including Ellie — through wormholes to a place near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where they meet the senders of the message, and have many of their questions answered. Upon returning to Earth, the passengers discover that what seemed like many hours to them passed by in only fractions of a second on Earth, and that all their video footage has been erased, presumably by some phenomenon in the vehicle. They are left with no proof of their stories, and are accused of fabrication.

Thus, though she has traveled across the galaxy and actually encountered extraterrestrial beings, she cannot prove it.

In a kind of postscript, Ellie, acting upon a suggestion by the senders of the message, works on a program which computes the digits of π to record lengths and in different bases. Very very far from the decimal point and in base 11, she finds out that a special pattern does exist when the numbers are reorganized as a square: a perfect circle. Is this an unmistakably intelligent artifact, the artist's signature, or could it just be the true and statistical expression of an infinite number?


Sagan's only novel allows the reader to plausibly experience, in the imagination, what he longed to experience in real life: the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Also, the novel end could be interpreted as the finding of a proof of "an intelligence that antedates the universe". According to Ann Druyan, his widow, Sagan "never wanted to believe. He wanted to know." Contact illustrates Sagan's view that the only way to really know if there was a creator of the universe is to look for evidence by using the tools of science.

It is somewhat questionable as to how an intelligence can encode a message inside a number like π. Some numbers which define essential properties of our universe, like the fine structure constant or Newton's gravitational constant, could conceivably vary among universes (the physical conditions in these universes would be radically different, and it is possible that intelligent life could not exist in all of them; which recalls Stephen Hawking's conundrum, the question "Did God have any choice in creating the Universe?"). However, π falls into a different category. It is defined by the nature of the circle, which in turn has a specific definition as a set of points in a metric space. Any intelligence, working in any universe — no matter what the characteristics of its particular "space-time fabric" — must deduce the same value of π given the same definition of a circle (one presumes that a circle would be a useful abstraction to make in any reasonable universe which could sustain intelligent life).

This type of argument goes back to philosophers like Averroes, who proposed that not even God could create a triangle whose internal angles did not add up to 180 degrees. The degrees within a triangle is a fixed consequence of Euclidean geometry; God may choose to build a universe that follows different geometrical axioms, but once the axioms are chosen, the results are essentially determined.

It is also worth recalling a question Richard Feynman raised while exploring the capabilities of mechanical calculators at Los Alamos, during the Manhattan Project. In a letter to his wife, Arline Feynman, he pointed out that the decimal expansion of the fraction 1/243 repeats in a rather amusing way:

<math> \frac{1}{243} = 0.00411522633744 \ldots <math>

This letter irritated the censor reading mail between Los Alamos and the outside world, who feared that strings of numbers may communicate technical secrets. Gleefully, Feynman pointed out that if you actually do divide 1 by 243, you do get that string of digits, so there cannot be more "information" in the long string of numbers than there is in the single number 243. This illustrates how "information" can be a subtle concept; is there more information in π, for example, than in the definition of a circle?

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