Contact – Carl Sagan; Faith and/in Science


Contact’ deserved the Locus Award it won for Best First Novel in 1986.  Unfortunately, it is the only piece of fiction Carl Sagan wrote.  It, however, is not the only book he wrote.   Sagan wrote several works of non-fiction including ‘Demon Haunted World.’ which is great.  As an astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, and author he created many works that popularized and made science accessible to the general public.  With ‘Contact,’ you do not have to question whether the science behind the science fiction is credible.  I can see how the theorizing and long passages devoted to philosophy could be taxing if you’re looking for action, but it is a big piece of what I love about it. The heart of this book asks what is faith and belief. Sagan proposes faith in a religion and having faith that life exists on other planets is not so different.  What is different is how people react to faith.  Scientists work to prove a thought or belief through analysis and experiment. If evidence proves them wrong they change the construct of their belief.  Religion does not rely on proof believing faith does not require evidence. Politics is concerned with how to deal with or manage a result or the effect of faith.  Sagan takes these strong black and white constructs and shows us how they overlap infinitely …like a circle in the universe.

Ellie Arroway is a scientist and astronomer.  Since she was young she did not accept answers she could not prove herself. She pursued her love of science and despite her step-fathers discouragement through school.  Ellie was going to college in the 70’s and was frequently the only woman in many classes, lectures, and departments.  Instead of accepting professors ignoring her questions and statements she just spoke louder.  This brought her friends and enemies but Ellie wasn’t bothered by other people’s opinions.  She found those who she could relate with and didn’t spend time on the others.  Ellie gravitated toward radio astronomy and Professor Peter Valerian.  In the academic world every professor was allowed an idiosyncrasy and Valerian’s was the fascination with extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI.)  Ellie loved and fell for the romance of the possibility of life on other planets. As a result, Ellie chose the development of an improvement in the sensitive receivers employed on radio telescopes for her dissertation. It permitted her to continue her discussions with Valerian-but without taking the professionally dangerous step of working with him on extraterrestrial intelligence.”  She succeeded developing a ruby maser and improving radio astronomy to the level that she detected remnants of the Big Bang. I’d say that’s not bad for a graduate student.  It put her in the position to manage Project Argus and oversee numerous radio telescopes in New Mexico – dedicated primarily to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). To keep funding they would take other projects and when Professor Drumlin gunned to end all funding for SETI, which he found a ridiculously romantic and feminine notion in Arroway, she found the signal.  A signal she sent to multiple nations astronomers to verify it.  The government was not keen on her involving them before they had control of the situation.  What ensued after was years of recording the signal, decoding the message, and building the specifications for a machine that is believed to transport them to the alien intelligence.

Sagan’s main focus is not on the science of the message or even in decoding it.  The core of the book is on how humanity relates and responds to the message.  Ellie, who has spent most of her life focusing on finding communication from other planets, is now a major voice in the political scientific community.  The message effects how countries interact with one another.  It could create war as easily as peace and is a landmine to be navigated.  Public interpretation must be carefully handled.  Is it to be controlled? Can the message be manipulated?  Will it be seen as a message from God or the devil?  Is it to be feared or welcomed?  Most importantly, what is the message and what is the intention of this extraterrestrial communication?

Sagan wrote this in 1985 and takes place primarily in the 1990’s.  Some ideas included are still science fiction but many concepts are surprisingly accurate to how time has progressed.  We haven’t had a female president but in some ways feminism has come further than Sagan predicted.  We could take some pointers from Sagan in others.    He created an interesting character in Ellie Arroway.  He borrowed characteristics for her from colleagues and others from himself.  Sagan could be considered brash in shutting people down if their science or explanations did not make sense much like Ellie.  Also, like him, she became a public image for the scientific community and held atheistic beliefs that could create tension when dealing with highly publicized scientific questions.

Sagan, studied potentials for extraterrestrial life, but held strong attention to physical realities and analysis.  Sagan seems to channel his own expectations through Peter Valerian’s character because Valerian, “…repeatedly stressed that speculation must be confronted with sober physical reality. It was a kind of sieve that separated the rare useful speculation from torrents of nonsense. The extraterrestrials and their technology had to conform strictly to the laws of nature, a fact that severely crimped many a charming prospect. But what emerged from this sieve, and survived the most skeptical physical and astronomical analysis, might even be true. ”  Sagan was a champion for discrediting pseudoscience which he felt hurt the relationship of the public to the scientific community and its pursuits.  During the 1960’s and 1970’s, when there was a public fascination for UFO’s, he worked to prove and disprove information considered “scientific evidence.”  People who have watched ‘Ancient Aliens’ on the History Channel would be interested to know that the night after Erich Von Daniken went on the Johnny Carson show, promoting ‘Chariots of the Gods,’ Carl Sagan made an appearance.  His connection with Carson and his scientific knowledge did little to help Daniken’s theories of aliens visiting Earth in the ancient past.  If you are interested in Carl Sagan and his role in the study of extraterrestrial intelligence and fight against pseudoscience a good article by Keay Davidson is The Universe and Carl Sagan.

The narration by Laurel Lefkow on audible is superb.  She handles multiple accents as well as interpreting Ellie Arroway wonderfully.  Whether you read it or listen to it I believe it is a fabulous experience.

The beauty of Sagan’s work in ‘Contact’ is his showing humanity working together to decipher what the message is and who is sending it.  At the end of it all he focuses on the ability of people keeping an open mind when working with one another – treating each other with love and respect in dealing with one another.  It is the heart of communication – whether it is on Earth or Vega.  He takes the word faith and presents it in its multiple definitions.  It is a beautiful study of humanity and who we try to be.


About Steph

As C. S. Lewis said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I am an indiscriminate reader. I can find a way to enjoy almost all books. I find they are like people – you can find something endearing in almost every one of them. I love to write reviews. I hope you enjoy them and find them useful. View all posts by Steph

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