Contact by Carl Sagan

  “Some people might kill it.”

  “It’s hard to kill a creature once it lets you see its consciousness.” He continued to carry both twig and lava.

  They walked for a while in silence past almost 55,000 names engraved in reflecting black granite.

  “Every government that prepares for war paints its adversaries as monsters,” she said. “They don’t want you thinking of the other side as human. If the enemy can think and feel, you might hesitate to kill them. And killing is very important. Better to see them as monsters.”

  “Here, look at this beauty,” he replied after a moment. “Really. Look closely.”

  She did. Fighting back a small tremor of revulsion, she tried to see it through his eyes.

  “Watch what it does,” he continued. “If it was as big as you or me, it would scare everybody to death. It would be a genuine monster, right? But it’s little. It eats leaves, minds its own business, and adds a little beauty to the world.”

  She took the hand not preoccupied with the caterpillar, and they walked wordlessly past the ranks of names, inscribed in chronological order of death. These were, of course, only American casualties. Except in the hearts of their families and friends, there was no comparable memorial anywhere on the planet for the two million people of Southeast Asia who had also died in the conflict. In America, the most common public comment about this war was about political hamstringing of military power, psychologically akin, she thought, to the “stab-in-the-back” explanation by German militarists of their World War I defeat. The Vietnam war was a pustule on the national conscience that no President so far had the courage to lance. (Subsequent policies of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had not made this task easier.) She remembered how common it was for American soldiers to call their Vietnamese adversaries “gooks,” “slopeheads,” “slant-eyes,” and worse. Could we possibly manage the next phase of human history without first dealing with this penchant for dehumanizing the adversary?

  • • •

  In everyday conversation, der Heer didn’t talk like an academic. If you met him at the corner newsstand buying a paper, you’d never guess he was a scientist. He hadn’t lost his new York street accent. At first the apparent incongruity between his language and the quality of his scientific work seemed amusing to his colleagues. As his research and the man himself became better known, his accent became merely idiosyncratic. But his pronunciation of, say, guanosine triphosphate, seemed to give this benign molecule explosive properties.

  They had been slow in recognizing that they were falling in love. It must have been apparent to many others. A few weeks before, when Lunacharsky was still at Argus, he launched himself on one of his occasional tirades on the irrationality of language. This time it was the turn of American English.

  “Ellie, why do people say ‘make the same mistake again’? What does ‘again’ add to the sentence? And am I right that ‘burn up’ and ‘burn down’ mean the same thing? ‘Slow up’ and ‘slow down’ mean the same thing? So if ‘screw up’ is acceptable, why not ‘screw down’?”

  She nodded wearily. She had heard him more than once complain to his Soviet colleagues on the inconsistencies of the Russian language, and was sure she would hear a French edition of all this at the Paris conference. She was happy to admit that languages had infelicities, but they had so many sources and evolved in response to so many small pressures that it would be astonishing if they were perfectly coherent and internally consistent. Vaygay had such a good time complaining, though, that she ordinarily did not have the heart to remonstrate with him.

  “And take this phrase ‘head over heels in love,’” he continued. “This is a common expression, yes? But it’s exactly backward. Or, rather, upside down. You are ordinarily head over heels. When you are in love you should be heels over head. Am I right? You would know about falling in love. But whoever invented this phrase did not know about love. He imagined you walk around in the usual way, instead of floating upside down in the air, like the work of that French painter—what’s his name?”

  “He was Russian,” she replied. Marc Chagall had provided a narrow pathway out of a somehow awkward conversational thicket. Afterward she wondered if Vaygay had been teasing her or probing for a response. Perhaps he had only unconsciously recognized the growing bond between Ellie and der Heer.

  At least part of der Heer’s reluctance was clear. Here he was, the President’s Science Adviser, devoting an enormous amount of time to an unprecedented, delicate, and volatile matter. To become emotionally involved with one of the principals was risky. The President certainly wanted his judgment unimpaired. He should be able to recommend courses of action that Ellie opposed, and to urge rejection of options that she supported. Falling in love with Ellie would on some level compromise der Heer’s effectiveness.

  For Ellie it was more complicated. Before she had acquired the somewhat staid respectability of the directorship of a major radio observatory, she had had many partners. While she had felt herself in love and declared herself so, marriage had never seriously tempter her. She dimly remembered the quatrain—was it William Butler Yeats?—with which she had tried to reassure her early swains, heartbroken because, as always, she had determined that the affair was over:

  You say there is no love, my love,

  Unless it lasts for aye.

  Ah, folly, there are episodes

  Far better than the play.

  She recalled how charming John Staughton had been to her while courting her mother, and how easily he had cast off this prose after he became her stepfather. Some new and monstrous persona, hitherto barely glimpsed, could emerge in men shortly after you married them. Her romantic predispositions made her vulnerable, she thought. She was not going to repeat her mother’s mistake. A little deeper was a fear of falling in love without reservation, of committing herself to someone who might then be snatched from her. Or simply leave her. But if you never really fall in love, you can never really miss it. (She did not dwell on this sentiment, dimly aware that it did not ring quite true.) Also, if she never really fell in love with someone, she could never really betray him, as in her heart of hearts she felt that her mother had betrayed her long-dead father. She still missed him terribly.

  With Ken it seemed to be different. Or had her expectations been gradually compromised over the years? Unlike many other men she could think of, when challenged or stressed Ken displayed a gentler, more compassionate side. His tendency to compromise and his skill in scientific politics were part of the accouterments of his job; but underneath she felt she had glimpsed something solid. She respected him for the way he had integrated science into the whole of his life, and for the courageous support for science that he had tried to inculcate into two administrations.

  They had, as discreetly as possible, been staying together, more or less, in her small apartment at Argus. Their conversations were a joy, with ideas flying back and forth like shuttlecocks. Sometimes they responded to each other’s uncompleted thoughts with almost perfect foreknowledge. He was a considerate and inventive lover. And anyway, she liked his pheromones.

  She was sometimes amazed at what she was able to do and say in his presence, because of their love. She came to admire him so much that his love for her affected her own self-esteem: She liked herself better because of him. And since he clearly felt the same, there was a kind of infinite regress of love and respect underlying their relationship. At least, that was how she described it to herself. In the presence of so many of her friends, she had felt an undercurrent of loneliness. With Ken, it was gone.

  She was comfortable describing to him her reveries, snatches of memories, childhood embarrassments. And he was not merely interested but fascinated. He would question her for hours about her childhood. His questions were always direct, sometimes probing, but without exception gentle. she began to understand why lovers talk baby talk to one another. There was no other socially acceptable circumstance in which the children inside her were permitted to c
ome out. If the one-year-old, the five-year-old, the twelve-year-old, and the twenty-year-old all find compatible personalities in the beloved, there is a real chance to keep all of these sub-personas happy. Love ends their long loneliness. Perhaps the depth of love can be calibrated by the number of different selves that are actively involved in a given relationship. With her previous partners, it seemed, at most one of these selves was able to find a compatible opposite number; the other personas were grumpy hangers-on.

  • • •

  The weekend before the scheduled meeting with Joss, they were lying in bed as the late-afternoon sunlight, admitted between the slats of the venetian blinds, played patterns on their intertwined forms.

  “In ordinary conversation,” she was saying, “I can talk about my father without feeling more than…a slight pang of loss. But if I allow myself to really remember him—his sense of humor, say, or that…passionate fairness—then the facade crumbles, and I want to weep because he’s gone.”

  “No question; language can free us of feeling, or almost,” der Heer replied, stroking her shoulder. “Maybe that’s one of its functions—so we can understand the world without becoming entirely overwhelmed by it.”

  “If so, then the invention of language isn’t only a blessing. You know, Ken, I’d give anything—I really mean anything I have—if I could spend a few minutes with my dad.”

  She imagined a heaven with all those nice moms and dads floating about or flapping over to a nearby cloud. It would have to be a commodious place to accommodate all the tens of billions of people who had lived and died since the emergence of the human species. It might be very crowded, she was thinking, unless the religious heaven was built on a scale something like the astronomical heaven. Then there’d be room to spare.

  “There must be some number,” Ellie said, “that measures the total population of intelligent beings in the Milky Way. How many do you suppose it is? If there’s a million civilizations, each with about a billion individuals, that’s, um, ten to the fifteenth power intelligent beings. But if most of them are more advanced than we are, maybe the idea of individuals becomes inappropriate; maybe that’s just another Earth chauvinism.”

  “Sure. And then you can calculate the galactic production rate of Gauloises and Twinkies and Volga sedans and Sony pocket communicators. Then we could calculate the Gross Galactic Product. Once we have that in hand, we could work on the Gross Cosmic…”

  “You’re making fun of me,” she said with a soft smile, not at all displeased. “But think about such numbers. I mean really think about them. All those planets with all those beings, more advanced than we are. don’t you get a kind of tingle thinking about it?”

  She could tell what he was thinking, but rushed on. “Here, look at this. I’ve been reading up for the meeting with Joss.”

  She reached toward the bedside table for Volume 16 of an old Encyclopaedia Britannica Macropaedia, titled “Rubens to Somalia,” and opened to a page where a scrap of computer printout had been inserted as a bookmark. She pointed to an article called “Sacred or Holy.”

  “The theologians seem to have recognized a special, nonrational—I wouldn’t call it irrational—aspect of the feeling of sacred or holy. They call it ‘numinous.’ The term was first used by…let’s see…somebody named Rudolph Otto in a 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy. He believed that humans were predisposed to detect and revere the numinous. He called it the misterium tremendum. Even my Latin is good enough for that.

  “In the presence of the misterium tremendum, people feel utterly insignificant but, if I read this right, not personally alienated. He thought of the numinous as a thing ‘wholly other,’ and the human response to it as ‘absolute astonishment.’ Now, if that’s what religious people talk about when they use words like sacred or holy, I’m with them. I felt something like that just in listening for a signal, never mind in actually receiving it. I think all of science elicits that sense of awe.”

  “Now listen to this.” She read from the text:

  Throughout the past hundred years a number of philosophers and social scientists have asserted the disappearance of the sacred, and predicted the demise of religion. A study of the history of religions shows that religious forms change and that there has never been unanimity on the nature and expression of religion Whether or not man…

  “Sexists write and edit religious articles, too, of course.” She returned to the text.

  Whether or not man is now in a new situation for developing structures of ultimate values radically different from those provided in the traditionally affirmed awareness of the sacred is a vital question.


  “So, I think the bureaucratic religions try to institutionalize your perception of the numinous instead of providing the means so you can perceive the numinous directly—like looking through a six-inch telescope. If sensing the numinous is at the heart of religion, who’s more religious would you say—the people who follow the bureaucratic religions or the people who teach themselves science?”

  “Let’s see if I’ve got this straight,” he returned. It was a phrase of hers that he had adopted. “It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there’s this couple lying naked in bed reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica to each other, and arguing about whether the Andromeda Galaxy is more ‘numinous’ than the Resurrection. Do they know how to have a good time, or don’t they?”




  The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if He had said to the inhabitants of this globe that we call ours, “I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. he can now provide for his own comfort, and learn from my munificence to all to be kind to each other.”


  The Age of Reason (1794)


  Precession of the


  Do we, holding that gods exist, deceive ourselves with insubstantial dreams and lies, while random careless chance and change alone control the world?



  IT WAS odd the way it had worked out. She had imagined that Palmer Joss would come to the Argus facility, watch the signal being gathered in by the radio telescopes, and take note of the huge room full of magnetic tapes and disks on which the previous many months of data were stored. He would ask a few scientific questions and then examine, in its multiplicity of zeros and ones, some of the reams of computer printout displaying the still incomprehensible Message. She hadn’t imagined spending hours arguing philosophy or theology. But Joss had refused to come to Argus. It wasn’t magnetic tape he wanted to scrutinize, he said, it was human character. Peter Valerian would have been ideal for this discussion: unpretentious, able to communicate clearly, and bulwarked by a genuine Christian faith that engaged him daily. But the President had apparently vetoed the idea; she had wanted a small meeting and had explicitly asked that Ellie attend.

  Joss had insisted that the discussion be held here, at the Bible Science Research Institute and Museum in Modesto, California. She glanced past der Heer and out the glass partition that separated the library from the exhibit area. Just outside was a plaster impression from a Red River sandstone of dinosaur footprints interspersed with those of a pedestrian in sandals, proving, so the caption said, that Man and Dinosaur were contemporaries, at least in Texas. Mesozoic shoemakers seemed also to be implied. The conclusion drawn in the caption was that evolution was a fraud. The opinion of many paleontologists—that the sandstone was the fraud—remained, Ellie had noted two hours earlier, unmentioned. The intermingled footprints were part of a vast exhibit called “Darwin’s Default.” To its left was a Foucault pendulum demonstrating the scientific assertion, this one apparently uncontested, that the Earth turns. To its right, Ellie could see part of a lavish Matsushita ho
lography unit on the podium of a small theater, from which three-dimensional images of the most eminent divines could communicate directly to the faithful.

  Communicating still more directly to her at this moment was the Reverend Billy Jo Rankin. She had not known until the last moment that Joss had invited Rankin, and she was surprised at the news. There had been continuous theological disputation between them, on whether and Advent was at had, whether Doomsday is a necessary accompaniment of the Advent, and on the role of miracles in the ministry, among other matters. But they had recently effected a widely publicized reconciliation, done, it was said, for the common good of the fundamentalist community in America. The signs of rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union were having worldwide ramifications in the arbitration of disputes. Holding the meeting here was perhaps part of the price Palmer Joss had to pay for the reconciliation. Conceivably, Rankin felt the exhibits would provide factual support for his position, were there any scientific points in dispute. Now, two hours into their discussion, Rankin was still alternately castigating and imploring. His suit was immaculately tailored, his nails freshly manicured, and his beaming smile stood in some contrast to Joss’s rumpled, distracted, and more weather-beaten appearance. Joss, the faintest of smiles on his face, had his eyes half closed and his head bowed in what seemed very close to an attitude of prayer. He had not had to say much. Rankin’s remarks so far—except for the Rapture rap, she guessed—were doctrinally indistinguishable from Joss’s television address.

  “You scientists are so shy,” Rankin was saying. “You love to hide your light under a bushel basket. You’d never guess what’s in those articles from the titles. Einstein’s first work on the Theory of Relativity was called ‘The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.’ No E=mc2 up front. No sir. ‘The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.’ I suppose if God appeared to a whole gaggle of scientists, maybe at one of those big Association meetings, they’d write something all about it and call it, maybe, ‘On Spontaneous Dendritoform Combustion in Air.’ They’d have lots of equations; they’d talk about ‘economy of hypothesis’; but they’d never say a word about God.

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