Contact by Carl Sagan


  “I thought you were going to argue that God is the simpler hypothesis,” Ellie said, “but this is a much better point. If it were only a matter of scientific discussion, I’d agree with you, Reverend Joss. Science is essentially concerned with examining and correcting hypotheses. If the laws of nature explain all the available facts without supernatural intervention, or even do only as well as the God hypothesis, then for the time being I’d call myself an atheist. Then, if a single piece of evidence was discovered that doesn’t fit, Id back off from atheism. We’re fully able to detect some breakdown in the laws of nature. The reason I don’t call myself an atheist is because this isn’t mainly a scientific issue. It’s a religious issue and a political issue. The tentative nature of scientific hypothesis doesn’t extend into these fields. You don’t talk about God as a hypothesis. You think you’ve cornered the truth, so I point out that you may have missed a thing or two. But if you ask, I’m happy to tell you: I can’t be sure I’m right.”

  “I’ve always thought an agnostic is an atheist without the courage of his convictions.”

  “You could just as well say that an agnostic is a deeply religious person with at least a rudimentary knowledge of human fallibility. When I say I’m an agnostic, I only mean that the evidence isn’t in. There isn’t compelling evidence that God exists—at least your kind of god—and there isn’t compelling evidence that he doesn’t. Since more than half the people on the Earth aren’t Jews or Christian or Muslims, I’d say that there aren’t any compelling arguments for your kind of god. Otherwise, everybody on Earth would have been converted. I say again, if you God wanted to convince us, he could have done a much better job.

  “Look at how clearly authentic the Message is. It’s being picked up all over the world. Radio telescopes are humming away in countries with different histories, different languages, different politics, different religions. Everybody’s getting the same kind of data from the same place in the sky, at the same frequencies with the same polarization modulation. The Muslims, the Hindus, the Christians, and the atheists are all getting the same message. Any skeptic can hook up a radio telescope—it doesn’t have to be very big—and get the identical data.”


  “You’re not suggesting that your radio message is from God,” Rankin offered.

  “Not at all. Just that the civilization on Vega—with powers infinitely less than what you attribute to your God—was able to make things very clear. If your God wanted to talk to us through the unlikely means of word-of-mouth transmission and ancient writings over thousands of years, he could have done it so there was no room left for debate about its existence.”

  She paused, but neither Joss nor Rankin spoke, so she tried again to steer the conversation to the data.

  “Why don’t we just withhold judgment for a while until we make some more progress on decrypting the Message? Would you like to see some of the data?”

  This time they assented, readily enough it seemed. But she could produce only reams of zeros and ones, neither edifying nor inspirational. she carefully explained about the presumed pagination of the Message and the hoped-for primer. By unspoken agreement, she and der Heer said nothing about the Soviet view that the Message was the blueprint for a machine. It was at best a guess, and had not yet been publicly discussed by the Soviets. As an afterthought, she described something about Vega itself—its mass, surface temperature, color, distance from the Earth, lifetime, and the ring of orbiting debris around it that had been discovered by the Infrared Astronomy Satellite in 1983.

  “But beyond its being one of the brightest stars in the sky, is there anything special about it?” Joss wanted to know. “Or anything that connects it up with Earth?”

  “Well, in terms of stellar properties, anything like that, I can’t think of a thing. But there is one incidental fact: Vega was the Pole Star about twelve thousand years ago, and it will be again about fourteen thousand years from now.”

  “I though the polestar was the Pole Star.” Rankin, still doodling, said this to the pad of paper.

  “It is, for a few thousand years. But not forever. The Earth is like a spinning top. Its axis is slowly precessing in a circle.” She demonstrated, using her pencil as the Earth’s axis. “It’s called the precession of the equinoxes.”

  “Discovered by Hipparchus of Rhodes,” added Joss. “Second century B.C.” This seemed a surprising piece of information for him to have at his fingertips.

  “Exactly. So right now,” she continued, “an arrow from the center of the Earth to the North Pole points to the star we call Polaris, in the constellation of the Little Dipper, or the Little Bear. I believe you were referring to this constellation just before lunch, Mr. Rankin. As the Earth’s axis slowly precesses, it points in some different direction in the sky, not toward Polaris, and over 26,000 years the place in the sky to which the North Pole points makes a complete circle. The North Pole points right now very near Polaris, close enough to be useful in navigation. Twelve thousand years ago, by accident, it pointed to Vega. But there’s no physical connection. How the stars are distributed in the Milky Way has nothing to do with the Earth’s axis of rotation being tipped twenty-three and a half degrees.”

  “Now, twelve thousand years ago is 10,000 B.C., the time when civilization was just starting up. Isn’t that right?” Joss asked.

  “Unless you believe that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C.”

  “No, we don’t believe that, do we, Brother Rankin? We just don’t think the age of the Earth is known with the same precision that you scientists do. On the question of the age of the Earth, we’re what you might call agnostics.” He had a most attractive smile.

  “So if folks were navigating ten thousand years ago, sailing the Mediterranean, say, or the Persian Gulf, Vega would have been their guide?”

  “That’s still in the last Ice Age. Probably a little early for navigation. But the hunters who crossed the Bering land bridge to North America were around then. I must have seemed an amazing gift—providential, if you like—that such a bright star was exactly to the north. I’ll bet a lot of people owed their lives to that coincidence.”

  “Well now, that’s mighty interesting.”

  “I don’t want you to think I used the word ‘providential’ as anything but a metaphor.”

  “I’d never think that, my dear.”

  Joss was by now giving signs that the afternoon was drawing to a close, and he did not seem displeased. But there were still a few items, it seemed, on Rankin’s agenda.

  “It amazes me that you don’t think it was Divine Providence, Vega being the Pole Star. My faith is so strong I don’t need proofs, but every time a new fact comes along it simply confirms my faith.”

  “Well then, I guess you weren’t listening very closely to what I was saying this morning. I resent the idea that we’re in some kind of faith contest, and you’re the hands-down winner. So far as I know you’ve never tested your faith? I’m willing to do it for mine. Here, take a look out that window. There’s a big Foucault pendulum out there. The bob must weight five hundred pounds. My faith says that the amplitude of a free pendulum—how far it’ll swing away from the vertical position—can never increase. It can only decrease. I’m willing to go out there, put the bob I front of my nose, let go, have it swing away and then back toward me. If my beliefs are in error, I’ll get a five-hundred-pound pendulum smack in the face. Come on. You want to test my faith?”

  “Truly, it’s not necessary. I believe you,” replied Joss. Rankin, though, seemed interested. He was imagining, she guessed, what she would look like afterward.

  “But would you be willing,” she went on, “to stand a foot closer to this same pendulum and pray to God to shorten the swing? What if it turns out that you’ve gotten it all wrong, that what you’re teaching isn’t God’s will at all? Maybe it’s the work of the Devil. Maybe it’s pure human invention. How can you be really sure?”

  “Faith, inspiration, revelation, awe,” Rankin answered. “Don’t jud
ge everyone else by your own limited experience. Just the fact that you’ve rejected the Lord doesn’t prevent other folks from acknowledging His glory.”

  “Look, we all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.”

  “Perhaps we are all wayfarers on the road to truth,” Joss replied.

  On this hopeful note, der Heer stepped in deftly, and amidst strained civilities they prepared to leave. She wondered whether anything useful had been accomplished. Valerian would have been much more effective and much less provocative, Ellie thought. She wished she had kept herself in better check.

  “It’s been a most interesting day, Dr. Arroway, and I thank you for it.” Joss seemed a little remote again, courtly but distracted. He shook her hand warmly, though. On the way out to the waiting government car, past a lavishly rendered three-dimensional exhibit on “The Fallacy of the Expanding Universe,” a sign read, “Our God Is Alive and Well. Sorry About Yours.”

  She whispered to der Heer, “I’m sorry if I made your job more difficult.”

  “Oh no, Ellie. You were fine.”

  “That Palmer Joss is a very attractive man. I don’t think I did much to convert him. But I’ll tell you, he almost converted me.” She was joking of course.

  CHAPTER 11

  The World Message Consortium

  The world is nearly all parceled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered, and colonized. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.

  —CECIL RHODES

  Last Will and Testament (1902)

  FROM THEIR table by the window she could see the downpour spattering the street outside. A soaked pedestrian, his collar up, gamely hurried by. The proprietor had cranked the striped awning over the tubs of oysters, segregated according to size and quality and providing a kind of street advertisement for the specialty of the house. She felt warm and snug inside the restaurant, the famous theatrical gathering place, Chez Dieux. Since fair weather had been predicted, she was without raincoat or umbrella.

  Likewise unencumbered, Vaygay introduced a new subject: “My friend, Meera,” he announced, “is an ecdysiast—that is the right word, yes? When she works in your country she performs for groups of professionals, at meetings and conventions. Meera says that when she takes off her clothes for working-class men—at trade union conventions, that sort of thing—they become wild, shout out improper suggestions, and try to join her on the stage. But when she gives exactly the same performance for doctors or lawyers, they sit there motionless. Actually, she says, some of them lick their lips. My question is: Are the lawyers healthier than the steelworkers?”

  That Vaygay had diverse female acquaintances had always been apparent. His approaches to women were so direct and extravagant—herself, for some reason that both pleased and annoyed her, excluded—that they could always say no without embarrassment. Many said yes. But the news about Meera was a little unexpected.

  They had spent the morning in a last-minute comparison of notes and interpretations of the new data. The continuing Message transmission had reached an important new stage. Diagrams were being transmitted from Vega the way newspaper wirephotos are transmitted. Each picture was an array raster. The number of tiny black and white dots that made up the picture was the product of two prime numbers. Again prime numbers were part of the transmission. There was a large set of such diagrams, on following the other, and not at all interleaved with the text. It was like a section of glossy illustrations inserted in the back of a book. Following transmission of the long sequence of diagrams, the unintelligible text continued. From at least some of the diagrams it seemed obvious that Vaygay and Arkhangelsky had been right, that the Message was in part at least the instructions, the blueprints, for building a machine. Its purpose was unknown. At the plenary session of the World Message Consortium, to be held tomorrow at the Elysée Palace, she and Vaygay would present for the first time some of the details to representatives of the other Consortium nations. But word had quietly been passed about the machine hypothesis.

  Over lunch, she had summarized her encounter with Rankin and Joss. Vaygay had been attentive, but asked no questions. It was as if she had been confessing some unseemly personal predilection and perhaps that had triggered his train of association.

  “You have a friend named Meera who’s a striptease artist? With international venue?”

  “Since Wolfgang Pauli discovered the Exclusion Principle while watching the Folies-Bergère, I have felt it my professional duty as a physicist to visit Paris as much as possible. I think of it as my homage to Pauli. But somehow I can never persuade the officials in my country to approve trips solely for this purpose. Usually I must do some pedestrian physics as well. But in such establishments—that’s where I met Meera—I am a student of nature, waiting for insight to strike.”

  Abruptly his tone of voice shifted from expansive to matter-of-fact. “Meera says American professional men are sexually repressed and have gnawing doubts and guilt.”

  “Really. And what does Meera say about Russian professional men?”

  “Ah, in that category she knows only me. So, of course, she has a good opinion. I think I’d rather be with Meera tomorrow.”

  “But all your friends will be at the Consortium meeting,” she said lightly.

  “Yes, I’m glad you’ll be there,” he replied morosely.

  “What’s worrying you, Vaygay?”

  He took a long time before answering, and began with a slight but uncharacteristic hesitation. “Perhaps not worries. Maybe only concerns… What if the Message really is the design drawings of a machine? Do we build the machine? Who builds it? Everybody together? The Consortium? The United Nations? A few nations in competition? What if it’s enormously expensive to build? Who pays? Why should they want to? What if it doesn’t work? Could building the machine injure some nations economically? Could it injure them in some other way?”

  Without interrupting the torrent of questions, Lunacharsky emptied the last of the wine into their glasses. “Even if the message cycles back and even if we completely decrypt it, how good could the translation be? You know the opinion of Cervantes? He said that reading a translation is like examining the back of a piece of tapestry. Maybe it’s not possible to translate the Message perfectly. Then we wouldn’t build the machine perfectly. Also, are we really confident we have all the data? Maybe there’s essential information at some other frequency that we haven’t discovered yet.

  “You know, Ellie, I though people would be very cautious about building this machine. But there may be some coming tomorrow who will urge immediate construction—I mean, immediately after we receive the primer and decrypt the Message, assuming that we do. What is the American delegation going to propose?”

  “I don’t know,” she said slowly. But she remembered that soon after the diagrammatic material had been received der Heer began asking whether it was likely that the machine was within reach of the Earth’s economy and technology. She could offer him little reassurance on either score. She recalled again how preoccupied Ken had seemed in the last few weeks, sometimes even jittery. His responsibilities in this matter were, of course—

  “Are Dr. der Heer and Mr. Kitz staying at the same hotel as you?”

  “No, they’re staying at the Embassy.”

  It was always the case. Because of the nature of the Soviet economy and the perceived necessity of buying military technology instead of consumer goods with their limited hard currency, Russians had little walking-around money when visiting the West. They were obliged to stay in second- or third-rate hotels, even rooming houses, while their Western colle
agues lived in comparative luxury. It was a continuing source of embarrassment for scientists of both countries. Picking up the bill for this relatively simple meal would be effortless for Ellie but a burden for Vaygay, despite his comparatively exalted status in the Soviet scientific hierarchy. Now, what was Vaygay…

  “Vaygay, be straight with me. What are you saying? You think Ken and Mike are jumping the gun?”

  “‘Straight.’ And interesting word; not right, not left, but progressively forward. I’m concerned that in the next few days we will see premature discussion about building something that we have no right to build. The politicians think we know everything. In fact, we know almost nothing. Such a situation could be dangerous.”

  It finally dawned on her that Vaygay was taking a personal responsibility for figuring out the nature of the Message. If it led to some catastrophe, he was worried it might be his fault. He had less personal motives as well, of course.

  “You want me to talk to Ken?”

  “If you think it’s appropriate. You have frequent opportunities to talk to him?” He said this casually.

  “Vaygay, you’re not jealous, are you? I think you picked up on my feelings for Ken before I did. When you were back at Argus. Ken and I’ve been more or less together for the last two months. Do you have some reservations?”

  “Oh no, Ellie. I am not your father or a jealous lover. I wish only great happiness for you. It’s just that I see so many unpleasant possibilities.”

  But he did not further elaborate.

  They returned to their preliminary interpretations on some of the diagrams, with which the table was eventually covered. For counterpoint, they also discussed a little politics—the debate in America over the Mandala Principles for resolving the crisis in South Africa, and the growing war of words between the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic. As always, Arroway and Lunacharsky enjoyed denouncing their own countries’ foreign policies to one another. This was far more interesting than denouncing the foreign policies of each other’s nation, which would have been equally easy to do. Over their ritual dispute about whether the check should be shared, she noticed that the downpour had diminished to a discreet drizzle.

 
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