Contact by Carl Sagan

  • • •

  By now, the news of the Message from Vega had reached every nook and cranny of the planet Earth. People who knew nothing of radio telescopes and had never heard of a prime number had been told a peculiar story about a voice from the stars, about strange beings—not exactly men, but not exactly gods either—who had been discovered living in the night sky. They did not come from Earth. Their home star could easily be seen, even with a full moon. Amidst the continuing frenzy of sectarian commentary, there was also—all over the world, it was now apparent—a sense of wonder, even of awe. Something transforming, something almost miraculous was happening. The air was full of possibility, a sense of new beginning.

  “Mankind has been promoted to high school,” an American newspaper editorialist had written.

  There were other intelligent beings in the universe. We could communicate with them. They were probably older than we, possibly wiser. They were sending us libraries of complex information. There was a widespread anticipation of imminent secular revelation. So the specialists in every subject began to worry. Mathematicians worried about what elementary discoveries they might have missed. Religious leaders worried that Vegan values, however alien, would find ready adherents, especially among the uninstructed young. Astronomers worried that there might be fundamentals about the nearby stars that they had gotten wrong. Politicians and government leaders worried that some other systems of government, some quite different from those currently fashionable, might be admired by a superior civilization. Whatever Vegans knew had not been influenced by peculiarly human institutions, history, or biology. What if much that we think true is a misunderstanding, a special case, or a logical blunder? Experts uneasily began to reassess the foundation of their subjects.

  Beyond this narrow vocational disquiet was a great and soaring corner, of bursting into a new age—a symbolism powerfully amplified by the approach of the Third Millennium. There were still political conflicts, some of them—like the continuing South African crisis—serious. But there was also a notable decline in many quarters of the world of jingoist rhetoric and puerile self-congratulatory nationalism. There was a sense of the human species, billions of tiny beings spread over the world, collectively presented with an unprecedented opportunity, or even a grave common danger. To many, it seemed absurd for the contending nation states to continue their deadly quarrels when faced with a nonhuman civilization of vastly greater capabilities. There was a whiff of hope in the air. Some people were unaccustomed to it and mistook it for something else—confusion, perhaps, or cowardice.

  For decades after 1945, the world stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons had steadily grown. Leaders changed, weapons systems changed, strategy changed, but the number of strategic weapons only increased. The time came when there were more than 25,000 of them on the planet, ten for every city. The technology was pushing toward short flight time, incentives for hard-target first strike, and at least de facto launch-on-warning. Only so monumental a danger could undo so monumental a foolishness, endorsed by so many leaders in so many nations for so long a time. but finally the world came to its senses, at least to this extent, and an accord was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. It was not intended to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Few expected it to carry some Utopia in its wake. But the Americans and the Russians undertook to diminish the strategic arsenals down to a thousand nuclear weapons each. The details were carefully designed so that neither superpower was at any significant disadvantage at any stage of the dismantling process. Britain, France, and China agreed to begin reducing their arsenals once the superpowers had gone below the 3,200 mark. The Hiroshima Accords were signed, to worldwide rejoicing, next to the famous commemorative plaque for the victims in the first city ever obliterated by a nuclear weapon: “Rest in peace, for it shall never happen again.”

  Every day the fission triggers from an equal number of U. S. and Soviet warheads were delivered to a special facility run by American and Russian technicians. The plutonium was extracted, logged, sealed, and transported by bilateral teams to nuclear power plants where it was consumed and converted into electricity. This scheme, known as the Gayler Plan after an American admiral, was widely hailed as the ultimate in beating swords into plowshares. Since each nation still retained a devastating retaliatory capability, even the military establishments eventually welcomed it. Generals no more wish for their children to die than anyone else, and nuclear war is the negation of the conventional military virtues; it is hard to find much valor in pressing a button. The first divestment ceremony—televised live, and rebroadcast many times—featured white-clad American and Soviet technicians wheeling in two of the dull gray metallic objects, each about as big as an ottoman and festooned variously with stars and stripes, hammers and sickles. It was witnessed by a huge fraction of the world population. The evening television news programs regularly counted how many strategic weapons on both sides had been disassembled, how many more to go. In a little over two decades, this news, too, would reach Vega.

  In the following years, the divestitures continued, almost without a hitch. At first the fat in the arsenals was surrendered, with little change in strategic doctrine; but now the cuts were being felt, and the most destabilizing weapons systems were being dismantled. It was something the experts had called impossible and declared “contrary to human nature.” But a sentence of death, as Samuel Johnson had noted, concentrates the mind wonderfully. In the past half year, the dismantling of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union had made new strides, with fairly intrusive inspection teams of each nation soon to be installed on the territory of the other—despite the disapproval and concern publicly voiced by the military staffs on both nations. The United Nations found itself unexpectedly effective in mediating international disputes, with the West Irian and the Chile-Argentina border wars both apparently resolved. There was even talk, not all of it fatuous, of a nonaggression treaty between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

  The delegates arriving at the first plenary session of the World Message Consortium were predisposed toward cordiality to an extent unparalleled in recent decades.

  • • •

  Every nation with even a handful of Message bits was represented, sending both scientific and political delegates; a surprising number sent military representatives as well. In a few cases, national delegations were led by foreign ministers or even heads of state. The United Kingdom delegation included Viscount Boxforth, the Lord Privy Seal—an honorific Ellie privately found hilarious. The U.S.S.R. delegation was headed by B. Ya. Abukhimov, President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, with Gotsridze, the Minister of Medium Heavy Industry, and Arkhangelsky playing significant roles. The President of the United States had insisted that der Heer head the American delegation, although it included Undersecretary of State Elmo Honicutt and Michael Kitz, among others, for the Department of Defense.

  A vast and elaborate map in equal-area projection showed the disposition of radio telescopes over the planet, including the Soviet oceangoing tracking vessels. Ellie glanced around the newly completed conference hall, adjacent to the offices and residence of the President of France. In only the second year of his seven-year term, he was making every effort to guarantee the meeting’s success. A multitude of faces, flags, and national dress was reflected off the long arcing mahogany tables and the mirrored walls. She recognized few of the political and military people, but in every delegation there seemed to be at least one familiar scientist or engineer: Annunziata and Ian Broderick from Australia; Fedirka from Czechoslovakia; Braude, Crebillon, and Boileau from France; Kumar Chandrapurana and Devi Sukhavati from India; Hironaga and Matsui from Japan… Ellie reflected on the strong technological rather than radio-astronomical background of many of the delegates, especially the Japanese. The idea that the construction of some vast machine might be on the agenda of this meeting had motivated last-minute changes in the composition of delegations.

  She also re
cognized Malatesta of Italy; Bedenbaugh, a physicist fallen into politics, Clegg, and the venerable Sir Arthur Chatos chatting behind the sort of Union Jack one can find on restaurant tables in European resorts; Jaime Ortiz of Spain; Prebula from Switzerland, which was puzzling, since Switzerland did not, so far as she knew, even have a radio telescope; Bao, who had done brilliantly in putting together the Chinese radio telescope array; Wintergaden from Sweden. There were surprisingly large Saudi, Pakistani and Iraqi delegations; and, of course, the Soviets, among whom Nadya Rozhdestvenskaya and Genrikh Arkhangelsky were sharing a moment of genuine hilarity.

  Ellie looked for Lunacharsky, and finally spotted him with the Chinese delegation. He was shaking hands with Yu Renqiong, the director of the Beijing Radio Observatory. She recalled that the two men had been friends and colleagues during the period of Sino-Soviet cooperation. But the hostilities between their two nations had ended all contact between them, and Chinese restrictions on foreign travel by their senior scientists were still almost as severe as Soviet constraints. She was witnessing, she realized, their first meeting in perhaps a quarter century.

  “Who’s the old Chinaperson Vaygay’s shaking hands with?” This was, for Kitz, an attempt at cordiality. He had been making small offerings of this sort for the last few days—a development she regarded as unpromising.

  “Yu, Director of the Beijing Observatory.”

  “I thought those guys hated each other’s guts.”

  “Michael,” she said, “the world is both better and worse than you imagine.”

  “You can probably beat me on ‘better,’” he replied, “but you can’t hold a candle to me on ‘worse.’”

  • • •

  After the welcome by the President of France (who, to mild astonishment, stayed to hear the opening presentations) and a discussion of procedure and agenda by der Heer and Abukhimov as conference co-chairmen, Ellie and Vaygay together summarized the data. They made what were by now standard presentations—not too technical, because of the political and military people—of how radio telescopes work, the distribution of nearby stars in space, and the history of the palimpsest Message. Their tandem presentation concluded with a survey, displayed on the monitors before each delegation, of the diagrammatic material recently received. She was careful to show how the polarization modulation was converted into a sequence of zeros and ones, how the zeros and ones fit together to make a picture, and how in most cases they had not the vaguest notion of what the picture conveyed.

  The data points reassembled themselves on the computer screens. She could see faces illuminated in white, amber, and green by the monitors in the now partly darkened hall. The diagrams showed intricate branching networks; lumpy, almost indecently biological forms; a perfectly formed regular dodecahedron. A long series of pages had been reassembled into an elaborately detailed three-dimensional construction which slowly rotated. Each enigmatic object was joined by an unintelligible caption.

  Vaygay stressed the uncertainties still more strongly than she did. Nevertheless, it was, in his opinion, now beyond doubt that the Message was a handbook for the construction of a machine. He neglected to mention that the idea of the Message as a blueprint had originally been his and Arkhangelsky’s, and Ellie seized the opportunity to rectify the oversight.

  She had talked about the subject enough over the past few months to know that both scientific and general audiences were often fascinated by the details of the unraveling of the Message, and tantalized by the still unproved concept of a primer. But she was unprepared for the response from this—one would expect—staid audience. Vaygay and she had interdigitated their presentations. As they finished, there was a sustained thunder of applause. The Soviets and Eastern European delegations applauded in unison, with a frequency of about two or three handclaps per heartbeat. The Americans and many others applauded separately, their unsynchronized clapping a sea of white noise rising from the crowd. Enveloped by an unfamiliar kind of joy, she could not resist thinking about the differences in national character—the Americans as individualists, and the Russians engaged in a collective endeavor. Also, she recalled that Americans in crowds tried to maximize their distance from their fellows, while Soviets tended to lean on each other as much as possible. Both styles of applause, the American clearly dominant, delighted her. For just a moment she permitted herself to think about her stepfather. And her father.

  After lunch there was a succession of other presentations on the data collection and interpretation. David Drumlin gave an extraordinarily capable discussion of a statistical analysis he had recently performed of all previous pages of the Message that referred to the new numbered diagrams. He argued that the Message contained not just a blueprint for building a machine but also descriptions of the designs and means of fabrication of components and subcomponents. In a few cases, he thought, there were descriptions of whole new industries not yet known on Earth. Ellie, mouth agape, shook her finger toward Drumlin, silently asking Valerian whether he had known about this. His lips pursed, Valerian hunched his shoulders and rotated his hands palms up. She scanned the other delegates for some expression of emotion, but could detect mainly signs of fatigue; the depth of technical material and the necessity, sooner or later, of making political decisions were already producing strain. After the session, she complimented Drumlin on the interpretation but asked why she had not heard of it until now. He replied before walking away, “Oh, I didn’t think it was important enough to bother you with. It was just a little something I did while you were out consulting religious fanatics.”

  If Drumlin had been her thesis adviser, she would still be pursuing her Ph.D., she thought. He had never fully accepted her. They would never share an easygoing collegial relationship. Sighing, she wondered whether Ken had known about Drumlin’s new work. But as conference cochairman, der Heer was sitting with his Soviet opposite number on a raised dais facing the horseshoe of delegate tiers. He was, as he had been for weeks, nearly inaccessible. Drumlin was not obliged to discuss his findings with her, of course; she knew they both had been preoccupied recently. But in conversation with him why was she always accommodating—and argumentative only in extremis? A part of her evidently felt that the granting of her doctorate and the opportunity to pursue her science were still future possibilities firmly in Drumlin’s hands.

  • • •

  On the morning of the second day, a Soviet delegate was given the floor. He was unknown to her. “Stefan Alexeivich Baruda,” the vitagraphics on her computer screen read out, “Director, Institute for Peace Studies, Soviet Academy of Sciences, Moscow; Member, Central Committee, Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.”

  “Now we start to play hardball,” she heard Michael Kitz say to Elmo Honicutt of the State Department.

  Baruda was a dapper man, wearing an elegantly tailored and impeccably fashionable Western business suit, perhaps of Italian cut. His English was fluent and almost unaccented. He had been born in one of the Baltic republics, was young to be head of such an important organization—formed to study the long-term implications for strategic policy of the deaccessioning of nuclear weapons—and was a leading example of the “new wave” in the Soviet leadership.

  “Let us be frank,” Baruda was saying. “A Message is being sent to us from the far reaches of space. Most of the information has been gathered by the Soviet Union and the United States. Essential pieces have also been obtained by other countries. All of those countries are represented at this conference. Any one nation—the Soviet Union, for example—could have waited until the Message repeated itself several times, as we all hope it will, and fill in the many missing pieces in such a way. But it would take years, perhaps decades, and we are a little impatient. So we have all shared the data.

  “Any one nation—the Soviet Union, for example—could place into orbit around the Earth large radio telescopes with sensitive receivers that work at the frequencies of the Message. The Americans could do this as well. Perhaps Japan or France or the European
Space Agency could. Then any one nation by itself could acquire all the data, because in space a radio telescope can point at Vega all the time. But that might be thought a hostile act. It is no secret that the United States or the Soviet Union might be able to shoot down such satellites. So, perhaps for this reason, too, we have all shared the data.

  “It is better to cooperate. Our scientists wish to exchange not only the data they have gathered, but also their speculations, their guesses, their…dreams. All you scientists are alike in that respect. I am not a scientist. My specialty is government. So I know that the nations are also alike. Every nation is cautious. Every nation is suspicious. None of us would give an advantage to a potential adversary if we could prevent it. And so there have been two opinions—perhaps more, but at least two—one that counsels exchange of all the data, and another that counsels each nation to seek advantage over the others. ‘You can be sure the other side is seeking some advantage,’ they say. It is the same in most countries.

  “The scientists have won this debate. So, for example, most of the data—although, I wish to point out, not all—acquired by the United States and the Soviet Union have been exchanged. Most of the data from all other countries have been exchanged worldwide. We are happy we have made this decision.”

  Ellie whispered to Kitz, “This doesn’t sound like ‘hard-ball’ to me.”

  “Stay tuned,” he whispered back.

  “But there are other kinds of dangers. We would like now to raise one of them for the Consortium to consider.” Baruda’s tone reminded her of Vaygay’s at lunch the other day. What was the bee in the Soviet bonnet?

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