Contact by Carl Sagan

  “For a biologist, der Heer, you’ve been learning a lot of astronomy.”

  “Thank you, Ms. President. I’ve tried to immerse myself in the subject.”

  She stared at him for just a moment and then went on. “So as long as the Machine goes very close to the speed of light, it might not matter much how old the crew members are. But if it takes ten or twenty years or more—and you say that’s possible—then we ought to have somebody young. Now, the Russians aren’t buying this argument. We understand it’s between Arkhangelsky and Lunacharsky, both in their sixties.”

  She had read the names somewhat haltingly off a file card in front of her.

  “The Chinese are almost certainly sending Xi. He’s also in his sixties. So if I thought they knew what they’re doing, I’d be tempted to say, ‘What the hell, let’s send a sixty-year-old man.’”

  Drumlin, der Heer knew, was exactly sixty years old.

  “On the other hand…” he counterposed.

  “I know, I know. The Indian doctor; she’s in her forties… In a way, this is the stupidest thing I ever heard of. We’re picking somebody to enter the Olympics, and we don’t know what the events are. I don’t know why we’re talking about sending scientists. Mahatma Gandhi, that’s who we should send. Or, while we’re at it, Jesus Christ. Don’t tell me they’re not available, der Heer. I know that.”

  “When you don’t know what the events are, you send a decathlon champion.”

  “And then you discover the event is chess, or oratory, or sculpture, and your athlete finishes last. Okay, you say that it ought to be someone who’s thought about extraterrestrial life and who’s been intimately involved with the receipt and decrypting of the Message.”

  “At least a person like that will be intimately involved with how the Vegans think. Or at least how they expect us to think.”

  “And for really top-rate people, you say that reduces the field to three.”

  Again she consulted her notes. “Arroway, Drumlin, and…the one who thinks he’s a Roman general.”

  “Dr. Valerian, Ms. President. I don’t know that he thinks he’s a Roman general; it’s just his name.”

  “Valerian wouldn’t even answer the Selection Committee’s questionnaire. He wouldn’t consider it because he won’t leave his wife? Is that right? I’m not criticizing him. He’s no dope. He knows how to make a relationship work. It’s not that his wife is sick or anything?”

  “No, as far as I know, she’s in excellent health.”

  “Good. Good for them. Send her a personal note from me—something about how she must be some woman for an astronomer to give up the universe for her. But fancy up the language, der Heer. You know what I want. And throw in some quotation. Poetry, maybe. But not too gushy.” She waved her index finger at him. “Those Valerians can teach us all something. Why don’t we invite them to a state dinner? The King of Nepal’s here in two weeks. That’ll be about right.”

  Der Heer was scribbling furiously. He would have to call the White House Appointments Secretary at home as soon as this meeting was over, and he had a still more urgent call. He had not been able to get to the telephone for hours.

  “So that leaves Arroway and Drumlin. She’s something like twenty years younger, but he’s in terrific physical shape. He hang-glides, skydives, scuba dives…he’s a brilliant scientist, he helped in a big way to crack the Message, and he’ll have a fine time arguing with all the other old men. He didn’t work on nuclear weapons, did he? I don’t want to send anybody who worked on nuclear weapons.

  “Now, Arroway’s also a brilliant scientist. She’s led this whole Argus Project, she knows all the ins and outs of the Message, and she has an inquiring mind. Everybody says that her interests are very broad. And she’d convey a younger American image.” She paused.

  “And you like her, Ken. Nothing wrong with that. I like her too. But sometimes she’s a loose cannon. Did you listen carefully to her questionnaire?”

  “I think I know the passage you’re talking about, Ms. President. But the Selection Committee had been asking her questions for almost eight hours and sometimes she gets annoyed at what she considers dumb questions. Drumlin’s the same way. Maybe she learned it from him. She was his student for a while, you know.”

  “Yeah, he said some dumb things, too. Here, it’s supposed to be all cued up for us on this VCR. First Arroway’s questionnaire, then Drumlin’s. Just press the ‘play’ button, Ken.”

  On the television screen, Ellie was being interviewed in her office at the Argus Project. He could even make out the yellowing piece of paper with the quote from Kafka. Perhaps, all things considered, Ellie would have been happier had she received only silence from the stars. There were lines around her mouth and bags under her eyes. There were also two unfamiliar vertical creases on her forehead just above her nose. Ellie on videotape looked terribly tired, and der Heer felt a pang of guilt.

  “What do I think of ‘the world population crisis’?” Ellie was saying. “You mean am I for it or against it? You think this is a key question I’m going to be asked on Vega, and you want to make sure I give the right answer? Okay. Overpopulation is why I’m in favor of homosexuality and a celibate clergy. A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.”

  Ellie waited, deadpan, indeed frozen, for the next question. The President had pushed the “pause” button.

  “Now, I admit that some of the questions may not have been the best,” the President continued. “But we didn’t want anybody in such a prominent position, on a project with really positive international implications, who turns out to be some racist bozo. We want the developing world on our side in this one. We had a good reason to ask a question like that. Don’t you find her answer shows some…lack of tact? She’s a bit of a wiseass, your Dr. Arroway. Now take a look at Drumlin.”

  Wearing a blue polka-dot bow tie, Drumlin was looking tanned and very fit. “Yes, I know we all have emotions,” he was saying, “but let’s bear in mind exactly what emotions are. They’re motivations for adaptive behavior from a time when we were too stupid to figure things out. But I can figure out that if a pack of hyenas are headed toward me with their fangs bared there’s trouble ahead. I don’t need a few cc’s of adrenaline to help me understand the situation. I can even figure out that it might be important for me to make some genetic contribution to the next generation. I don’t really need testosterone in my bloodstream to help me along. Are you sure that an extraterrestrial being far in advance of us is going to be saddled with emotions? I know there are people who think I’m too cold, too reserved. But if you really want to understand the extraterrestrials, you’ll send me. I’m more like them than anyone else you’ll find.”

  “Some choice!” the President said. “The one’s an atheist, and the other thinks he’s from Vega already. Why do we have to send scientists? Why can’t we send somebody…normal? Just a rhetorical question,” she quickly added. “I know why we have to send scientists. The Message is about science and it’s written in scientific language. Science is what we know we share with the beings on Vega. No, those are good reasons, Ken. I remember them.”

  “She’s not an atheist. She’s an agnostic. Her mind is open. She’s not trapped by dogma. She’s intelligent, she’s tough, and she’s very professional. The range of her knowledge is broad. She’s just the person we need in this situation.”

  “Ken, I’m pleased by your commitment to uphold the integrity of this project. But there’s a great deal of fear out there. Don’t think I don’t know how much the men out there have had to swallow already. More than half the people I talk to believe we’ve got no business building this thing. If there’s no turning back, they want to send somebody absolutely safe. Arroway may be all the things you say she is, but safe she isn’t. I’m catching a lot of heat from the Hill, from the Earth-Firsters, from my own National Committee, from the churches. I guess she impressed Palmer Joss in that Califor
nia meeting, but she managed to infuriate Billy Jo Rankin. He called me up yesterday and said ‘Ms. President’—he can’t disguise his distaste at saying ‘Ms.’—‘Ms. President,’ he says, ‘that Machine’s gonna fly straight to God or the Devil. Whichever one it is, you better send an honest-to-God Christian.’ He tried to use his relationship with Palmer Joss to muscle me, for God’s sake. I don’t think there’s any doubt he was angling to go himself. Drumlin’s going to be much more acceptable to somebody like Rankin than Arroway is.

  “I recognize Drumlin’s something of a cold fish. But he’s reliable, patriotic, sound. He has impeccable scientific credentials. And he wants to go. No, it has to be Drumlin. The best I can offer is to have her as backup.”

  “Can I tell her that?”

  “We can’t have Arroway knowing before Drumlin, can we? I’ll let you know the moment a final decision is made and we’ve informed Drumlin… Oh, cheer up, Ken. Don’t you want her to stay here on Earth?”

  • • •

  It was after six when Ellie finished her briefing of the State Department’s “Tiger Team” that was backstopping the American negotiators in Paris. Der Heer had promised to call her as soon as the crew-selection meeting was done. He wanted her to hear from him whether she had been selected, not from anybody else. She had been insufficiently deferential to the examiners, she knew, and might lose out for that reason among a dozen others. Nevertheless, she guessed, there might still be a chance.

  There was a message waiting for her at the hotel—not a pink “while you were out” form filled in by the hotel operator, but a sealed unstamped hand-delivered letter. It read: “Meet me at the National Science and Technology Museum, 8:00 pm tonight. Palmer Joss.”

  No hello, no explanations, no agenda, and no yours truly, she thought. This really is a man of faith. The stationery was her hotel’s, and there was no return address. He must have sauntered in this afternoon, knowing from the Secretary of State himself, for all she knew, that Ellie was in town, and expecting her to be in. It had been a tiresome day, and she was annoyed at having to spend any time away from piecing together the Message. Although a part of her was reluctant to go, she showered, changed, bought a bag of cashews, and was in a taxi in forty-five minutes.

  It was about an hour before closing, and the museum was almost empty. Huge dark machinery was stuffed into every corner of a vast entrance hall. Here was the pride of the nineteenth-century shoemaking, textile, and coal industries. A steam calliope from the 1876 Exposition was playing a jaunty piece, originally written for brass, she judged, for a tourist group from West Africa. Joss was nowhere to be seen. She suppressed the impulse to turn on her heel and leave.

  If you had to meet Palmer Joss in this museum, she thought, and the only thing you had ever talked to him about was religion and the Message, where would you meet him? It was a little like the frequency selection problem in SETI: You haven’t yet received a message from an advanced civilization and you have to decide on which frequencies these beings—about whom you know virtually nothing, not even their existence—have decided to transmit. It must involve some knowledge that both you and they share. You and they certainly both know what the most abundant kind of atom in the universe is, and the single radio frequency at which it characteristically absorbs and emits. That was the logic by which the 1420 megahertz line of neutral atomic hydrogen had been included in all the early SETI searches. What would the equivalent be here? Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone? The telegraph? Marconi’s—Of course.

  “Does this museum have a Foucault pendulum?” she asked the guard.

  The sound of her heels echoed on the marble floors as she approached the rotunda. Joss was leaning over the railing, peering at a mosaic tile representation of the cardinal directions. There were small vertical hour marks, some upright, others evidently knocked down by the bob earlier in the day. Around 7 P.M. someone had stopped its swing, and it now hung motionless. They were entirely alone. He had heard her approach for a minute at least and had said nothing.

  “You’ve decided that prayer can stop a pendulum?” She smiled.

  “That would be an abuse of faith,” he replied.

  “I don’t see why. You’d make an awful lot of converts. It’s easy enough for God to do, and if I remember correctly, you talk to Him regularly… That’s not it, huh? You really want to test my faith in the physics of harmonic oscillators? Okay.”

  A part of her was amazed that Joss would put her through this test, but she was determined to pass muster. She let her handbag slide off her shoulder and removed her shoes. He gracefully hurdled the brass guardrail and helped her over. They half walked and half slid down the tiled slope until they were standing alongside the bob. It had a dull black finish, and she wondered whether it was made of steel or lead.

  “You’ll have to give me a hand,” she said. She could easily put her arms around the bob, and together they wrestled it until it was inclined at a good angle from the vertical and flush against her face. Joss was watching her closely. He didn’t ask her whether she was sure, he neglected to warn her about falling forward, he offered no cautions about giving the bob a horizontal component of velocity as she let go. Behind her was a good meter or meter and a half of level floor, before it started sloping upward to become a circumferential wall. If she kept her wits about her, she said to herself, this was a lead-pipe cinch.

  She let go. The bob fell away from her.

  The period of a simple pendulum, she thought a little giddily, is 2π, square root L over g, where L is the length of the pendulum and g is the acceleration due to gravity. Because of friction in the bearing, the pendulum can never swing back farther than its original position. All I have to do is not sway forward, she reminded herself.

  Near the opposite railing, the bob slowed and came to a dead stop. Reversing its trajectory, it was suddenly moving much faster than she had expected. As it careened toward her, it seemed to grow alarmingly in size. It was enormous and almost upon her. She gasped.

  “I flinched,” Ellie said in disappointment as the bob fell away from her.

  “Only the littlest bit.”

  “No, I flinched.”

  “You believe. You believe in science. There’s only a tiny smidgen of doubt.”

  “No, that’s not it. That was a million years of brains fighting a billion years of instinct. That’s why your job is so much easier than mine.”

  “In this matter, our jobs are the same. My turn,” he said, and jarringly grabbed the bob at the highest point in its trajectory.

  “But we’re not testing your belief in the conservation of energy.”

  He smiled and tried to dig in his feet.

  “What you doin’ down there?” a voice asked. “Are you folks crazy?” A museum guard, dutifully checking that all visitors would leave by closing time, had come upon this unlikely prospect of a man, a woman, a pit and a pendulum in an otherwise deserted recess of the cavernous building.

  “Oh, it’s all right, officer,” Joss said cheerfully. “We’re just testing our faith.”

  “You can’t do that in the Smithsonian Institution,” the guard replied. “This is a museum.”

  Laughing, Joss and Ellie wrestled the bob to a nearly stationary position and clambered up the sloping tile walls.

  “It must be permitted by the First Amendment,” she said.

  “Or the First Commandment,” he replied.

  She slipped on her shoes, shouldered her bag, and, head held high, accompanied Joss and the guard out of the rotunda. Without identifying themselves and without being recognized, they managed to talk him out of arresting them. But they were escorted out of the museum by a tight phalanx of uniformed personnel, who were concerned perhaps that Ellie and Joss might next sidle aboard the steam calliope in pursuit of an elusive God.

  • • •

  The street was deserted. They walked wordlessly along the Mall. The night was clear, and Ellie made out Lyra against the horizon.

  “The brigh
t one over there. That’s Vega,” she said.

  He stared at it for a long time. “That decoding was a brilliant achievement,” he said at last.

  “Oh, nonsense. It was trivial. It was the easiest message an advanced civilization could think of. It would have been a genuine disgrace if we hadn’t been able to figure it out.”

  “You don’t take compliments well, I’ve noticed. No, this is one of those discoveries that change the future. Our expectations of the future, anyway. It’s like fire, or writing, or agriculture. Or the Annunciation.”

  He stared again at Vega. “If you could have a seat in that Machine, if you could ride it back to its Sender, what do you think you would see?”

  “Evolution is a stochastic process. There are just too many possibilities to make reasonable predictions about what life elsewhere might be like. If you had seen the Earth before the origin of life, would you have predicted a katydid or a giraffe?”

  “I know the answer to that question. I guess you imagine that we just make this stuff up, that we read it in some book, or pick it up in some prayer tent. But that’s not how it is. I have certain, positive knowledge from my own direct experience. I can’t put it any plainer than that. I have seen God face to face.”

  About the depth of his commitment there seemed no doubt.

  “Tell me about it.”

  So he did.

  • • •

  “Okay,” she said finally, “you were clinically dead, then you revived, and you remember rising through the darkness into a bright light. You saw a radiance with a human form that you took to be God. But there was nothing in the experience that told you the radiance made the universe or laid down moral law. The experience is an experience. You were deeply moved by it, no question. But there are other possible explanations.”

  “Such as?”

  “Well, like birth. Birth is rising through a long, dark tunnel into a brilliant light. Don’t forget how brilliant it is—the baby has spent nine months in the dark. Birth is its first encounter with light. Think of how amazed and awed you’d be in your first contact with color, or light and shade, or the human face—which you’re probably preprogrammed to recognize. Maybe, if you almost die, the odometer gets set back to zero for a moment. Understand, I don’t insist on this explanation. It’s just one of many possibilities. I’m suggesting you may have misinterpreted the experience.”

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