Contact by Carl Sagan

  Palmer Joss combined his evenhanded criticism of science and religion with a fervent plea for moral rectitude and a respect for the intelligence of his flock. In slow stages he acquired a national reputation. In debates on the teaching of “scientific creationism” in the schools, on the ethical status of abortion and frozen embryos, on the admissibility of genetic engineering, he attempted in his way to steer a middle course, to reconcile caricatures of science and religion. Both contending camps were outraged at his interventions, and his popularity grew. He became a confidant of presidents. His sermons were excerpted on the Op Ed pages of major secular newspapers. But he resisted many invitations and some proffered blandishments to found an electronic church. He continued to live simply, and rarely—except for presidential invitations and ecumenical congresses—left the rural South. Beyond a conventional patriotism, he made it a rule not to meddle in politics. In a field filled with competing entries, many of dubious probity, Palmer Joss became, in erudition and moral authority, the preeminent Christian fundamentalist preacher of his day.

  • • •

  Der Heer had asked if they could have a quiet dinner somewhere. He was flying in for the summary session with Vaygay and the Soviet delegation on the latest progress in the interpretation of the Message. But south-central New Mexico was crawling with the world’s press, and there was no restaurant for a hundred miles in which they could talk unobserved and unheard. So she made dinner herself in her modest apartment near the visiting scientists’ quarters at the Argus facility. There was a great deal to talk about. Sometimes it seemed that the fate of the whole project was hanging by a presidential thread. But the little tremor of anticipation she felt just before Ken’s arrival was occasioned, she was vaguely aware, by more than that. Joss was not exactly business, so they got around to him while loading the dishwasher.

  “The man is scared stiff,” Ellie said. “His perspective is narrow. He imagines the Message is going to be unacceptable biblical exegesis or something that shakes his faith. He has no idea about how a new scientific paradigm subsumes the previous one. He wants to know what science has done for him lately. And he’d supposed to be the voice of reason.”

  “Compared to the Doomsday Chiliasts and the Earth-Firsters, Palmer Joss is the soul of moderation,” der Heer replied. “Maybe we haven’t explained the methods of science as well as we should have. I worry about that a lot these days. And Ellie, can you really be sure that it isn’t a message from—”

  “From God or the Devil? Ken, you can’t be serious.”

  “Well, how advanced beings committed to what we might call good or evil, who somebody like Joss would consider indistinguishable from God or the Devil?”

  “Ken, whoever those beings are in the Vega system, I guarantee they didn’t create the universe. And they’re nothing like the Old Testament God. Remember, Vega, the Sun, and all the other stars in the solar neighborhood are in some backwater of an absolutely humdrum galaxy. Why should I Am That I Am hang out around here? There must be more pressing things for him to do.”

  “Ellie, we’re in a bind. You know Joss is very influential. He’s been close to three presidents, including the president incumbent. The President is inclined to make some concession to Joss, although I don’t think she wants to put him and a bunch of other preachers on the Preliminary Decryption Committee with you, Valerian, and Drumlin—to say nothing of Vaygay and his colleagues. It’s hard to imagine the Russians going along with fundamentalist clergy on the Committee. The whole thing could unravel over this. So why don’t we go and talk to him? The President says that Joss is really fascinated by science. Suppose we won him over?”

  “We’re going to convert Palmer Joss?”

  “I’m not imagining making him change his religion—let’s just make him understand what Argus is about, how we don’t have to answer the Message if we don’t like what it says, how interstellar distances quarantine us from Vega.”

  “Ken, he doesn’t even believe that the velocity of light is a cosmic speed limit. We’re going to be talking past each other. Also, I’ve got a long history of failure in accommodating to the conventional religions. I tend to blow my top at their inconsistencies and hypocrisies. I’m not sure a meeting between Joss and me is what you want. Or the President.”

  “Ellie,” he said, “I know who I’d put my money on. I don’t see how getting together with Joss could make things much worse.”

  She allowed herself to return his smile.

  • • •

  With the tracking ships now in place and a few small but adequate radio telescopes installed in such places as Reykjavik and Jakarta, there was now redundant coverage of the signal from Vega at every longitude swath. A major conference was scheduled to be held in Paris of the full World Message Consortium. In preparation, it was natural for the nations with the largest fraction of the data to hold a preparatory scientific discussion. They had been meeting for the better part of four days, and this summary session was intended mainly to bring those such as der Heer, who served as intermediaries between the scientists and the politicians, up to speed. The Soviet delegation, while nominally headed by Lunacharsky, included several scientists and technical people of equal distinction. Among them were Genrikh Arkhangelsky, recently named head of the Soviet-led international space consortium called Intercosmos, and Timofei Gotsridze, listed as Minister of Medium Heavy Industry, and a member of the Central Committee.

  Vaygay clearly felt himself under unusual pressures: he had resumed chain smoking. He held the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, palm up, as he talked.

  “I agree that there is adequate overlap in longitude, but I’m still worried about redundancy. A failure in the helium liquifier on board the Marshal Nedelin or a power failure in Reykjavik, and the continuity of the Message is in jeopardy. Suppose the Message takes two years to cycle around to the beginning. If we miss a piece, we will have to wait two more years to fill in the gap. And remember, we don’t know that the Message will be repeated. If there’s no repeat, the gaps will never be repaired. I think we need to plan even for unlikely possibilities.”

  “What are you thinking of?” der Heer asked. “Something like emergency generators for every observatory in the Consortium?”

  “Yes, and independent amplifiers, spectrometers, autocorrelators, disk drives, and so forth at each observatory. And some provision for fast airlift of liquid helium to remote observatories if necessary.”

  “Ellie, do you agree?”


  “Anything else?”

  “I think we should continue to observe Vega on a very broad range of frequencies,” Vaygay said. “Perhaps tomorrow a different message will come through on only one of the message frequencies. We should also monitor other regions of the sky. Maybe the key to the Message won’t come from Vega, but from somewhere else—”

  “Let me say why I think Vaygay’s point is important,” interjected Valerian. “This is a unique moment, when we’re receiving a message but have made no progress at all in decrypting it. We have no previous experience along these lines. We have to cover all the bases. We don’t want to wind up a year or two from now kicking ourselves because there was some simple precaution we forgot to take, or some simple measurement that we overlooked. The idea that the Message will cycle back on itself, as far as we can see, that promises cycling back. Any opportunities lost now may be lost for all time. I also agree there’s more instrumental development that needs doing. For all we know there’s a fourth layer to the palimpsest.”

  “There’s also the question of personnel,” Vaygay continued. “Suppose this message goes on not for a year or two but for decades. Or suppose this is just the first in a long series of messages from all over the sky. There are at most a few hundred really capable radio astronomers in the world. That is a very small number when the stakes are so high. The industrialized countries must start producing many more radio astronomers and radio engineers with first-rate training.”
  Ellie noted that Gotsridze, who had said little, was taking detailed notes. She was again struck by how much more literate the Soviets were in English than the Americans in Russian. Near the beginning of the century, scientists all over the world spoke—or at least read—German. Before that it had been French, and before that Latin. In another century there might be some other obligatory scientific language—Chinese, perhaps. For the moment it was English, and scientists all over the planet struggled to learn its ambiguities and irregularities.

  Lighting a fresh cigarette from the glowing tip of its predecessor, Vaygay went on. “There is something else to be said. This is just speculation. It’s not even as plausible as the idea that the Message will cycle back on itself—which Professor Valerian quite properly stressed was only a guess. I would not ordinarily mention so speculative an idea at such an early stage. But if the speculation is sound, there are certain further actions we must begin thinking about immediately. I would not have the courage to raise this possibility if Academician Arkhangelsky had not come tentatively to the same conclusion. He and I have disagreed about the quantization of quasar red shifts, the explanation of superluminal light sources, the rest mass of the neutrino, quark physics in neutron stars… We have had many disagreements. I must admit that sometimes he has been right and sometimes I have been right. Almost never, it seems to me, in the early speculative stage of a subject, have we agreed. But on this, we agree.”

  “Genrikh Dmit’ch, would you explain?”

  Arkhangelsky seemed tolerant, even amused. He and Lunacharsky had been for years engaged in personal rivalry, heated scientific disputes, and a celebrated controversy on the prudent level of support for Soviet fusion research.

  “We guess,” he said, “that the Message is the instructions for building a machine. Of course, we have no knowledge about how to decode the Message. The evidence is in internal references. I give you an example. Here on page 15441 is a clear reference to an earlier page, 13097, which, by luck, we also have. The later page was received here in New Mexico, the earlier one at our observatory near Tashkent. On page 13097 there is another reference, this to a time when we were not covering all longitudes. There are many cases of this back referencing. In general, and this is the important point, there are complicated instructions on a recent page, but simpler instructions on an earlier page. In one case there are eight citations to earlier material on a single page.”

  “That’s not an awfully compelling arguments, guys,” replied Ellie. “Maybe it’s a set of mathematical exercises, the later ones building on the earlier ones. Maybe it’s a long novel—they might have very long lifetimes compared to us—in which events are connected with childhood experiences or whatever they have on Vega when they’re young. Maybe it’s a tightly cross-referenced religious manual.”

  “The Ten Billion Commandments.” Der Heer laughed.

  “Maybe,” said Lunacharsky, starting through a cloud of cigarette smoke out the window at the telescopes. They seemed to be staring longingly at the sky. “But when you look at the patterns of cross-references, I think you’ll agree it looks more like the instruction manual for building a machine. God knows what the machine is supposed to do.”


  The Numinous

  Wonder is the basis of worship.


  Sartor Resartus (1833-34)

  I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.


  Ideas and Opinions (1954)

  SHE COULD recall the exact moment when, on one of many trips to Washington, she discovered that she was falling in love with Ken der Heer.

  Arrangements for the meeting with Palmer Joss seemed to be taking forever. Apparently Joss was reluctant to visit the Argus facility; it was the impiety of the scientists, not their interpretation of the Message, he now said, that interested him. And to probe their character, some more neutral ground was needed. Ellie was willing to go anywhere, and a special assistant to the President was negotiating. Other radio astronomers were not to go; the President wanted it to be Ellie alone.

  Ellie was also waiting for the day, still some weeks off, when she would fly to Paris for the first full meeting of the World Message Consortium. She and Vaygay were coordination the global data-collection program. The signal acquisition was now fairly routine, and in recent months there had been not one gap in the coverage. So she found to her surprise that she had a little time on her hands. She vowed to have a long talk with her mother, and to remain civil and friendly no matter what provocation was offered. There was an absurd amount of backed-up paper and electronic mail to go through, not just congratulations and criticisms from colleagues, but religious admonitions, pseudoscientific speculations proposed with great confidence, and fan mail from all over the world. She had not read The Astrophysical Journal in months, although she was the first author of a very recent paper that was surely the most extraordinary article that had ever appeared in the august publication. The signal from Vega was so strong that many amateurs—tired of “ham” radio—had begun constructing their own small radio telescopes and signal analyzers. In the early stages of Message acquisition, they had turned up some useful data, and Ellie was still besieged by amateurs who thought they had acquired something unknown to the SETI professionals. She felt an obligation to write encouraging letters. There were other meritorious radio astronomy programs at the facility—the quasar survey, for example—that needed attending to. But instead of doing all these things, she found herself spending almost all her time with Ken.

  Of course, it was her duty to involve the President’s Science Adviser in Project Argus as deeply as he wished. It was important that the President be fully and competently informed. She hoped the leaders of other nations would be as thoroughly briefed on the findings from Vega as was the President of the United States. This President, while untrained in science, genuinely liked the subject and was willing to support science not only for its practical benefits but, at least a little, for the joy of knowing. This had been true of few previous American leaders since James Madison and John Quincy Adams.

  Still, it was remarkable how much time der Heer was able to spend at Argus. He did devote an hour or more each day in high-bandpass scrambled communications with his Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington. But the rest of the time, as far as she could see, he was simply…around. He would poke into the innards of the computer system, or visit individual radio telescopes. Sometimes an assistant from Washington would be with him; more often he would be alone. She would see him through the open door of the spare office they had assigned him, his feet propped up on the desk, reading some report or talking on the phone. He would offer her a cheery wave and return to his work. She would find him talking casually with Drumlin or Valerian; but equally so with junior technicians and with the secretarial staff, who had on more than one occasion pronounced him, within Ellie’s hearing, “charming.”

  Der Heer had many questions for her as well. At first they were purely technical and programmatic, but soon they extended to plans for a wide variety of conceivable future events, and then to untrammeled speculation. These days it almost seemed that discussion of the project was only a pretext to spend a little time together.

  One fine autumn afternoon in Washington, the President was obliged to delay a meeting of the Special Contingency Task Group because of the Tyrone Free crisis. After an overnight flight from New Mexico, Ellie and der Heer found themselves with an unscheduled few hours, and decided to visit the Vietnam Memorial, designed by Maya Ying Lin when she was still an undergraduate architectural student at Yale. Amidst the somber and doleful reminders of a foolish war, der Heer seemed inappropriately cheerful, and Ellie began again to speculate about flaws in his character. A pair of General Service administration plainclothes security people, their custom-molded, flesh-colored earpieces in place, followed d

  He had coaxed an exquisite blue caterpillar to climb aboard a twig. It briskly padded along, its iridescent body rippling with the motion of fourteen pairs of feet. At the end of the twig, it held on with its last five segments and failed the air in a plucky attempt to find a new perch. Unsuccessful, it turned itself around smartly and retraced its many steps. Der Heer then changed his clutch on the twig so that when the caterpillar returned to its starting point, there was again nowhere to go. Like some caged mammalian carnivore, it paced back and forth many times, but in the last few passages, it seemed to her, with increasing resignation. She was beginning to feel pity for the poor creature, even if it proved to be, say, the larva responsible for the barley blight.

  “What a wonderful program in this little guy’s head!” he exclaimed. “It works every time—optimum escape software. And he knows not to fall off. I mean the twig is effectively suspended in air. The caterpillar never experiences that in nature, because the twig is always connected to something. Ellie, did you ever wonder what the program would feel like if it was in your head? I mean, would it just seem obvious to you what you had to do when you came to the end of a twig? Would you have the impression you were thinking it through? Would you wonder how you knew to shake your front ten feet in the air but hold on tight with the other eighteen?”

  She inclined her head slightly and examined him rather than the caterpillar. He seemed to have little difficulty imagining her as an insect. She tried to reply noncommittally, reminding herself that for him this would be a matter of professional interest.

  “What’ll you do with it now?”

  “I’ll put it back down in the grass, I guess. What else would you do with it?”

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