Contact by Carl Sagan
If John is still alive, then he’s given you this letter. I know he’ll do it. He’s a better man than yon think he is, Ellie. I was lucky to find him again. Maybe you hate him so much because something inside of you figured out the truth. But really you hate him because he isn’t Theodore Arroway. I know.
There yon are, still sitting out there. You haven’t moved since I started this letter. You’re just thinking. I hope and pray that whatever you’re seeking, you’ll find. Forgive me. I was only human.
Ellie had assimilated the letter in a single gulp, and immediately read it again. She had difficulty breathing. Her hands were clammy. The impostor had turned out to be the real thing. For most of her life, she had rejected her own father, without the vaguest notion of what she was doing. What strength of character he had shown during all those adolescent outbursts when she taunted him for not being her father, for having no right to tell her what to do.
The telefax chimed again, twice. It was now inviting her to press the RETURN key. But she did not have the will to go to it. It would have to wait. She thought of her Fa…of Theodore Arroway, and John Staughton, and her mother. They had sacrificed much for her, and she had been too self-involved even to notice. She wished Palmer were with her.
The telefax chimed once more, and the carriage moved tentatively, experimentally. She had programmed the computer to be persistent, even a little innovative, in attracting her attention if it thought it had found something in π. But she was much too busy undoing and reconstructing the mythology of her life. Her mother would have been sitting at the desk in the big bedroom upstairs, glancing out the window as she wondered how to phrase the letter, and her eye had rested on Ellie at age fifteen, awkward, resentful, rebellious.
Her mother had given her another gift. With this letter, Ellie had cycled back and come upon herself all those years ago. She had learned so much since then. There was so much more to learn.
Above the table on which the chattering telefax sat was a mirror. In it she saw a woman neither young nor old, neither mother nor daughter. They had been right to keep the truth from her. She was not sufficiently advanced to receive that signal, much less decrypt it. She had spent her career attempting to make contact with the most remote and alien of strangers, while in her own life she had made contact with hardly anyone at all. She had been fierce in debunking the creation myths of others, and oblivious to the lie at the core of her own. She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
• • •
The Argus computer was so persistent and inventive in its attempts to contact Eleanor Arroway that it almost conveyed an urgent personal need to share the discovery.
The anomaly showed up most starkly in Base 11 arithmetic, where it could be written out entirely as zeros and ones. Compared with what had been received from Vega, this could be at best a simple message, but its statistical significance was high. The program reassembled the digits into a square raster, an equal number across and down. The first line was an uninterrupted file of zeros, left to right. The second line showed a single numeral one, exactly in the middle, with zeros to the borders, left and right. After a few more lines, an unmistakable arc had formed, composed of ones. The simple geometrical figure had been quickly constructed, line by line, self-reflexive, rich with promise. The last line of the figure emerged, all zeros except for a single centered one. The subsequent line would be zeros only, part of the frame.
Hiding in the alternating patterns of digits, deep inside the transcendental number, was a perfect circle, its form traced out by unities in a field of noughts.
The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle—another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point. There would be richer messages farther in. It doesn’t matter what you look like, or what you’re made of, or where you come from. As long as you live in this universe, and have a modest talent for mathematics, sooner or later you’ll find it. It’s already here. It’s inside everything. You don’t have to leave your planet to find it. In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.
The circle had closed.
She found what she had been searching for.
Although of course I have been influenced by those I know, none of the characters herein is a close portrait of a real person. Nevertheless, this book owes much to the world SETI community—a small band of scientists from all over our small planet, working together, sometimes in the face of daunting obstacles, to listen for a signal from the skies. I would like to acknowledge a special debt of gratitude to the SETI pioneers Frank Drake, Philip Morrison, and the late I. S. Shklovskii. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is now entering a new phase, with two major programs under way—the 8-million-channel META/Sentinel survey at Harvard University, sponsored by the Pasadena-based Planetary Society, and a still more elaborate program under the auspices of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. My fondest hope for this book is that it will be made obsolete by the pace of real scientific discovery.
Several friends and colleagues have been kind enough to read an earlier draft and/or make detailed comments that have influenced the book’s present form. I am deeply grateful to them, including Frank Drake, Pearl Druyan, Lester Grinspoon, Irving Gruber, Jon Lomberg, Philip Morrison, Nancy Palmer, Will Provine, Stuart Shapiro, Steven Soter, and Kip Thorne. Professor Thorne took the trouble to consider the galactic transportation system described herein, generating fifty lines of equations in the relevant gravitational physics. Helpful advice on content or style came from Scott Meredith, Michael Korda, John Herman, Gregory Weber, Clifton Fadiman, and the late Theodore Sturgeon. Through the many stages of the preparation of this book Shirley Arden has worked long and flawlessly; I am very grateful to her, and to Kel Arden. I thank Joshua Lederberg for first suggesting to me many years ago and perhaps playfully that a high form of intelligence might live at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The idea has antecedents, as all ideas do, and something similar seems to have been envisioned around 1750 by Thomas Wright, the first person to mention explicitly that the Galaxy might have a center. A woodcut by Wright depicting the center of the Galaxy is shown on the inside front cover.
This book has grown out of a treatment for a motion picture that Ann Druyan and I wrote in 1980-81. Lynda Obst and Gentry Lee facilitated that early phase. At every stage in the writing of this book I have benefited tremendously from Ann Druyan—from the earliest conceptualization of the plot and central characters to the final galley proofing. What I learned from her in the process is what I cherish most about the writing of this book.
The books of CARL SAGAN, the distinguished astronomer, are the most widely read scientific works in the world. Cosmos, first published in 1980, is the bestselling science book ever published in the English language. The accompanying Peabody and Emmy Award-winning television series was broadcast in sixty countries. His other books include The Dragons of Eden, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, Broca’s Brain, and the bestseller (with Ann Druyan), Comet.
Dr. Sagan was deeply involved in both spacecraft exploration of the planets and the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence. His numerous awards included the NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service, the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award, the Honda Prize, the Joseph Priestley Award “for distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind,” and the National Academy of Science Public Service Medal. The National Science Foundation states his “research revolutionized planetary
Dr. Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University, where he also served as director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. He died in 1996.
Carl Sagan, Contact
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