Friday, October 13, 2006

Contact by Carl Sagan

Hmm… We discover that we’re receiving signals from another solar system. We finally translate the signals, and they’re giving us instructions for how to build a machine. A very complex machine, which will take us to first master any number of new schools of technology and basic sciences. We finally build the machine, overruling the concerns of all of the usual anti-progress types (Republicans and organized religions for the most part.) We send an odd international assortment into the machine, which teleports them to a galaxy far, far away. They have a weird encounter, return, and the machine is put out to pasture in a sea of red tape.

So what do we learn from this 400 page journey? Well, a lot about radio astronomy. And a lot about the types of hassles radio astronomers must have faced in trying to establish a real scientific community during the Cold War. And, to be fair, an excellent amount of primer information on some of the basic physics, distances, and forces that shape and describe our current understanding of the universe.

Carl Segan is a superb teacher. His science fiction is a bit on the dry side (okay, it makes beef jerky look succulent), but his science is nicely explained for the layperson, and his tale moves along at a decent clip. He is, in this regard, better than say, Neil Stephenson, who feels like he’s lecturing whenever his characters are lecturing. Segan on the other hand, manages to make his characters feel like they’re simply rehashing a few basic truths to that they’re certain you must have already known, but just forgotten because you’ve been too busy with your workaday life. The amount of tutorial Segan works into this primer, and the plausibility with which he describes one likely scenario in which we could make contact with another civilization are both compelling. Once the science fiction starts in earnest (once the message is decoded and the machine construction gets underway) he loses a bit of focus, and tries to start wrestling with some Bigger Themes ™ that really distract from the interesting questions: What if we received a signal from distant space? What might it say? How would we go about interpreting it? What sorts of effects might this have on human society?

I’ve never seen the film w/ the esteemed Mrs. Foster, but I suspect that making a movie of this novel misses much of the point. The goal of Segan’s life and his works seems clearly to have been to educate the public about the basic nature of space science.

Considering many of my countrymen now claim to believe that the planet we’re currently spinning through space aboard only came into existence about six thousand years ago, it’s probably just as well that Dr. Segan is no longer around to see the low esteem into which science has fallen in the first part of our brave new millennium.

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