Carl Sagan’s Contact

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (S.E.T.I.) as a bona fide branch of legitimate scientific inquiry we cannot help but wonder how “First Contact” will occur and what effect this will have on humanity.

Today we explore this exciting possibility through the vision of Dr. Carl Sagan as outlined in his first and only science fiction novel “Contact” published in 1985 and the film adaptation released twelve years later.

The novel and book both present a unique and wonderful vision of a common science fiction theme about the first meeting between humans and extraterrestrial life. Sagan expands on this theme in his novel and hints at the possibility of an even higher overarching intelligence that existed before the creation of the Cosmos and responsible for bringing into being. Unfortunately in the motion picture this was only touched upon obliquely.

Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway is the director of “Project Argus,” in which scores of radio telescopes in New Mexico have been dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

Before long, the project does, indeed, discover the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings, a repeating series of the first 261 prime numbers (a sequence of prime numbers is a commonly predicted first message from alien intelligence, since mathematics is considered a “universal language,” and it is conjectured that algorithms that produce successive prime numbers are sufficiently complicated so as to require intelligence to implement them). Further analysis of the message reveals that two additional messages are embedded in the signal. One of these messages is the detailed instructions of a machine that transports professor Arroway on an incredible odyssey to the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy and a face to face encounter with the intelligent beings that sent the message.

In a kind of postscript, Ellie, acting upon a suggestion by the senders of the Message, works on a program which computes the digits of π to record lengths and in different bases. Very, very far from the decimal point (ten to the twentieth power) and in base 11, it finds that a special pattern does exist when the numbers stop varying randomly and start producing 1s and 0s in a very long string. The string’s length is the product of 11 prime numbers. The 1s and 0s when organized as a square of specific dimensions form a rasterized circle.

The extraterrestrials suggest that this is an artist’s signature, woven into the very fabric of space. It is another Message, one from the universe’s creator. Yet the extraterrestrials are just as ignorant to its meaning as Ellie, as it could be still some sort of a statistical anomaly. They also make reference to older artefacts built from space time itself (namely the wormhole transit system) abandoned by a prior civilization. A line in the book suggests that the image is a foretaste of deeper marvels hidden even further within Pi. This new pursuit becomes analogous to SETI; it is another search for meaningful signals in apparent noise. This idea, among other plot points, was omitted from the film version.


While both the novel and film stand on their own merits one wonders if the film could have attained the same distinction as a cult classic like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” if this latter theme were worked into the motion picture.

Contact The Motion Picture


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1 Response to “Carl Sagan’s Contact”


  1. 1 Get well Soon Messages March 13, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Thanks for sharing this very good and informative post.


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