Jan 5, 2014

Comments on Carl Sagan's "Contact"

These comments (below) on Carl Sagan's "Contact" (the book and the movie) were originally written and put online back near the end of the previous century. I'm re-posting them here because my blog post called "Contact: Coda" is the most popular item of this blog.
I have long been a Sagan fan and I read his science fiction novel back in the late 80's and enjoyed it then. I am very sad that Carl did not live to see the Pathfinder landing or the success of the "Contact" movie or the Kepler exoplanet search or....I wish he was still with us.

The novel "Contact" is a great example of how to mix science and fiction, a template that can be used as a guide for constructing new stories. "Contact" shows how science works, how it differs from other ways of experiencing reality (particularly religion), and it deals with an important science-based effort of our times, SETI.

I was stunned by the ending of the movie. I find it hard to believe that Carl would have let the movie end that way. I can still remember the thrill I experienced when I first read the book, and reached the start of Part II when Ellie goes to the "Bible Science Research Institute and Museum" to chat with Palmer Joss. The quotations at the start of Part II are a wonderful prelude to what follows in the novel:

Do we, holding that gods exist,
deceive ourselves with insubstantial dreams
and lies, while random careless chance and
change alone control the world?

The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if He had said to the inhabitants of this globe that we call ours, "I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, and learn from my munificence to all to be kind to each other.
-Thomas Paine

I have been thinking about people like Thomas Paine since I read "The Demon-Haunted World", where Carl quotes him in the context of belief and avoiding the truth in the name of promoting religion. Carl singled Paine out for special praise and states his belief that, "He is probably the most illustrious American revolutionary uncommemorated by a monument in Washington, D.C."

I suspect that Carl felt that Paine was close to the kind of human "candle in the dark" that Carl tried to be. Carl tells us that it is part of his nature that, "there is something within me that is ready to believe in life after death." What does he make of this fact about his own nature? "This is about humans being human." As a scientist who had puzzled over and studied the human brain, Carl knew well the power of our brain to fool us and trick us in many ways. A lesser man might simply have shouted, "Belief in life after death is bull shit!" Yet, I think that Carl had both
1) lived through the experience of holding beliefs that something was very unlikely, only to have that unlikely something be shown to be correct.
2) read enough about history to know many examples of famous scientists who have made firm statements about the impossibility of certain things (like ever knowing what holds planets in their places or what stars are made of).

The issue that remains, then, is what type of evidence must we demand if we are to really believe in there being a creator of the universe? The answer to this question is a major theme in "Contact":

{Ellie speaking}"But imagine that your kind of god - omnipotent, omniscient, compassionate - really wanted to leave a record for future generations, to make his existence unmistakable to, say, the remote descendants of Moses. It's easy, trivial. Just a few enigmatic phrases, and some fierce commandment that they be passed on unchanged..." 

"Joss leaned forward almost imperceptibly. "Such as...?" 

{Ellie again, a bit later}"You know what I mean. Where are the burning bushes, the pillars of fire, the great voice that says 'I am that I am' booming down at us out of the sky?"
"But a voice from the sky is just what you found." Joss made this comment casually while Ellie paused for breath. 

Having set up the confrontation between Joss and Ellie in this way, Carl wanted to go on to give an example of just what the evidence would have to be like for us to rationally believe in a creator.

We Need Evidence
An important issue that the movie did not fully deal with is the fact that Carl spent considerable effort in the book to portray Ellie as an agnostic, not atheist. In the book, Carl clearly shows why the simple minded question that is asked so dramatically in the movie, "Do you believe in God?" actually has a fairly complex answer. In the book Ellie says, "I can't be sure" and that is the important answer, the "scientific" answer to give when the evidence to decide the issue does not exist. Again, Carl was framing the question, "What kind of evidence would let us decide if God exists?" To just have Ellie in the movie mutter that she thinks she has already answered the question, without letting her give Carl's answer to the question is very unfair.

In the book, after raising the issue of what kind of evidence should make us believe in God, Carl immediately goes through the idea that it might be by Divine Providence that Vega was the Pole Star when human civilization started, and that is where the message came from. Carl explains why this is a clever but not very convincing idea.

In the end they find the message in pi (π).....this is Carl's example of the kind of evidence for a creator that he could believe, if only we had such evidence. I think Carl would always want to add, the only way we ever know is to go find out, using the tools of science.

In talking to Ellie about the interaction between the "Census Takers" and developing civilizations, Carl has them say, "our job would be to leave them alone. To make sure that no one bothers them. To let them work out their destiny"
This sound's like Gene Rodenberry's Prime Directive.

But then, "Marginal cases are our specialty. We thought you could use a little help. Really, we can offer only a little. You understand. There are certain limitations imposed by causality"

Yikes! Just like in Star Trek, nobody seems to really be able to keep their hands off of developing civilizations!

"This is a... cooperative project of many galaxies. That's what we mainly do -engineering. Only a . . . few of us are involved with emerging civilizations." 

At each pause she had felt a kind of tingling in her head, approximately in the left parietal lobe. 

What is going on here? We know that the aliens can read brains like a book. I think Carl knew enough about brains to know that Ellie could not have a sensation of something happening in her brain at a particular location, but he is trying to tell us that the alien was doing something in her head. The left parietal is probably a center for formation of our memories of linguistic inputs. If we assume that the aliens were somehow able to not only read human brains like a book but also erase them, perhaps with slightly less surgical precision, then I would guess that Carl was suggesting that Ellie may have "heard" something that the aliens didn't really want her to know, so they were editing her memories on the fly, resulting in the pauses.

If Ellie really felt something happening in her mind, and was allowed to remember it, she would have said something about it. Instead she changes the subject completely! I suspect that what Carl was trying to portray was that Ellie was asking questions that the aliens did not want to give her the answers to, so they took control of her brain and made her change the subject. The other possibility suggested below is that the aliens are just looking into her brain to find the best way of communicating with her. However, in the case above, I do not see any particularly hard to communicate ideas. "cooperative"? "few"?

{a bit later in the book} He paused momentarily and again she felt a tingle, this time in her left occipital lobe. She entertained the notion that he was rifling through her neurons. Had he missed something last night? If so, she was glad. It meant they weren't perfect. 

This is a bit stranger. I do not know of a significance to the left occipital, it seems to just be a region of the brain concerned with visual processing. I must assume that Carl was just assuming that visually-oriented memories related to "left brain stuff" like mathematics would be found in the left occipital. Anyhow, in what follows, it seems that "tingle" can be associated with the aliens checking human brains closely for detailed information. The topic is now "religion" and we finally get to the kind of evidence that Carl wants to present as being acceptable evidence for a creator.

"I want to know about your myths, your religions. What fills you with awe? Or are those who make the numinous unable to feel it?" 

"You make the numinous also. No, I know what you're asking. Certainly we feel it. You recognize that some of this is hard for me to communicate to you. But I'll give yon an example of what you're asking for. I don't say this is it exactly, but it'll give you a . . ." 

He paused momentarily and again she felt a tingle, this time in her left occipital lobe. She entertained the notion that he was rifling through her neurons. Had he missed something last night? If so, she was glad. It meant they weren't perfect. 

"... flavor of our numinons. It concerns pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. You know it well, of course, and you also know you can never come to the end of pi. There's no creature in the universe, no matter how smart, who could calculate pi to the last digit -because there is no last digit, only an infinite number of digits. Your mathematicians have made an effort to calculate it out to ..." 

Again she felt the tingle. 

"... none of you seem to know.. .. Let's say the ten-billionth place. You won't be surprised to hear that other mathematicians have gone further. Well, eventually -let's say it's in the ten-to-the-twentieth-power place -something happens. The randomly varying digits disappear, and for an unbelievably long time there's nothing but ones and zeros."
Idly, he was tracing a circle out on the sand with his toe. She paused a heartbeat before replying. 

"And the zeros and ones finally stop? You get back to a random sequence of digits?" Seeing a faint sign of encouragement from him, she raced on. "And the number of zeros and ones? Is it a product of prime numbers?" 

"Yes, eleven of them." 

"You're telling me there's a message in eleven dimensions hidden deep inside the number pi? Someone in the universe communicates by ... mathematics? But ... help me, I'm really having trouble understanding you. Mathematics isn't arbitrary. I mean pi has to have the same value everywhere. How can you hide a message inside pi? It's built into the fabric of the universe." 

"Exactly." She stared at him. 

"It's even better than that," he continued. "Let's assume that only in base-ten arithmetic does the sequence of zeros and ones show up, although you'd recognize that something funny's going on in any other arithmetic. Let's also assume that the beings who first made this discovery had ten fingers. You see how it looks? It's as if pi has been waiting for billions of years for ten-fingered mathematicians with fast computers to come along. You see, the Message was kind of addressed to us." 

"But this is just a metaphor, right? It's not really pi and the ten to the twentieth place? You don't actually nave ten fingers." 

"Not really." He smiled at her again. 

{Ellie thinking, a bit later}Now how is this different, she asked herself, from the old-time religion? The answer occurred to her instantly: It was a matter of evidence. 

Why did Carl insisted on the idea that from the perspective of those on Earth, little or no time should elapse during Ellie's trip to visit the aliens? I guess the idea must be something like this: nothing in the universe can travel faster than light. The machine must make some kind of quantum mechanical duplicate of the transport capsule. To respect the rules of causality, the capsule must return at the exact moment it left. Ellie's journey must be viewed as a kind of virtual particle, instantly created and destroyed, leaving only the memories of the travelers. Is the alien transport system somehow also a time machine?
Why were the aliens acting like they only had a limited time with the human travelers? Maybe the "virtual particle" of the travel capsule only had a limited window of existence on the other side of the worm holes? Did the Builders of the transport system provide for a fixed and limited amount of "time displacement" so that the aliens Ellie meets had no choice in when Ellie had to be returned?

Why should the machine only be good for one trip? This makes no sense to me, unless it is just a way of making sure that the primitive people of Earth are not left with access to the galactic transportation system.

But why the blank video tapes? Why can human brains record the trip but not the video machines? My guess is that all of the travelers' experiences were a type of virtual reality. The aliens took complete control of their brains. When they imagined they were using the video cameras to collect a video record of the trip, it was just an illusion created in their minds. "She had even done a spot check on some of the footage after they had left the Vega system." Alternatively, the aliens for some reason erased the data, or, "A strong electrical field accumulated on the benzels, and they were, of course, moving. A time-varying electrical field makes a magnetic field. Maxwell's equations. It seems to me that's how your tapes were erased." Either way, the result is the same, no good objective evidence concerning the trip was returned to Earth! But it makes a difference if the aliens tried to prevent objective evidence from being returned or if there was just nothing they could do about it. I favor this last possibility.

But what about the signal from Vega stopping at just the moment of the machine-mediated trip? How could the transmission be stopped years before it was received, at just the moment that the machine would be activated? "It can be acausal around a singularity." What the hell does that mean? Carl has Ellie suggest that the aliens can send a signal back in time to shut off the Vega Transmission. Right. Why? Maybe the Vega signal is required for the machine to work. Maybe, as part of the aliens' rules for engagement with developing civilizations, they only allow themselves one contact shortly after a new technological civilization arises. Or maybe they have no choice? Was the whole galactic worm hole system made by its Builders in such a way that it can only be used in this way?
Okay, so what's the point of the exercise? Just to re-direct humans away from astronomical methods for SETI and towards a mathematical search for God?

{Ellie} "In their hearts, they wonder, -Could it be true?" A few even want it to be true. But it is a risky truth. They need something close to certainty. . . . And perhaps we can provide it. 

"Whoever makes the universe hides messages in transcendental numbers so they'll be read fifteen billion years later when intelligent life finally evolves. I criticized you and Rankin the time we first met for not understanding this. If God wanted us to know that he existed, 'why didn't he send us an unambiguous message?' I asked. Remember?" 

"I remember very well. You think God is a mathematician." 

"Something like that. If what we're told is true."

I really like the way Carl uses the term "experimental theology".

The surprise of Ellie finding out about her real father is a metaphor for the main plot line. Surprise (or "wonder", which Carl proposes as one of the two keys to science in "The Demon-Haunted World"), I think, is something that Carl really thought of as being important.....the surprise of a great discovery about the universe is better than anything. I would say that people have been designed by evolution to be surprise seekers. This is often cheapened to "thrill seekers", but science gives us the chance to experience real thrill and excitement.

Carl tells us: 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 grand conclusion of "Contact", the book} 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. 

So why does Carl tell this tale? It tells us that we should look for objective evidence upon which to build our understanding of the universe and human existence. One of the great comedic ideas from cosmology in this century is the Anthropic Principle, that one way of interpreting reality is that the universe was designed for us. I think this is Carl's answer to the question, "What, in your wildest dreams, do hope our first message from the stars will tell us?" Clearly, the less interesting result would only be getting the knowledge that there are other intelligences out there. I think it is a statement about the wonderful audacity of Carl Sagan that he made his story go all the way and confront the issue of a Creator. It allowed him to develop the theme of faith vs. evidence. Nicely done, Carl.

Technical question: if the Builders are long-gone and Vega is a new star, why would one of the rare nodes of the galactic transport system be at Vega? Do the transport node stations just keep shifting around the galaxy to stay near bright stars?

Technical question: Why should the Vegan station wait until it received a signal from Earth before sending a signal to Earth?  If it were the goal to make contact with new technological civilizations, why not broadcast a signal in all directions all the time? Carl hints that the aliens want to be selective in who they invite into the transit system....that they would let an ugly civilization self-destruct. Is life in the universe really so common that an advanced civilization would have this attitude? How does this mesh with the claim that "there are no tests"?

Contact the Movie
Back to the movie. Why leave out the whole issue of evidence for a Creator inside of a number?
1) Just too complicated to deal with in a movie?
2) The people who made the movie just don't understand the idea?
Who knows? Oh, well, that's Hollywood. And the way they made the movie is not too bad. It could have been a lot worse. We just need a sequel.

Beyond both the book and the movie is the question of Carl's vision. Is his scenario for Contact believable? For true hard-SF readers, this is a key issue.

What about the Office of the Galactic Census....I wonder if the census takers (Caretakers) might not be a little closer to home than what Carl portrayed? Would real galactic census takers just let automated stations (like Vega Station) run the game of Contact while they wait for new members of the galactic population to start sending out electromagnetic signals? I doubt it, but what might Carl have been thinking?

Maybe the Builders of the worm hole transit system set things up so that the aliens who Ellie meets have no choice in how Contact is made. Why would this be so? I support the idea of a Prime Directive that would protect developing civilizations. About the idea that the only real purpose for civilizations is to grow up and start practicing engineering on a galactic or even greater scale, I have doubts, but this seems to be following the Anthropic Principle to logical conclusions. I am still puzzled by Carl's cryptic treatment of causality. I can not think about causality without dragging determinism into the picture. Is Carl trying to suggest that the limitations on what the aliens can do were built into the universe? Maybe the Builders of the galactic transit system are like a police force, moving from galaxy to galaxy, building "transit systems" and making sure that their rules are followed? Maybe the Builders were the creators of the universe; they created our universe from outside (branching out from their own?) and then stepped into it in order to make sure it developed the way they wanted?

This all reminds me of Issac Asimov's story about how the role of intelligence is to grow up in the universe, wait for the universe to die, then create a new universe. I have always thought of the universe as being out of control, an artifact that arises spontaneously from nothing. But Carl hints that trying to create new universes might be what the aliens are most concerned with. The missing Builders raise the possibility that after they got our universe set up correctly, they moved on to another universe. Is it the "goal" of each universe to create a new universe, maybe by a process involving intelligent design by its inhabitants? Is there an endless spiral of universes, with intelligences continually striving to make a better one?

During the Cold War, I used to fantasize about the ultimate Dooms Day system; push one button and the entire universe is destroyed. Carl's book "Contact" suggested to me the opposite, the idea that intelligent life might be able to obtain the power to create new universes. If so, then the key issues for advanced civilizations would be determining how to control the properties of any universe they create, how to put messages into the newly created universe, and possibly how to travel into the new universes once they are created. This possibility must be compared to the other great possibility for future development of a technological civilization: exploration of the inner world and virtual realities. Why go to the trouble of creating new physical realities when it is much easier to make virtual realities? It seems like an advanced technological civilization might try both.

If the Builders of the galactic transportation system were only the first intelligences to arise within our universe (rather than folks who came into our universe from outside) then why are these Builders gone by the time Earth's civilization matures into a technological civilization? When I imagine a future in which Earth is left behind by our advancing technological civilization as a garden for other species to evolve in, maybe I am thinking along the same lines that Carl was, but Carl was thinking on the scale of the whole universe.

An interesting question for the end of "Contact" is, okay, now what? How would Earth be changed from what we have now? The prospect that, if we work hard for the next billion years we can fuse into some collective galactic intelligence that might be able to figure out how to create a new universe somehow seems very remote. Does this really give meaning and direction to an individual human? Is this going to suddenly motivate people to love each other and start building space ships so they can reach Vega? I guess Carl might have one day written a sequel to "Contact", but I have my doubts. I suspect that for Carl, "Contact" was complete. From the perspective of a cosmologist, the details about what the fate of mankind might be are unimportant. I wonder.

For me, a biologist, the details of what intelligent organisms might do in the time between first making televisions and making their first new universe are at least as interesting. All the more so because I am very skeptical that there is any truth to the Strong Anthropic Principle. The default theme to "Contact" can be stated as: "Well, if our universe was not created by design, we still have each other, so make the best of it."

When I imagine a future in which Earth is left behind by our advancing technological civilization as a garden for other species to evolve in, I imagine that a system would be left behind to monitor the future evolution of the planet. I really doubt that an advanced technological civilization would be able to keep its eyes and maybe even its hands off of a planet like Earth. I can accept the idea that an advanced civilization that is concerned with things like trying to create a new universe might lose interest in unimportant thinks like silly primates on Earth, but look at what we know about life on Earth.

For 4 billion years increasingly complex life forms have been evolving to fill the niches that are left open by simpler life forms, but this does not mean that all the simpler life forms are removed from the picture. I imagine that a developing technological civilization will have a great diversity of developmental paths to follow. I imagine that there would be off-shoots that do not want to try to construct new universes but would rather do things like monitor worlds like Earth.

I think I am influenced in my thinking by my estimate of how rare intelligent life might be in the universe. Life might be more rare than depicted in Carl's novel. Issac Asimov's idea that only humans exist or that we could construct a universe for ourselves in which we had the whole universe to ourselves is at one possible extreme. My guess for how many planets in our galaxy might have intelligent life is closer to Sagan's than to Asimov's. Maybe there are about 20 civilizations in our galaxy right now who are involved with a SETI similar to our own. I have discussed this kind of scenario here. The key difference I have with Sagan is that it seems likely to me that more advanced aliens who evolved millions of years before we did would not be able to just sit back in their office at the galactic center and ignore planets like Earth until they developed SETI. I suspect that if any kind of galactic civilization like that depicted by Sagan exists, elements of their civilization would have come to Earth long ago. I recognize that Carl wanted to promote SETI by astronomical methods, and I agree that it is a worthy approach, but I wonder if the aliens might be a bit closer than Vega. I have explored this idea in my own fiction.

Alien Tinkerers

(note: this (below) was part of an online discussion system that is no longer online)

Aliens who tinker with Earth.
Are there intelligent life forms on distant planets? As a biologist who agrees with Stuart Kauffman that "life is a natural phenomenon in the universe", I suspect that there should be many versions of intelligent life evolving through out the universe.
Well, then, where are they?

If intelligent life is so easy to evolve, then why haven't they come to visit? Why isn't the universe full of electromagnetic signals from alien intelligences? Why do we only see natural stellar phenomena and not massive stellar engineering projects? My best guess is that there are good reasons for why Earth is not crawling with aliens:
1) intelligent life is relatively rare
2) there is only a very short time window between the start of a technological society and the stage of the species development to the point of it no longer being interested in other less-developed species.
3) There are very real restrictions on technology and movement through the universe.....the light speed barrier is real......even if aliens wanted to come to Earth, that would not be a trivial matter.

If there are 200,000,000,000 stars in the galaxy and one in 1000 has a planet like Earth and the chances of an intelligent species arising by evolution is 1 chance in every 1,000,000,000 years then the frequency of intelligent life arising in our galaxy would be one intelligent species every five years. I suspect that only one intelligent species in ten develops a stable technological society. I suspect that it takes less than 1000 years for a technological society to go from steam engines to an advanced technological state in which the original biological species is replaced by artificial life forms that are well adapted to life in outer space and which have lost interest in biological organisms. So, right now there might be about 20 other species like ourselves scattered through out our galaxy who are asking themselves, "where are all the aliens?" The chances of any two such species communicating with each other (by being within 1000 light years of each other) is small.

Why then would I want to include alien visitors to Earth in a science fiction story?
Mainly because it is fun. Humans are obsessed with the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence. Further, although I do believe in the guess work above that concludes that we have little chance of meeting other aliens of similar technological status, this does not rule out contact with more highly advanced aliens. What happens to 1000 year-old technological societies? My guess is that they fragment into diverse sub-groups. At one extreme will be the hypertechnophilics who down-load into artificial life forms, build space ships, and set off on the thousand year trip to the nearest star. Eventually these kinds of societies meet each other and evolve on into who-knows-what in the space between the stars. They have as much interest in Earth as we have in any particular ant hill. At the other extreme are anti-technological sub-groups who struggle to maintain limited technology societies. In the extreme, such a society will lack the technology and the desire to reach Earth and will develop into some type of self-involved society, maybe seeing who can brew the best beer.

However, there is always the chance that some perverted society will decide that it really wants to go visit other planets and will manage to maintain both the technological skill needed to make interstellar journeys and their interest in mundane biological life forms. My guess is that there is about one chance in 100 that a technological society will successfully do this.

Related Reading: 2015: Contact at 30

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