Thursday, April 07, 2011

Touch the sky

Title: Contact
Author: Carl Sagan

Many years ago, when the movie came out, I saw it. Somehow, I never got around to reading the book until recently, after I picked it up cheap at a library book sale. Parts of it are much more entertaining (from a slightly meta- standpoint) knowing what I've learned since the movie came out, like all of the references to legalized marijuana seen through the lens of knowledge that Sagan smoked a lot of weed. To anyone, the story is compelling. The scope changes a lot; early chapters discuss the development of our protagonist's young mind, and how she came to love math and science. Small chapter-starting snippets describe the voyage an alien signal takes across space, and the enormous structure from which it emanated. Later, after the signal's discovery, the scope goes global. Sagan theorizes (in an admittedly super-optimistic way that somehow just misses feeling naive) how a global community, still learning to trust one another, might receive such a message and try to use it. How nations might come together to build a device of unknown purpose and power, and of the subversive elements who might try to stop such an undertaking. And, because it's a novel about scientists who receive a cryptic message from the heavens, there is prolonged discussion of the schism--and similarities--between science and religion. Sagan manages to make these conversations sound balanced and reasoned for both sides.

The story was great. But that's not why I love the book. Well, it's not the only reason. Contact has earned a spot on my Shelf of Favorite Books because it is mainly a book about how great it is to be a scientist. It revels in its own nerdiness while making nerdiness seem like the most fantastic quality anyone could have. Ellie's discoveries, whether of a method to create artificial rubies to improve radio telescope performance, or the secret childhood tinkering to repair a broken radio, or her receipt of a message from an advanced alien society, are all written to sound exciting and fascinating. There is disappointment late in the book, but Ellie is unfazed. She has made more discoveries, and widespread acceptance is not as important as the discovery itself. By the end (SPOILER), there are many people who simply don't believe what she says she has done. Only those who experienced it with her know the truths that she knows. Everyone else is required to do something Ellie has never done: take it on faith. Sagan creates an overlap between science and faith, because there are times in both fields when you just can't prove what you know. But scientists know that someday, that proof will vindicate them. We proved that the earth orbits the sun, we proved that Pi is infinitely long, and we proved that all that we are is tied to a tiny molecule in every cell of our bodies. Given enough time, scientists can discover anything. Proving those mysteries doesn't destroy the magic; it is the magic.

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posted by reyn at 12:26 PM


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Concur. GREAT book. Read Cosmos, too.

4/08/2011 5:13 PM  

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