Contact: Carl Sagan and His Vision

In creating a work of fiction, a writer often deliberately or subconsciously instills the work with shades of his own life experience, his philosophy, his passion. Famous astronomer Carl Sagan was never shy about advocating his views on science and politics. Not surprisingly, his first work of fiction Contact, the tale of humanity's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, is an illustration of his character, a proposal of his theories, an advocate of his beliefs. The characterization of protagonist Eleanor Arroway reveals that she is essentially a female version of Sagan, and the many themes that surface in the novel reinstate the emphasis Sagan himself placed on nuclear weapons reduction, international cooperation, maintaining skepticism and flexibility in scientific research, and the exploration of space and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Eleanor Arroway is a dedicated, stubborn, and passionate scientist, much like Carl Sagan. How similar is Eleanor to Sagan? Both lost parental figures early in their childhood, both have been fascinated by the stars since they were young. As brilliant and highly educated astronomers, both risked ridicule from their peers by exploring the subject of extraterrestrial intelligence, deemed scientifically disreputable. Ellie's spirited dedication toward decoding the message, journeying in space, and conveying her experience to the masses echoes Sagan's dedication toward his research during his lifetime. Undoubtedly, if Sagan had been in Ellie's place, he would have reacted in the same manner and made the same deductions. Ellie's character is virtually a mirror of Sagan's.

As an environmentalist and a man with an uncommon love for the human species, Sagan was extremely outspoken against the development of nuclear weaponry. "Even a small nuclear war," Sagan claimed, "could create enough smoke to cause catastrophic global changes . . . the extinction of the human species would be a real possibility . . . if we make a mistake, the consequences may be irreversible"(Cohen 119). He believed that the only way to prevent nuclear disaster is to "reduce the global nuclear arsenals below the level at which nuclear winter could conceivably occur"(Cohen 134). These ideals are realized in Contact: after humans receive a message for Vega, and after every nation is united in the decoding of the message, each country voluntarily reduces its nuclear arsenal, with archenemies Russia and the United States taking lead. Obviously, this procedure is what Sagan advocated in the real world.

Nuclear weaponry reduction is but one small part of the international cooperation that Sagan championed. He believed that especially when it comes to science, the world should unite in common endeavor to bring about significant discoveries and breakthroughs. Unity, in this case, truly is strength. In 1992, Sagan had proposed a joint Russia and United States mission to Mars, a symbolic example of cooperation between the great superpowers, practical because technology, funds, and resources could be shared. He humorously suggested that if an American astronaut and a Soviet astronaut setting foot on Mars together worries the public, it can "arrange for the ankles of the American and Soviet commander to be tied together"(Cohen 156). It is not surprising, then, that one of the many themes stressed in Contact is the idealistic picture of nations united in scientific exertion. One of Eleanor's best friends is the Soviet scientist Vaygay; and even though initially the Department of Defense balks at releasing data to other nations because the government has a right to "classify material vital to the security of the United States"(Sagan 82), eventually most nations of the world must cooperate to decode the message and build the machine. The five astronauts eventually selected come from the United States, the Soviet Union, India, and Nigeria. The machine itself is assembled from parts built by factories from all over the world and activated in Hokkaido, Japan. Furthermore, the mere fact that the message is broadcasted to the entire world and not just one specific country illustrates Sagan's belief that in the greater scheme of the universe, the earth is just one pale blue dot and arbitrary borders carved by humans superficial and unnecessary.

Part of what made Carl Sagan such a successful scientist was his skepticism and his flexibility in research. Always open to extreme possibilities and an antagonist of pseudoscience, Sagan ruthlessly scrutinized scientific theories and findings. If he discovered that he himself had erred, he was not afraid to admit so: "In science we must courageously follow the evidence where it takes us, and not foist our own predispositions on the Universe"(Cohen 87). Because of this dedication toward truth in science, Sagan insisted on looking for microbes beneath the surface of the moon: it was an unlikely possibility, but it was "too important to ignore"(Cohen 32). It was with this same passion that he sponsored the continual search for life on Mars: "Every reasonable effort should be made"(Cohen 79). When Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky published his theory regarding environmental upheavals on Earth caused by comets from Jupiter and Mars passing nearby, many scientists dismissed him outright. Sagan insisted that there should be a full-scale symposium of the subject: "There is no excuse for any attempt to suppress new ideas--least of all by scientists"(Cohen 66). Undoubtedly, Sagan's spirit lies in the hearts of the scientists participating in Contact. When first confronted by the message from the Vega system, the scientists are skeptical that it is just "some Air Force interference"(Sagan 63). No one jumps to conclusions. Every step is undertaken with meticulous care and intense debate. Before the machine is finally constructed, an international committee of scientists from all over the world meets to discuss the message and its implications. Even when Eleanor and her fellow companions return from their journey, they are grilled by a panel of skeptics. These details illustrate Sagan's attitude toward science: "[It] is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny . . . we will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact"("Cosmos").

While Sagan was interested in numerous other areas of science, such as the evolution of human intelligence--his book on the subject, The Dragons of Eden: Speculation on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, won a Pulitzer Prize--his primary interest was in space, the final frontier. After all, he was inspired to become an astronomer by Edgar Rice Burrough's science fiction novels about life on Mars. Sagan was involved in several projects that pertained to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or planetary exploration: the Mariner, Viking, and Voyager expeditions (29), the Planetary Society, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)(Powell). He was not only interested in outer space and the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence because of the science; he was also interested in the "cosmic perspective"(Cohen 47) that they will bring to humanity. Studying alien life, he believed, "is the only way to develop a broad understanding of biology"(Cohen 31). The central theme of Contact, as the title suggests, is how humans react to a message from outer space sent by intelligent beings. At first there are characters in the story such as Michael Kitz and David Drumlin who ridicule Eleanor's pet project, but the diligence of Eleanor's team pays off as they make the most important discovery in human history. It is apparent in the novel that this discovery brings more benefit than harm: humans everywhere are humbled. They realize that they are, after all, co-inhabitants of a tiny planet in the solar system: there is less war, less discontent, more motivation to understand science. Spirituality reaches an all-time high as each religion claims the message to be from its God. Scientists are encouraged, children fascinated, the public mesmerized. Clearly, this is the "cosmic perspective" that Sagan spoke of, the sense of the Earth's place in the Universe. Not only will the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence help humans understand the universe in the scientific sense; it will give them the means to help themselves, and perhaps a glimpse of the key to not destroying their own civilization. After all, the highly civilized extraterrestrials have not destroyed themselves, have they? These possibilities, Sagan insisted, are too important to ignore.

When Sagan wrote Contact, he wrote it as "the glimpse of a possible future, of which there are many"(Cohen 141). Certainly, it is the ideal future that Sagan envisioned: a world, though far from perfect, that strives to make contact, and when it does, reacts both rationally and passionately. A world that has learned to "act, before all else, for the species and the planet"(Cohen 150). Eleanor Arroway is Sagan's paragon of scientific virtue. There are no hostile alien species bent on destroying civilization on Earth, there is no widespread panic caused by contact. There is only rational scientific speculation and worldwide cooperation. The best that the human species could possibly hope to achieve. The novel concludes in a definite, hopeful tone: "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 . . . there is an intelligence that antedates the universe"(Sagan, 431). That is unmistakably the voice and spirit of Carl Sagan.



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