Last year I saw the movie, Contact. And I found the plot very propulsive, so decided to read the book written by Carl Sagan. Like a teenager, I’m equally fascinated with the idea of space exploration and extra-terrestrial life/intelligence. And reading Contact was surely a treat.
Eleanor Arroway (Ellie) the protagonist of the novel, is an astrophysicist and radio telescope engineer. The book opens up with her childhood memories. She was young when she lost her father, Theodore. He was her role model who supported her passion for astronomy and questioning mind. After his death, her mother re-marries with a man named, John Staughton. Ellie thinks her mother remarried because of her own weakness.
Staughton never likes her attitude of questioning mentality. He also feels that science is not a subject for girls to meddle with. But Ellie makes her way out. Due to her curious and sceptical attitude, she develops a rebellious nature right from the time when she was in school.
Radio signals from Vega
After graduating from Harvard University, she receives her Ph.D. from Caltech under David Drumlin, an eminent radio astronomer. Eventually, she works as director of a SETI project, called “Project Argus”, a radio-telescope array in New Mexico.
One night, the radio telescope picks up some signal. She confirms that the signal consists of prime numbers which is not the result of some natural phenomenon. After ruling out the extra noises and radio interferences, the team of astronomers conclude that the message is coming from Vega. A star system, which is nearly 26 light years away.
The signal not only consists of prime numbers but there were two additional messages:
- One, the transmission of Hitler’s opening speech at Berlin Olympics, and
- Two, it happens to be a blueprint for a structure.
Initially, they were not even sure if the blueprint is of a machine. Speculation arises that the structure hints at the arrival of doomsday. Finally, many countries come together to discuss who will build the machine.
In between, religious forces weigh in, consequently, two preachers – Rev. Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss – intercede and put forward the probable religious consequences of the Vega signal. They reveal their apprehension of the scientists working on building the structure, and plead to take the project under the jurisdiction of religious leaders.
Being a sceptic, Ellie turns down the offer and instead inform them about her stand in keeping her bet and faith on science. Eventually, the dodecahedron-shaped machine with five seats is built. S. R. Hadden, a billionaire with multiple high-tech industries plays an important role here. He helps in revealing the primer by hinting Ellie to check for phase modulation. Being a cancer patient, he has a personal interest in the concept of immortality. (A favourite concept of most of the billionaires across ages.)
The two main super powers – America and Soviet Union- get into a race to finish the construction of the machine. Latter’s machine encounters some bug hence, made in America becomes the only option.
Ellie applies for one of the co-passengers however, officially her seat is taken by David Drumlin. Unfortunately, on the day of launch, a group of extremists were able to sneak in and place a bomb on one of the parts and consequently, the machine is destroyed, thus killing all the five passengers.
Ellie’s first space travel
Through Hadden, Ellie comes to know about another machine that is almost ready in Hokkaido, Japan. He invites her for a seat, four of which have already been taken. Ellie agrees and eventually gets an opportunity to do her first space travel in the dodecahedron-shaped vehicle.
No sooner the machine gets activated, the five of them are transported into a wormhole. Together they view an entire set of star systems including Vega and find themselves at the center of a galaxy, with a huge docking station waiting for each.
The station seems like Earth, they all find themselves standing next to a beach. Ellie prefers to stay on the Earth like beach while others split-up to explore more. She expects to confront some form of extra-terrestrial being. However, she is slightly taken a back when she sees an image of her passed father, Theodore. Seeing her father makes her overwhelm and she finds herself totally at ease. She asks many questions and concludes that the wormhole through which she and her team has travel is created by some superior specie, who at the current moment is unknown to humanity. Presence of some creator – who created the cosmic tunnel in the fabric of cosmos – is another possibility that crosses her mind. Theodore further suggests that the number of pi could have some answers that Ellie is looking for so she must look for π, for a signature.
Cosmic travellers are then deported back to home. When they reach Earth, they are told that the machine didn’t transport them, and they all went out of contact for just twenty seconds. To their astonishment, they assert they were gone for eighteen hours and have recorded everything in their camera. However, footages from their camera prove otherwise. The travellers assume that the strong magnetic flux of the wormhole might have erased the recordings.
Digits of π
Authority on Earth remain unconvinced. In fact, Ellie’s experiences are hushed as an illusion. No one from the science community trusts her excepts Palmer Joss (one of the religious preachers).
Her camera, however, reports something else. Although there is no video, but the blank footage consists of eighteen hours of static recording and not twenty seconds.
Although the people on Earth remain doubtful, Ellie continues to work on pi. She takes her father’s suggestion and start to scan for signature. Transcendental numbers are the doorway of encrypted messages, left by advanced intelligence.
With the help of computer, she computes the digits of π in several bases. Eventually she discovers it, in base eleven, π contains a sequence of ones and zeros. The numbers when aligned on paper form a circular pattern. She is convinced of some higher form of intelligence because of which there is some meaning in the universe.
Contact is one of the best science fiction books that I have ever read. Powerful story line, life like characters. It felt as if I’m also part of the crew who travelled through the wormhole to the star systems.
Every time I look at the sky, I feel powerful. And this reminds me of Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky’s, Father of Rocketry, quote, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”