Monday, July 23, 2012

Carl Sagan - Contact

SETI project is searching for signals that were sent by extraterrestrial intelligent beings. Seti@home is based in the University of California, Berkeley. Anyone interested can participate in the work by donating personal computer power to the massive analysis of the search data.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was intrigued by the possibility and he was instrumental in bringing search projects into reality. There is now a Carl Sagan Center in the non-profit SETI Institute.  It is nothing to sneer at as recent news demonstrate
A team of astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is reporting the discovery of another moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. "The moons form a series of neatly nested orbits, a bit like Russian dolls," said team lead Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the SETI Institute.
SETI institute

First contact
Sagan put his brilliant scientist's mind at work and allowed his imagination merge with accurate information about the space.

What if the unexpected happens and an actual contact is made?

What would the message be? How would we be able to understand it? What could it contain?

The result of his thinking was given to the public as a novel Contact (1985) and made into a Hollywood movie Contact in 1997 with Jodie Foster as Eleanor Arroway. 
The book was highly successful:
In 1981, Simon & Schuster gave Sagan a $2 million advance on the novel. At the time, "the advance was the largest ever made for a book that had not yet been written." The first printing was 265,000 copies. In the first two years it sold 1,700,000 copies. It was a main selection of Book-of-the-Month-Club. The novel won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1986.

The signal
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). Sagan named the novel's protagonist, Eleanor Arroway, after two people: Eleanor Roosevelt, a "personal hero" of Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, and Voltaire, whose last name was Arouet.

The project discovers the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings. 
  • The communication is 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 reveals that a second message is contained in polarization modulation of the signal
  • The second message is a retransmission of Earth's first television signal broadcast powerful enough to escape the ionosphere and be received in interstellar space; in this case, Adolf Hitler's opening speech at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
  • A third message is discovered containing over 30,000 pages describing plans for a machine that appears to be a kind of highly advanced vehicle, with seats for five human beings. But they cannot understand the third message until they find the fourth message, a primer hidden in phase modulation. The primer allows them to translate the alien language to human language.
Such a message was surely sent by someone whose mind works in a way we humans can recognize. It contains the blueprint for an advanced vehicle with seats for five humans so this contact is actually a door opening to interstellar transportation and "close encounter of the third kind.

Not necessarily a positive contact...
Very interestingly Carl Sagan did not see the possibility of close encounter necessarily as a benevolent event a la Spielberg's famous film. After all, perhaps there are ET scientists out there looking for specimens stupid enough to enter the trap and to get into something horrible.
The scene where the NASA scientists give Arroway the "cyanide pill" caused some controversy during production and also when the film came out. Gerald D. Griffin, the film's NASA advisor, insisted that NASA has never given any astronaut a cyanide pill "just in case," and that if an astronaut truly wished to commit suicide in space, all he or she would have to do is cut off their oxygen supply.

However, Carl Sagan insisted that NASA did indeed give out cyanide pills and they did it for every mission an astronaut has ever flown. Zemeckis said that because of the two radically different assertions, the truth is unknown, but he left the suicide pill scene in the movie as it seemed more suspenseful that way and it was also in line with Sagan's beliefs and vision of the film.

Snake-oil preacher
The cult leader
Kingdom of God media
Carl Sagan's critical view on religions is clearly visible especially in the movie characterization of a self-proclaimed doomsday prophet - a portrait of a hateful, scary and lying religious preacher, cult leader, out there to fight the truth revealed by SETI.

Sadly, there are such religious people in the USA and around the world on which this caricature is based. But when this is the only religious aspect in the movie it leaves a rather bad after-taste of lack of balance and perception of the meaning of religions.

Sagan and Verne
Perhaps we are not too far off if we call Carl Sagan the Jules Verne of our times! But while Verne was mostly interested in the technical details of an imagined trip to the Moon Sagan included in Contact also deeper philosophical and moral issues and was inspired in this, among others, by Voltaire.

Contact describes a Mars rover robot getting stuck in sand dunes - an unintended prophecy that actually happened to a NASA rover in 2009.

It will be so interesting for our - or some future - generation to see how accurate Sagan's imagination of the First contact turns out to be!

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