Carl Sagan – Contact

Although I had seen the movie several times, it took me unjustifiably long to get to reading the book. I enjoyed the movie and especially in this case one could expect that the Hollywood machine would only ruin the original and that the book as always would be much better. Which indeed was so. Carl Sagan is a brilliant storyteller whose imagination and scientific character combine to create at once thought provoking and awe inspiring accounts of what might be some subtle steps towards the most unanswerable question of all – what could the fundamental nature of the Universe be? Being quite beyond the realm of any scientific answer, science fiction is the perfect medium to explore and fantasize about this. And of course this does not mean that we have to stray too far from what we know about the world to be true. 

We tend to think that we as forms of life or life more generally is something that is separate from the Universe. That living things are beings that inhabit or have entered the the world, but are somehow apart. Most of the time we do not feel sameness with even the members of our own species, let alone other animals, plants, rocks, water, air, and in the broadest sense all matter and space in the Cosmos. But in a very basic sense this is not true. We are part of the Universe in the same way as the planets, stars and galaxies are. We are made from the same things, we function according to the same laws. The only thing that is different is that on our planet as most likely on innumerable worlds across the Cosmos the laws of the Universe happened to combine in a way, which resulted in matter taking rather special and complex forms, forms that are able to reflect on themselves and their surroundings. We as life are parts of the Universe where the latter has become aware of itself. 

In Contact Sagan explores, among other things, quite an interesting form of this basic unity of life or intelligence and the Cosmos. Through an event by which humanity first becomes aware of intelligent life in the galaxy vastly surpassing our level of development, he explores some basic questions concerning the nature of life and intelligence and its ‘place’ in the Universe. As far as we know now, the Universe will cease to exist at one point – hundreds of billions of years to the the future, space will have expanded so much and matter dispersed across that space to an extent that there will be literally nothing left. This is the second law of thermodynamics. Can life or intelligence eventually engineer and change the Cosmos to an extent that this will not happen? Or perhaps something has been engineered already?