Pi Day

Spoilers for Contact, the novel, by Carl Sagan, coming.

I think I’d read most of Carl Sagan’s nonfiction, popular science, books before I read Contact, his only work of fiction. Contact is a novel about what would happen if we actually discovered intelligent life in the universe. Everything in Contact was basically derived from his nonfiction work. From his genius heroine who, when she scored extremely high on her standardized testing, allowed for the unlikely but possible scenario that her score was the result of luck. That one in every million or so of high scores, based on statistical likelihood, would be a false high score. To his theory that if intelligent life on another planet had managed to not destroy itself, they would have learned lessons of compassion along the way that predict we would find benevolent intelligent life, as opposed to alien invaders. He had a contagious optimism, that Carl Sagan.

Alien life is discovered by listening to Space and uncovering a pattern that could only be intentionally constructed, exactly what the real SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programs Carl Sagan helped set up in the 80s, did. Embedded in this signal are instructions to build a “spaceship” which they do, and his heroine travels through a wormhole and meets with this alien life. But the gadget they had built didn’t go anywhere, so people doubted her story.

Spoilers coming now, if you haven’t seen the movie or book and think you might, stop reading

So in the movie, the reveal that she really had gone came when the, I think, James Woods character discovered that the recording equipment she had with her had hours of white noise recorded, even though no time seemed to have passed while she’d been in the gadget. As if that would have gone missed by everyone else. And there the movie ended.

That wasn’t in the book. And here comes the big spoiler portion. I’m highly sensitive to spoilers but Contact must be thirty some years old by now. Still if you’re thinking you might read it, now would be when to quit reading this.

Really, it’s not essential to enjoying the book that you not know this ahead of time, but this has long been the coolest idea for the ending of a novel I’ve ever come across. As you probably know Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and is a number that never repeats. 3.141592653 continues on in a string of non-repeating numbers. I feel like we didn’t get a good sense of that in school, because we expressed it with a line over the first several numbers in the string, meant to show that it didn’t repeat but which always suggested, to me, that it did repeat. I never got that wow! moment of considering that it never repeats, which is what makes Pi cool. So the book, Contact, ends with teams of scientists spending years figuring out this string of non-repeating numbers expecting that eventually, like somewhere between then and infinity, they’ll reach a point where Pi turns into a message in binary code. A message from whoever created the dimensions of a circle, which wasn’t meant to be the ultimate creator but was expected to be a being with something interesting to say.

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