February 25, 2004
Time for another book review! I first read this back in graduate school, and I honestly wasn't expecting much. All I knew about Carl Sagan was his cartoonish "billions and billions" personality, and I only had a passing familiarity with his various attempts to popularize science through books and TV shows. So maybe it helped that I went in with low expectations, but I ended up a big fan of his book "Contact". Of course, most people are probably familiar with it because of the very good movie with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey that was based on the book.
I highly recommend both. The book has a deeper plot and definitely goes into the science of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) and other things in a lot more depth. It's a real model for the kind of science fiction I like: a fairly good plot with a few surprises, characters with some depth and uncertainty, lots of neat gadgets and science fiction that helps drive the plot. They didn't go the cheap route on the movie -- they made a very sleek looking package that stands the test of time. It wasn't "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings", but it's one of the few science fiction stories that bears up under multiple exposures (whether it is the book or the movie).
I like the way the signal is first received, and I like the story of decoding it. I like the struggle for control between the scientific community and the government. I like the interplay between scientists at every level. I really identify with the idealism of the main character (my favorite line in the movie occurs when she says, "I always thought the world is what we make of it."). I liked the various surprises sprinkled throughout, and I was satisfied with the ending. I could've done without some of the emotional melodrama in both the movie and the book, but those were pretty minor flaws.
As for SETI itself, I'm a big supporter. It's a big universe, with trillions of potential experiments in organic chemistry within range of even a modest telescope. Intelligent life may well be extremely improbable, but I doubt we're truly alone. The only question is whether other civilizations are close enough and have long enough lifespans so that we can have meaningful communications. On that issue I'm a little more pessimistic because we've been looking pretty hard now for a few decades and found nothing. Still, it's a very inexpensive gamble with a potential monster of a payoff, so I'm in.
Posted by Observer at February 25, 2004 06:52 AM
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Until you physics geeks get off your asses and make some breakthroughs, we're not going to find anything.
Actually the part of the Drake Equation that I have always had the hardest part with is the species life-span. I'm more than willing to accept that there is life out there (heck, I think it probable that there was life on other planets here in our solar system, nothing to write home about, but life by the simplest definitions). The problem I have is getting something intelligent enough to communicate off-planet and then live long enough to get a response back from a different star system.
When you look at the human race as an example, we've been broadcasting a measurable signal for decades (call it a century for simplicity) and that means that round-trip time we've got a sphere of space 100 light-years (roughly 30 parsecs) in diameter that could "answer" us. In order to communicate to a large number of stars (large enough to satisfy my own favorite values of the Drake Equation) you're asking for a species life-span of tens of millenia (minimum). And at that point you are asking not only for a life-span in a radio-capable technological state, but in a state that they would be interested in other species coming to that stage as well.
From an intellectual standpoint I am intensly interested in monitoring the heavens for signals, but I only really imagine one-way communication as being likely (mostly because I am cynical about the nature of intelligent, self-aware life, not science).
That aside, I agree that Contact is an entertaining read and thought provoking. Been a long time since I read it and at the time I didn't really consider it in terms of accessibility to the general populace so I don't know that I can meaningfully say much more than, "Yeah, I liked it."
Remember that the lifetime term in the Drake equation should be defined as "the length of time a civilization emits artificial radio signals into interstellar space", *not* "the lifetime of the civilization". When you're talking about detecting things with radio telescopes (which is what Drake was discussing), that's all that matters. By this definition, human civilization has had a lifetime so far of less than a century.
Back around 1978 there was a discussion of what the radio emission of Earth looks like. What I don't know is how much cell-phone broadcast (which were unknown and unforeseen then) contributes to that. (I don't know the frequency or the power a cell tower radiates, and I have no idea how many towers there are now.) Probably not much; the dominant things were missile warning radar systems and commercial TV broadcasts, and my guess is that hasn't changed.