2015 September

Carl Sagan and Contact

By | Contactees, Filmmaking, Movies, Religion, Reviews, Video | 5 Comments

Over the course of making They Rode the Flying Saucers, one movie has kept coming to mind: Contact.  I mean, duh.  It’s right there in the title.

The original novel on which the movie is based was written by one of the purest scientistic minds ever: Carl Sagan.  A brilliant astronomer, he was fascinated by the idea of alien life and alien civilizations.  He was a staunch advocate for SETI (The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), a scientific effort to find alien civilizations elsewhere in the universe, and fought against its cancellation by Congress in the ’80s.  Despite this, he was highly skeptical of the UFO reports, on the basis that they did not have sufficient verifiable evidence to support them.  “Extraordinary claims”, he said, “require extraordinary evidence.”

In 1980, PBS aired Sagan’s series Cosmos.  In one episode, he directly addressed the idea of UFOs, and one gets the sense that he did it just to get it out of the way, because if he didn’t address it, people would ask annoying questions.  In this segment, he used what was at the time considered the case with the greatest verifiable evidence for its truth, the Betty and Barney Hill encounter.

As a scientist, he felt the only way to discuss the validity of this case was to look at the only evidence that could be verified, as opposed to the anecdotal reports and psychological tests.  This amounted to a star map drawn by Betty Hill, which she claimed she saw aboard the alien craft onto which she was taken.  This map included stars that were as yet undiscovered in the 1960s.  Sagan, in the clip above, describes exactly why this evidence is useless for verifying the Hill case–namely, the dots she drew could easily be a random pattern of dots that one could find in many areas of the sky if you looked long enough.  While he disregards many of the other compelling aspects of the Hill case, I give him credit for remaining open to the idea that her story is true:

For all I know, we might be visited by a different extraterrestrial civilization every second Tuesday.  But there is no support for this appealing idea.

But what of the classic Contactees? To many die-hard UFO believers, the Contactees were outcasts; to skeptics, they were absolute lunatics.  To them, Contactee stories were absurd, simplistic, and worst of all, absolutely devoid of supporting evidence.  Even Sagan seemed downright annoyed by them, as you can see by his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he speaks of them in this clip:

 

 

So it appears that Sagan was open to the idea of aliens, and even to the idea of alien visitation.  In a book co-written with I.S. Shklovskii called Intelligent Life in the Universe, Sagan even addressed the possibility that aliens may have visited us in the ancient past–that’s right, Carl Sagan was an Ancient Astronaut Theorist.  Unlike the likes of Tsoukalos and Von Däniken, however, Sagan pointed out that this was entirely speculative, but not impossible.  But I think it’s notable that he did not automatically dismiss the idea.   Compare that to many of the (to paraphrase Greg Bishop) “evangelical skeptics” today, who have apparently re-defined skepticism to mean “if it can’t be proven true, it’s necessarily false.”

And this is what makes the film Contact so interesting.  I would say “spoiler alert,” but if you haven’t seen this movie by now, you need to get on the ball.  The story was presented in a dryly scientific way…the first hour of the film establishes Jodie Foster’s character Ellie Arroway, a brilliant astronomer fascinated by the idea of alien civilizations.  (Sound familiar?)  It establishes her conflict with her peers, personified in the character of David Drumlin (Tom Skerrit), who thinks she’s throwing away her talents on a hopeless quest like SETI.  But when Ellie actually discovers an alien transmission, Drumlin the skeptic becomes Drumlin the I-Knew-It-All-Along.

The alien transmission is written in mathematics, the only truly universal language, and includes instructions for creating a wormhole-generating device that will allow a single passenger to travel to the alien world and make face-to-face contact.  To not go into too much detail on the plot, suffice it to say that Ellie eventually does this and meets an alien being.  This being scans her mind and takes the form of Ellie’s deceased father, as a way of making it easier for Ellie to understand the being.  After a brief conversation, Ellie returns to Earth, where only a fraction of a second has passed, though eighteen hours has passed for her.

With no evidence other than her word, no one believes her.  But she has had an a-theistic religious experience, and will never be the same–not unlike a typical Contactee experience.  Perhaps Sagan was inspired by them, at least in part.  The Contactees were men and women who offered no evidence but told wild tales.  The beings they met were almost always human in appearance, and could read minds, and were kind and relatable–much like Ellie’s experience in the film.  The only thing missing in Sagan’s tale is a tour of the spaceship and a warning against nuclear weapons.  And yet that message is implicit in the story, from a scene earlier in the film in which Ellie says that the one question she would ask an alien being, if she was given the chance, was how they made it through their technological adolescence without destroying themselves.  (Ironically, she does not ask this question when given the chance.)

I think it’s surprising and yet somehow fitting that a towering figure of scientific rationality like Carl Sagan was willing to admit that not everything is scientifically verifiable.  That even though a story of alien contact may sound unbelievable, it is not necessarily untrue.  While this is a work of fiction, I would say that it has a scientifically sound grounding in reality and to some degree spoke of Carl Sagan’s beliefs.

Perhaps the Contactees were not so simplistic after all.  Perhaps their experiences were projections of a sort, much like in the movie.  Perhaps the beings they met took forms that would be easy for humans to relate to.  And the fact that they had no evidence does not mean that their experiences were necessarily false, no matter what the skeptics say.  Their experiences changed their lives in deep and profound ways, transcending concrete scientific fact to address human spirituality and potential.  In other words, the Contactees stories had an inner reality that science cannot discover or probe, yet is perhaps no less true.