I’m reading Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” for the second time. The first time was when I was given the book for Christmas, back in 1987. It’s been about 16 years, then, since I first made my way through the story. I saw the movie, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed it– but I didn’t realize how disparate the two are. They’re both very good, but different in many significant ways.
In any case, I’m nearing the end of the book now and I realized as I read that my interest in mathematics stemmed, in part, from some of the “puzzles” presented in the story. Of particular note is the conversation between Ellie (the protagonist) and her long-deceased father (simulated by the aliens). In summary, her father tells her that long ago, before even the aliens were making their way around the galaxy, some great civilization built a network of wormholes linking stars throughout the galaxy.
Although there’s an interesting real-life story behind that part of the plot (Sagan challenged his friend Kip Thorne to come up with a way to travel faster than light without violating known physical laws), the part that was intriguing to me was the statement by Ellie’s father about the nature of pi. He said the civilization who had constructed the wormholes had also left behind a message inside of pi. Basically, you had to calculate it to trillions of trillions of decimal places before you’d find the message.
“How can you hide a message inside pi?” she asks. “It’s built into the fabric of the universe.”
“Exactly,” he answers.
While there are interesting religious undertones here (Sagan was an athiest), it got me thinking. Is that really possible? Could some supreme being– call it God, or a race of long-dead aliens, or whatever you want– actually construct the universe in such a way that basic physical constants were messages? Or, more abstractly, that they held some deeper meaning?
In the end, questions like this piqued my interest in such puzzles. Several years after that, in college, I knew I wanted to dive deeper into the subject and ended up with a degree in mathematics. While I can’t say my major and my career was decided by reading “Contact”, I can definitely point to it as a part of the journey taking me where I am today.