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Making Contact

I recently read the book “Contact” by Carl Sagan. You may remember the brilliant but oft criticized Zemeckis movie with Jodie Foster and McConaughey.

I’m not going to get into a breakdown of either work, but if you want to watch a movie (or read a book) that attempts to deal with and reconcile science, religion and faith and what it means to be human as well as 2001, or Close Encounters, for sure check out “Contact”.

Anyway, in the book, aliens make contact with Earth through a radio signal sent from Vega. It is discovered and decoded and how it is known to be generated by intelligent life, as opposed to random noise, is that they are transmitting prime numbers.

In the book they make a point to decode the message as ‘base-10’ numbers and thereby discover they are all prime, the first several hundred prime numbers repeated on a loop.

Here is where I may lose some of you, but hold on if you can please. Base-10, aka decimal (did you know that “deci” in decimal means 10? Think, decimeter) is the system we use, numbers 1-10 and repeating in those sets. However, this is a human construct to understand numbers. You can make your number sets out of any base you’d like. Our base-10 system developed, honestly, because we have 10 fingers. It is trite.

You are familiar with other base systems. We use base-12 or base-16 pretty commonly. Most U.S. customary measurements work this way. This is why you have 1 cup that is divided into ½, 1/3, and ¼. It is why 3 teaspoons equals a tablespoon and a similarly into a cup. A gross is 144 (12×12 or 16×9) and things like acre, and even the British sterling pound is 240 pennies (12×20 or 16×15).

Base ten is seen as easy because of how well it works with an established decimal system, but in reality base-12, base-16 and even base-8 are easier to work with. Here is simply why: 10 is divisible by only 2 and 5. 12 can get chopped into 2, 3, 4, and 6. So you can see that 12 is divisible more numbers, and conveniently can be divided into half, quarters and thirds. You go ahead and try to make 1/3 recipe in metric, you’ll spend more time doing math than cooking.

People knew this a long time ago, and that is why base 12 systems have been used all over the world for millennia. And it is the reason the USA has not yet, nor should it ever go full metric.

Anyway, enough with math. The point is base-10 isn’t the only way to make number groups. It isn’t the best way either. Base-10 is more a product of our biology (10 fingers) than any mathematical reason.

Prime numbers, as transmitted by the aliens in Contact, would be prime in any base. It is doubtful that aliens would use a base-10 system, based on what I just told you. But it did strike me as interesting that the main character chose to specifically rationalize the incoming numbers in base-10.

Knowing how the rest of the story goes, this is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that she is human, and understands things as a human would, even if it doesn’t make the most sense, even if humans know it doesn’t make the most sense. This is a main plot line of the first act of the book.

The story of Contact provides a protagonist that I love to identify with. She struggles the entire length of the story with the death of her father, the complicated relationship with her mother and stepfather, her lack of fulfillment in her existence, and her thirst for knowledge and deep desire to truly understand herself and her life.

The story is about reconciling what you know and what you believe. It is about understanding the limits of your capacity to understand or explain. It is about trust in a willingness to know that you don’t always know, that you may never know.

The book often cuts famous quotes or pieces of other books into the beginning of each chapter. Early in the book a scene from Pinocchio is quoted where Geppetto is found on the floor. When asked what he is doing, he responds with “teaching the ants to count… so they will grow up to be smart ants”. This is an allegory for both god and the aliens, where the ants are human. He can’t teach the ants because they don’t know what is being taught to them.

This is where I often find myself.

Sometimes things are broadcast directly to me, and I get the message, but I have to filter it through my own lenses. I’m counting the prime numbers in base-10, even though that probably isn’t the most logical choice.

Sometimes I miss the message completely because I am not even aware something is being communicated to me.

Sometimes I just need to learn to trust that the message I do hear has meaning, and will be helpful to me.

Sometimes I need to remember that communication is more than just words, understanding is more than just logic, and compassion is more than just listening.