Friday, November 12, 2010

Contact

Contact
first seen in New York, NY
1997

In college I took an astronomy class. I was required to take at least one science-related humanities course, and I put it off as long as possible. Senior year came, and I couldn't put it off any longer, so I took the one science class I had any interest in at all. I believed it would sustain my interest; after all, a childhood full of outer space sci-fi tales in movies, comics and books naturally sparked a curiosity about what's Out There. My slightly flawed logic concluded that I'd have an affinity for learning about astronomy as a result. Maybe that was so at the time...

... but I needed a much better teacher. I had this Greek guy whose English was questionable at best. From day one I knew this was gonna present a huge obstacle. He himself wasn't a bad person, as teachers go, but it really was difficult to understand him half of the time. It wasn't long before I regularly sat in the back of the room, zoning out most of the time when I wasn't haphazardly taking what few notes I could. I knew I had to pass this class somehow, though, so I struggled to pay attention.

In his defense (because I don't wanna come down hard on the guy), he knew his English wasn't the best, which is probably why he put on videos on a regular basis for us to watch. They were public television programs about outer space, hosted by a scientist named Carl Sagan.

I'd never heard of Sagan before, and while I wish I could say that listening to him pontificate about the stars sparked a fire within me, that wouldn't be entirely true. Watching him was better than deciphering the teacher's Greek/English mish-mash... and it did raise my interest to a degree. In the end, though, most of my initial enthusiasm for the class in general waned. I could not begin to tell you how I passed, but somehow I did - by the skin of my teeth, too... but I never completely forgot those videos and the man in them who made the wonders of the universe sound both mysterious and exciting.

Three years later, a movie came out based on a book this Sagan guy wrote called Contact, about communication with extraterrestrials. I saw it, and liked it a lot. I liked it so much that it made me seek out the book itself. The movie made some significant changes - for instance, Jodie Foster's character in the book is actually one of five people who eventually get to meet the aliens. Also, there's no romance with Matthew McConaughey's character, whose not quite as central to the story. Otherwise, the book reminded me why I was interested in outer space to begin with.

In recent years my interest in space, and science in general, has incrementally picked up. Writers like Richard Dawkins have helped me re-examine the world and man's place in it, though it's still very much a struggle to understand sometimes. I do think, however, that scientific progress is crucial to our survival as a species.

Do I think there's life Out There? A lifetime of immersion in sci-fi has conditioned me to think no other way, though if we're ever gonna find it, I think we need to take the first step. Space colonization still sounds like the stuff of pulp novels, but I think we're gonna need to do it before long. There's too many people on this poor little planet, after all. Listening for alien signals is all well and good, but placing too much hope on them finding us isn't productive in the long run. Let's go out there and find them instead. Maybe it'll help bring everyone on this pale blue dot together.

1 comment:

  1. Reading this just inspired me to put "Cosmos" on my Netflix queue. Did you know there are seven discs of it in the collection? That'll take me a while. I do remember when it was on PBS in the late 1970s, but I guess I wasn't quite old enough to have the attention span it required. So I'll be glad to see these again!

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