chapter one {We Were Just Listening: The Search for Connection}

Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”

Yes, this is a picture from my trip in 2015. It was a beautiful day in the high New Mexican desert.

In March of 2015 I visited a dear friend of mine in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during my university employer’s spring break. I was almost two years out of my PhD and had started getting the acceptance letters back from the library school programs I had applied to after making the jump from adjunct teaching to library work. It was a great trip, but because of my friend’s job, there were a few days in which I was left to my own devices. On one of those days I made a trip to a place very familiar to many science nerds like myself: The Very Large Array (VLA).

Nestled in a valley and ringed by mountains to cut down on interference from other radio signals, the VLA is some fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, and is widely recognized for its appearance in the 1997 film Contact. Despite the 2 ½ hour drive from Albuquerque to the VLA, I still spent some three hours on site, walking the grounds, staring up at the massive dishes and trying to visualize the sheer scale of the array and the science conducted there: peering into the depths of our universe, searching for black holes and quasars, probing into the fundamental questions of creation, and, of course, being used in the hunt for intelligent, extra-terrestrial life.

I must admit that when I went to the VLA, I had almost forgotten about Contact. It is a film that has been a constant in my life, but its presence in my thoughts waxes and wanes. It is only on occasion that it thrusts itself back into my conscious brain—be it from finally reading Carl Sagan’s novel that it is based upon, the revived documentary series Cosmos (and just how similar parts of Alan Silvestri’s score for Cosmos echoes his score for Contact), or a trip to New Mexico and my friend reminding me of the existence of the VLA. But once I am reminded of Contact and the questions it raises, I am once again forced to pause and look at the night sky in awe and wonder if we are alone and what the search for other life says about us.

Contact was released almost twenty years before Arrival, but they both deal with the aspect of communication that is at play in any first contact scenario. However, while Arrival deals with linguistics and within it the language of science does not lead to the communication breakthrough, Contact presents the view that it is only through science and math that contact will be established. The signal that Jodie Foster’s character Ellie Arroway detects is a series of pulses that count through the prime numbers from 3 to 101. As Ellie says in one meeting, “Mathematics is the only true universal language,” mirroring Ian’s observation in Arrival of how Louise approaches language like a mathematician.

However, while Contact presents making “contact” via the language of science, unlike Arrival, the film itself is much more sentimental in showing how we form connections with other humans. As much as the film is about first contact with an alien intelligence, it is equally about making meaningful connections in our lives. Its core message is that there is more to understanding the world, indeed our universe, than science and math. That the connections we do eventually forge are very much constructed from the choices we make, creating an interesting parallel to Arrival.

What’s more, while on my trip to New Mexico, indeed while driving to the array, I was contemplating one of my major choices: library school (and if so where), or moving to Los Angeles to pursue a degree and career in music journalism. It is a choice that would have a radical effect on the connections I now have.

*          *          *

Contact is a very sentimental film, not unlike much of director Robert Zemeckis’ filmography (think Forrest Gump), and unlike Arrival, pretty much all that is to come during it’s runtime is neatly laid out in the opening: Ellie’s interest in astronomy and radios, the loss of her mother (and later father) fueling her search for connection out in the universe, and the opening shot taking us back in time as radio signals travel further out from Earth until there is just the all-encompassing silence as our signals have only gotten so far into the black. The silence making our loneliness in the universe evident because, as the film likes to say over and over, if humanity is the only life there is, then it would be an “awful waste of space.”

For Ellie, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is a search for connection. This is made explicit when young Ellie uses her ham radio to try to reach Heaven and talk with her dead mother. Of course, by the time she is an adult she has shed all notions of belief in the existence of an afterlife, but she still seeks to make contact to ground humanity in a deeper connection with our existence. And as she does, she listens to the signals coming from space via headphones, unlike most other radio astronomers because, to her, it “makes it more real.” It provides a tangible, if not exactly physical, connection.

But for most of the movie, Ellie is having to choose, somehow, between meaningful connections with humans vs. trying to connect with aliens. However, how can we have any sort of connection with another race if we can’t have a real connection with another person? Ellie is an orphan, and possibly even blames herself for her father’s death (she wasn’t able to get to his medicine fast enough), and, since losing both her parents at a young age, has seemingly cut part of herself off from having deeper connections with most people. She has romantic encounters, has friends and co-workers, but when forced with a choice between pursuing a relationship with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) and quickly leaving to seek out funding to setup the SETI project at the VLA, she chooses work over connection.

The movie isn’t subtle, but it is effective. And nowhere is this lack of subtlety more on display then in its treatment of the theme of science vs. religion.

*          *          *

I see a lot of myself in Ellie: the frustration with the world not valuing her “pie-in-the-sky” abstract science, the seemingly endless quest to connect with something more, and being the precocious child asking impertinent questions in Sunday school (for me, it was questioning where dinosaurs were in the Bible, and the whole creation in five days, age of the earth thing).

Much like Ellie, I also had my slow drift away from religion as I got older, and also like her, it was largely driven by my interest in science and not needing to have religion to fall back on when you reach a question you can’t answer. You don’t need God, you just need more science. I have had moments of moving closer and further away over the years, but right now I am probably as close to an outright atheist as I will ever be. But also, like Ellie and Contact author Carl Sagan, just because you don’t believe in some sort of divine being doesn’t mean you don’t seek connection with something larger than yourself. Something to be humbled by.

This, to me, is the brilliant core of Contact. That instead of driving a wedge between science and religion like so many are want to do, rather it shows them to be two sides of the same coin of seeking connection. This is why I really like the character of Palmer Joss. While being a man of faith, he is also a man of reason. He seeks truth and does not attempt to convert Ellie. Instead he supports her in her quest for connection. However, it is also his desire to connect with (and also “protect” in that very paternalistic, male sense) Ellie that leads him to use her lack of religious faith to scuttle her chances of being the pilot of the machine that the aliens sent us the instructions to build. Granted, it ended up saving her life, but that is beside the point.

Joss is a fascinating character to me. Complex and multifaceted, I believe he is Sagan’s ideal religious man. One who, like so many scientists, sees faith not as a set of dogmatic rules that humans are to follow, but rather a quest for truth and understanding, like science. When David Drumlin (Ellie’s boss) questions the benefit of SETI because such “abstractions” have no direct benefit to humanity via technology, Drumlin turns to Joss and asks why he is against technology. Joss responds, “I’m not against technology…I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.” Later, in an interview that Joss does with Larry King, he says, “Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the Web… at the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history…” The film is haunted by the specter of post-capitalist America. The drive for stuff that pushes us apart. In this sense, Joss’s view parallels a lot from the book and novel Fight Club (the book was released in 1996, the film in 1999).

Joss is a strangely prophetic character in so many ways. In 1997 we were just beginning to see how much computers and the internet were going to fundamentally alter the ways in which we connect with each other, and yet this character was able to effectively predict how much our technology, for all of its ability to connect us instantly to anyone around the world, has also diminished our physical connection with each other. So if we have deified our technology at the expense of human truth, then what is that truth that we have lost?


*          *          *

Humans seek connection. It is a fundamental truth of our species that we seek out others and form communities. Even with people as introverted as I am, people who actually enjoy being alone and lost in thought, seek out connection with others. I have a small group of close friends, and being so far away from so many of them diminishes me. Even if I can keep in touch with them via technology, it is not enough. It is not the same as physical contact, or even physical proximity. The virtual connection provided by text messages, audio or video calls, is but a simulacrum of actual connection.

In this way, the film meditates on the meaning of connection to humans on two levels: connection with each other, and the connection to something larger via science and/or religion. The film frames the latter connection in two ways: 1) Ellie’s intense drive and belief in science to lead us to a larger view of humanity and the universe, and 2) the way in which religion is seen as a way that humanity is connected with each other and the question of if it is something that could connect us to the aliens who contacted us. At one point not long after the message is heard, one of the government functionaries (possibly James Woods’ Michael Kitz) says that we (humans) “don’t even know if [the aliens] believe in God.”

But it is in Ellie’s final speech in front of an investigation committee, seeking to understand the malfunction of the machine and Ellie’s claim that she experienced a journey and met the aliens, which hits the point home that science and religion are not so far apart. I’ll quote it here in its entirety (copied from IMDB):

Panel member: Doctor Arroway, you come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that, to put it mildly, strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all…on faith?
[pause, Ellie looks at Palmer]
Michael Kitz: Please answer the question, doctor.
Ellie Arroway: Is it possible that it didn’t happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.
Kitz: Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story.
Ellie: Yes.
Kitz: You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing.
Ellie: Yes.
Kitz: You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!
Ellie: Yes!
Kitz: [standing, angrily] Then why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this “journey to the center of the galaxy,” in fact, never took place!
Ellie: Because I can’t. I…had an experience…I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever…A vision…of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how…rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish…I…could share that…I wish, that everyone, if only for one…moment, could feel…that awe, and humility, and hope. But…That continues to be my wish.

This moment in the film is followed shortly after by Joss and Ellie leaving the United States Capitol building, and as they leave a reporter asks Joss if he believes Ellie’s story. If you hadn’t already understood this theme, then Joss’ response puts it in bright, neon letters: “As a person of faith I’m bound by a different covenant than Dr. Arroway. But our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of Truth. I, for one, believe her.”

And so it is that both Joss and Ellie seek a connection with something larger than them. While Joss finds it in the Bible and his relationship with the Christian God, Ellie finds it in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the humbling awe created by gazing into the depths of the ancient and vast universe. This is Ellie’s revelation in the film, the realization that she and Joss are not so far apart. Her final speech to the committee is an admission that she also has the same sort of faith that she was earlier very judgmental of. She reaches an understanding about the nature and need for a connection to something larger, what has actually been driving her for so many years.

The experience that Ellie had on her “journey to the center of the galaxy” is described in such a way that it could equally apply to any person gazing up at the evening sky and seeing the sea of stars stretch out before them. For me, that moment happened one summer when I was at Boy Scout camp in southern Missouri and I gazed up at the sky and saw the great arm of our galaxy stretch across the night sky like a river. Decades later, it remains one of the most humbling experiences of my life and made tangible, for me, the connection I feel to all that is out there. All that is possible. All that we still have yet to learn about the universe we inhabit.

Contact was released at a time in my life when I was starting to really question my own beliefs. I had stopped going to church on a regular basis many years before, and, like I said, I was that kid who questioned the Bible with science as far back as elementary school. I had always struggled to reconcile science and religion, but it was Contact, I can see now in retrospect, that was the beginning of my understanding that science, cosmology and astronomy, was the way in which I would experience that awe and sense of being humbled before something greater than myself. Something I believe is the most important part of any system of faith. We humans, who crave connection, are humbled when we realize that we have a connection to something larger. For many that is some form of god, for me, and others, that connection is with the universe itself. Not in some new age-y, metaphysical sense, rather just the knowledge that the world, nature, and existence is vast and we are inextricably bound to it.

Or, as Carl Sagan put it: “Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.”

*          *          *

In the end, though, humanity’s first contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence is left in a very ambiguous state. Ellie has no proof and her camera recorded static. She has no evidence, except for the 18-hours of static recorded by the camera. Eighteen hours recorded while all cameras show that the craft dropped straight through the machine. Clearly, something happened, but for some reason that critical piece of evidence, the 18-hours of static, is suppressed.

However, while Ellie’s journey may or may not have occurred as we saw in the film, it is implied that there is some utopic outcome to the contact. All countries on Earth had to unite and join forces to build the Machine that the aliens gave us the plans for. New technologies were discovered in the course of it, new avenues of research opened up. While we do not see the outcomes of this on-screen, it is implied. Ellie, meanwhile, returns to New Mexico, healthy grants in hand, and is in the process of expanding and upgrading the VLA in order to continue her search. As she tells the child at the end of the movie, “[the] important thing is to keep searching for your own answers.”

While Contact depicts us finding proof of intelligence outside of Earth and describes it as the most important discovery in human history, it is glossed over that any proof of any form of life not of terrestrial origin would be truly monumental because it would mean that the possibility exists elsewhere for life to evolve independent of Earth. This is why NASA’s missions to Titan and Europa, where we know there is some form of water and the possibility exists for the formation of complex organic compounds, are so important. If we can prove that complex organics can exist elsewhere within our own solar system, it makes all of the exoplanets that we have found much more interesting.

It is one of my hopes that I am still alive when the first proof of non-terrestrial life is found because it would confirm my greatest dream: that human and Earthly life is not all that there is to the universe. If we are all that there is, I, like so many in the film say, would find it to be an “awful waste of space.” A trite line, to be sure, but no less true because of it.

I yearn to make that connection with the wider universe. I long to see humanity make it before I die.

*          *          *

Carl Sagan, one of my personal “holy trinity” of writers/thinkers along with Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams.

How do we derive meaning in our lives? What is important to us? These questions underscore the film’s meditation on forging connections. So much of Ellie’s search for extra-terrestrial life is also a search to forge meaningful connections on Earth in the absence of her physical connections to her parents. It is also her search for meaning.

When Ellie does meet the aliens—in a simulacrum of a drawing she did as a child of what she imagined Pensacola, Florida, to look like while talking to an alien taking the form of her father—she is told that it is just a first meeting. A hello. He also tells her that humanity is, “an interesting species, an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cutoff, so alone. Only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”

For all the science and technology that these aliens, who are only one species among the billions of stars, possess, the only thing that makes the emptiness in between those stars survivable is each other. It is only in connections that they find meaning and fulfillment. And in sending radio signals out into the stars, the aliens believed that humanity was also trying to make that connection. As alien dad tells Ellie: “You contacted us. We were just listening.” This is also what Ellie does: she listens.

So much of my life has also been in search of connection. I think it is because of my lack of large groups of friends, compounded by my feeling like an outsider among fellow students growing up, and my complete ineptitude when it comes to forming romantic and physical connections, that I feel “so lost, so cutoff, so alone.” I know that I am not, and I treasure all my friends that I do have. If anything, since I count so few as true friends (and not mere acquaintances or colleagues), I hold them even closer to my heart.

But I struggle to forge those connections. I am shy to make the first move, even in friendship. It was at least two years into my PhD that I even started hanging out with other people on a regular basis. And I was just starting to make friends in Virginia before I packed up for Memphis, where I have slowly begun to rebuild a social network out side of the people whom I work with, have perfectly enjoyable and pleasant conversations with during the hours of 9-5, Monday through Friday, but struggle to actually invite them over to my place for a drink, despite my repeated proclamations that I will. Heck, I even have a hard time saying yes to after work socializing even though, deep down, I really want to. My social anxiety makes me incredibly nervous even though I know it to be illogical.

So in the face of a lack of physical connections in my life, and the inadequacies of technology in providing them beyond text messages and the occasional voice chat, how do I derive meaning? “I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it,” Ellie says at one point, and that is what I do. I find my meaning in doing what I love: teaching, writing, and trying to maintain those connections I already have, and wishing, above all else, that we had transporter technology.

Humans can find meaning in so many ways: work, faith, science, writing, reading, and on and on. But underlying so many of those is our intense need for connection. It is what drives us in so much of our lives, and, as Palmer Joss believes, technology has the capacity to both bring us closer together and also drive us further apart. As with everything we do, we must proceed with careful and cautious consideration lest we sacrifice our connections and, in the process, lose our humanity.

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