I ran into my former student Troy today, and he mentioned the ending to Carl Sagan’s novel Contact in which the main character discovers that at some point the digits of pi, when written out in base 11 and arranged in a square of the right size, form a perfect circle of ones and zeros. And this is taken as a sign from God.
Troy mentioned this because he recalls having felt a sense of awe at this idea. I told him that I vividly remember this plot point (which does not show up on the film), from the time I first read Contact. Troy told me that I am the first other person he’s encountered who remembers the God-in-a-circle ending – and he has talked about this to many people.
But here’s the interesting thing: I recall it as the moment I stopped feeling good about Carl Sagan. Up until then he had been a hero of mine – the guy who got people interested in science, the intellect behind Cosmos, the bridge builder who was able to shine a light on the rarified world of cutting edge research, and show its beauty to the general populace.
But when I read about a God who encodes a circle in the digits of pi, as a kind of shout-out to whatever intelligent race might be listening, my blood ran cold. I think that I can safely say that, on an intellectual level, it was the single most disgusting and repugnant thing I have ever read. Bear with me here…
What Sagan is positing is that a supreme being, creator not merely of the universe but of all possible universes – we know this because the message is encoded in pi, which has the same meaning in all universes – is resorting to a gimmick, a cheap and irrelevant trick, to get our attention.
It’s as though the supreme creator, author of all that is and could ever be, had scrawled the words “Hi mom!” onto the firmament, or maybe held its hands up in Plato’s shadow to make cool shapes like barking dogs and bouncing bunny rabbits.
If there were an intelligent being responsible for the universe, and for the beauty of mathematics, for the sheer loveliness that is logic and symmetry and universal truth, that being would not be resorting to cheap vaudeville tricks to signal its existence.
What it felt like to me, reading the novel’s lame conclusion, was that Sagan had sketched out evidence for God’s existence by arranging for Him to show up on stage in a porkpie hat, pull His pants down and fart.
Would you want to live in such a universe?