More-or-less aimless surfing brought me to an old blog post about math in movies, which mentions Pi and Contact. This mostly coincidental juxtaposition reminded me of the conclusion of the novel behind the latter.
When I first read the book, a zillion years ago, I thought the ending was pretty clever. Then I realized that it was incredibly dumb. It later occurred to me that it might actually be intentionally dumb, and therefore incredibly clever, because Carl Sagan really ought to have known better, but… I don’t know. I think he either genuinely goofed or assumed (probably correctly, in most cases) that his readers wouldn’t notice.
A short aside: if you haven’t read the novel or seen the film, you haven’t really missed anything. The novel is basically a not-bad-but-not-brilliant ripoff of Stanisław Lem’s Głos Pana and Solaris. The film is… well, a film. It’s OK, I guess, and stars several excellent actors, and is reasonably but not entirely true to the novel.
If you haven’t read the novel but intend to, I should warn you that the rest of this post is a HONKIN’ HUGE SPOILER.
Here goes: at the end of the film, the perceived failure of the project is more or less covered up and Ellie returns to her former job as head of the SETI program. In the novel, however, she is disgraced and (from my recollection—remember, it’s been years since I read it) ends up as a glorified tour guide. She somehow manages to wrangle sufficient computer time to search for something that was hinted at earlier in the novel: a proof of a Universal Creator, embedded somewhere in the digits of π. And guess what… The computer discovers that if you print the digits of π with a specific number of digits per line, after billions and billions of digits you come across a pattern of zeroes that forms a circle on the page. There is a God. QED.
Here’s the problem: π is transcendental. If you search long enough, no matter what you’re looking for, you’ll eventually find it.
Monkeys and typewriters, Ellie. Monkeys and typewriters.