Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sagan's inquisitive alien

Carl Sagan was among the kindliest and most restrained of the modern rationalist writers – much less strident than Richard Dawkins, for example – but few others punctured the balloon of human hubris as adeptly as he did. I was reading Pale Blue Dot recently (the title is a reference to the Earth as seen in a sprawling galactic photograph taken by a spacecraft 3.7 billion miles away) and there's a chapter titled “Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?”, where Sagan imagines an alien visitor orbiting our planet for the first time and trying to understand its topography and the possible life forms it hosts. The alien examines the Earth’s surface at increasingly high resolutions (think Google Earth!), and when it reaches a 100-meter resolution “the planet is revealed to be covered with straight lines, squares, rectangles, circles – sometimes huddling along river banks or nestling on the lower slopes of mountains, sometimes stretching over plains, but rarely in deserts or high mountains, and absolutely never in the oceans”. This sort of thing implies the presence of intelligent life. But of what sort?

At a much higher resolution, the alien eventually finds that:
...the crisscrossing straight lines within the cities are filled with streamlined, multi-coloured beings a few meters in length, politely running one behind the other in orderly procession. They are very patient. One stream of beings stops so that another stream can continue at right night they turn on two bright lights in front so they can see where they are going. Some, a privileged few, go into little houses when their workday is done and retire for the night. Most are homeless and sleep on the street.
Naturally, the alien visitor assumes that these polite, multi-coloured beings (which we, the human reader, immediately recognise as road vehicles) are the planet's dominant life forms. (At a stronger resolution yet, the alien observes “tiny parasites that occasionally enter and exit the dominant organisms”, but it doesn’t think of them as particularly important!)

Pale Blue Dot is full of many such moments that make you think about aspects of our world and what an outsider might make of them - like the best works in its genre, it forces you to step outside your own skin for a while. But reading the passage above, it also strikes me that if Sagan’s alien were to home in on a busy Delhi road during rush hour, all its notions about “patient” life forms would quickly evaporate. Instead, it would witness the sort of anarchy that would make it difficult to understand how life on this planet could ever survive for any length of time. In that sense, Delhi traffic is probably more representative of the general human condition than the “orderly processions” on the roads of other major cities are. And that's before all the waterlogging began.

[Related posts: new ways of looking at the world, Clarke's short stories, Climbing Mount Improbable]


  1. Douglas Adams writes something similar (and funnier) in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The alien Ford Prefect thinks the same - that cars are the dominant life forms on earth - and goes to shake hands with one car.

  2. Mandar: oh yes, of course! Lots of similarities between Sagan and Adams actually, given the different genres they operated in.

  3. Its funny - I was just reading about the ten day traffic jam in China!