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Calculating God Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer.
Calculating God is Robert J. Sawyer’s 2000 science fiction novel, which is set in the present day and is based on the premise that sentient aliens have come to Earth to study the five mass extinctions that have occurred on our planet over its history. When a spiderlike alien paleontologist named Hollus arrives on Earth at the Royal Ontario Museum, she immediately seeks to speak with a paleontologist. Thomas Jericho answers the call and is shocked when he discovers Hollus has proof that her own planet eerily also suffered a series of five catastrophic occurrences around the same time as Earth. As the two work together to get to the bottom of things, they discuss the design of the universe through the lens of different scientific fields. A thought-provoking debate on the origins of life, Calculating God raises profound questions about science, philosophy, and theology.
An alien named Hollus, a Forhilnor from the third planet of the Beta Hydri system, arrives on Earth to investigate its evolutionary history. When Hollus lands in the courtyard of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, she immediately makes her way to the information desk and requests to speak with a paleontologist. Being a paleontologist herself, she is seeking access to the museum’s Burgess Shale fossil collection, which has a large and diverse range of specimens.
Hollus meets Thomas Jericho, a paleontologist at the museum and a life-long atheist who has just learned that he is dying of lung cancer. Jericho is surprised by Hollus’s mastery of the English language. She is described as looking similar to a very large spider, with two arms and six legs, and her body is covered with a strip of blue cloth. Thomas believes her to be endothermic, or capable of generating her own internal heat, in a similar way to mammals on Earth. Thomas also mistakenly identifies her as a male; it is not until much later that he discovers she is female.
She explains that her planet is roughly 24.3 light years away from Earth and revolves around Beta Hydri, the most luminous star in the Hydrus constellation. Hollus reveals that her species has interstellar travel using “frozen sleep,” holographic projection that can travel far distances, and super-advanced computers, though she claims her species is not much more advanced than humans.
Hollus goes on to inform Thomas that she traveled to Earth accompanied by thirty-three other scientists, half of whom are Forhilnors—her own species—and half of whom are Wreeds, another intelligent species from the second planet that revolves around the star Delta Pavonis in the constellation Pavo, which is approximately twenty light years from Earth.
Hollus requests to be treated like a typical scholar visiting the museum. She offers to tell Thomas information about the aliens and their knowledge of the universe in exchange for access to fossils and specimens at the museum. The astonishing arrival of aliens causes the museum, media, and government to seek information about the aliens and their intentions.
After the initial amazement and shock about the arrival of the aliens die down, Thomas and Hollus begin discussing the reason she has come to study the fossils. Hollus explains that her own planet has undergone five cataclysmic events in its history, just as Earth has. These events also took place around the same time they occurred on Earth. Furthermore, the Wreeds’ planet has the same history of five catastrophic events occurring at roughly the same time. For Hollus, a study of the fossils and Earth’s history will help her and her species to better understand the history of their own planet as well as the universe. Hollus hopes to study the accumulation of human knowledge to amass evidence for the existence of God.
As Thomas and Hollus work together at the museum, they discover that despite their differences in appearance and their histories of evolution, they are both composed of similar DNA structures. They also learn that all three planets have approximately the same technological advances and the same fundamental necessities for life. According to both the Forhilnors and the Wreeds, this is one of the indications of intelligent design.
As the book progresses, Thomas and Hollus discuss several scientific and philosophical topics on the nature of the universe. They debate the big bang, the theories of Darwin, the anthropic principle, DNA, and the fundamental scientific constants, provoking both Thomas and the reader to think about the design of the universe.
As Thomas struggles with his terminal illness and its impact on both his personal and work life, he is challenged to ponder how God, if real, could allow such pain and tragedy to exist on Earth, as well as what God’s role might be in the history of creation. The Forhilnors and the Wreeds believe that God is simply the creator, not the God of religions who listens to and answers prayers. They do argue, however, that God played a part in the mass extinctions and made it possible for intelligent life to exist.
Toward the end of the book, the characters learn that Earth and the aliens’ planets are facing a possible sixth extinction. The universe is threatened by a star called Betelgeuse that might go supernova, meaning all life would be plagued with hundreds of light years of radiation. A mysterious force intervenes, and the catastrophic event is averted. The aliens and Thomas believe this is proof of the existence of God. Thomas then accepts an offer to accompany the aliens on their ship to travel into space to the location where the creator is thought to be. In the end, the aliens and Thomas meet and communicate with the creator of the universe. There, a fusion of human and alien genetic materials creates a new life form that the aliens believe will create the coming cycles of the universe.