Science Movie Club: The Search For Intelligent Life In 'Contact' Yes, there actually are astronomers looking for intelligent life in space. The 1997 film adaptation of Carl Sagan's 'Contact' got a lot of things right ... and a few things wrong. Radio astronomer Summer Ash, an education specialist with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, breaks down the science in the film.
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Science Movie Club: 'Contact'

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Science Movie Club: 'Contact'

Science Movie Club: 'Contact'

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hey, everybody. Today we have another installment of the SHORT WAVE movie club, where we watch a movie and break down the science in the film. This time, we asked you, our listeners, what movie we should do next, and you overwhelmingly voted for the sci-fi drama "Contact" from 1997. Your nerdiness is only outdone by your nostalgia.

So before we hear from our very special guest, quick refresher - adapted from a Carl Sagan novel, it stars one of my very favorite dreamboats, Jodie Foster. She plays Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer who discovers this message from space. The movie unfolds as she and a team of scientists, who don't always play well together, attempt to make first contact with extraterrestrial life.

Summer, I just rewatched "Contact" last night, and I feel like it held up, you know. I feel like I was still really happy with it. What is your - what are your thoughts?

SUMMER ASH: I was very pleased.

SOFIA: Yeah.

ASH: And I feel like I need to watch it more regularly.

SOFIA: Summer Ash knows a thing or two about making contact, if you will, with space. She's a real-life radio astronomer who works at the VLA, a telescope facility in New Mexico. VLA stands for Very Large Array - basically, a group of radio antennas working together to observe space. And it just so happens to be where lots of the movie takes place.

ASH: So it is very large. That is not a lie. The telescope itself is made up of 27 separate dishes. They're each roughly 100 feet tall and 80 feet in diameter.


ASH: They weigh 230 tons. And they all act as one, so they're all pointing at the same thing. And they are just - it's a super-powerful instrument. You could call it the most scientifically productive ground-based telescope in the world.

SOFIA: So it's pretty awesome is what you're telling me.

ASH: It's pretty freaking awesome.

SOFIA: "Contact" isn't just about the search for extraterrestrial life. It also touches on stuff like academic culture and scientific funding - all stuff worth digging into. So stick around. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: All right. Today, we're talking "Contact" with radio astronomer Summer Ash. Radio astronomers use telescopes to observe radio waves that naturally come from stars, planets, galaxies, clouds of dust, you name it. Here on Earth, we use radio waves all the time to communicate with each other. They even leak out into space, which is where the movie begins. It's a shot of Earth from space, and we're hearing broadcasts, speeches, music, that kind of stuff. And as the camera pulls away from Earth, the sound fades away.

ASH: That's kind of illustrating what we call the radio sphere, which is essentially a sphere surrounding earth in all directions. That is probably maybe 80 to 100 light-years away at this point, where it's the radio signals from Earth that have leaked out into space from when we first started broadcasting.

SOFIA: Right. It makes it clear how far our, you know, like, radio transmissions have gotten, and it's not super far, is it, Summer?

ASH: It's, like, nowhere, which really shows you how long you might have to wait to receive a signal and/or return a signal to another civilization.

SOFIA: Yeah. So basically, like, since we've been sending radio waves out into space intentionally, like, we're going to have to probably wait a really long time if that's how aliens are going to say, like, oh, what's that?

ASH: Exactly. Yeah.

SOFIA: And waiting on aliens to show up was a big part of what our main character did during the beginning of the movie, all part of her work for a group called SETI.

ASH: It is a real institute, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and it's been around for decades.

SOFIA: In fact, in the '90s, a real SETI project targeted nearby stars searching for radio signals that were either being deliberately beamed to Earth or inadvertently transmitted from another planet. It was called Project Phoenix. So at this point, you might be asking yourself, why radio waves?

ASH: Two different reasons - one, radio waves - radio is a type of light. So the universe gives off light in the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and some of it is in the form of radio waves, which are low energy compared to the light that you and I can see with our eyes.

SOFIA: Sure.

ASH: So astronomers are interested in the radio universe as far as studying all of those objects that are emitting radio waves. But SETI astronomers are interested in radio signals because that's also the technology that we use to communicate here on Earth.

SOFIA: The thinking goes, in part, that if an advanced alien civilization is out there that can detect our signals, they might be using similar technologies that also leak out radio waves. So in the movie, Ellie spends a lot of time, headphones on, listening - like, for instance, on the hood of her car, outside, in front of the VLA antennas. Is that what y'all are doing - sitting around listening to the sky on the hood of your car as a campy?

ASH: Nope. We don't listen to the telescope because that's not going to give us any useful information for the work that most of us are doing observing objects. Like, our ear can't take that sound and turn it into an image of a gas cloud or a black hole jet or things like that. So it's a much more complicated computer process that we need to use that involves big, scary things like Fourier transforms. But that is my biggest issue with the movie. And there is a rumor that even Carl Sagan was trying to get them to not film that kind of a scene, and they overruled him because it does look cool.

SOFIA: Right. And having a computer find something unusual isn't as dramatic as Jodie hearing this weird signal with her own ears.

ASH: Oh, my God. So much of astronomy is not as dramatic as anything you see in pop culture. It is 90%, you know, sitting in front of a computer processing your data and then pressing that button and being like, oh, that's a galaxy. Oh, look at that thing. Oh, that looks new. That's interesting.

SOFIA: So one of the sexiest topics in science is funding. And so it's kind of interesting in the movie because they get it a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Like, my understanding is that SETI did lose government funding, and they did have to try to go and get private funding. There's a cut of Jodie Foster, like, losing her nerd patience on some potential funders in the middle of that movie. I don't know if you remember it. Let me play it for you.


JODIE FOSTER: (As Ellie Arroway) Want to hear something really nutty? I've heard of a couple guys that want to build something called an airplane. You know, you get people to go in it, and they fly around like birds. It's ridiculous, right? What about breaking the sound barrier or rockets to the moon or atomic energy or a mission to Mars - science fiction, right? Look. All I'm asking is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision, you know, to just step back for one minute and look at the big picture, to take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history of history.

SOFIA: How do you like that approach for funders? Have you ever used that approach, Summer?

ASH: (Laughter) No, but I'm very sympathetic to wanting to say all of those things.

SOFIA: Right. Right.

ASH: And I think it's always a challenge because there's such a pressure to have your science be tangible and applicable and, like, pay off for some - in some other way that's useful in everyday life. And that's really hard to say before you've done anything. A lot of that stuff all happens in hindsight or as a byproduct of pure research. And so you do need those people that are willing to, like, take a risk, which, these days, seems to be venture capitalists and some billionaires who are willing to kind of put up that money. So it's not out of the ordinary also for that bizarre tycoon that she encountered to want to take the chance.

SOFIA: Yeah. Wild. So, you know, there's another thing that I was kind of, while I was watching, I noticed was a theme throughout. So she is an up-and-coming astronomer, and there's definitely this thread that even though she's really the force behind this discovery, there are men who are more established in the field kind of consistently taking credit for her work and talking over her in these meetings. And I feel like maybe that was the most realistic part of the movie. How about - how do you feel?

ASH: Sadly, yes. That is so true. And it's really frustrating to watch. It's always frustrating to watch when you see it in person too. But, you know, to see it in a movie and you're just like, yep, yep, yep. Been there, been there. It is pretty realistic. And that's something that, you know, we're all actively trying to change, but it's going to take a long time to really change the culture of an entire scientific field, let alone all of science.

SOFIA: Sure. Sure. So one thing that I think was kind of beat to death in the movie were all the SETI haters out there. Like, a lot of people in the movie made it clear to Jodie Foster's character that she was wasting her potential by looking for extraterrestrial life, and a lot of those people were also scientists. So I mean, you're in this, like, general field. In your experience, is that true?

ASH: Not terribly, in my experience. I think, given that there's so much time that has passed since when this movie came out, SETI has continued to operate and is very much, like, a legitimate part of our field.

SOFIA: Sure.

ASH: And I feel like it's also broadened so it's not necessarily the same search that's portrayed in this movie. But there's all these different ways. In that - in 1996, I think that was one year after we found the very first exoplanet, or planet around another star. And now there's thousands, and statistics imply that there's millions and billions. So there's a lot of things now where it's much more concrete. So now it's, OK, we found other planets. Now how can we find out more about these planets? Are they habitable? Do they have liquid water? Do they have signatures of other elements that would indicate that there's carbon-based life form on them?

SOFIA: Before we go, Summer shared something kind of awesome with us. One of the astronomers Jodie Foster's character meets back in 1997 was studying something that became quite science famous just last year.

ASH: One of them is introduced as looking at the black hole in M87, and that is the black hole that we got the first image of last April.

SOFIA: Oh, that's cool.

ASH: Yeah. I love that they threw that in there because we knew that there was a black hole there, but I don't think they ever expected that that would be...

SOFIA: The first image of a black hole.

ASH: ...Done with radio telescopes.

SOFIA: Wow. The movie "Contact" - ahead of its time.

ASH: Exactly.

SOFIA: OK, Summer Ash, this was really fun. I appreciate your brain, and I appreciate your time.

ASH: My pleasure.

SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson and edited by Viet Le. Emily Vaughn checked the facts. I'm Maddie Sofia, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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