25 years ago, the film Contact made its theatrical debut starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey and told the story of Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) who picked up a radio signal from the star Vega and how this discovery impacted not just herself, but humanity as a whole. Over time, she discovers the signal has embedded instructions sent by the aliens to build a device capable of sending one person into outer space, presumably to meet the Vegans.Continue reading “Why ‘Contact’ still resonates after 25 years”
On February 14th, 2020, the SETI Insitute and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) announced a new partnership, which they appropriately named the Commensal Open-Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (COSMIC SETI). This partnership will allow the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to participate in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) for the first time in its history.
In recent weeks, the project took a big step forward with the installation of fiber optic amplifiers and splitters on all VLA antennas, which give COSMIC access to the data streams from the entire VLA. Once this digital backend is online, COSMIC will have access to all data provided by the VLAs 27 radio antennas, which will be able to conduct observations 24/7. In the process, COSMIC SETI will examine around 40 million stars in the Milky Way for possible signs of intelligent life.Continue reading “SETI Researchers can now Scan all Data at the Very Large Array for any Evidence of Alien Transmissions”
Time to talk about my favorite topic: aliens.
We’ve covered the Fermi Paradox many times over several articles on Universe Today. This is the idea that the Universe is huge, and old, and the ingredients of life are everywhere. Life could and should have have appeared many times across the galaxy, but it’s really strange that we haven’t found any evidence for them yet.Continue reading “What If We Do Find Aliens?”
While some of you will no doubt be heading to the theaters to see the new release of “Gravity,” for those that want to stay in for the weekend, here’s the perfect short film. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has released a new 24-minute film about the recently renovated Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. The film is narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster, star of the 1997 Warner Brothers film, “Contact,” which was filmed in part at the VLA.
“In ‘Contact,’ I played the role of an astronomer using the VLA,” Foster said. “In narrating this new film for the VLA Visitor Center, I have the privilege of introducing tomorrow’s scientists, technicians, and engineers to the amazing complexities of this great telescope, and to the wonders of the universe that it reveals.”
From NRAO’s press release:
Titled “Beyond the Visible,” the film tells the behind-the-scenes story of the operation and scientific achievements of the VLA, which has been at the forefront of astrophysical research since its dedication in 1980. Spectacular ground and aerial footage of the iconic radio telescope is augmented by first-person interviews with staffers who keep the telescope working and scientists who use it to discover exciting new facts about the universe. The film also depicts many of the technical tasks needed to keep the array functioning at the forefront of science.
“Since the last film for the Visitor Center was produced in 2002, we’ve completed a massive technological upgrade that turned the VLA into a completely new and vastly more powerful tool for cutting-edge science,” said Dale Frail, NRAO’s Director for New Mexico Operations. “It was time to update the story we tell our visitors,” he added.
The film replaces an earlier video that ran at the VLA Visitor Center auditorium, which is visited by some 20,000 people annually. You can’t currently go to the Visitor Center to see the new film at the moment, however, because of the US federal government shutdown. So, watch it here. Hopefully the shutdown will be resolved soon so that people can resume their visits to the VLA.
In 1985, famed astronomer, author and TV host Carl Sagan invited Jill Tarter to dinner at his house near Cornell University. Tarter, heavily involved with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, gladly accepted the chance to speak with Sagan, a member of SETI’s board of trustees.
Seated with Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, Tarter learned that Sagan had a fiction book on the go.
“Annie said, ‘You may recognize someone in the book, but I think you’ll like her,'” Tarter recalled in an interview with Universe Today.
Suspecting the character was based on herself, Tarter’s response to Druyan was: “‘Just make sure she doesn’t eat ice cones so much.’ It was something I was teased about.”
Female, in a male-dominated field
It was 15 years ago this month that the movie Contact, based on Sagan’s book of the same title, expanded to a run in international theatres after a successful summer in North America. The movie explores the implication of aliens making contact with Earth, but does it from more of a scientific perspective than most films.
While Contact, the movie did not talk about the pi sequences or advanced mathematical discussions in Contact, the book, it did bring concepts such as prime numbers, interference with radio telescopes, and the religion vs. science debate to theatres in 1997.
Tarter, who has just retired as the long-time director of the SETI Institute, said she was stunned by the parallels between her own life and that of Ellie Arroway, the character based on her in Contact. Both lost parents at an early age. Both also had to make their way in a field aggressively dominated by males.
Tarter recalls a meeting with fellow female scientists of her generation some years ago.
“A huge percentage of us had been, in high school, either cheerleaders or drum majorettes. This is so counterintuitive, right? Because we’re the nerds, we’re the brainy ones … (it was because) we were all competitors, and there weren’t any (female) sports to compete at. These sports were open, and we competed, and we generally won.”
Working on set
Tarter cautions the parallels did not totally match. The hopes and aspirations of Ellie in the book, and also the movie, were products of Sagan’s imagination. But the producers and actors of the film did want to get a close sense of what it was like to work with SETI.
After Jodie Foster was cast as Ellie, there were multiple phone calls between the actress and Tarter to discuss SETI.
“From her point of view, she was clear she wasn’t going to teach anyone astronomy. She was interested, in a personal way, about what the scientists were like,” Tarter said.
When the crew was filming at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Tarter flew there to observe the work, meet with Foster and also show the actress around. Tarter recalls bringing Foster up in a cabin that had a perfect view of the telescope, some 500 feet above the dish.
Microphones and walkie-talkies
Filming was an interesting process for Tarter, as well. There were the microphones, and the tools the crew used to check continuity. Most amusingly for Tarter, she observed Foster (reported height 5 feet, 2 inches) needing to stand on a box for most of the close-up shots with actor Matthew McConaughey (reported as 6 feet tall).
Two errors still irk Tarter today. There is a scene when Ellie gives a modified version of the Drake Equation, which calculates the odds of intelligent life who are capable of communicating with other life forms, and the calculations are all wrong. “It’s really infuriating,” Tarter said.
The other large mistake is a scene where Ellie gets a potential signal from space, while working at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array set of radio telescopes in New Mexico.
“She’s sitting in the middle of the array, in a car, with her laptop, and she gets the signal. And the first thing she does is pick up a walkie-talkie and start broadcasting. That signal is going to wipe out the signal from the sky. You don’t transmit by walkie-talkie.”
But overall, Tarter said the movie did a great job at portraying the feel of SETI. And Foster appreciated Tarter’s help. “She would write me handwritten thank-you notes, which was a kind of manner that most people have lost. A great courtesy.”
Tarter walked the red carpet at the movie premiere and spent most of her time watching the film in tears of happiness. That euphoria evaporated when she saw the SETI Institute was not credited at the end of the film. When she talked to one of the film producers, she said she was informed that lawyers usually draft agreements specifying the length of time the credit appears, and the compensation received for doing so.
“We don’t have a lawyer at the SETI Institute,” she said. “When I write a paper, I acknowledge my collaborators. We got that wrong, so we never got any credit. We might have gotten even more recognition.”
But the professional connection with Foster still remains. Foster happily responded to a request from Tarter to do voice-overs for a video clip used for a SETI high school curriculum for integrated science. She also narrated a show, Life: A Cosmic Story, for the California Academy of Sciences Morrison Planetarium.
Tarter is now shifting into full-time outreach for SETI, saying the budgetary problems that shut down the organization’s Allen Telescope Array for several months last year were a warning call.
One of the organization’s newest initiatives is SETILive.org, which crowdsources analysis of signals from the Kepler Field. SETI solicits the public to take some time looking at the signal patterns, one at a time, in search of extraterrestrial communications.
“SETI is too important to allow it to fail,” Tarter said, adding her focus is finding substantial, stable funding from “that individual or institution that is capable of taking a long view.”
Alien life probably isn’t interested in having us for dinner, enslaving us or laying eggs in our bellies, according to a recent statement by former SETI director Jill Tarter.
(Of course, Hollywood would rather have us think otherwise.)
In a press release announcing the Institute’s science and sci-fi SETIcon event, taking place June 22 – 24 in Santa Clara, CA, Tarter — who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film “Contact” — disagreed with both filmmakers and Stephen Hawking over the portrayal of extraterrestrials as monsters hungry for human flesh.
“Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves,” Tarter said. “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.
“Considering the age of the universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III,’ ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”
Tarter, 68, recently announced her stepping down as director of SETI in order to focus on funding for the Institute, which is currently running only on private donations. Funding SETI, according to Tarter, is investing in humanity’s future.
“Think about it. If we detect a signal, we could learn about their past (because of the time their signal took to reach us) and the possibility of our future. Successful detection means that, on average, technologies last for a long time. Understanding that it is possible to find solutions to our terrestrial problems and to become a very old civilization, because someone else has managed to do just that, is hugely important! Knowing that there can be a future may motivate us to achieve it.”
On the other hand, concern that searching the sky for signs of life — as well as sending out your own — could call down hungry alien monsters would make a good case for keeping quiet. And a quiet search may not get the necessary funding to keep going. I can see where Tarter is coming from.
Let’s just hope she’s right. (About the eating part, at least.)
Top image: Alien 3, © 20th Century Fox. Tip of the tinfoil hat to EarthSky.org.