Bad Movie Wednesday

One of a continuing series

I previously had a hard copy of the book, but now I have a Kindle edition. I don’t recall where I first saw the movie, but it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The movie came out twenty years ago, the year after Carl Sagan’s death. It’s Contact, based on his novel of the same name. It’s distributed by Warner Brothers. Details are from Wikipedia.

Contact refers to contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, and in particular this movie pertains to SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which was one Carl Sagan’s prime endeavors. Principle in the plot is Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway, played by (Jodie Foster). It begins early in Ellie’s life. As a child she had a consuming interest in communication with remote intelligence. Her short wave radio set connected her to people around the planet.

Then her father died, and she forged her own path.

She is next seen working on the SETI project at the Arecibo radio telescope facility in Puerto Rico. It is a place of Audacious Science.

It is difficult to defend SETI. Telescope time is valuable for more pragmatic research, and Ellie has to scramble for grants to fund her research. She meets and becomes romantically involved with her polar opposite, Palmer Ross (Matthew McConaughey) a religious philosopher.

A wealthy billionaire, S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) takes interest and provides funding. Hadden is strange, even for a reclusive billionaire. He has ensconced himself aboard a low-Earth satellite, where the zero gravity prolongs his life. Ellie moves her work to the Very Large Array facility west of Socorro, New Mexico. It’s a place of Very Large Science.

The improbable occurs. The antenna array picks up a regular signal. The signal comes precisely from the Vega star system, 26 light years from Earth. Decoding it reveals the earliest television signals, from the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. Following are plans for the construction of what amounts to a time-travel machine.

No explanation is given—just instructions for building and operating the machine. It is huge and bizarre. There is a place for a single human passenger in a capsule to be dropped, free-fall, through the center of rotating rings.

Ellie’s nemesis, her former NSF overseer David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), is chosen to make the trip. Tragedy intrudes. A religious fanatic infiltrates the project and explodes a bomb, wrecking the system and killing Drumlin.

Fortunately, billionaire Hadden has secretly funded the construction of a duplicate system on a Japanese island, and Ellie makes the trip.

She rides the capsule free-fall and experiences what is imagined to be a trip through a worm hole, winding up shortly on a planet in the Vega system. On a beach, within a hallucination induced by an alien life form, Ellie converses with an alien being projecting itself as Ellie’s long-dead father (David Morse).

Then Ellie returns, and the capsule completes its fall through the rings. Only seconds have transpired on Earth, and all the recorded logs from the capsule contain only noise. The official position is that Ellie’s accounts of her experiences are either fallacious or else imagined. However, a White House official, Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett) observes the recorded data from the capsule spans 18 hours.

Yes, this is a nice science fiction story, albeit incomplete. Some technical issues do not survive.

Example one is the characters using cell phones at Arecibo and the VLA. The times I have visited those places cell phones were ordered to be off.

The business of traveling through a worm hole is contrived. Worm holes are mathematical entities postulated by physicists enabling connectivity between points distant in four-space. Going through a worm hole, if only in principle, would not be like actually traversing a tunnel, as depicted. In short, there would be no visuals, and it is not supposed there would be any sensation of elapsed time.

The four-space travel machine is appropriately bizarre. A more mundane physical implementation would have sufficed, although not as entertaining.

Following Ellie’s return from the Vega system, her story is widely discredited. Really? A team of highly-proficient scientists and engineers failed to  notice the 18-hour discrepancy? The discrepancy was not immediately made public? I’m not buying that.

Furthermore, antagonists insist the Vega signals could have been faked by the wealthy Mr. Hadden. Absolutely not. Signals being received by multiple observatories cannot be faked.

Sagan long pushed the SETI project, but on an invalid basis. The fallacious premise is that we should search for extraterrestrial life by examining the radio spectrum from galactic sources. The reward for success is learning that intelligent life exists beyond our planet. On the face of it,  that’s a poor return, because I am going to postulate there is intelligent life on other worlds. So, what do we really get? Top prize would be having something to shove into the face of the nearest creationist who persists on mouthing that our species is a special creation. A secondary prize would be reassurance concerning our ideas on modern cosmology. The Universe developed some 13 billion years ago, Stars formed, galaxies formed, planets formed, life formed. That would be good.

But the cost-benefit is low. Back of  the envelop calculations indicate the possibility of  success is vanishingly small. Even if the reward were the prevention of another human calamity on the scale of World War Two, the effort would be better spent elsewhere.

So, what is the proper approach to SETI? My nomination is SETI@home.

SETI@home (“SETI at home”) is an Internet-based public volunteer computing project employing the BOINC software platform, hosted by the Space Sciences Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley. Its purpose is to analyze radio signals, searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, and as such is one of many activities undertaken as part of the worldwide SETI effort.

A computer sitting on the floor behind me is running SETI@home right now. The project does not require antenna time. It piggy-backs on existing radio telescope research. Signals from active research are parceled out to the thousands (millions?) of participating computers, which perform analysis in the background. You may not know it, but your computer is always active. When you press a key on your keyboard and before your finger can get to the next key, your computer is looking around for something to do with the unused time. That’s background. SETI@home uses that wasted time.

Search for SETI@home, get the software, get started.

My spare computer is also running the asteroid search. It’s like SETI@home, but the process involves identifying objects that may strike the Earth and do much damage. I eagerly await the night when my computer blasts out an alarm, flashing a notice on the screen: “GET AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE FROM YOUR HOUSE IMMEDIATELY. AN ASTEROID WILL IMPACT IN FIVE MINUTES. SIGNING OFF. GOODBYE.”

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One thought on “Bad Movie Wednesday

  1. Pingback: Bad Movie Wednesday | Skeptical Analysis

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