An Awful Waste of Space
On Wednesday, June 17, 1981, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had its premiere on British TV. Since its launch, the series has become the stuff of legend, so much so that I’ve lost count of the people I know who were inspired to pursue a career in science after watching it.
Sadly, I wasn’t one of them.
Back then, my parents had a nagging worry that the TV my siblings and I watched was stunting our development. As a result, we periodically went through patches as a family of having no television in the house. This was complicated somewhat by my grandfather, failing to understand the reason why we were occasionally television-less, bringing us replacement sets as fast as my parents disposed of them. Despite this, we still had extended periods where I was largely cut off from popular TV culture. And this included the first run of Cosmos.
Fortunately, I managed to find my way into a successful career as a scientist without Sagan’s guiding hand. But this didn’t stop me being drawn into his world through his movie Contact later on, and the science fiction novel it’s based on.
Sagan was a charismatic and often polarizing scientist, and one whose vision extended far beyond the laboratory. He understood and deeply respected the process of science. But in his thinking, science was about far more than simply learning about the world we live in. To Sagan, science was a way of seeing and making sense of the universe. His was a vision of science that extended far beyond textbook methodologies and tedious experiments, and it’s one that continues to inspire scientists, engineers, and technologists to this day. It’s also a vision that runs deep through what is perhaps one of the most respected and revered science fiction movies among people who make a living through science: Contact.
Contact is a movie about the nature and wonder of science that’s driven along by the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. At the center of the story is Dr. Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), an astronomer who is driven in her search for extraterrestrial life, but who has a scientist’s eye for testing every scrap of evidence to make sure that her biases aren’t blinding her. She’s smart, articulate, driven, and has a complex relationship with her peers—much like Sagan himself.
From an early age, Arroway has been obsessed with the idea of intelligent life beyond Earth, and as the story begins, we find her at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, looking for evidence of extraterrestrial signals from other star systems. The setting echoes Sagan’s early work on the search for extraterrestrial life, using the same telescope. And, like Sagan, Arroway is both ridiculed and disappointed in her research, but carries on regardless.
While at Arecibo, Arroway meets a young and charismatic religious leader, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), and butts heads with him intellectually while falling into bed with him physically. It’s also at Arecibo that we see Arroway first having a run-in with the Director of the National Science Foundation, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt). Arroway is funded through the NSF. Yet Drumlin believes her energy should be focused on what he considers (at the time) to be more productive scientific questions, and as a result, he cuts her funding, while being painfully patronizing and manipulative toward her in the process.
Not to be beaten, Arroway seeks out other funding sources for her research, and ends up attracting the patronage of the mega- entrepreneur S. R. Haddon (played by John Hurt). Haddon is impressed by Arroway’s passion, vision, and ability, and decides to invest in her and her work. With Haddon’s support, Arroway switches her research to using the Very Large Array radio telescope, or VLA, in New Mexico (another instrument that actually exists), yet Drumlin once again interferes by denying her access to this NSF-funded facility. Just as Arroway’s hopes begin to fade, she detects a strong signal from what appears to be beyond the solar system. As the significance of the finding becomes clear, people start trying to take the discovery away from her. First the security agencies move in, paranoid of what they don’t understand. Then Drumlin steps in and deftly assumes ownership of the discovery, leveraging his position and standing to get what he sees as the opportunity of a lifetime.
Meanwhile, the discovery has attracted large crowds to the area outside the VLA, and there’s a massive party vibe going on as people use the discovery as an excuse to let their hair down and have some fun. But, within the crowd, there are also religious fanatics who clearly feel threatened by the signals being received. While this is going on, the team at the VLA continue to find more detail in the signal, including what look like blueprints for building an alien device. As the significance of this finding sinks in, the question of how to respond to the discovery is kicked up to the White House, and Drumlin assumes the role of lead scientist, while Arroway is downgraded to being just one of his team.
At this point, Palmer Joss—now a religious advisor to the President of the United States—comes back into the story. Joss is brought in to provide advice on how the presence of the extraterrestrial signal potentially threatens long-held beliefs on humans’ “special relationship” with their various gods. At one point, a member of Congress even comes out with, “We don’t even know if they [the aliens] believe in God.”
As various experts and advisors congregate in Washington, DC, to discuss next steps, Arroway is reunited with Palmer Joss, and they quickly fall into a relationship where their physical and intellectual attraction to each other is complicated by seemingly irreconcilable differences on science and belief. Meanwhile, as the assembled experts grapple with deciphering the content of the alien signal, they hit a wall. And, once again, Arroway’s patron S. R. Haddon provides her with a way of getting back into the game. Drumlin’s team of experts have been struggling to make sense of the blueprints transmitted in the signal, but the mega-smart, mega- rich Haddon has deciphered them. And to back up his investment in Arroway, he passes the relevant information on to her.
With the key to the code, it rapidly becomes clear that the signal contains plans to build a device that will transport a single human being through space, and presumably to the star system of Vega from whence it originated. Arroway is desperate to be selected to make this journey, but is pretty sure that Drumlin will block her yet again. It turns out, though, that Drumlin has other plans, and has put himself forward as the person best qualified to be the first to meet an alien species. Because deciding who is best equipped to represent all of humanity when meeting the aliens is such a momentous decision, a shortlist of twelve candidates is compiled—with the final choice to be made by an international panel. Arroway makes this shortlist, and as the selection process continues, it finally comes down to her and Drumlin. In making their decision, the selection panel hold a final public hearing with both candidates. There’s only one problem; the selection panel includes Arroway’s lover and intellectual opponent, Palmer Joss, and he doesn’t want to lose her.
Arroway aces her interview until Joss asks, “Do you believe in God, Dr. Arroway?” She replies honestly with, “As a scientist, I rely on empirical evidence. And in this matter, I don’t believe there’s data either way.” Drumlin, on the other hand, when asked the same question, gives a politician’s answer, and tells the panel what they want to hear. As a result, he’s chosen over Arroway.
As the launch of the alien device draws nearer, Drumlin, who is now cast in the role of public science-explainer-in-chief, takes part in a publicly broadcast test-run of the system. Drumlin begins to emerge at this point as a charismatic science communicator and popularizer, and is slightly disparaged by his scientific colleagues for it, a rather complex nod to the pushback Sagan himself received for his own public persona. On the video feed for the test, Arroway recognizes a religious activist within a secure area, and urgently warns Drumlin over the communications headset. Drumlin confronts the person, but it’s too late. The extremist reveals he’s wearing explosives and detonates them, killing Drumlin, and spectacularly destroying the machine.
This appears to be the end of the line for humanity’s first attempt to make contact with an alien intelligence, until Haddon steps in once again and shows Arroway a satellite image of a remote 275 location in Japan, and a second machine. As the world is informed of this backup machine, Arroway becomes the person chosen to be transported in it. She’s installed into the machine’s pod, and the countdown to launch commences. As the alien machine ramps up, communication with Arroway becomes increasingly faint, until one of her colleagues—Kent Clark, a blind scientist who first identified the presence of additional information in the signal from Vega (played by William Fichtner)—manages to pick her up, faintly repeating “…okay to go…okay to go….”
As the pod is launched, Arroway finds herself catapulted through space, eventually ending on a palm-surrounded beach in a scene that mimics a picture from her childhood. Here, she sees a figure approaching her, which resolves into her father, long dead at this point, and the inspiration for her life’s work. He explains that what she is seeing is simply a representation that the aliens thought would feel familiar to her. In their brief conversation, she learns that she’s traveled through a series of wormholes to an interstellar junction, that this massive network of interstellar transportation conduits was built by a previous civilization, and that there’s a long history of emerging civilizations being introduced to their galactic neighbors by building machines like the one Arroway has been transported by.
Following the encounter, Arroway is transported back to Earth, only to discover that, to the Earth-bound observers, no time has passed. To these observers, the pod she was in simply dropped straight through the machine and into the net below; the experiment was a failure.
Confused, Arroway explains what she experienced. But she has no proof, only her knowledge that, to her, it was real. And this is where Sagan and the movie begin to explore the relationship between science and belief. Arroway’s journey as a scientist starts from her unshakable conviction that she can only understand the world by using evidence to test what she believes to be true, and having the discipline to ditch beliefs that don’t stand up to the test, no matter how compelling they are. Yet the movie ends with her believing in something that she has no evidence for, other than her own experience. Much like the religious experience that transformed Palmer Joss’ life, Arroway has an unshakable conviction that what she experienced was real. Yet she has no proof with which to convince others. And so, she finds herself in the same boat as Joss, and his belief that experience and hope transcend proof.
Yet, as the consummate scientist, Arroway doesn’t expect others to take her word on faith. Instead, she’s driven to look for evidence to support her experience, not out of despair, but out of the conviction that, if what she experienced was true, there will be evidence to be found.
What she doesn’t know is that this evidence exists, but is being kept from her. Unbeknown to Arroway, the video from her pod came back blank. But instead of just a few seconds of blank screens as the pod fell through the machine, it contained nineteen minutes of nothing, the same amount of time Ellie claimed she had been away. Yet, despite not knowing about this, Arroway has the strength of her convictions and the discipline of her science to support her, and the movie ultimately leaves us with an affirmation of the power of combining science and belief to better understand ourselves, and our place within the universe.
While Contact is clearly science fiction, it is, in many ways, a homage to the scientific process, and to the scientifically rigorous search for extraterrestrial life. In the movie, Ellie Arroway’s character is largely based on the real life astronomer Jill Tarter, and the film as a whole draws extensively on Sagan’s own experiences. This is a movie that celebrates the use of reason and evidence to expand our understanding of the universe. Yet it also acknowledges that reason needs to be combined with imagination if we’re to truly appreciate who we are, and the world we inhabit. And it does this by grappling with the tensions between science and belief head-on.
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