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Reader Responses to "Contact" Article


Since Larry's "Contact" film review article was placed on this site, he and I have received many responses.  We would like to post here the best of these responses and critiques for the benefit of other readers.  If you have previously responded to Larry's article by sending Stuart Kingsley or Larry Klaes an email and would like your response to be considered for publication on this site, please email Larry with your approval and re-submit your response.  New articles should be submitted to Larry Klaes.  Larry and I will consider publication of the responses on their merits, regardless of whether they support or oppose the concept of electromagnetic SETI.  If you wish to be contacted by whoever reads your article on this site, please include your email address at the end of your submission.

Stuart Kingsley
February 1, 1998


Date: Fri, 15 May 1998
From: Kevin Healy <healy@groucho.la.asu.edu>
To: lklaes@learningco.com
Subject: walkie-talkies in Contact
Cc: skingsle@postbox.acs.ohio-state.edu


Hi Larry,

Just came upon your COSETI page and your comments on the movie Contact.   I agree with many of the comments you made, but would like to correct a glaring error you and every other person has made critiquing the movie.

The site technicians really do use walkie-talkies at the Very Large Array.  I worked at NRAO in Socorro for two years and went to school at New Mexico Tech for my B.S. in Astrophysics.  I've been to the VLA countless times and even observed several times.  Although I haven't checked to see if it is reproduced in the fake set of the control room at the VLA, the real control room has a set of radios in recharger units on the counter in front of the big window for use by the site techs.  These radios are modified so as to suppress any transmission sidebands that occur within the receivable bands.  The bigger boo-boo is the rest of the radio interference.  They were still receiving The Message when the troops descended in helicopters and trucks, but all those firing spark-plugs would have drowned out the signal.  All on-site vehicles are diesels!

I would ask that you pass this fact along to both the OSETI and radio SETI crowd.   It's frustrating to see this myth propagating.

Kevin Healy



From:   Michael Faison
Sent:   Tuesday, July 21, 1998 12:48 PM
To:     lklaes@zoomtel.com
Subject:    Contact Review

Excellent review of the movie "Contact."  I read the novel in high school when it first came out, and it was one of many inspiring works that led me in the direction of physics and science.   I majored in
physics at Oberlin College in 1994, and reread Contact that winter, after having observed at Arecibo and done a senior project in radio astronomy at Green Bank.  The book had a very strong impact on me the second time, esp. because by then I had sorted out some of my complicated feelings towards organized religion.

So I was skeptical when I heard that Warner Bros. was going to make a movie.  I was in my 2nd year of grad school (at U. Wisconsin), and I was working as a summer student at NRAO in Socorro.  That fall they did background shots at the VLA, but postponed filming with the actors (I believe due to protestations from Sagan regarding the script).  I was really worried about what a major studio would do to such a powerful and philosophical story.

Last summer when the movie came out, I was having a tough year with my research (on the structure of HI in the Milky Way), having lived in Socorro for a year.  I had passing thoughts about leaving the field, and along came this fantastic movie glamorizing radio astronomy.  I was very impressed with the screenplay, although I agree the Palmer Joss character was disappointing.  Now I'm starting my 5th year of grad school, and things are going well.  

A few comments on your review:

>Since I will say up front that I do not think the Universe as a whole was created by any particular intelligence, I was always somewhat surprised and bothered by Sagan actually saying there was a message
>from "God" in the value of pi.

This also bothered me at first, but began to make sense when I thought about Sagan's view of God.  Sagan has always been overtly agnostic, "awaiting proof", not atheistic.  In _The Demon Haunted World_, he compares the popular vision of God to an invisible dragon that lives in the garage with no proof of its existence.  I don't think that Sagan was against the concept of a Creator, just the concept of one that leaves no evidence.  Finding a message in a fundamental constant like pi is very clear proof of an intelligent Creator, and I think it fits in well with Sagan's philosophy.

For one, the Very Large Array was chosen more for its "sexy" appearance than for the fact it is four times smaller in microwave collecting area than the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico

Yes, the VLA is quite sexy on film, esp. in the compact "D" configuration (also, the slewing was speeded up in the film and ominous slewing noise was added).  However, Arecibo has its own problems with respect to SETI work.  It is quite sensitive pointing close to overhead, but loses efficiency quickly when pointing away from directly overhead.  In fact, Vega, at +39 dec, is *barely* within the pointing range of Arecibo (Dec 0 to +40).  The total collecting area of the VLA is equivalent to a 120 m single dish, larger than any other fully steerable antenna.  The VLA can see *much* more of the sky than Arecibo, from about DEC -40 to +90.  Also, an interferometer has better resolution and some characteristics that make it easier to remove earth-based interference.

>In the film, when the Message is first picked up by Ellie's team at the VLA and its galactic source determined (they got its right ascension and declination correct, by the way),  They should have!  My advisor, Miller Goss, was at the VLA during part of the filming and made sure Jodi Foster had the correct coordinates.  Also, he says that in the original script the hydrogen frequency was wrong.  (Nevermind that "hydrogen times pi" is outside a frequency range in which the VLA can observe.  Obviously they were observing after the VLA upgrade, because we also still don't have control software with 3D graphics.)

One other nit: when Ellie goes into the machine, the door self-seals her inside.  If the machine material is at all conducting, the pod should have been an excellent "Faraday cage", and no EM signal should have been able to get through, including the video and audio from her headset.


Michael Faison,
National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Socorro, NM


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