Science or Fiction?!!

    Based on a story written by the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the 1997 movie "CONTACT", by Jodie Foster, represents a major landmark in the history of science fiction movies. Actually, the original novel itself is looked at as a unique style in science fiction writing.
    Most "claimed" science fiction movies present only fiction, but science is still missing. Time machines, UFOs, aliens, space travel, and super heroes were presented in many successful movies. However, these movies may attract youngsters, but it cannot really attract a scientist. Perhaps the best definition for a science fiction novel is that it is a novel that is based on a real scientific concept as a backbone for the whole plot, followed by the writer's imagination.
    For example, the successful "Jurassic Park" managed to present the idea of the genetic biotechnology. However, the movie wouldn't have succeeded without the support of Steven Spilberg's special effects.
The story of CONTACT is about a radio astrophysicist (Eleanor Arroway) who received a message from an alien civilization, during her research in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Program (SETI), which is a real research program in the US. The message had instructions to build a colossal machine. This machine was the space travel ship that the aliens wanted us to use, in order to bring one person from our planet to them.   
Ellie wears a pair of  headsets. We hear the SOUND of the COSMOS, the background  wash of empty STATIC... 
 ...and a faint BEEPING, FADING IN and OUT of reception. 
 Ellie slowly swims up to consciousness. After a moment her eyes open. She sits up 

    SETI program was established in the middle of this century. The aim of this program was to search for the existence for alien civilization, through listening to any radio waves coming from outer space. Afterwards, the discovery of the quasars, and other radio-emitting stellar objects gave more support to the project in establishing a sky map for all these objects. Yet, it didn't receive the "expected" message yet. Recently, SETI was frozen because of financial problems. The National Science Foundation (NSF) saw that it is more appropriate to allocate their budget for practical research projects that bring revenues, especially because the probability of finding an alien civilization is still low.  "Contact" discussed the problem of financial support to conceptual research. It also showed the importance of the support of private companies to research. Hadn't it been for R. S. Hadden, the wealthy engineer in the story, who offered financial support for Arroway, she wouldn't have received the alien's message.
    The story was not only a scientific one. It has also some conceptual points. For example, the message that was received was written in numbers, because Sagan imagined that math is the universal language that nobody can deny! Other movies used light, music, and other ways of communication with aliens.
    The story dealt with one of the most important dreams of modern physics, which is space travel. The main problem is that the universe is very vast in space. For example, the nearest star to our Sun (Centauri) is located 4 light years from planet earth (i.e. light from planet earth takes 4 years to reach it). Accordingly, there was an impossibility barrier for space travel.
The author, Carl Sagan, imagined that this problem could be solved if the space traveler is allowed to go through a black hole or heavenly object that allows space-time travel. However, we all know that if somebody goes through a black hole, it definitely won't be his lucky day!! Accordingly, Sagan sent a manuscript of his novel to Caltech famous Physicist Kip S. Thorne. As Thorne said: "He (Sagan) called me saying : I have just finished writing a story about the first Alien Contact, and I wanted you to check whether I got the general relativity right or wrong."
At this point, Thorne worked out general relativity. He found out that space travel in the way Sagan wanted would be possible, provided that the traveler passed through the so-called "wormhole". The wormhole is a result of the general relativity equations. It is like a gate between extreme locations of the galaxies or, as others view, between universe(s)!
Regarding this aspect, Sagan was unique among others science fiction writers. He insisted to find a scientific foundation for his novel. As Thorne believed, Sagan did not follow everybody's approach by saying that it is impossible because we don't have the technology. Rather Sagan asked himself whether it is possible or not provided that the technology existed "somewhere".
The interesting story goes on, expecting the reaction of religious and political leaders to this message. Arroway, Sagan's heroine, appeared as an agnostic scientist, following the scientific concepts. For example, regarding existence of God, Sagan said, on the tongue of Arroway, that God existence cannot be proven or denied scientifically. However, at the end, science represented in Jodie Foster and religion represented in Matthew McConaughey walked together hand in hand. One cannot comment on this except by Albert Einstein's quote: " Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
That movie, with all its controversial ideas, and the scientific approach that the author followed to give us this masterpiece sets the way for a new methodology in science fiction literature.
· (SETI Institute)
· (Arecibo Radio Observatory)
· (Very Large Array Radio telescopes, New Mexico)
·  Carl Sagan's Universe

Back to Al Mohandes