'Contact' and The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: An Epic Tech's Message Special
For this special science, astronomy and sci-fi themed episode of Tech's Message, we're joined by three very knowledgeable guests to discuss the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, interplanetary travel, and the science behind science fiction, based on the themes raised in Carl Sagan's book and film Contact:
Dr Pamela Gay: Astrophysicist and Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Director of CosmoQuest and co-host of science podcast Astronomy Cast. On Twitter at @starstryder.
In a nutshell, the story of Contact focussed on a scientist named Dr Ellie Arroway, working within the SETI facility at the Arecibo Observatory, who discovers a mysterious signal apparently coming from the star system Vega. It turns out the signal is being received as a repeating set of pulses that follows an ascending pattern of prime numbers - 2 pulses, then 3, then 5, 7, 11, and so on. Within the signal was an encoded message, which ultimately translated into being schematics for an inter-stellar transport vessel.
The film and the book differ on a few points but huge parts of both book and film detail the political, religious, financial, personal and existential issues surrounding first contact, and we'll discuss some of those themes across this 45-minute special episode.
Along with many other topics, we discuss:
- Is there any consensus in the scientific community about what form any first contact might take, and is Sagan's idea of a prime number sequence containing encoded schematics a reasonable theory?
- What do you think would make a good candidate for being the first to speak to extraterrestrial life?
- What other books, films or TV shows do you think do a good job at dealing with the topic of humans meeting extraterrestrials?
- We've not had any proof yet that we're anything other than alone, but what exciting theories have been discussed?
- Do we send signals into space to try and make deliberate contact?
- Could we even build the machine described in Contact?
- The science behind The Martian, Star Trek, The Sparrow, Arrival, Red Dwarf and more.
- Let's assume Earth is contacted over the next few years in a way that makes it irrefutable that we're not alone in the universe. How might it play out and did Sagan's depiction seem realistic?
- Where might the next big discovery in cosmology come from and what might it be to do with?
- Bots and artificial intelligence, how good appearances of this tech in sci-fi as well as potential future applications of these systems could be seen in interstellar communication and translation