Contact: the movie
Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), the heroine of the movie "Contact," finds an alien broadcast in much the same way that Project Phoenix operated. Phoenix was searching for signals from the directions of about 1,000 nearby, sun-like stars. There were other SETI experiments underway, but Project Phoenix was the only systematic targeted search of individual stars, the type of search conducted in the movie. Project Phoenix ran from 1995 - 2004.
Much as in the movie, the senior scientist in the search is a female Ph.D. astronomer named Jill Tarter. However, Jodie Foster's character Ellie is not directly based on Jill. "Carl Sagan wrote a book about a woman who does what I do, not about me," explains Tarter. "He did his homework, and thus included many of the `character-building' experiences that are common to women scientists studying and working in a male-dominated profession, so Ellie seems very familiar to me."
Another reality-inspired character in the movie is the blind researcher, Kent Clark. Dr. Clark was formerly Director of Research and Development for Project Phoenix, and the leader of its signal detection team is a blind Ph.D. physicist named Kent Cullers. According to Cullers, "An early version of the screenplay included a small part for which I was judged competent enough to play myself. However, as the part expanded, it required the skills of a real actor."
|Movie Version||Reality Check|
|Detection of a radio signal from an extraterrestrial technological civilization is made at the Very Large Array (VLA), in New Mexico, after Ellie's experiment in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is shut down by myopic bureaucrats.||Despite having 27 antennas, the VLA is four times smaller in collecting area than Arecibo. It is therefore less sensitive, and less suitable for SETI. In addition, use of the VLA would require 27 copies of our receiving system, a formidably expensive proposition! Of course, there's no denying that the VLA is very photogenic.|
|When her SETI project is shut down, Ellie turns to a Howard Hughes-like private donor to continue the search.||When Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada amended the NASA appropriation bill of 1994 to kill SETI, the SETI Institute had to seek private funding. Today the SETI Institute is actively involved in trying to establish a $100 million endowment to ensure that the searching can continue as long as necessary.|
|Ellie detects aliens on the airwaves while listening with earphones.||Project Phoenix examines 28 million channels simultaneously. Instead, computers scan for signals, and only alert the astronomers when interesting ones appear.|
|When Ellie stylishly suits up for the White House press conference (only to be upstaged by Drumlin), she is wearing an attractive blue and white pin with a telescope logo.||In fact, Ellie is wearing one of our SETI Institute pins. Those of you with really good eyesight may have seen the NASA HRMS pin in the lapel of Fish's suit during the Arecibo party scene. Thanks to Senator Bryan, those are no longer available.|
Despite such minor quibbles, there's no doubt that "Contact" is indescribably more accurate in its depiction of SETI than any Hollywood film in history.