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This story takes place a long time ago, like, pre-“cellphone in every pocket” era. This may be a bit long. I was in my teens and I was hooked on playing D&D. Playing roleplaying games kept me out of trouble and also kept me from indulging in certain….habits. My regular group wanted to branch out with other games like World of Darkness and Shadowrun, but I truly loved playing D&D (2nd Edition at the time). I realized I could get my fix by joining another group at the local gaming shop. The owner told me there were two groups playing D&D and one was actually looking for people to join up. After making a phone call and some arrangements, I returned to the store to meet up with the group.
The group was seven people:
The DM, a college student in his early 20’s. His group had split up, as they do, so he and his friend, Fox, wanted to create a new one. He was a very good DM who was an aspiring writer. He understood the concept of collaborative story telling way before most. He really wanted his players to help drive the story. He was a fast thinker and was able to adapt to change. He wasn’t the most original story teller, copying many ideas from movies and books, but his stories were fun.
“Fox”, another college student, early 20’s and the DM’s roommate. He played a Human ranger. Dual wielder build , think Madmartigan from “Willow”. Fox and the DM seemed to be old friends. Fox was very funny and quick witted. Tall guy with kind of a frat guy vibe to him, I felt like he was going to be an a$$h*!e, but he was more of a “laugh with you” versus a “laugh at you” kind of guy.
“Blue”, a young lady in her early 20’s, playing a Drow cleric. Drow were rare back then, but Drizzt was big and everyone was finding a way to play them. She had a solid backstory so I guess the DM allowed it. She was very bouncy and bubbly IRL, an absolute sweetheart of a woman but she role-played her character completely differently. A dark, pained exile from the Underdark who had critical knowledge about the BBEG of the campaign.
“Scratch”, the youngest in the group. A 14-15 year old kid who was very into D&D. His mom would drop him off. He was playing the mischievous rogue trope, a half elf thief. Not the most mature kid, prone to acting a little childish and bratty, but he would pick on when we were being annoyed and he was a talented player. Apparently he was a theater kid, so his parents thought this was great practice for him. Despite being closer in age to the older players, I tended to talk to Scratch more out of game.
“Bull”, a guy in his mid to late 20’s. Who claimed he worked as a bartender and acted like that was the pinnacle of “cool”. Would always have some story about a “girl he picked up last night”. Carried himself like he was a body builder, even though he wasn’t big or muscular at all. He was a massive rules lawyer. He would find any esoteric rule or optional rule to give bonuses to his character. Bull was a power gamer, playing an elven fighte “archer”. Had a very bad habit of interrupting people when they were talking. But he was funny and a good player. As much as he would annoy you, he could still make you laugh.
“Sapper” our oldest player in his 40’s playing a half-elf druid. I was initially a little weirded out that there was this older guy in the group, but DM and Fox apparently knew him for a long time. DM even referred to him as “Pops” every once and a while. He was an old school gamer who was the ultimate support player. He was the antithesis of “Bull” in that while he knew all the rules, he would be more helpful and remind the other players or the DM if they missed something. He rarely spoke about his personal life. He was a stocky, barrel chested guy.
And finally me. I was around 18 years old and I was playing an Elven mage. I had just started college and still living at home. I was a little oblivious to the world around me and I frequently missed cues and hints. I was the guy who would ask what’s going on while watching the same movie as you. (I’ve gotten much better.) When I played roleplaying games, I was able to focus on the game for some reason, so I really enjoyed playing. I felt I was my “best self” in game.
Initially we were playing at the store, once a week in the evenings. It was loud, a little crowded, and…..smelly sometimes. There were multiple tables with Magic the Gathering players and a large Warhammer type game table with a bunch of older guys. The first game was supposed to last only two hours, but we were having so much fun and we stuck around until the owner kicked us out. The DM had us meet more organically in story rather than the whole “Stranger in a bar” trope. Everyone’s character had a personal stake in the outcome so every character could be engaged.
Our game was going very well. The DM was talented and gave us some incredible action beats. We were progressing nicely and having a lot of fun. Well, most of the time. We had our problem player, Bull. Like I mentioned, Bull had no issue interrupting people and would sometimes step on other player’s turns or even the DM’s. He was the guy that would scream out an action just as the DM was explaining something. You know what I’m talking about? Like this:
DM: “The Lord raises his scepter and….” Bull: “I shoot it out of his hand!!!!” Rolls “I got a 19” DM: “um, the scepter flies out of his hand. The guards train their crossbows on you. The Lord holds his hand and screams “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? I WAS GOING TO SIGNAL THE CHEF TO START DINNER!”
The DM would call out Bull when he would try to add all these weird bonuses to his attack rolls. DM and Fox caught on very quick to all these and the three would argue at length about where he found these and Bull would argue and wave around a legal pad full of notes about why he gets those bonuses. This is before the age of smartphones and the internet as we know it. Bull could never back up his claims and would only say things like “I found this in (insert module)” or in “a Dragon Magazine”. Many of his bonuses were redundant and didn’t make sense. It was annoying and Scratch pointed out to me that when Bull got too animated, the store owner would walk by and he would calm down. After the game, the owner would always pull Bull aside and talk to him if he had an outburst.
One day, the group started talking about moving the game elsewhere. Apparently, there were a few reasons. First of which was Blue. Now, like I said, this was awhile back and female gamers were extremely rare. When the store was packed, there were only two ladies in the place regularly. Blue and an older lady who played Magic. Blue was a very amiable girl who was kind to everyone she met. Her personality was such that the guys at the store instantly thought she was interested in them. Hell, I thought the same thing for a bit, but I realized that her kindness was not flirting. The game was constantly interrupted by guys trying to talk to her. Well, after a while, one of the much older guys in the store started to pester Blue a little too often and the older guys had to step in.
Secondly, Magic the Gathering was blowing up and the store owner wanted to limit our table top time to make way for more Magic gamers. Apparently, Magic made the owner more money. It also drew in younger folks, which made things more uncomfortable. They were louder and less respectful of other people’s space and property. One day, a kid just threw a soft drink across the room, missing his target, and landing on our map, wiping clean most of a battle. No apologies, no action from the owner. DM suggested we move the game to his house. We went around the table and we all, one by one, agreed to move the game to DM’s house. Sapper didn’t immediately agree, but after he and DM went outside to chat for a bit, he agreed. We left the store that night for the last time gaming there. I walked home while everyone else went to their respective cars. I saw DM and Sapper talking to Scratch’s mother, Scratch told me they were discussing the change of venue.
DM and Fox lived in a fairly large guest house attached to a bigger house. Apparently, a cop lived in the big house because there was a police car parked in front of it. This made me slightly nervous, for…..reasons. When we walked in, their dining room had a large table and a large bookcase full of D&D books. This was a much more comfortable venue. We got right to the game and things were so much better. The privacy made us more comfortable and the role-play greatly improved. The players all started to affect voices and accents. Even Bull relaxed a bit and wasn’t quite so annoying. We had a lot of fun for a while. Our campaign saw our party teaming up to fight a Drow wizard who was trying to find an artifact of immense power. Blue’s character was the BBEG’s daughter and vowed to stop him from killing any more innocents. After a while, a love triangle formed between Fox, Blue, and Bull in game. Well…more like a love wedge, with Fox and Blue flirting and having moments and Bull trying very hard to win Blue over. I thought it was very entertaining and Scratch and I started to try to mess with Bull’s character via the old “notes to the DM” trick. Scratch would create fake love notes from Blue to Bull and hide them in his pack. I would cast an illusion to make it look like she was looking at him and checking him out. Bull would react or confront Blue and she would let him down, which would leave him slightly embarrassed and upset. One day, Sapper pulled the two of us aside one day and asked us to stop messing with Bull that way. I wasn’t sure why he said that, but I stopped. Can’t say the same for Scratch, though.
Then things started to get a little uncomfortable. Initially, Blue would ride in with Bull, because she didn’t have a car. I had asked if he could give me a ride too, but he said it would be too out of his way. (He lived two blocks away from me.) I was saving up for a car, so I had to bum rides or take the bus. After a while, Bull offered to give me a ride because “he” realized how close we lived together. When he picked me up, I saw that Blue wasn’t there. During our car rides, he would talk about how Blue was so into him and how they went out earlier in the week or she stayed over his house. When I finally asked why she wasn’t catching a ride with us anymore, he said he wanted to keep their relationship low key. I wondered why he would tell me then, but I didn’t give it too much thought. Blue would always be there before us. When the game was over, I would catch a ride home with Scratch’s mother because Bull would hang out afterwards at the house with the older guys and Blue. I couldn’t hang out because I had school or work early. I guess Sapper hung out with them too, because I never saw him leave. Scratch and I would talk about the game on the car ride home. While I would bring up what happened in game, Scratch would talk about what happened at the game. He pointed out that at the table, Bull would always try to sit next to Blue. Early on, there was a musical chair game every night with all the players shifting chairs. Eventually, Blue nestled between the DM and Fox and Bull would sit across from her.
Fox and Bull would get into arguments often. Fox would try to do something and Bull would spout rules, real world physics, or any other reasons why he couldn’t do that. They started to go at it until Sapper or DM would get them to calm down and move ahead. Bull would do his bonus thing where he would be in a tree, shooting an arrow at an enemy, and he would roll and call out a ridiculous number. DM would ask where he came up with the number, and Bull would start listing:
Weapon Specialist: +1 Dex Bonus: +4 Elf: +1 Master work bow: +1 Master work arrows: +1 Higher ground: +2 Sun behind you: +1 Taking time for the shot: +3 Elevated Position: +2 Hated Enemy: +2
DM cut him off and said “Higher Ground and Elevated Position are the same thing, you aren’t a ranger, and I still want to see where the hell you are finding these BS bonuses. And I don’t even want to hear you say “Dragon Magazine”. Then we would have to wait 20 minutes for Bull to rifle through books and try to find (or pretend to find) where he found the bonuses. One time Scratch said, “You take the time to write down the bonuses, why don’t you write down where you found them so we don’t have to wait for you to find them. “ Bull, snapped at him and barked “F$&* you”! Sapper told him to calm down, that he was a kid. To which, Bull replied “You aren’t my father!” DM told both Bull and Scratch to relax or the game would stop. Bull calmed down and sulked when he couldn’t produce all of the extra bonuses. Blue tried to console him and point out he still hit his target, but he still acted upset.
Things came to a head one day when in an earlier game, Blue was captured in game after she fell in battle and in the subsequent mission, the rest of the party went to save her. Despite Bull’s best efforts, Fox got to her first and had his swashbuckling, two sword flipping, and dashing rescue moment. He even got to scoop her up and swing on a rope to get her out of harm’s way with me sending a fireball at the enemies chasing them so they had an explosion to swing away from! They landed and had an in game kiss, which…they….also…did IRL. Fox, swept her up and laid one on her. Blue was definitely surprised, but she clearly reciprocated the kiss. My jaw dropped. Scratch immediately turned to Bull and blurted out, “OOO, that has to sting!” I saw Bull start shaking. He stood up and started screaming at the DM. “There’s no way he could do that. He killed like 8 guys single handed!” Scratch pointed out that He, Sapper, and I all helped or buffed him with spells or arrows. Even Bull shot and killed one of Fox’s attackers. Bull, knocked over his large soda as he was complaining, and Sapper immediately got up to get paper towels from the kitchen.
Bull started in on Fox, claiming he lied on his initiative rolls and exaggerated his movement to get to her. DM said, “Fox rolls on the table in front of us, and we are tracking movement on the grid. There’s no way he could have cheated”. “BullSht! You are covering for him! You both are trying to make me look bad, you’ve been doing it all campaign!” Scratch interjected “You don’t need their help to look bad.” Bull screamed again “F&% you, you little sht!” Fox admonished Scratch with a glance, but glared at Bull. Blue stepped in, “Bull, calm down, please.” Bull turned on her, “And you let him kiss you! Come on, let’s get out of here!!!” She said, “What? No, I’m …” DM spoke up, “Dude, you need to leave, now. “Scratch, who was smiling at the action, chimed in “Yeah, get lost, a$$h!e!!”
With that, I saw Bull’s hand reach into pocket, I pulled Scratch behind me in an act that, at the time, I didn’t understand why I doing it. Fox stepped back with Blue as DM moved around the table. Bull produced a pocket knife and turned toward DM as he flicked it open. DM pulled a chair in front of him and yelled something like, “DAAA!” Before I knew it, Sapper was rushing into the room. He grabbed Bull’s hand and twisted it hard inward toward Bull’s chest. I heard the knife fall and I saw Bull swing and hit Sapper on his ear. Sapper yanked Bull’s arm behind him and grabbed the back of his neck. He them slammed Bull on the table, (crushing some miniatures) and then slid him onto the floor. There was some wrestling on the floor and Fox and DM rushed over. I couldn’t see what was happening because I backed away and found myself in the corner of the room standing next to Blue. Scratch had slipped out to the other corner to watch the fight. I saw Fox pick up the knife and Sapper barked at him to put it on the table. Sapper then said to DM, “Go get my handcuffs, they are on my belt.” DM ran off through the back door and Sapper directed Fox on how to pin down Bull’s legs. He then told Blue to call the police. After hearing that, Bull stopped cursing and started saying “Ok, Ok, I’m good, I’ll just go. “ Sapper said “Oh, you’re going alright….” Bull pleaded with him, but Sapper kept him down until DM came back with a pair of handcuffs. Like real police handcuffs. Sapper puts them on him and stood him up. He searched him like a cop would and then commanded Bull to sit down in a chair. Sapper then looks at DM and asks, “You ok, son?” to which DM responds.” Yeah, Dad. “
My jaw dropped. It was like that scene at the end of “Usual Suspects”. As Sapper was asking everyone if they were ok, memories started flashing before me. I never realized just how oblivious I was. Here’s a list of revelations that hit me while I was standing there waiting for the police.
First, Sapper was DM’s father. He lived in the big house. That’s why I never saw him leave. That’s why DM would sometimes call him “pops”, he wasn’t being insulting, he was just talking to his dad!
Second, the reason Sapper told Scratch and I not to mess with Bull, was that he was aware there was something wrong with Bull. I didn’t really pay too much attention to Bull when he would drive me to the game, but he talked a lot about how he and Blue had a relationship, I assumed he was telling the truth. I thought Bull was angry because Fox kissed his girl. Obvious to everyone but me, that wasn’t the case. Sapper was aware of Bull’s delusions and he asked Scratch and I to stop messing with him because he just didn’t want us aggravating the situation. Which brings me to the third thing.
Fox and Blue were actually and item! Scratch later filled me in that he figured out they started dating around the same time we moved the game to the house. Their relationship progressed to the point where they were spending the day together and he was taking her home. Or maybe she was staying there. Either way, that’s why Bull wasn’t driving her to game or home. It seemed that she was so nice that she didn’t want to overtly show off their relationship because she didn’t want to upset Bull.
Fourth thing…..Bull was bat crap crazy!!! He apparently was delusional. He truly believed he and Blue were in a relationship, despite all evidence to the contrary. After all this was done, we all sat down and they discussed everything that happened. Apparently, he been asking Blue out since they met and she had been letting him down, but she still was happy to be his friend. Recently, Fox had a conversation with Bull where he broke it to him that he and Blue were an item. Bull apparently told him he was still going to chase after her saying “Let the best man win.” Sometime after that conversation, Bull got it in his head that he and Blue had some kind of relationship. When he saw Fox kiss Blue, he truly thought Fox was kissing “his” girl. Which is why he snapped.
Which brings me to the fifth and final thing. Sapper was a cop. He lived in the big house like I mentioned, and that’s why he was leery about moving the game to the house. He lived there with DM’s Step-mother and another son and daughter who was several years younger than DM. He told DM that they had to hold the games in the in the guest house where he was living with Fox. He also wasn’t too happy about having a minor come over but he and DM talked to Scratch’s mom and later to his father at length. I was always nervous around cops back then…..for…reasons…. but I realized that he was just a regular guy, a guy who was into the same things I was into. Well, ……..not everything I was into.
So this whole internal revelation montage ended, when I heard the sirens of police cars. I was worried about where my backpack was…for ….reasons. They came in and started asking what was going on. Bull started screaming about how his father was a high ranking police officer from the next county over and how they had to let him go immediately. The police got statements from everyone, including me. They arrested Bull and took him away. We all were standing around when Fox apologized to everyone thinking that his actions caused all the problems. Blue apologized because she didn’t realize just how much Bull was into her. Scratch apologized because he thought his teasing pushed him over the edge. I apologized because I just didn’t realize how bat crap crazy Bull was and I never told anyone about his conversations with me. Sapper apologized because he knew we shouldn’t have let Bull play with us. He had a conversation with the store owner who told him that Bull was prone to fits of anger. The owner told him he had calmed down over the years after he suspended him from the store a few times. But the owner still saw that anger bubble out sometimes. DM finally spoke up and said it was his fault. He convinced his dad to bring the game here and allow Bull to play. He said he should have listened to his dad’s intuition. When all was said and done, we all agreed to take a couple weeks off so DM could retool the campaign since Bull’s character was not going to be there anymore.
Sapper, DM, Fox, and Blue went out to tell Scratch’s parents what had happened. She was shocked and according to Scratch, she needed those two weeks to be convinced to let him play at DM’s house again. I saw how upset she was so I didn’t ask for a ride. Sapper offered to take me home, but I politely declined…….for…..reasons and I took the bus. We started up again and DM stated Bull’s character fell during Blue’s rescue.
Bull apparently showed up a day later to get his car. Sapper stood outside and watched him as he got dropped off and he jumped in without a word. Bull got charged and his family got him a great lawyer that got the charges reduced. I’m not sure if he served time, but I heard he got a ton of community service. We added and subtracted people to our group over the next couple of years we played together. Eventually, my original group started playing D&D again and I decided I would play with the two groups.
Years later, I lost touch with Scratch, but through the magic of Facebook, I still talk to the old group. Blue and Fox dated for several years, but eventually parted ways and got married to other people. DM is living with his husband, (another thing I didn’t notice.) I’m actually still very close to Sapper. He was kind of a mentor to me and got me to drop certain…habits, and go into his line of work after I finished school. Now with the advent of online table top gaming, DM is putting together a reunion game using Fantasy Grounds. I’m really looking forward to getting to play with my old friends again.
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(Re)Watching Contact as an Astronomer

(Re)Watching Contact as an Astronomer

Jodie Foster doing something completely bananas
I haven't done a scientific poll, but informally, I would say that if you asked astronomers which film portrayed astronomers and astronomy the most accurately, most would say Contact (Especially as compared to Addicted to Love, or Roxanne, or Thor). Jodie Foster's Ellie Arroway and the other astronomers in Contact are portrayed as relatively charming dorks, enthusiastic about their science, and stymied by funding issues. Contact is also one of the few movies that (I think, successfully) grapples with just how much faith goes into the study of science, thanks in large part to Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, but primarily due to Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan's underlying source material and the adaptation by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. I wanted to write a little bit whole bunch, apparently, about the film from my perspective: I'm an astronomy professor at a university in the American southwest, I teach and do research and mentor graduate students, and when it's not a global pandemic, I travel around talking about inspiration and astronomy and the night sky. I don't work on alien life, or even in the radio, I'm primarily a near-IR / optical astronomer who focuses on distant galaxies and accreting supermassive black holes / quasars. So, while I may not be a SETI expert, I'm also a Blankie, and I thought that maybe I have enough experience with observational astronomy to provide some scientific context and insight into the film. WARNING: VERY LONG, SORRY.
(Also, I don't want this to be a nitpicking thing, since there are others who've done this already. I also want to point anyone who's interested in this film and the novel to this site, which has a really long discussion of both from a real SETI dork.)
The opening of the film, with that beautiful pullback from the Earth, through a pretty unlikely alignment of planets, out through the (backwards) pillars of creation, out of the galaxy, and through the galaxies in the larger supercluster and indeed the whole of the universe, is pretty incredible, even to me, someone who rolls his eyes at the completely incorrect scale of everything with relation to each other. It sets the mood, takes its time, and gets at this idea of our bubble of information radiating out from our planet. By the way, if you're someone who wishes that they could fly through a more realistic universe simulation, I love Space Engine, which is a stunning piece of software that I use as a teaching and outreach tool.
After we spend some time with young Ellie (I don't know why she'd forget Saturn when she's sitting under a planet mobile she herself made, but whatever), we flash forward to her in Puerto Rico at Arecibo, which is really a film star in its own right. At this point, I want to highlight that nobody just shows up hoping to get some "dish time" to an astronomical observing run. Telescope time is generally doled out by a committee that reads through proposals and divides up the available time in a given semester to the proposals they deem the most scientifically pressing. So, you'd know exactly when you were observing, and for how many nights, and you would show up for that time specifically. It seems like Ellie is here longer than that, I think the film is indicating she's on an NSF grant where she is kind of sharing time with many others. When she meets Kent Clark (much more on him in a second), he introduces her to three other astronomers, Fisher, Brook, and Eli, the latter two who are studying real radio sources, M87's black hole (a celebrity in the last year or so!) and Mrk 541 (which...doesn't seem to be that bright in the radio, and I guess is a gamma ray source). I suppose they are all there jockeying for time on Arecibo, but in actuality, everyone would have a pretty strict schedule. Later, Ellie would run out on Palmer Joss because she's late for her shift, but the film is a little loosey goosey on how the telescope time is used. I also don't know why the head of the NSF, Drumlin (who is her Phd advisor in the novel) would come down to Arecibo just to take away Ellie's grant (or perhaps shut SETI down entirely? Is Ellie Arroway the entirety of SETI in this movie?), but hey, it's a movie, sure, we gotta set up Drumlin as a real jerk.
I want to highlight that on Palmer and Ellie's little astronomy date, he asks her "when did you know you wanted to be an astronomer?" which...every astronomer has been asked that. Every single one. Her answer is pretty classic.
So, when her funding at Arecibo gets cut off, she and Kent go around and get private donors, including the mysterious Hadden, to help lease telescope time from the government to continue her search. This rings true, as many telescopes (and projects, including the real SETI) require external funding sources to help keep them afloat. Essentially, she's gathering private funds (as opposed to government, or academic funds) to pay for the scientists and the time on the telescope, which here, is the VLA in New Mexico. It's likely that she is buying a big chunk of time that would likely be apportioned throughout the year instead of like, in one month (the movie implies she lives in Socorro, so she must have bought enough time for it to make sense to live near the telescopes, which, wow, that's a lot of funding). If you're doing a systematic search of the sky for extraterrestrial radio signals (in astronomy, if we're feeling rude, we refer to these types of observing proposals as "fishing expeditions"), you're going to want to see the whole northern hemisphere sky across the whole year. The VLA is not the ideal telescope for this sort of thing, since it's main skill is resolution, and not light-gathering power, but it's a very dramatic place to set the film, wow. The VLA observers room set is almost identical to the actual VLA observing room, down to the dorky stickers ("ASTRONOMY IS LOOKING UP") and tons of computers and screens everywhere. I should say, if someone was carving a pumpkin during an observing run, I'd be pretty frustrated, to be honest, because you shouldn't dick around while you're observing. Also, I would not be happy if someone was smoking a damn pipe in the control room, woof.
I want to come back to Kent Clark, who seems to be Ellie's closest collaborator on this. Kent is based on a real guy who worked on SETI, and here he might be my favorite character in the film, especially in how he tries to be realistic with Ellie, who the film tries to show is a little more than obsessive ("staring at static on TV for hours, listening to washing machines" in order to "[look] for patterns in the chaos." is indeed a pretty concerning thing to be do, sorry, Ellie). It's also a little frustrating, on a re-watch, just how little Ellie actually does in the film, science-wise, as it seems like it's primarily Kent, time and time again, having the vital insight into the problem. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We eventually find Ellie, laying out on her car, listening to the radio signal from one of the dishes. This is already patently absurd (why! would you listen! to a light signal! translated into sound!), but it makes for the iconic shot of her hearing the initial source. At this point, she demonstrates exactly why you don't lay out on your car while you're observing by driving back to the control room screaming on a walkie talkie to Fish and Larry. They've been watching TV (never! during! an! observing run! and ignoring the "candidate signal detected" pop-up that should definitely be accompanied by an audio alarm, come on guys) only to suddenly jump out of their seats and run around getting their computers out of screen saver mode and pointing the dishes and going off axis and all that while Ellie shouts and shouts the coordinates: RA 18 hours, 36 minutes, 56.2 seconds, DEC +36 hours, 47 minutes, and 1 seconds. This is actually how astronomers divvy up the sky, with Right Ascension and Declination, and fun fact, astronomer Bryan Gaensler had to explain to Jodie Foster what RA and DEC were right before filming. The frequency of the signal is "hydrogen times pi," a cute reference to the Hydrogen recombination line at 21 cm (which, in frequency space, is 1420 MHz) and the transcendental number pi (very important in the novel): 1420 MHz * 3.14159... = 4.4623 GHz. The hydrogen recombination line occurs when a neutral hydrogen atom has it's electron change the orientation of it's "spin," and it's a pretty obvious wavelength for aliens to send signals considering the universe doesn't produce much natural emission at that wavelength outside of neutral hydrogen. Heck, we drew a little drawing of this spin flip transition on the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager golden record, kind of telling aliens "this is our telephone number, call us at this wavelength, please." When they finally get the signal all set up on a speaker, and double-check it's not some sort of natural signal (spy satellites, the space shuttle), they realize that it's coming from Vega, which hey, if you're reading this from the northern hemisphere (and you're reading this around when the episode comes out), you can go outside and look up and see Vega yourself, tonight! It's the FIFTH BRIGHTEST STAR IN THE SKY. Drumlin brings this up later, but Ellie has gotten profoundly lucky, in that Vega is so profoundly well studied due to its brightness and proximity. If she hadn't found it, considering it was BOOMING at 100+ JANSKYS, some other radio telescope would have picked this up. It would be the brightest radio source in the sky at that brightness. (side note: I am working on the James Webb Space Telescope, and helping plan the initial follow-up to the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The tiny amount of light we are expecting to be able to pick up is on the order of nanoJys, or 0.000000001 Jy)
Ellie, after confirming with an Australian astronomer (lol the video chat technology in this movie, also it's funny that Ellie asks him if he has a "source location" and he responds "Vega" because...she would have had to tell him the coordinates to look at the source in the first place), decides to release this discovery to the public. This is of course what you would do, since you would want people to be monitoring and observing this. Astronomers use something called the Astronomer's Telegram to alert other observers to interesting phenomena that might warrant follow-up study, but I would bet that with something this big, she'd also try to alert journalists. Everyone shows up to the VLA, and our man Kent eventually comes in an hears the harmonics (ha, it's at 2 * pi * the hydrogen recombination line, which, 2 * pi, or tau is also revered in some circles) (man, on re-reading this, that pun was unintentional but pretty good), and recognizes that it's a TV signal. It's a cute idea for the aliens to just broadcast our tv signals back at us with their own data attached, to be sure, although I would have no idea how I could hear a signal and look at it on an oscilloscope and go "oh, yeah, TV signal," but whatever. Kent is also the dude who eventually realizes that there's a bunch of extra data interlaced with the original signals while Ellie is jockeying in Washington with Angela Bassett (that's... the job), so good job, Kent, again.
The movie, at this point, becomes far less scientific and more political as the government intervenes and tries to push Ellie off the project, which is now very public and very much A Thing. When Ellie comes back to the VLA, she travels through a crowd of alien fans, and I would be very, very annoyed if I were at a giant radio telescope trying to do pretty important sensitive work and a bunch of idiots were just outside the gates using technology that also relied on radio signals. Real bummer. When the decryption team gets stuck trying to find the primer, Hadden shows up to unlock the secret of thinking in three dimensions ("Did anyone see the movie Tron?"), and we learn about Ellie's background. She went to MIT (fine), did her Phd at Caltech (because of course she did) on astronomical radio instrumentation (which makes it weird that she decided to abandon instrumentation for observation, but sure, fine), got a job...teaching? at Harvard (what does this mean? is this a professorship? is this a postdoctoral research appointment with a teaching portion?) but turned it down to take her NSF grant down at Arecibo. (I'm salty with Caltech as I went to UCLA for grad school, after going to another, better nerd college just to the east of it for undergraduate) The film makes a huge leap from "we've got alien language" to "oh look the aliens have given us blueprints," and ONCE AGAIN, while Ellie is at her dress-up function in DC flirting with Palmer Joss, Kent calls up because he figured it all out, it's a big geometric structure designed to carry someone. Kent, you're the secret hero of this movie.
They build the device in Florida, Drumlin gets selected to go because Ellie can't figure out how to reconcile scientific belief and religious faith (because it's the MORAL of the MOVIE), and he gets blown up by JAKE BUSEY of all people. Hadden reveals the Hokkaido machine (this is, by the way, also in the book, although there's a third machine that the Russians have built that's crap) and that the Japanese subcontractors "still want an American to go," which seems like a weird request, but the film has a strange opinion of Japanese people throughout. By the way, the line "Wanna take a ride" is maybe the coolest line in the film. Ellie accepts, starts training, gets frustrated about the chair they've put into the device (even though it was in the original device, remember our bud Elmer was strapped in), and learns about her "personal recording unit" which has "normal, infrared, and ultraviolet lenses," but a) that's casting judgment about optical light being "normal," which is rude, and b) how are there three lenses on a device with two cameras. Ok, now I'm just doing a lot of the nitpicking I said I wouldn't do. Oh well.
When they turn on the second machine and they start having trouble hearing her signal, I would have 100% turned the machine off at that point, because, you know, safety, but whatever, but once again it's Kent who shows up to hear her saying she's ok to go, and whoosh, she's off, into the wormhole the device must have opened up, all the way to Vega, which is surrounded by a big ol' dust disk (fun fact: Vega is so bright it's the basis of an entire astronomical brightness system, and was thought to be mega boring and stable until astronomers looked at it in the infrared and discovered it was very bright because of the very same dust disk shown in the movie just re-radiating light from the star.pdf). Very charming to see it here) and for a second you can see a structure that is meant to be one of the terminals along the wormhole subway system. As an astronomer, it's really wonderful to see all of the visuals she sees throughout this journey, since films artists make astronomy imagery really look great as compared to the dull raw astronomy data we look at. The line about sending a poet is still wonderful, but what gets me is Ellie's repeated "I had no idea," one of the most profound conclusions a scientist can come to. Recognizing what you don't know, what you couldn't have known, that's science.
Even though it's full of Zemeckis-ass blue-screen bullshit (enhanced with extra bullshit to make it seem more fake, like the full lighting at night, and the shifting shadows and all of that), the sequence with the alien as her father is very effecting. Sometimes we do search for meaning, and we do wish we weren't alone. It's the fundamental core of what it is to be alive, really, that search for community, for love, for acceptance. I mean, it's why we're all on reddit after hearing a podcast about movies, right?“In all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” And holy cow, is there a lot of emptiness, I mean, I'm writing four trillion words about Contact to stop myself from feeling empty and hollow about...an election and a pandemic and...everything? right now.
Ellie comes back from "Pensacola," but there's no evidence of her journey (well, except for the insanity that they all saw and recorded from the machine...CHANGING GRAVITY and all that), and an inquiry is set up to investigate what happened with the machine. At this point, I don't know why Ellie has to sit in front of a huge room full of people and entertain James Woods' pet theory that every radio telescope in the country somehow pointed at the same...Earth-orbiting satellite (?) and they all got the same signal from this satellite and were duped into thinking it came from Vega. This...this is a pretty ridiculous premise, especially considering how much work the film demonstrates that astronomers do to figure out if a signal is "local." But whatever, Occam's razor, I guess. Ellie goes on to work at the VLA and do outreach for kids (pretty great) while Angela Bassett discovers the 18 hours of recorded static (bum bum buuummmm). I've always found this to be a silly, but satisfying twist.
The book, which features five folks who travel through the machine and have their own experiences and come back (there's some sand in the machine after she returns from the trip), ends with Ellie discovering a MESSAGE from ALIENS built into the digits of PI ITSELF after 1e20 decimal places in the BASE 11 REPRESENTATION of the number, which is RIDICULOUS, why not have the name Slartibartfast just appear in the number while you're at it.
Ok, that's Contact. It's great! I wish that Ellie's face didn't do that terrible morphing animation in her pivotal scene! The astronomers look like astronomers. The gender demographics are a lot better now than they were but still not great! I wish the film had given Ellie more agency over the science and the discoveries! You should read the book! Or watch Carl Sagan in Cosmos! Also, I stream astronomy stuff on Youtube if you want to see me wave my arms around a bunch in front of a green screen. Be good to each other! We're the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable!
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