Two Astronomers discuss Alien Lifeforms, Science Fiction Movies and Astrophysics

From the end of the much acclaimed 1997 Sci Fi Thriller  ‘Contact’:

‘You are not real, none of this real…..
You are an interesting species…In all our searching all we found is each other.’

If you are a Sci Fi film buff or just any buff with an inclination to know what’s out there beyond our dangerously warming atmosphere, then you’ll chomp down on this post. It’s from an intriguing article on ABC news Australia, ‘If we finally find alien life, will it be anything like the movies’?

I have been taking a keener interest in all things science. I suspect my recent insatiable listening to Sam Harris’ podcasts has been the instigator for my wanting to learn more about truth, science and particularly cosmology.

Below are some of my favourite parts of the discussion between astronomers and science fiction film fans – Dr Amanda Bauer and Dr Alan Duffy:

Alan: Take Gravity, Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. They didn’t get absolutely everything right, but some of their most accurate scenes are also some of the most engaging. Wonderful cinematic moments and wonderful scientific demonstrations at the same time….

Amanda: Wait, am I allowed to talk about where Gravity got it WRONG now? They rendered the Hubble Space Telescope and the Soyuz Spacecraft beautifully — but the chance of the astronauts cruising between the two spacecraft, whose orbits above Earth differ by 140 kilometres in height, with nothing but jet-pack propulsion, and then just grabbing on?! Nope. Not possible…..

Alan: OK then, let’s talk Interstellar. The modelling they used to depict that black hole was so involved that a new effect was noticed: the halo-like warping of the glowing accretion disk around the black hole. It was written up in a scientific journal by the movie’s science advisor Professor Kip Thorne!

^The black hole in Interstellar was very carefully simulated.

If your already juiced up watch the The Science of Interstellar documentary.

Alan: And what about the ultimate masterpiece? 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rotating spacecraft that mimics Earth-like gravity because of its centripetal acceleration, or the wondrous silence punctuated by moments where air pressure (and hence sound) return; they all add to the film, while faithfully exploring scientific concepts in front of a huge audience.

Amanda: Love the music, love the ideas… But this film also creeped me out about artificial intelligence in a way that I’m still not completely comfortable with!

Anyway — let’s get this back to aliens. If you’re such an expert, what’s YOUR favourite move alien?

Alan: That’s tricky. Space is sometimes explored really well in the movies, but the fictional aliens that live there are usually much less convincing.

The common plot line, where aliens are so advanced as to travel hundreds of trillions of kilometres between the stars and then invade us, is just bizarre! Why harvest the resources on Earth when there is so much more available — and already in bite-sized chunks — lying in the asteroid belt?

Amanda: True. And you guys, in your enormous ships, flew right past all those asteroids to get here!

Alan: ….. The idea that the aliens can somehow use our bodies is incredibly unlikely.

Considering that we share most of our DNA with life on Earth, and yet are violently sick (at best) if we try to eat almost any of it — then how would an alien from space, which shares none of that DNA, possibly be able to eat us? Let alone, as in Aliens, go one step further and use us as a host, or even somehow take DNA characteristics from that host! Remember the dog-alien?

Amanda: But instead of meeting face-to-face, maybe we will communicate. Like in Contact — I love that movie. It’s a wonderful description of the way we might uncover such a signal, and it’s a great exploration of the range of responses from the public too.

Contact came out when I first started studying physics and I constantly got told, “You remind me of that lady in the movie with the headsets…” Jodie Foster? “YES!”

But by the time I started teaching, the students were too young to have seen that movie. Sad.

Alan: …..And we are certainly listening. Telescopes around the world, including the Parkes radio telescope in Australia, are looking for just this sort of signal as part of the Breakthrough Listen project. The science is finally catching up with the science fiction.


'I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.' - The Master

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