How Accurate is the Science in the Movie "Contact"?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 24 2012 1:23 PM

Contact: Fact or Fictional?   

One of the questions astronomers always get from people is, “What movie depicts science the most accurately?” Most of us usually say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is true enough. There are some mistakes in the film, but you have to be an über-dork to see them (the phases and locations of the Earth and Moon are shown incorrectly a couple of times—which, to be fair, is important to the plot, but still pretty dang nerdy to spot).

Another movie that holds its own is Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. It goes out of its way for accuracy, adding lines of dialogue that are wholly incomprehensible to the layman but which get astronomers nodding sagely to themselves. For example, when Jodie Foster says the signal’s frequency is “pi times hydrogen,” she is referring to the characteristic radio signal emitted by hydrogen atoms in space (about 1.4 GHz) but multiplied by the number pi, which is a sign of the signal’s intelligent origin.

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I like Contact quite a bit, and in fact just recently watched it with my daughter, who saw it for the first time (she loved it too). So I was pretty psyched when my pal Veronica Belmont asked me to be on her web show “Fact or Fictional” (part of Revision3's Tech Feed channel on YouTube) to talk about the science of the movie. It’s a short interview, but fun:

And if you haven’t seen Contact, go! Watch it! And then go and read the book by Sagan. As good as the movie is, the book is far better, and the ending—literally, the last page—still gives me a chill just thinking about it.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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