SUBJECTS — Religions/Judeo-Christian; Science Fiction; Space Exploration; Mathematics;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Grieving; Father/Daughter;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Caring.
AGE: 12+; Rated PG for some intense action, mild language and a scene of sensuality;
Drama; 1997; 153 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Aliens contact Earth and send plans for a mysterious machine. It appears designed to transport a person through space-time, but no one is sure. Should mankind build the machine or not? And if we send someone traveling through space on the machine, who should represent our species? The film is based on Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel of the same name.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
SERIOUS. The film implies that there is a conflict between science, on the one hand, and belief in a supreme being, on the other. For most religious traditions, there is simply no such conflict. Religion and science seek answers to very different questions. See Helpful Background Section below. This issue should be fully discussed with children who see the film. A second assumption embedded in the film that requires comment is the idea that the existence of extraterrestrial life would somehow challenge religious beliefs. For most religions, the concept of the supreme being is universal and would include all beings, including aliens. Again, teachers and parents should think about discussing this assumption.
Parents who believe in the literal truth of certain religious texts, e.g., the accounts of creation contained in the Bible, should evaluate this film carefully before showing it to their children. In addition, this film has been criticized by some commentators as failing to present positive views of Christians. However, Palmer Joss, the main positive male character in the film is a Christian, though this is not stressed in the film.
There is a scene when the two leading characters are in bed after making love. This appears to have occurred just after they have met. Nothing explicit is shown. In addition, mild profanity is used in extraordinary situations.
This film provides an excellent opportunity to discuss whether in the family’s belief system there is a conflict between science and religion. See Is There a Conflict Between Science and Religion?. It can also serve as the basis for discussions about The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence; wormholes, Prime Numbers, Occam’s Razor, and the Drake Equation. The Quick Discussion Question can lead to an excellent discussion about the ethical choice on which the plot turns.
IS THERE A CONFLICT BETWEEN RELIGION AND SCIENCE?
(CAVEAT: This discussion applies to most religious traditions but does not apply to those which require a belief in the literal truth of a religious text because, for those traditions, the definition of religion is expanded to include the determination of facts about the physical universe and its origins. The conflict between science and faith implied in the film does exist for adherents to these religious traditions.)
There is a flaw in the implication of this film that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion. The error becomes apparent when we look at the actual functions of religion and of science.
Religion seeks to answer questions about the purpose and meaning of existence. These can be boiled down to the query, “WHY DO WE EXIST?”
Science, on the other hand, addresses the question of “HOW DO EVENTS OCCUR IN THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE.” For example, science can tell us how our bodies and our minds work, but it is our beliefs about existence that endow our lives with purpose and give us a reason to live.
Some people say that science is their “religion.” This, however, is a misapplication of the term because science puts forward only a method for finding out about the physical universe but tells us nothing about why we exist. Some persons who are skeptical about the existence of a supreme being like to point to the body of scientific knowledge as demonstrating that there is no God. There are others who find the intricate and beautiful structures of matter and life to be evidence of a supreme being. Science is the scientific method and the discoveries about how matter and energy function which were made using the scientific method. It cannot tell us “why” we exist or “why” we have a separate consciousness.
Most systems of beliefs about the nature of existence also answer questions about the way people should behave. Again, the question answered: “what should be done,” is much different than science’s query of “how” events in nature occur.
For a Christian Protestant study guide to this film which asks many questions, see Baptist Education Ministries Young Adult Resources. For a Jewish perspective, see Yom Kippur Kol Nidre sermon from Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, Illinois. The Catholic perspective on science and religion was stated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 upon the belated “rehabilitation” of Galileo from the judgment rendered against him in the 15th century by the Inquisition. The Pope said:
There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. … [The] intelligibility, attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial Thought imprinted on all things.
For a scientists’ view, see Albert Einstein on Science and Religion.
The best way to address the religious issues raised by the film is through Discussion Questions numbered 4 to 18.
THE SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE (SETI)
SETI is an international group of scientists and lay people who scan the heavens for signs of life on other planets. See SETI Institute Online and SERENDIP at the University of California. An innovative program, SETI@home, uses the Internet to send packets of recorded interstellar radio signals to home and office computers. Any computer user can participate by running a free program that analyzes the packets of radio signals for transmissions from civilizations on other planets. The SETI@home program operates only when the participant’s computer is not being used for other tasks. The results are sent to SETI when the computer is logged onto the Internet. SETI then sends back a new packet of interstellar radio signals for analysis. (The radio signals are gathered by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico which is the scene for the early portion of the movie.) The SETI@home program has an attractive screen saver which provides a visual representation of the analysis as it occurs. SETI@home allows any person with an up-to-date computer to contribute to SETI with a minimum of inconvenience. It is an excellent teaching tool.
When Carl Sagan, the author of the novel Contact, was looking for a way to transport his heroine through space-time, he came up with the idea of going through a wormhole. The concept of a wormhole in space-time had been around for decades. If a black hole is rotating and joins up with a “white” hole, it would be possible for matter to be drawn into the mouth of the black hole and to pop out through the white hole. The result is a wormhole. However, people could not pass through a wormhole because they would be crushed by the tremendous pressures in the black hole. Sagan asked Cal Tech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne if it was possible to design a method of travel that would protect a person in transit through a wormhole. Intrigued by the problem, Thorne and his students came up with the idea of lining the side of the wormhole with an exotic form of matter that had anti-gravitational properties. A number of papers in theoretical physics were published on this question. For more on Sagan, Kip Thorne and wormholes, see Traversable Wormholes and Wormholes: Searching for a Subway to the Stars. A wormhole could take a person to Vega in a few hours. For photographs, see Spectacular views of black holes at the centers of galaxies. What happens when a black hole is linked to a star? See Diagram of Possible Relationships.
Good science fiction often predicts coming breakthroughs in science and technology. (An excellent example is Jules Verne’s 19th Century prediction of Captain Nemo’s atomic-powered submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). In this case, Sagan’s inquiry led to a boomlet of theoretical papers on using wormholes as an intergalactic transportation system. The speculation never went anywhere and some physicists saw the effort as a waste of time.
Any integer greater than one is called a prime number if it can only be divided by one and by the number itself. Integers that are not prime are called composite numbers. The number 1 is considered neither prime nor composite but in a class of its own. When composite numbers are factored completely, each of the factors will be prime numbers. For example, the number 78, a composite number, can be factored into 2 X 39, while 39 can be broken down into 3 X 13. Thus the prime factors of 78 are 2, 3 and 13. This is an example of the application of the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic which states that “Every integer can be written as a product of primes in an essentially unique way.”
The prime numbers between 1 and 100 are:
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97
The mathematicians of the Pythagorean school (500 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E.) were interested in numbers for their mystical and numerological properties. They understood the idea of primality and were also interested in perfect and amicable numbers. A perfect number is one whose divisors sum to the number itself. e.g. the number 6 has divisors 1, 2 and 3. It is classified as a perfect number because 1 + 2 + 3 also equal 6. The number 28, with divisors of 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14 is also a perfect number, i.e., 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14 = 28. Amicable numbers occur when the divisors of one number sum to the other and vice versa. The numbers 220 and 284 are amicable. There are many good websites explaining prime numbers: They include The Math Forum, The Prime Pages, and Prime Numbers.
Occam’s Razor is a principle of logic and philosophy that is perhaps most appropriately stated as “when you have two competing theories which make exactly the same prediction, the one that is simpler is the better.” It was popularized and extensively applied by a 14th-century logician and Franciscan friar named William of Occam (or Ockham)(1284-1347). Occam’s Razor describes only what is more likely. It is always subject to confirmation by experimentation. It only applies when the two competing theories make exactly the same prediction.
An example of the proper use of Occam’s Razor relates to the crop circles that appeared in England in the early 1970s. At first, circles, and then more intricate designs appeared as depressed grass or plants in fields in England. There was much speculation that they were caused by aliens coming to Earth in spaceships. Articles and books were written about them. Quasi-scientific missions set out to discover the aliens in the act. Occam’s Razor told the skeptics that the simplest hypothesis (i.e., the designs were man-made) was the most likely. The alternative, aliens mounting an expedition from a far away stellar system to Earth, arriving, making the designs and then disappearing, all undetected, was more complicated. In fact, after several years, two English pranksters revealed that they had cooked up the whole thing at the local pub over two pints of Guinness. See Carl Sagan’s article Crop Circles and Aliens: What’s The Evidence? Parade Magazine (The Baltimore Sun); Sunday, December 3, 1995. pp. 10-12, 17.
THE DRAKE EQUATION
What are the specific factors that play a role in the development of intelligent civilizations on planets? While it provides only very rough estimations of the probability of intelligent life in space, the Drake Equation is generally accepted and used by the scientific community to examine this question. The equation is: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L . Where,
N = The number of communicative civilizations. (The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose radio emissions are detectable.)
R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars. (The rate of formation of stars with a large enough “habitable zone” and long enough lifetime to be suitable for the development of intelligent life.)
fp = The fraction of those stars with planets. (The fraction of Sun-like stars with planets is currently unknown, but evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.)
ne = The number of “earths” per planetary system. (All stars have a habitable zone where a planet would be able to maintain a temperature that would allow liquid water. A planet in the habitable zone could have the basic conditions for life as we know it.)
fl = The fraction of those planets where life develops. (Although a planet orbits in the habitable zone of a suitable star, other factors are necessary for life to arise. Thus, only a fraction of suitable planets will actually develop life.)
fi = The fraction of life sites where intelligence develops. (Life on Earth began over 3.5 billion years ago. It was not until the last ten thousand years that intelligent life developed. On other life-bearing planets it may happen faster, it may take longer, or it may not develop at all.)
fc = The fraction of planets where technology develops. (The fraction of planets with intelligent life that develop technological civilizations, i.e., technology that sends detectable signs of their existence into space.)
L = The “Lifetime” of communicating civilizations. (The length of time such civilizations sends detectable signals into space.)
For an Internet site which explains the meaning of “Right Ascension” and the equatorial coordinate system, see The Exodus Project: Introduction to Celestial Coordinates and the Planisphere.
Interesting Notes: There are several SETI projects. Project Phoenix searches for signals from approximately 1,000 nearby sun-like stars. The SETI project described in the film resembles Project Phoenix. The director of Project Phoenix was, at the time the novel was written, a woman. One of its project directors was blind. However, the characters in the film are creations of the novelist and, so far as we know, they are not otherwise patterned on these individuals. For more comparisons between reality and the film, see SETI Institute on Contact.
After Ellie Arroway discovers the message from the aliens, the film shows President Clinton giving a press conference. This footage was taken from an incident when a Martian meteorite was discovered to have possible evidence of life. Also note that Warner Brothers, the film’s producer, and CNN were both owned by the same conglomerate, Time Warner.
2. Scientists have found evidence that the Earth and the moon suffered a cataclysmic bombardment of asteroids at about the time life began on Earth. Is this the origin of life on Earth?
3. If it were shown that human beings were not the only intelligent beings in the universe, how would that affect your religious beliefs?
There is no correct answer to this question. We suspect most people would say that their beliefs have a large enough scope to include aliens.
4. Do you believe that the existence or non-existence of God depends upon whether extraterrestrial life exists?
See suggested Response to the preceding question.
5. What would it mean to you if it were discovered that there were civilizations of intelligent beings on other planets?
There is no one right answer. Some people feel that mankind, as the only intelligent species we know, are a lonely race. They would feel less lonely if there were intelligent aliens. Some might find their religious faith to be confirmed by the existence of aliens while others would view aliens as a challenge to their religious beliefs.
6. How would you answer Palmer Joss’ question: ” … [A]re we happier as a human race? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the web, but at the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than at any other time in history…. Maybe it’s because we’re looking for the meaning. Well, what is the meaning? We have mindless jobs. We take frantic vacations, deficit finance trips to the mall to buy more things that we feel are gonna fill these holes in our lives. Is it any wonder that we’ve lost our sense of direction?”
The basic answer is that science cannot buy happiness and cannot provide meaning for our lives. To the extent that applied medical science improves our health and applied agricultural science allows hungry people to eat, happiness is increased. But those of us who live longer, more active, and less hungry lives, still must face the question that the Joss character poses. The answer is the same no matter how long we live or how much food is available.
7. Palmer Joss also said: “The one thing that people are most hungry for, meaning, is the one thing that science hasn’t been able to give them.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain your reasoning.
Science cannot provide meaning for our lives, that is the role of religious or philosophical belief. Science is a method of finding out about the physical universe. For some scientists, it provides a quest, a passion, a profession, and a life’s work, in the same way, that any job can be used as the center of a person’s life. But that is not the type of “meaning” that the Joss character is asking about.
8. Can anyone, using the scientific method, prove or disprove the existence of a supreme being, the truth of a belief about the meaning of life, or what is the proper way to live? Is this even a reasonable question to ask a scientist?
The answer to both questions is “No.” Science is a method of evaluating theories that explain the physical and natural world. This extends to the way that people and animals act. It does not tell us about a supreme being because eventually, as one analyzes the natural world, there will be the origin of some energy or of matter that is not known. The queries outlined in the first sentence of the question are beyond the scope of science.
9. The Alien told Ellie that: “See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” Do you agree or disagree?
10. In the film, Ellie’s experience is confirmed by the 18 minutes of static on the tape. What is the message of this development?
11. Galileo said that “Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.” How does this statement apply to the issues about science and religion brought out by this film?
This statement embodied Galileo’s personal reconciliation of religion and science. To Galileo, his scientific discoveries did not challenge the concept that God was the creative force behind the universe. His scientific discoveries were simply an exploration and description of God’s handiwork.
12. Are belief in the discoveries of science and belief in a supreme being incompatible?
See discussion in Helpful Background Section.
13. After Ellie’s father died, the priest told her “We aren’t always meant to know the reasons why things happen. It’s God’s will.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
14. Do you think that 95% of the Earth’s population believes in a supreme being?
15. Do you agree that if we were to send a representative from Earth to another planet, we should only send a person who states that he or she believes in a supreme being?
16. At the end of the film Ellie Arroway says:
I had an experience I can’t prove, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am, tells me that it was real. I was part of something wonderful, something that changed me forever; a vision of the universe that tells us undeniably how tiny, and insignificant, and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us we belong to something that is greater than ourselves. That we are not, that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and the hope, but … that continues to be my wish.
What other type of person would talk like this? What does this passage mean to you? Would the Ellie Arroway at the beginning of the film have said something like this?
17. Is it a proper use of science to prove a preconceived belief about an aspect or a process of the physical world?
No. The scientific method requires that all theories, no matter how basic, are subject to question and challenge. In fact, the history of science shows that many theories that have been held to be true (e.g., Newton’s mechanical view of the universe) have been superseded by other, more precise and accurate ways of measuring and understanding physical reality. In fact, it is a perversion of the scientific method, for science to be used to attempt to prove any preconceived set of facts.
GRIEVING – FATHER/DAUGHTER
1. One of the themes in the film is that Ellie Arroway’s obsession with finding extraterrestrial life is based on her grief at the untimely loss of her father and mother. Is it realistic that the direction of her entire life would be affected by these events, or is this simply a pretty construct of the novelist?
2. How would you describe the relationship between Ellie Arroway and her father?
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
The following is a conversation between Drumlin and Ellie Arroway, after he had lied about his belief in a Supreme Bering in order to be selected to ride the space machine. It raises the question of the reason for ethics in the first place.
DRUMLIN: “Of course. Ellie, I know you must think this is all really unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is that I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the final line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.”
ELLIE: “Funny; I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.”
Do you agree with Arroway or with Drumlin? Please justify your answer.
Obviously, Arroway is right. Drumlin is arguing that the ends justify the means. There are two genuine sources of ethics that we have been able to ascertain. One is based upon the belief that a supreme being has decreed that people should act in certain ways. The other (and they are not mutually exclusive) is held by both religious and non-religious people who act ethically. Ellie Arroway puts it one way in this movie, that life is what we make of it. It can also be called an acknowledgment that societies and personal relationships can work well only if people behave in a principled manner. Another way to put it is that ethical people take pride in acting in a trustworthy and considerate manner. See PRINCIPLED DECISION MAKING — HOW TO GET THE RESULTS WE REALLY WANT, MAXIMIZE OUR STRENGTH AND POWER, AND BE PROUD OF OUR ACTIONS.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
2. Drumlin lies about his religious beliefs and gets the assignment of a lifetime. Ellie Arroway refuses to lie and loses that chance until Drumlin is unexpectedly killed by a fanatic. Would you have given up your life’s dream rather than misrepresent your beliefs?
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
- Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction;
- Prove whether or not these numbers are prime numbers: 79, 87, 91, 101, 103, 108, 109, 119. Describe the process that you went through get your answer.
- Have students join SETI@home and report back to the class about the experience. Define each term on the Seti@home screen saver.
- Investigate the claim in the film that 95% of the people on Earth believe in God. Find statistics concerning the number of adherents to the major religious traditions and analyze them to determine if they include a belief in a supreme being. Be sure to include Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in your analysis.
- Using a diagram, explain the meaning of “Right ascension 18 hours, 34 minutes, declination plus 38 degrees 41 minutes;” show where it is in the heavens; explain how the result would change if the meaning of each of the terms were changed.
- Design a 6″ by 9″ plaque to go on a deep space probe to tell other worlds about us. [Then compare it to the plaque designed in 1972 by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake for Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to leave the solar system. See Article on the Pioneer Plaque from Enterprise Mission with copies of Carl Sagan’s original article proposing the plaque and symbols to place on it.