Monday, September 5, 2011

Jodie and the Little Green Men

Having been a member of the scientific community for a while, I have come across many types of pitches people make, to get their research projects funded. In the presentations, there is erudition,  there is bravado, there is nonchalance, and sometimes, there is desperation. And once, I really cracked up, when the logic for being funded went as, "We are trying to do something serious with the money, we are just not proposing to listen to the little green men from space!"

Ah, the little green men.

A few years ago, a much publicized initiative to look for extra-terrestrial intelligence took off. The SETI project, as it was officially known, was trying to listen to radio transmissions from alien civilizations.  People had a lot to say about why this would be a completely futile effort, since the project assumed that there would be an alien civilization out there, advanced enough to communicate through space, but still not advanced enough, to have invented something better than radio. But, thanks to the visionary co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, the Allen telescope was funded, and they did try for a while to tune into the little green men. And then, as nightmares in the research community go, the funding ran out.

Recently, it was very heartening to note, that the beautiful Hollywood actress, Jodie Foster, opened up her purse, to give the SETI project, a new lease on life. Jodie Foster, as pretty as she might be, acted amazingly well in the movie Contact. She played the role of a scientist, who was -- you guessed it right -- listening in to little green men from space.

I don't watch many movies, in fact, I always prefer reading a book to watching a movie. And, very often, I watch a movie, because it is based on a book, that I have already read. Carl Sagan's Contact, was one such book. And, it was an absolutely delightful experience. Jodie Foster, played Dr. Ellie Arroway, the scientist, who ended up making contact with an alien civilization. The movie is well known for its juxtaposition of the metaphysical world with the scientific. One particular scene, had a rather compelling dialog, between the religious preacher, Palmer Joss, and Ellie Arroway, the atheist, after she was not chosen as the first human being to make contact.

Ellie Arroway:  Why did you do it?
Palmer Joss: Our job was to select someone to speak for everybody. And I just couldn't in good conscience vote for a person who doesn't believe in God. Someone who honestly thinks the other ninety five percent of us suffer from some form of mass delusion.

One thing that I have always wondered about movie stars and the like, is their total inability to talk about issues that they might strongly feel about. They live the life of a goldfish in a bowl, and more often than not, they are picked for roles, based on their looks, and not their cerebral capabilities. After many years of fortune and fame, some of them are able to break out of the goldfish syndrome, and speak their minds. But most, are content to lead their dolled up lives, attending flower shows and publicly contributing to charities, that seem to raise money, only through black tie dinners in Beverley Hills. So, sometimes, it is refreshing to see that actors can have brains -- and hearts.

Ms. Foster could contribute to a charity and get her three minutes of fame on page three, something, that she already has. But instead, she chose to contribute to something "crazy", but something, that I believe she became sentimentally attached to, after she played the lead role in Contact. And, for that, as someone who is always with the "crazies", she has my respect.

People, who believe that alien civilizations exist, have always wondered what the first contact would look like.  Hollywood, (and our own Bollywood, through the sorry excuse of a Sci-Fi movie called Koi Mil Gaya), usually portrays aliens as pumpkin headed dwarfs. The "first contact" scenes are taken to ridiculous levels. Usually, a saucer shaped spaceship lands in the middle of nowhere, a telescopic staircase touches the ground, and, after a few moments of painful silence, a pumpkin head with the eyes of a Siamese cat, appears. And invariably, we are led to believe, that our world has been profoundly altered. For ever.

Carl Sagan, the master scientist and storyteller, had his own take on "first contact", which had made me quite speechless. There were no flying saucers, no telescopic staircases and, no pumpkin headed aliens. The encounter between Ellie Arroway and the alien, takes place in her mind. The alien, accesses her thoughts, and takes her to a beautiful beach, constructed from her memories. There, it appears as a person, who is extremely dear to Ellie -- her father, who is long gone, and sorely missed by her. It seems like an extremely cerebral way of making first contact with a foreign civilization, and shows the alien civilization possessing one trait, that we hope to see in them -- intelligence.

The movie, in its last scene, had a thought-provoking sentence spoken by the Alien, about us, the humans. "You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable -- is each other."

And it goes without saying that Ms. Jodie Foster, was at her thespian best. Hopefully, with her help, we will hear from the little green men out there. Soon.


  1. babu, do aliens exists?

  2. I don't believe in Aliens, I think they are a subject of good sci-fi. But, seriously, Do aliens exist??? If yes, I would love to listen from green man...:) Great post and Jodie Foster touch is too good.

  3. When man created God, he obviously fashioned him after himself (or herself), same looks, same weaknesses, albeit with some super-powers. The clothes that gods wear also (very roughly) reveal when they could have been created.

    When man created aliens, it was a mixture of human, insect (usually spider or fly), animal (usually octopus), and perhaps one of the uglier species of bird. Now, thanks to Desi Babu, I need to add vegetation (Pumpkin) to the mix.

  4. Anon - Only if I knew!

    Dear Saru - Thanks for your kind words. We don't know if they exist. There are various theories, including one that tries to prove that our "Gods" were actually aliens. Read the famous "Chariots of the Gods?" by Erich Daniken to get a nice perspective.

    Dear Sudeep - Nice perspective! Perhaps my bucolic upbringing keeps the cabbages and pumpkins in plentiful supply.

  5. hmmm, had enough of this world, don't need one more ! /)