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A Message from Space

Scientists turn their eyes to the heavens in a new film

By David Wilson

A Message from Space
Directed by Michael Lennick
Foolish Earthling Productions
VisionTV: Nov.23, 10 p.m. EST

“There is so much of the universe that isn’t Earth,” remarks science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, “that to most people it’s inconceivable that whatever circumstances gave rise to life here haven’t been duplicated somewhere else.”

Anyone who has ever stared into the night sky and wondered about the great beyond will be won over by this thoughtful Canadian-made documentary about the deeply committed group of scientists who search for signs of intelligent life beyond our small blue planet.

It’s mainly the story of the California-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) group, dating back to the early 1960s, as radio telescopes began to extend the reach of human inquiry deeper and deeper into the universe. Over the years, SETI has been ground zero for the quest to bring the search for alien life into the scientific mainstream, nurturing pioneers such as Frank Drake, the father of modern extraterrestrial science, and Carl Sagan, creator of the hugely popular Cosmos television series in the 1980s.

The search for intelligent life beyond Earth is painstaking and yields little in the way of concrete results. Frank Drake’s entire career was built on a single anomalous radio telescope observation he made as a graduate student in 1953. Another blip observed in 1967 seemed to have intelligent origins but has never been seen again. A few other promising observations proved to be false alarms. Mostly, these researchers toil in obscurity, aiming their radio telescopes, and more recently, instruments on satellites, into the heavens in a quest for the few short pulses of engineered radiation that would be the calling card of intelligent life.

Why so much effort for so few tangible dividends? There can be no doubt that the discovery of intelligent life beyond Earth would make instant heroes of these scientists. But none of the researchers seems the least bit interested in celebrity. Rather, they are driven by a need to know that took hold when they were children gazing at the night sky. They are not overly religious, but they share a sense of wonder with people of faith. “Whether we’re secular or religious,” observes Robert J. Sawyer, “we’re turning our eyes to the heavens looking for answers. There’s no way to disprove that aliens are there, just as there’s no way to disprove God is there.”

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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