Mar 21, 2012

Hail to Vega

The movie Contact featured the "Message from Vega". Everyone assumed that the radio signal came from an alien species at the Vega star system because the radio waves came from the direction of Vega.

In the Contact television series, we are going to disprove that assumption in Episode 4.

Key Cast Members
Eleanor Arroway - SETI researcher who discovered the "message from Vega"
Palmer Joss - Presidential advisor and Ellie's soul mate
Karen Zelter - Ellie's personal physician
Theodor Schwartz - Director of Security at Area 51
Reggie Banning - Air Force Captain and NASA astronaut; commands Inspiration
Kate Robinson - NASA engineer, crew member on Inspiration for the mission to the Nesr asteroid.
S. R. Hadden - Died in the movie, Contact, but still able to communicate with Ellie using "alien" technology

Ellie is quickly distanced from her conventional SETI research work in Episode 1 when the action shifts from "out there" to her inner mental world. Ellie's SETI benefactor, S. R. Hadden, although dead, is able to contact her. With Ellie now in mysterious mental contact with a dead man, the story line calls for a doctor who can treat Ellie's mental illness.

However, by the end of Episode 2, viewers already know that Dr. Zelter is not just your average-Hollywood-amazingly-young-genius doctor.
The viewers know that Ellie has mysterious "alien" nanites in her brain, but they have also seen that Dr. Zelter is just fine with that. In fact, when Ellie and Palmer try to remove the nanites from Ellie's body, Dr. Zelter steps in and puts a stop to their efforts!

In Episode 3, Ellie hears from Hadden about the existence of "Overseers". She has disturbing dreams and starts to worry that the Vegans might be vulture-like aliens who are giving advanced technology to Earthlings and then waiting to see if humans will destroy themselves.

"...a doomsday machine. We build this thing and out pours the whole Vegan army!"

At the start of Episode 4, Earth's first spaceship powered by "alien" technology, the Inspiration, reaches the Nesr asteroid that was the source of the "message from Vega". The people of Earth have been told that Inspiration is going to Mars, but only an unmanned probe goes there as "cover" for the real mission to the mysterious Nesr asteroid.

When the crew of the Inspiration examines the Nesr asteroid, they find nothing unusual, at first. Ellie keeps trying to contact Hadden using the "alien" communications equipment and she detects a weak signal coming from the asteroid. Ellie and Captain Banning leave the confines of the Inspiration and perform a "space walk". At the surface of the asteroid they find that there is a hidden radio transmitter.

There is much argument over who built the transmitter and if it was used to send the message to Earth with instructions for how to build the Machine. Banning and an engineer (Kate Robinson) return to the transmitter with improvised tools in an effort to obtain the control circuitry that presumably contains the message. They return to Inspiration with what they assume is a computer unit that controlled the now inactive transmitter. Mission control on Earth insists that there are precautions taken to avoid possible biological contamination to and from the "alien" hardware. Inspiration heads back to Earth.

After performing a few tests that detect nothing living, the crew of the Inspiration decides that they should expose themselves to the equipment and risk being contaminated by alien organisms. They start trying to understand the "alien" equipment.
Ellie (complains): None of this makes sense. The technology of this transmitter is only slightly more advanced than what we have on Earth, but I can't see what must have controlled the signal sent by the transmitter.
Reggie: Let's just hope that our engineers can figure it out.
Ellie: If you had given an iPod to Alan Turing in 1940 would he have recognized it as a computer?

Ellie continues to relentlessly work on the "alien" equipment. When she is alone and eventually falls asleep, slumped over the work bench, part of the "alien" equipment morphs into a ghostly Hadden-like form. "Hadden" goes to another part of the spaceship and morphs again, then the Hadden nanites merge into the body of one of the crew (NASA astronaut Kate Robinson).

Ellie continues having disturbing dreams and flashbacks during the trip back to Earth. Ellie spends a large amount of time working with Kate trying to understand the equipment that they took from the Nesr asteroid. Ellie gets the feeling that Kate is holding back and not really trying to crack open the mystery of the "alien" transmitter's control system.

Later, on Earth, Palmer meets Ellie after the Inspiration lands at Area 51. When Ellie meets with Dr. Zelter, Kate Robinson sneaks in to speak to Palmer.

Kate (speaking with the voice of Hadden): You need to help Ellie or the whole world will continue to think that I made the "message from Vega".

Palmer watches while Kate morphs into the form of Hadden.

Hadden: Turing was a friend of mine, and Ellie is no Turing.
Palmer (alarmed): Hadden? What kind of trick is this?
Hadden: Just nanotrickery. The man who you knew as Hadden was just a human with nanites in his brain. Those nanites did not die when the man died.
Palmer: The aliens get into human brains?
Hadden: There are nanites in Ellie's brain, but it is best to leave them there.
Palmer: An alien is in Ellie's brain?
Hadden: Don't get your hopes up. Even I've never met an alien.
Palmer: I don't feel well.

Some nanites go from "Hadden" into Palmer.

Hadden: You are not infected by nanites, but I see that your memories have been altered. I'll return to you the memories that have only been suppressed.
Palmer (starting to remember): We must get the nanites out of Ellie's brain!
Hadden: No, if we did that it would alert the Overseers to my presence on Earth.
Palmer: Then how can I help Ellie?
Hadden: Pull some strings. Make sure that Ellie goes back to New Mexico and get Zelter out of here. Then arrange for Kate Robinson to be assigned to the research team here that will investigate the equipment that was taken from the Nesr asteroid. I'll make sure that Kate can figure out the nanoscopic computer control system of the transmitter.

Near the end of Episode 4 I want to send Ellie off on a new tangent. Palmer tries to get her to go back to her SETI team in New Mexico, but Ellie has an idea for how to test if the Machine can actually create a wormhole. She stays at Area 51 and tries to propose a new experiment with the rotating ring system that is being used to produce antimatter. When nobody is willing to slow the production of antimatter, Ellie tries to have a access to a second set of rings that is being constructed. She goes to Washington to make her case to the President. She is told that the President no longer believes Ellie's story about travel through wormholes and that she should go back to SETI work in New Mexico.

Ellie has a strange "dream" and suddenly has a new idea, recognizing that the "transport pod" might actually be a "transport pad", a destination for matter transmission to Earth from an alien world. She goes back to Area 51 and tries to warn Director Schwartz that the Machine technology might actually be a security risk. She wants to set up detectors to explore the possibility that matter is being transmitted into the "transport pod" in Japan. Schwartz reveals that there is another "transport pod", a spare that was built for use with the Machine in Florida.

Episode 4 ends with Ellie being shown the spare transport pod.

So far, the only thing that was accomplished with the "transport pad" technology of the Machine was to "beam in" some nanites that infected Ellie and started the process of altering her memories. However, this "transporter technology" is much more versatile than Star Trek transporters. Specifically, the "transporter technology" of Contact is what allows for faster-than-light travel through space.

As discussed here, I imagine that the Huaoshy long ago faced the technical challenge of finding a way to travel through space at faster than light speeds. As a result of their alterations to the "dimensional structure" of the universe, the Huaoshy have a monopoly on FTL travel. So far (the movie and the first 4 episodes of the TV series) we have only "seen" the Huaoshy "transporter technology" used once: when Ellie was in the machine, nanites were "beamed in" to start providing Ellie with new memories....memories that constitute her experience of the trip through wormholes to the center of the galaxy.

While it is fairly easy to use nanites to disrupt memories (particularly new memories), creating new memories is not easy. In fact, it is only possible with slow and careful work that requires nanites to be in a person's brain their whole life. Yes, that means that Ellie has had nanites in her brain during her entire life. When Hadden spoke of Ellie as being a "long-term investment", he was being cute. Ellie thought that Hadden meant since he started funding her research, but actually, he was part of an Interventionist plot that involved implanting nanites in Ellie's brain even before she was born. The long residency of nanites in her brain allowed for a fairly complete understanding of how information is stored in her brain, which the Huaoshy could ultimately take advantage of when it came time to implant false memories in her mind.

Background Note: Ellie's parents were both infected by nanites. When Ellie was just an embryo, some nanites from her mother moved into Ellie's developing brain. After Ellie's father died, there was still a nanite "copy" of his mind which was used to help give Ellie a believable experience of having met her father at the center of the galaxy.

Hadden and his fellow Interventionists wanted to make use of Ellie as a tool for pushing Earthlings towards new technological developments. However, when the Overseers realized what was going on, the Huaoshy were able to step in and try to make sure that Ellie was misdirected with respect to their long term effort to control the development of human civilization on Earth. So the Huaoshy used their advanced nanite technology to make Ellie believe that the aliens mostly leave Earth alone. However, Hadden and his fellow Interventionists are still around, and still trying to make Ellie realize that Earth is under constant Observation.

Related reading: Flailing at Vega. Evidence of aliens among us: "Honest Oliver" provides a clear-eyed analysis of Contact, the movie. It is always stimulating to find someone who can provide a totally different perspective on a topic. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink....Honest.

Images. Top; from the funny part of Contact when crowds gather near the VLA. Another image of "Thirteen" from "House". It would be fun to have Olivia Wilde play the role of Dr. Zelter in the Contact television series.....
Contact Episode 1: Pull the Plug
Contact Episode 2: Good to Go
Contact Episode 3: Voice from the Sky
Contact Episode 4: Hail to Vega
Contact Episode 5: Look Closer

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