Earth To Echo: The Science Behind Alien Contact

Posted: Jul 3 2014, 1:13am CDT | by , Updated: Jul 3 2014, 1:16am CDT, in News | Also on the Geek Mind

Earth To Echo: The Science Behind Alien Contact
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Watch the Earth To Echo trailer below.

The movie Earth to Echo, which hits theaters this week, is an adventure story featuring kids that’s reminiscent of some of the great 80s kids movies like E.T. In it, three young friends who are moving away from each other are facing their one last adventure together.

“There was a tone to those movies that we loved,” director Dave Green told me. “That we hadn’t seen in awhile and that we were excited about.”

During the film, the kids receive a strange signal on their cell phones, which they manage to track down. They discover that the source of the signal is an alien named Echo. I won’t spoil the rest of the film, but suffice to say that adventures ensue, which are shot in “found footage” file with a twist – the movie is cut and edited as though one of the kids, a video enthusiast, put them together.

Of course, science fiction takes a lot of liberties from real science, so I talked to Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which looks for signs of extraterrestrial life. I wanted to get a feel for how accurate this was. If an alien happened to crash land on Earth, might they be able to tap into our cell signals?

“It depends on how clever they are, and whether they’re machines or aliens,” he said. “They might have sensors and sample the environment, sense magnetic fields, etc. If it’s good at sensing things, it might see all the carrier waves and radio waves that are in the air. Put that together with a computer, and it might be able to figure out. After all, if the military can do it, maybe Echo can, too.”

How and why extraterrestrials might communicate with each other – or try to seek out other intelligent life – is something that the SETI Institute is constantly on the lookout for.

“What we do is look for kinds of signals that only transmitters would make,” he said. “That’s what our hardware and software looks for. We’re interested in a message, of course, but mostly looking for the on the air component. The kind of signal that tells us, ‘somebody out there built a transmitter.’”

In addition to looking for potential radio signals, the SETI group also looks out for other types of signals, including lasers and other types of optical signalling.

In terms of Echo itself, in the movie (as you can tell from the trailer and some of the images) there is definitely something robotic about its design. But not completely – one thing that Green mentioned to me was how important it was to give their robot some “heart.” They did that by having the effects crew avoid traditional “robotic looking” movements and instead look to actual animals.

“We gave them notes – don’t animate a servo moving left and right or up and down,” he said. “Instead, we told them to go watch a cat or a bird and look at the life and unpredictability a small creature has as it takes its world in.”

Whether that’s a realistic vision of what an alien robot would look like or not? It’s hard to say. But Shostak believes that regardless of the accuracy, movies about aliens and space help inspire children to build a career in science.

“If you talk to scientists in these fields, and ask them how they got interested in it,” he said. “The most frequent story is that around ages 8-11, saw TV show or movie that treated these ideas well. They thought it was neat, so they picked up a book, went to school, and the rest was history. That’s true for me, and true for a lot of people.”

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