The next time E.T. tries to phone home, he’ll have some help from another Hollywood icon: Jodie Foster. The Academy-Award winning actress is among the thousands of people who made donations to save the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), which was forced to shut down operations earlier this year due to budget cuts. In a case of life-imitating-art, Foster played an astronaut who participated in a SETI-sponsored search for intelligent alien life in the 1997 movie Contact. Here, a brief guide:
What does SETI do?
SETI was founded in 1985 to search for some kind of non-random signal from outer space, a signal that could indicate the presence of intelligent life. The non-governmental group received funding from David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and other science geeks to construct a cluster of 42 large radio dishes in Northern California called the Allen Telescope Array, or ATA, similar to the array featured in Contact.
How realistic is Contact?
In a telling coincidence, the film dramatizes funding cuts. Foster's character, Dr. Ellie Arroway is forced to court new funding from a billionaire industrialist to continue her research. In the film, Dr. Arroway's radio dishes do pick up a signal from outer space, a sequence of prime numbers that are concealing a video feed — a clip of Hitler giving a speech to open the 1936 Olympics.
Has the ATA found anything comparable yet?
No. Despite the millions of dollars that have been poured into the design, construction, and operation of the ATA’s radio dishes, E.T. still hasn’t phoned. Accordingly, some critics charge SETI with engaging in pseudo-science. But in working with the University of California, Berkeley, SETI has discovered new information about supernovas (exploding stars) and distant galaxies including the Andromeda galaxy.
What happened to their funding?
When budget cuts throughout the state of California hit U.C. Berkeley, the university was forced to withdraw its support for the ATA, and the radio dishes were shut off. But news of the shutdown galvanized supporters, and enough donations poured in to reboot the ATA. "The Allen Telescope Array could turn science fiction into science fact,” says actress Foster in a note included with her donation, “but only if it is actively searching the skies. I support the effort to bring the array out of hibernation."