On this day, April 27, in 1933, a little-known employee of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Karl Jansky who had been hired to investigate the sources of static noise that were causing issues in early trans-Atlantic wireless phone calls, presented a paper on these radio signals at a meeting of the International Scientific Radio Union in Washington, D.C. His year-long investigation identified three sources of the static: nearby thunderstorms, distant thunderstorms, and a "steady hiss type static of unknown origin." And if you're thinking this sounds like something from our cinematic treasure, Contact, you're right. But more on that connection later.
Jansky had originally believed the mysterious signal as originating from the sun but realized his error upon further investigation and, as a result, was cautious to suggest any origin except to state that it appeared to come from "the Milky Way in the direction of Sagittarius." Today we know that a supermassive black hole lurks in the center and that the high-energy material circling around the black hole emits a large radio signal. The following week, on May 5, Bell Laboratories issued a press release, and the next day the New York Times headline read: "New Radio Waves Traced to the Center of the Milky Way."
Because of a seemingly unrelated investigation into static noise in phone calls, Jansky accidentally discovered the first source of cosmic radio waves, opening up the field of radio astronomy. While not an astronomer himself Jansky wanted to continue his investigation further. However, Bell Labs assigned him to another project and he never worked in astronomy again.
Janksky, who died in 1950 at the age of 44, never received acclaim for his discovery during his brief lifetime, but over the years, has been immortalized in a variety of ways. The unit used by radio astronomers for the strength of radio sources is known as a "jansky." And even today "Jansky noise" refers to high-frequency static disturbances of cosmic origin.
And in April of 2012, the radio astronomy observatory located in New Mexico known as the Very Large Array (VLA) , was officially renamed the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array . The VLA is present in the 1997 movie Contact as the location where the alien signal is first detected by Jodie Foster's character, but first let us connect a few more dots.
From Karl to Carl
Fast forward 45 years from Karl Jansky to Carl Sagan and we enter the wormhole that can often be the development process in Hollywood. Probably the most famous astronomer of modern times, Sagan penned the original film treatment (along with his future wife, Ann Juryan) way back in 1979.
After five years of the film being stuck in development limbo, Sagan decided to turn the idea into a novel instead, which he did in 1985. The resulting Contact was a massive best-seller, selling nearly two million copies in its first two years. The success of the tome renewed Hollywood’s interest and a film project was underway for a second time. But in what must have seemed to Sagan like his proverbial “billions and billions” of years, the film would linger in development for another decade before finally hitting theaters in 1997 to massive box-office success and sparking a national debate about the co-existence of religion and science, which was a key message for Sagan and Juryan.
Between 1989 and 1996, no fewer than three directors were hired to helm the film project that would become Contact. Eventually, Robert Zemeckis was given control of the project and hired future star Matthew McConaughey opposite Jodie Foster, who plays the lead character, Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, who spends her career listening for extraterrestrial life. Sagan had a personal agenda in creating the Arroway character as he hoped it would interest more women to enter the field of science. Sadly, Sagan—a producer and consultant on the film—passed away unexpectedly in December of 1996 during the film’s production and never got to see the film he had been trying to get made for nearly 20 years. He was 62.
As for the film itself, it is epic in both scope and thought as it takes on hot-topic debates that are even more in the public consciousness today than they were in 1997. As the larger topic deals with the human race's place in the universe, we have the worlds of science (Foster), theology (McConaughey) and government (James Woods) all doing battle from their perspective points of view.
Contact remains a fascinating story and an epic cinematic achievement 20 years after its original release. The movie is available digitally everywhere, so enter the debate today!