The opening scene for Contact is a wonderful illustration of the principle that distance (and motion) is equivalent to time.

The speed of any signal, whether light or sound or carrier pigeon, is always finite. It takes time for a signal to travel the distance between the source and the receiver, so this means the signal is always telling us something about the past.

In this amazing scene, we are moving away panning out from Earth at greater than the speed of light. As we are passing through the Earth’s “radio bubble” – an expanding spherical cloud of radio transmissions that is rippling outwards from our planet at the speed of light. We are listening on a radio and hear transmissions from Earth in what seems like real time, but which in fact happened decades ago, the longer ago the farther away you get. It’s a trip through history.

Contact (1997) was directed by Robert Zemeckis and is a film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan wrote the story outline for the film.

Jodie Foster portrays the film’s protagonist, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a SETI scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact. The film also stars Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe, Jake Busey, and David Morse.

 

Amid the audio clutter you might make out:

 

The song “God Shuffled His Feet” by the Crash Test Dummies (1990s)
The theme from Dallas (1980s)
“Obviously a major malfunction…” Broadcast of the space shuttle Challenger explosion (1986)
The song “Broken Wings” by Mr. Mister (1985)
The song “Longer” by Dan Fogelberg (1980)
The Mounds/Almond Joy “Sometimes you feel like a nut” commercial (1970s)
“Well, I’m not a crook…” Richard Nixon press conference (1973)
“Free at last!” From Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech (1963)
“A sniper has fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade…” Broadcast of the JFK assassination (1963)
“Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” McCarthy HUAC hearings (1950s)
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941…” FDR’s declaration of war speech on Japan (1941)
A broadcast of Adolf Hitler giving a speech (1930s)
Dot-dash Morse code transmissions (1910s-1920s)