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Credit: Sony Pictures

UFO's resident UFO expert Paul M. Sutter on alien life and inspiring Gillian Anderson

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Sep 4, 2018, 1:55 PM EDT (Updated)

If you're still mourning Gillian Anderson's retirement from The X-Files, unsure how to cope without seeing her chasing down aliens armed only with her government-issued sidearm and healthy skepticism, UFO might be the cure for what ails you.

Released today from Sony Entertainment, UFO, written and directed by Ryan Eslinger, sees Anderson returning to the genre that made her famous, this time as a math professor who plays sidekick to a talented young student during his attempt to unravel an intergalactic communiqué.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Paul M. Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University and UFO's scientific consultant, to chat about science, aliens, and making the flick.

Sutter, who also hosts the Ask a Spaceman podcast, describes his universe-encapsulating day job as trying "to understand how stuff in space works. I have a few different specialties. I'm mostly a cosmologist. I study the whole entire universe as a single physical object. So I study the big bang, I study the large-scale structure of the universe. I study the birth of the first star. I study the voids, the vast empty regions between the galaxies. There's a lot of fertile ground out there."

How does one become a UFO consultant?

I actually have no idea, even though I did it. It's not like I applied and called every producer in Hollywood saying, "Hey, if you need science advice, you know where to find me." In this case, it was a connection of a connection of a connection of a connection.

The director was looking around and the director had a relationship with Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati. He was looking around for someone to help him out with the mathematics and the science in the script as he was developing it. The producer was aware of this issue and the producer's dad is really well connected to Ohio State and knew some of the cool science and art collaborations that I'd been working on the past few years and thought I might be just the right guy.

So he called his son who called the director, Ryan. Ryan called me, and it was nerd love at first sight. It was such an unexpected connection but something I absolutely enjoyed and consider myself very lucky to be a part of.

For the movie, what did your work as a consultant entail?

It started with the script with writer/director Ryan Eslinger, as he was putting the finishing touches on the script there were some parts where the characters have to do some math and he wanted to make sure the math was right. There were parts where the characters had conversations about scientific topics, and he wanted to make sure the science was right. And there were a few places where the knowledge of science was key in order to move the plot forward and he wanted to make sure that this page connected to that page and that it all made sense and was motivated from real, grounded science.

That was the pre-production work. Once production got started, I worked with the set designers and prop people to figure out whiteboards and chalkboards and quizzes and assignments. The most surreal thing I did, second most surreal thing I did, is Gillian Anderson, who plays a math professor, I had helped Ryan shape some of her lines where she had to lecture in front of the class. And she'd also write on the board some equations at the same time she's talking. So she asked Ryan to ask me to make a video of doing that so that she could pretend to be a math professor. And that was something else.

So if she comes off in that scene as a 30-something bald guy who's kind of sarcastic, that's just method acting.

Let's talk about aliens and real-life UFOs a little bit. In your estimation, what do you think the likelihood is of there being life, not necessarily intelligent life, but life in our solar system?

Oh yeah, that's absolutely fascinating, just to entertain the notion that there's even a slim chance that there might be life right here in our neighborhood that we could go visit and talk to and shake hands or tentacles, or however it might work out mechanically, it's so tantalizing. That drives researchers.

I'm personally fascinated by and curious about it even though that's not my line of research. For a long time, we thought "this is it," the Earth is the only place with liquid water. Mars is super dry and dead, maybe it was alive at some point but that was three billion years ago so that hardly counts and that's it.

Now, with these sub-surface oceans around Europa and Callisto and Enceladus and maybe even Pluto it's like there's more liquid water in any one of these worlds than all of Earth. And life as we know it requires water, it also requires a whole bunch of other things but hey, we're checking off the first box in the checklist for hunting for life and that itself is cause for celebration. I hope so. I hope there's life.

What's your take on the Fermi Paradox?

I think the Fermi Paradox is an expression of our sheer inability to cope with the true time and distance scales when we have to start talking about things like galaxies and universes.

We're probably not alone. There's probably other life orbiting other stars. Some of them are probably intelligent. Some of them are probably in our own galaxy now. But for all intents and purposes, we are totally, 100 percent, completely isolated. Space is just too big.

It's almost like we're living on a really tiny island in a vast ocean and there are other islands out there, but we don't have the ability to get there.

We don't have a canoe. No outriggers, no sails, nothing.

Do you feel like the search for extraterrestrial life is a worthwhile pursuit on its own or do you feel like it's more important as an inspiration for getting people interested in the sciences?

Oh yeah, of course, astrophysicists and cosmologists are interested in a whole bunch of things. Some astrophysicists are hunting for life on other worlds, some astrophysicists are trying to understand how stars live and die, some astrophysicists are trying to understand how galaxies emerge.

So, of course, we all compete with each other for funding and we'd all like our personal slice of the pie to be a little bit larger than the slice of our competitors. But we do recognize that of the entire astrophysicist community recognizes that this is a valid question that over the past few decades has moved from the realm of philosophy and speculation into the realm of science.

This is a question that we have the capability to answer with the scientific method and if it is a valid scientific question then it is up for grabs as a legitimate exercise of science.

One of the focuses of the movie is mathematics. If we did encounter other intelligent life, do you feel like math would be the best foundation for developing communication with them?

There are some things that we recognize in nature that we're pretty sure are universal. That if you have any conception of logic whatsoever, that you would eventually arrive at the same conclusion. You may have different structures to represent those but the basic understanding would still be there. So perhaps mathematics is a truly universal, cross-species language. There's only one way to find out which is to actually meet someone else and give it a shot.

Maybe the better route is through common physics, things we can observe about the universe that we know that nobody else will disagree about because it's so unambiguous. Maybe that's the best route. Maybe it's little of column "A" and a little of column "B."

Can you give an example of a universal observation we might be able to use?

This is actually something that is highlighted in the film is this concept of the Fine Structure Constant.

This is a number, it's just a raw number that appears in physical theory. And the very interesting thing about this number is that it doesn't have any use. It's not measured in terms of meters or pounds or light years, it's not tied to any choice of measurement system it's just a raw number that appears in nature.

So, we're guessing that if you're intelligent and you're a fan of science and you're doing the whole science thing and you're discovering basic truths about the way nature operates, that you will eventually also discover this Fine Structure Constant because it will appear in your mathematics too, regardless of how you formulate your mathematics. Perhaps this, a common understanding of something that appears to be ubiquitous and universal, is the key that unlocks the door.

One of the common things in television and movies is when we do discover aliens they look sort of like us. Do you think there's any good reason to believe that would be the case?

As far as I understand this, there are two lines of thought here. One line of thought is to look at the variety of life on the Earth and there's some really weird stuff going on, like things in the oceans and even when we dig into our ancient past there are some true freak shows of nature. So, an alien, evolving with a completely different set of circumstances and environment and evolutionary path, would look totally different from us. Perhaps, unrecognizably so, to the point that we wouldn't even know we were looking at life if we were staring it in the face.

Or, maybe life follows convergent evolution, maybe the right special sauce that made us, us, is the only special sauce available throughout the universe and that if we met some aliens, maybe it would be like Star Trek where they're basically us but they have some weird forehead.

UFO is now available.

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