Along with the preview of the episode, I had the chance to send some questions to Alan Eyres (Executive Producer for the Curiosity series). Here are my questions with his responses.
1. How would you classify the goal of this episode? Do you view it as more entertainment or more educational? Or perhaps you view it as more cautionary (as in be cautious of alien invasions). I ask this question because I know that many science shows have the goal of “recruiting scientists”.
We don’t see a contradiction between being entertaining and being smart. In this show we took some of the sharpest minds on the planet and had fun with them, so we figure it’s a win both ways.
The premise here was simple: what would happen logically if you take an outlandish premise extremely seriously. Once you say, ok, there is a small but finite chance that extra-terrestrials will attack earth, you can go to town on the science. Where would they come from? How would they get here? What would their weapons look like? Our hope is that grounding an entertaining premise in a rigorously scientific “war game” type simulation will both entertain and inform.
2. The episode seems like a very thoughtful scenario. If this episode was a “choose your own adventure” type book – there could be multiple ways things could have unfolded. For instance, the aliens could have been friendly. Or maybe they were friendly, but their technology was accidentally destructive. So back to the question: Were there other “paths” that were considered? Why was this path chosen?
Yes, we considered hundreds of paths — and at one point ended up with brain freeze. For instance, we once raised the question: are we being parochial by assuming aliens need to be carbon based? So then we got into discussions about non-carbon aliens, who would likely be based on silicone. Well, the bonds of silicone are not strong as carbon which could leave us with aliens that were jello-like and amorphous. So then we go down that path. eventually, all the permutations became too much — the aliens, their technology, their motivation — so we settled on a scenario that was most based on science, most based on a consensus of our experts. Essentially, in the end, we stayed focued, and less fantasy-driven. we grounded the scenario in what we already know about biology, physics, engineering.
3. There were many experts on the show. How were they chosen (or found)?
We wanted to find the sharpest minds and the best communicators – we found we were spoilt for choice with great people. We tried to mix generalists with specialists. So we have a Michio Kaku, who although a physicist by trade, is a fantastic science generalist. Really incredible at explaining things clearly. Then we also have a Lynn Rothschild from NASA who is an astro-bioligist who actually tried to find evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Obviously, an expert’s ability to be dynamic and entertaining on tv — as well as brilliant and credible — is crucial.
4. The show has a very creative plot. It is almost like a novel. Was it written primarily by one individual or a group?
We had a creative scientific board that included scientists from a variety of disciplines, as well as science fiction authors and the production team at atlas media. We’d meet and throw around ideas, follow it up with emails. eventually a consensus emerged, and the production team organized that into a clear storyline, and that’s what you see.
5. The show has the aliens use an electromagnetic pulse to take out our technology before they invade. This seems like a gamble for the aliens. How would they even know that is how our technology works? Maybe we just use mechanical computers or something – or biological computers. Did you consider this problem?
Yes — but it didn’t seem outlandish to believe that they would be able to detect our radio and power signatures once they were close to earth, especially since we ourselves have technology to do this.
6. What do you consider the coolest physics concept or device from the show?
While it’s not neccesarily physics, once we got into the concept of using birds to infect large populations, it was pretty mind blowing how easy it might be. Parts of the research actually scared us.
7. Was there any discussion to discuss the Drake equation in the show? If so, was it just cut because of time?
Yes. we were exploring a sort of modified drake equation that would filter the basic formula through a variety of permutations in an effort to get some sort of small, but finite number — a probability of an aggressive alien visitation. Obviously, television is not the ideal forum for exploring mathematical equations. However, we did edit a short sequence on it that did not make the premier run – but there is a 2 hour version of this show which will air internationally, and may also air at a later date on the science channel.
8. There was one thing that bothered me about the aliens. It would seem that any civilization that could survive long enough to obtain that level of technology would also have to survive itself by being peaceful (isn’t this part of the Drake equation?). Did you consider this aspect of the alien invasion?
Our experts didn’t take it as a given that a civilization that survived for a long time would be peaceful. Obviously, some of the most successful species on earth are quite aggressive — ants for example. Also, peaceful aliens don’t allow you to blow things up on screen.
9. What is one thing you wanted to put in the show, but it didn’t make it in?
We had a sequence on the Kepler Project, which is currently looking for Earth-like planets — planets that could conceivably contain alien lifeforms. Hopefully, if we ever get to do a sequel or a series, we can explore exactly from where we think aliens could originate.
10. Bonus question: when I watch something like this, gears in my head start to turn. I start thinking about extra calculations or estimations I could make (like how big would the alien space craft have to be? How far away could it be detected by Earthlings? How big of a kinetic projectile would the aliens need to make a tsunami? So, the question for you: did you have any calculations or questions that you could suggest for this episode?
We’d love to be able to calculate the population of an alien ship. How many aliens would fit on board given its size, the length of the trip, and the life span of an alien?
I would like to give a large “thanks” to Discovery and Alan for giving me this interview opportunity. Maybe next time I will do a phone interview. The Alien Invasion episode of Curiosity premieres Sunday August 14 at 8 PM E/P