Aliens symbolize the best and worst of humanity. When we dream of aliens, we are pondering our future selves.
- Scientists explored the possibility of extraterrestrial life long before aliens became a fascination in popular culture.
- Aliens serve as a mirror to our species. They represent the creativity and promise — as well as the destruction and terror — of being human.
- Our conception of aliens can teach us about our fragility and the need to grow up as a species if we are to avoid one of the dystopian scenarios of our human-made alien tales.
Few topics are as fascinating to the human imagination as aliens. They are good, they are evil; they are divine, they are devilish; they are invasive, inspiring, advisors, predators. The strangeness that European explorers attributed to the creatures beyond the confines of (their) known world — exotic life forms that filled their cabinets of curiosities — has been expanded to the vastness of outer space. "Here be dragons," became "There be aliens."
Scientists were the first to imagine aliens
Even before Galileo pointed his telescope to the heavens to conclude that Earth was a mere planet like Mars or Jupiter, some dared to conceive of other worlds with other creatures, possibly human, possibly not. Giordano Bruno, in the late 1500s, proposed that stars are other suns, with planets circling around them, pregnant with creatures capable of sin or virtue, and hence in need of a savior like us. In 1608, Johannes Kepler wrote "Somnium" (Dream), a short story of an imaginary trip to the moon, where the traveler finds the most remarkable creatures, anticipating some of Darwin's ideas of natural selection and adaptation. In Cosmotheoros, from 1698, Christian Huygens, one of the greatest scientists of the 17th century, wrote with confidence that the Mercurians, "tho they live so much nearer the Sun, the Fountain of Life and Vigour, are much more airy and ingenious than we." The first to imagine aliens were not novelists or artists but scientists.
The big lesson here is that we are telling alien stories that could save us from ourselves if only we care to pay attention.
The expectation of finding alien life has only expanded since then, accelerated by spectacular advances in astronomy and space exploration, as we inch closer to finding answers to the question we all have — namely, whether we are the exception or the rule, whether we are alone or not. The excitement is palpable and often explosive in the media. In 1996, President Bill Clinton made a speech on the possible discovery of primitive life on Mars, albeit stressing that the potential discovery of a biosignature on the meteorite found in Antarctica still needed more serious scrutiny.
As I wrote two weeks ago, the interstellar traveler 'Oumuamua has been deemed by serious scientists as a potential alien spying device, keen on figuring out details of the inner solar system, including us. As I explained, most of the scientific community denies that this is a valid conjecture. Not long ago, more excitement bubbled up about the possible discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus as a potential signal for biochemical activity. (Recent reanalysis decreased the strength of the signal but didn't eliminate it.) However, attributing phosphine unequivocally to life is a very large step.
Aliens are a mirror on the human condition
Adding the countless books, movies, plays, short stories, and videocasts about extraterrestrial life, we see a coming together of scientific and popular culture that is quite rare in other disciplines. Only genetic engineering and artificial intelligence come close, although still a distant second and third place. Why? What is it about the possibility of life elsewhere that is so seductive to humans?
The portraits of aliens in fiction can help us, as can the earlier speculation of alien life from the scientific pioneers of the Renaissance. We have met the aliens, and they are us. They represent a mirror we use to see ourselves, the good and the evil of humanity, the utopian and dystopian views of our future. As we speculate about what they could be — and I'm here referring mostly to intelligent life forms, not the much more likely microbial life forms — we see a projection of the promise and perils of having self-awareness and a capacity to build technologies that can enhance and destroy life as we know it. Aliens are a sort of moral compass of the scientific age, their existence and fate serving as something like rehearsals of what could become of us.
Aliens also relate directly to the state of our scientific knowledge, often pushing the boundaries of what is possible. In what became known as Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law — that is, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" — aliens represent what could become the norm in our future. I think of my father's puzzlement looking at a VCR in the 1970s and see my teenage son's disdain as he watches me puzzling over the explosion of social media platforms. "Who needs yet another one?" "You really don't get it dad, do you?" Aliens have the inventions of tomorrow, and for that, they serve to push our collective imagination to catch up with them. Or not, if they represent a dystopian future.
In War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells used the latest biological science, natural selection, and the discovery that microbial pathogens transmit diseases, to both save us from very evil invaders that were dying of thirst on their home planet and to show how our inventions were pitiful in comparison with theirs. It is colonialism reversed: if colonialist Europeans killed countless natives by infecting them with diseases, in Wells' novel, Mother Earth saved humanity using the same microbes on alien invaders. As the threat in the novel is from alien invaders to the whole of humankind, colonialism goes global. It's them vs. us since we are all victims and vulnerable to their attack. Wells' twist is brilliant: despite their technological superiority, the invaders were also vulnerable, without the immune defenses to protect themselves from our terrestrial bugs. You can't fool nature.
The big lesson here is that we are telling alien stories that could save us from ourselves if only we care to pay attention, less by looking up to the skies and more by looking at each other.
What Alien Life Could Teach Us About Humanity www.youtube.com
Scientists should be cautious when expressing an opinion based on little more than speculation.
- In October 2017, a strange celestial object was detected, soon to be declared our first recognized interstellar visitor.
- The press exploded when a leading Harvard astronomer suggested the object to have been engineered by an alien civilization.
- This is an extraordinary conclusion that was based on a faulty line of scientific reasoning. Ruling out competing hypotheses doesn't make your hypothesis right.
Sometimes, when you are looking for something ordinary, you find the unexpected. This is definitely the case with the strange 'Oumuamua, which made international headlines as a potential interstellar visitor. Its true identity remained obscure for a while, as scientists proposed different explanations for its puzzling behavior. This is the usual scientific approach of testing hypotheses to make sense of a new discovery.
What captured the popular imagination was the claim that the object was no piece of rock or comet, but an alien artifact, designed by a superior intelligence.
Do you remember the black monolith tumbling through space in the classic Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? The one that "inspired" our ape-like ancestors to develop technology and followed humanity and its development since then? What made this claim amazing is that it wasn't coming from the usual UFO enthusiasts but from a respected astrophysicist from Harvard University, Avi Loeb, and his collaborator Shmuel Bialy. Does their claim really hold water? Were we really visited by an alien artifact? How would we know?
A mystery at 200,000 miles per hour
Before we dive into the controversy, let's examine some history. 'Oumuamua was discovered accidentally by Canadian astronomer Robert Weryk while he was routinely reviewing images captured by the telescope Pan-STARRS1 (Panoramic Survey and Rapid Response System 1), situated atop the ten-thousand-foot Haleakala volcanic peak on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The telescope scans the skies in search of near-Earth objects, mostly asteroids and possibly comets that come close to Earth. The idea is to monitor the solar system to learn more about such objects and their orbits and, of course, to sound the alarm in case of a potential collision course with Earth. Contrary to the objects Weryk was used to seeing, mostly moving at about 40,000 miles per hour, this one was moving almost five times as fast — nearly 200,000 miles per hour, definitely an anomaly.
Intrigued, astronomers tracked the visitor while it was visible, concluding that it indeed must have come from outside our solar system, the first recognized interstellar visitor. Contrary to most known asteroids that move in elliptical orbits around the sun, 'Oumuamua had a bizarre path, mostly straight. Also, its brightness varied by a factor of ten as it tumbled across space, a very unusual property that could be caused either by an elongated cigar shape or by it being flat, like a CD, one side with a different reflectivity than the other. The object, 1I/2017 U1, became popularly known as 'Oumuamua, from the Hawaiian for "scout."
In their paper, Loeb and Bialy argue that the only way the object could be accelerated to the speeds observed was if it were extremely thin and very large, like a sail. They estimated that its thickness had to be between 0.3 to 0.9 millimeters, which is extremely thin. After confirming that such an object is robust enough to withstand the hardships of interstellar travel (e.g., collision with gas particles and dust grains, tensile stresses, rotation, and tidal forces), Loeb and Bialy conclude that it couldn't possibly be a solar system object like an asteroid or comet. Being thus of interstellar origin, the question is whether it is a natural or artificial object. This is where the paper ventures into interesting but far-fetched speculation.
I'm not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens
First, the authors consider that it might be garbage "floating in interstellar space as debris from advanced technological equipment," ejected from its own stellar system due to its non-functionality; essentially, alien space junk. Then, they suggest that a "more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," [italicized as in the original] concluding that a "survey for lightsails as technosignatures in the solar system is warranted, irrespective of whether 'Oumuamua is one of them."
You can shoot down as many hypotheses as you want to vindicate yours, but this doesn't prove yours is the right one.
I have known Avi Loeb for decades and consider him a serious and extremely talented astrophysicist. His 2018 paper includes a suggestive interpretation of strange data that obviously sparks the popular imagination. Theoretical physicists routinely suggest the existence of traversable wormholes, multiverses, and parallel quantum universes. Not surprisingly, Loeb was highly in demand by the press to fill in the details of his idea. A book followed, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, and its description tells all: "There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization."
This is where most of the scientific establishment began to cringe. One thing is to discuss the properties of a strange natural phenomenon and rule out more prosaic hypotheses while suggesting a daring one. Another is to declare to the public that the only conceivable explanation is one that is also speculative. An outsider will conclude that a reliable scientist has confirmed not only the existence of extraterrestrial life but of intelligent and technologically sophisticated extraterrestrial life with an interest in our solar system. I wonder if Loeb considered the impact of his words and how they reflect on the scientific community as a whole.
This is why aliens won't talk to us
Earlier this year, in a live public lecture hosted by the Catholic University of Chile, Avi Loeb locked horns with Jill Tarter, the scientist that is perhaps most identifiable as someone who spent her career looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. (Coincidentally, I was the speaker that followed Loeb the next week in the same seminar series and was cautioned — along with the other panelists — to behave myself to avoid another showdown. I smiled, knowing that my topic was pretty tame in comparison. I mean, how can the limits of human knowledge compare with alien surveillance?)
The Loeb-Tarter exchange was awful and, it being a public debate, was picked up by the press. Academics can be rough like anyone else. But the issue goes deeper.
What scientists say matters. When should a scientist make public declarations about a cutting-edge topic with absolute certainty? I'd say never. There is no clear-cut certainty in cutting-edge science. There are hypotheses that should be tested more until there is community consensus. Even then, consensus is not guaranteed proof. The history of science is full of examples where leading scientists were convinced of something, only to be proven wrong later.
The epistemological mistake Loeb committed was to make an assertion that publicly amounted to certainty by using a process of elimination of other competing hypotheses. You can shoot down as many hypotheses as you want to vindicate yours, but this doesn't prove yours is the right one. It only means that the other hypotheses are wrong. I do, however, agree with Loeb when he says that 'Oumuamua should be the trigger for an increase in funding for the search for technosignatures, a way of detecting intelligent extraterrestrial life.
A new report from The New York Times describes a Pentagon task force's long-standing project to collect data on unidentified aerial phenomena and a Pentagon consultant who says the U.S. has collected crashed "off-world vehicles."
- Since 2007, a Pentagon task force has been collecting data on unidentified aerial phenomenon.
- Earlier this year, the Pentagon published three videos showing encounters between Navy pilots and strange-moving flying objects.
- The former head of the Pentagon task force believes U.S. officials have collected artifacts from crashed aircraft.
In April, the Pentagon released three videos taken by Navy pilots showing unidentified flying objects. Government officials didn't say the videos depicted alien spacecraft, nor did they say the objects were novel aircraft sent from a foreign nation. In short, the message was simply: nobody knows.
But the government wants to find out.
According to a recent Senate committee report, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force at the Office of Naval Intelligence will "standardize collection and reporting on unidentified aerial phenomenon" and disclose some of its findings to the public within 180 days of issuing reports.
This once-covert task force has, under multiple names, been studying "unidentified aerial phenomena" since at least 2007, according to a recent New York Times report. Defense Department officials had told the Times that the task force had run out of funding in 2012. But the Times later spoke to people involved with the program who said it had never stopped studying unexplained aerial phenomena.
The Senate report frames unidentified aerial phenomena as a potential threat to national security. Senator Marco Rubio told the Times that the U.S. needs to study these sightings in case a foreign nation, like China or Russia, has made "some technological leap" that "allows them to conduct this sort of activity."
So, what might the task force disclose? Maybe not much more than what the government has already revealed. For example, the Pentagon videos from April (which The New York Times had first published in 2017 and 2018) show what some American pilots have called "Tic Tac" UFOs — fast, ovular aircraft that don't fly like anything currently on the market.
"What we saw exceeded anything that we had in our inventory, far superior to the airplanes that we were flying in; at the time they were brand new," David Fravor, a retired Navy pilot who said he encountered a Tic Tac UFO, told Fox News.
But interestingly, the new Times report describes how the former head of the Pentagon UFO task force, Luis Elizondo, is "among a small group of former government officials and scientists with security clearances who, without presenting physical proof, say they are convinced that objects of undetermined origin have crashed on earth with materials retrieved for study."
The report also mentions Eric W. Davis, an astrophysicist at Aerospace Corporation who's worked as a consultant for the Pentagon UFO program since 2007, and who's authored multiple papers on theoretical advanced propulsion systems for the Air Force Research Laboratory. Davis said he's briefed Defense Department officials as recently as March on "off-world vehicles not made on this earth."
Leslie Kean, who co-bylines these NYT stories, has made a career of researching UFOs. She's also written a book abo… https://t.co/LXn6qBUVVe— Dan Zak (@Dan Zak)1595556822.0
It's hard to know what to make of such extraordinary claims. After all, unlike the Tic Tac videos, there's no physical evidence suggesting the U.S. government has collected crashed aircraft. What's more, it's worth noting that in the public conversation about aliens or the supernatural, there have always been people with big claims but little (or zero) evidence to back them up. (Of course, if physical evidence did exist, it'd almost surely be classified.)
But what's clear is that the U.S. government is becoming more transparent about the strange objects that have been appearing in American skies and over the Atlantic Ocean. That's good news for UFO enthusiasts. Yet the scientific community doesn't seem interested at all.
In an interview with Vox, political scientist Alexander Wendt described a "taboo" against scientists studying UFOs.
"...even though the Navy is now saying, 'Hey, we've got UFOs on film, here they are,' the scientists are still not going to study them," Wendt said. "So there seems to be something blocking the scientific community from engaging this phenomenon, even though anything else even remotely this interesting would generate limitless research dollars."
Wanted: A Science of UFOs | Alexander Wendt | TEDxColumbus
Still, after Wendt gave a TEDx talk on the need for scientific study on UFOs, he said he received many emails from individual scientists saying: "Thank you, we wish we could study this, but we can't because our lives depend on getting grants from the government and other research institutes, and if anybody gets worried that we're interested in UFOs, boom, they won't get a cent and their careers will be in the tank."
Could this taboo set back efforts to bolster national security? After all, these recent reports are coming from the same people in charge of protecting U.S. airspace, and they're reporting objects that not only exceed modern technological capabilities, but also seem to defy our modern understanding of physics. If scientists react to these reports with the same eye-rolling that they'd give to tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorists, that seems like a problem.As Senator Rubio told the Times, there might be a "completely, sort of, boring explanation" for the sightings, "but we need to find out."
Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.
- Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
- "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
- In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
A volcano in California is a hot spot for conspiracy theorists.
- Unusual UFO-shaped formations were observed in the skies over Mount Shasta.
- These were actually lenticular clouds that often look like lenses or flying saucers.
- This volcano peak in California has long been the subject of conspiracy theories.
Mount Shasta in California has become a nexus of conspiracy theories and unusual events. The latest viral sensation from the area has been a UFO-shaped object that appeared in the skies above the potentially active volcano peak of 14,179 feet on the morning of February 12th.
Upon closer look, this was not an alien spaceship but a beautiful lenticular cloud, the kind that is often shaped like lentils or UFOs, depending on your perspective. It was so convincing, however, that the U.S. Forest Service had to deny its extraterrestrial origins in a statement.
The flying saucer or lens shape of these clouds is caused by their development along the downwind sides of mountains. When moist and stable air goes over a mountain, oscillating waves are created. The crest of the waves causes condensation of vapor, which evaporates through the troughs, explains Weather Underground. These evaporations take the form of lenses and spaceships, looking layered.
Mount Shasta, in particular, has seen its share of lenticular cloud sightings, leading to its status as a new focal point for alien hunters much like Roswell, New Mexico. The latest UFO cloud quickly became a social media sensation, as you can see in these posts of the enigmatic formations:
View this post on InstagramAlien Sunrise #lenticularclouds #mountains #mountainviews #coolclouds #mtshasta #siskiyoucounty #siskiyou #discoversiskiyou #lenticular #whatsthiscloud
A post shared by Roxanne Coonrod (@roadshotsphotography) on Feb 12, 2020 at 12:43pm PST
View this post on Instagram#lenticularcloud#mtshasta#juniperrose#shasta#sunrise#lenticular#mushroomcloud
A post shared by Juniper Rose (@juniperroseairbnb) on Feb 12, 2020 at 7:06am PST
Mount Shasta has also seen other unusual happenings, with a mysterious side hole that appeared over 10 years ago becoming the subject of a documentary. Its sudden emergence connected with local legends about a lost continent of Lemuria supposedly hidden under the mountain. This mythical kingdom would be there along with its capital city Telos.
The first thought of the documentary filmmaker Elijah Sullivan about the giant hole was that it was from people trying to find Lemuria.
"You'll hear a lot of people talking about Lemuria, maybe even asking for directions," he told the news in 2018. "People make pilgrimages here — it's like a New Age mecca."
In 1987, the area was home to a New Age conference dubbed a "spiritual Woodstock".
It is also known to be sacred to the Native American Winnemem Wintu tribe, indigenous to this area.
If you're in the mood to check out the stunning area for yourself and see some aliens in the skies above, you can come to the nearby town of McCloud for the "Meet the Venusians — We Are in Contact" conference from August 25-30 of this year. It promises to be a "tribute to honor of all the Venusians & Pleiadean's who have taken the time to present themselves" with a schedule of speakers and events focused on healing and consciousness.