Unidentified Fundamental Obsession

Why we need aliens now

| November/December 1999

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Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. This is the boast of a scientist. We can know things. We can apply our big primate brains to complex problems and gradually construct a plausible and satisfying model of reality. Perhaps in prehistoric times we built models out of necessity, as tools for guessing the location of game to be hunted, fruits to be gathered. Today we dare to model the entirety of nature, from galaxies to atoms.

And yet there is one model that has been difficult to construct--a good, solid model of the biology of the cosmos. We don't know what lives in the universe beyond our own planet. It's not merely that we have an incomplete grasp of the situation. We don't know anything at all.

Nonetheless, the model-building spirit is resilient, and so people press ahead with scenarios and stories about extraterrestrial life. They invent myths. In the past half-century, many inquiring, curious, searching individuals have put together a powerful narrative of alien invasion. Millions are now immersed in the UFO 'enigma,' to use a favorite word.

Even if they're not sure what's happening, they're convinced that . . . well, that something is going on. The belief system is constructed of countless individual pieces of evidence, most of it flimsy, but some of it not readily explained away. There are hundreds of thousands of documented sightings. There are trained pilots who have seen what looked like metallic craft come to a dead stop in midair and then speed away at impossible velocities. Mysterious blips showed up on radar screens and appeared to buzz the White House and the Capitol one night in 1952. Three silver-skinned creatures with pointed ears and crab-claw hands abducted two men from a fishing pier in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1973. The space shuttle astronauts saw a UFO that narrowly avoided being blasted by a laser beam from a secret U.S. government Star Wars facility in Australia. The aliens had the nerve to abduct the United Nations secretary general Perez de Cuellar in 1995--an incident that, unsurprisingly, he claims never happened.

The biblical Book of Ezekiel has a dead-on account of a flying saucer landing and an alien stepping out. Jimmy Carter saw a UFO in 1969; when he became president, he insisted that his aides open up the UFO files to see what wasthere. Soonafter winning the 1992 election, Bill Clinton told Arkansas crony Webster Hubbell to find out two things when he went to work at the Justice Department: Who killed JFK? And are there UFOs?

These spaceships, or whatever they are, have lurked on the cultural fringe for the entire second half of the 20th century. Surveys have generally shown that a quarter to more than half of the public believes that aliens have come to Earth in flying saucers. For many years the UFO phenomenon went in waves, spurred by flurries of sightings (in 1947, 1952, 1973), but by the 1990s it had stabilized. Other millennial fears--asteroid impacts, Y2K computer meltdowns--loomed, but the aliens persevered in a competitive market. Early in 1999, the very mainstream NBC televised a two-hour 'special-event' documentary titled Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us? As ever, the Hollywood-produced footage of flying saucers (not always clearly labeled) was far more impressive than any 'real' footage. A thoughtful viewer easily could have concluded from the show that, although some UFO cases are clearly hoaxes, others are more convincing, and so alien visitors, the abductions, and the massive government cover-up are all quite possible. These are now respectable beliefs. A person today can entertain the idea of an alien invasion and still be a member of polite, rational society.

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