Unidentified Fundamental Obsession

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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.

Even someone desperate to be skeptical may find it hard to imagine that all these cases are confabulations and fantasies. Can a cultural belief system this powerful and durable be constructed entirely from vapor? People may say to themselves, Isn’t it possible that Earth has been just a little bit invaded?

The finest minds in the UFO world are coming to the conclusion that the aliens are involved in some kind of elaborate breeding program. They want our genetic material. This is what might be called the central irony of the UFO world. The belief in aliens is, at first glance, a firm embrace of the Copernican principle: Humans and the planet we live on are not the center of the universe. There are other intelligences. They are, indeed, smarter and more advanced. And yet these other intelligences are obsessed with us. They come across mind-boggling reaches of space to meet us, experiment with us, mate with us. We have such enchanting DNA, they just can’t stay away. Ufology, for all its generosity in filling the universe with life, nonetheless has a distinctly anthropocentric flavor.

To the dismay of the UFO researchers, the mainstream scientific community has remained adamantly opposed to the notion that aliens are visiting our planet. Even worse, the capitalist system has turned the whole thing into a commercial gimmick. The ufologists want to prove that there’s a cosmic Watergate going on even as we speak, and yet, well, there are all these aliens on backpacks, lunch boxes, T-shirts, and children’s TV. There are aliens bobbing from rearview mirrors and staring off bumper stickers. There are alien key chains, alien snow domes, alien tattoos. In the wee hours of the morning, Art Bell, a man living in a trailer 60 miles from Las Vegas, brings word of the alien presence and the government cover-up to an estimated 8 million radio listeners around the world. Meanwhile, Hollywood has made the alien story a staple narrative, like the Western used to be. Aliens are so overexposed, in fact, that the movie studios have resorted to parodies and send-ups: Mars Attacks! and Men in Black. Human civilization is apparently more adept at cashing in on conspiracies than at solving them.

So deeply has the Alien penetrated popular culture that we need only the slightest visual clue to identify a character as being from a different world. In the 1960s it was antennae, as in My Favorite Martian. Now it’s the bald oversized head with big almond-shaped black eyes, skinny limbs, hands with four, or sometimes three, fingers. The alien in the notorious Roswell ‘autopsy’ documentary had six fingers, which many ufologists felt was proof that it was a hoax–their research showed that the real Roswell aliens had only four.

Most observers make a sharp distinction between legitimate exobiology–the scientific inquiry into extraterrestrial life–and ‘kooky’ ufology, but both are part of a fabric of curiosity. The common thread is a sincere desire to understand the universe, to find truth and meaning in a time when we are overwhelmed with astronomical data. The UFO story is really what you’d call a heresy, a heresy of modern astronomy.

Astronomers say the night sky is full of stars that may have planets, which in turn might harbor life. The UFO heretics push this official story a bit further, populating it with creatures of their own devising. They also assume that some subset of mysterious aerial phenomena is the result of an alien presence. They see and report things they cannot explain, so many, in fact, that the Air Force spent 22 years investigating the phenomenon, notably through Project Blue Book, before finally giving up in 1969.

Some of us are crazier than others, but we’re all searchers. We’re all scientists of a sort. Even if you don’t buy into the invasion scenario, it’s hard to go through life without pausing to wonder what’s out there. On a dark, moonless night, the stars explode upon our consciousness, challenging us to figure out the significance of all that brilliance. We find ourselves asking big questions: Why does the universe exist? What’s the point of it? Why are we here at all? It’s almost as though we don’t really know who we are in the immensity of space.

The Copernican principle holds that there is nothing special about our place in the universe. We now know we are an ordinary world in orbit around an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy that is but one of perhaps 50 billion galaxies. As the ‘known universe’ has grown in size during the 20th century–its expanse redrawn as new and better telescopes reveal ever more distant structures–we have fully absorbed the notion that Earth is but a speck, a smudge, an insignificant granule in the brain-hammering enormousness of space.

To deal with this existential crisis we develop stories. We are storytellers by nature. The stories we tell the most passionately are those that deal with our relationship to the gods and other entities with powers beyond the mortal sphere. Those stories have been forever changed by modern science. Astronomy in particular has altered the narrative, or at least its scale. No longer must we account merely for the beings that live in the sky or under the earth or in a heavenly sphere that surrounds our planet. We have to account for all the forces in a universe vast beyond imagination. We are told that there may be other universes outside our own, similarly huge. We have to wrestle with cosmologies that blow our minds.

There are people who are at peace with our demotion from the center of the universe. They feel that an awareness of our true place in the universe will counter some of the worst human vanities. Anthropocentrism has had nasty applications in everyday life, from destruction of the environment to exploitation of animals to repression of people whom those in power regarded as less human than themselves. Anthropocentrism is a kind of cosmic bigotry. It is now far more fashionable to embrace an extreme counteranthropocentrism, in which humans are not terribly special in any way at all.

Wiser through astronomy, humbler through searching our conscience, we have finally learned to embrace our mediocrity. We do not know if there are others out there–frankly, we don’t know anything about these creatures whatsoever–but for the sake of decency and good galactic citizenship we know we should pay them the respect they deserve.

And yet we might be alone.

We might be the freaks of the universe, an example of what conceivably can happen when chemistry begets biology. Another possibility is that we are not alone but will never find anything with which we can make meaningful contact. The aliens might be boring, depressed, insular creatures with no imagination or verve. The aliens could be blobs of goop. The aliens could be exploring our world in ‘nanoprobes,’ tiny robotic craft we don’t even notice–a theory suggested to me by none other than Dan Goldin, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The aliens might dominate entire galaxies but never set foot into intergalactic space. They could be so strange-looking that when we see them we don’t even recognize them as aliens. It has been suggested that the aliens are actually the animals we know in everyday life as cats.

The aliens of our age exist in an uncharted territory between science and mythology. They are not entirely imaginary and not entirely real. Perhaps we could say that they are plausibly real in a cosmic context, and increasingly questionable in smaller fragments of the universe. Their status must be reduced to highly implausible in the context of any particular cornfield or desert arroyo, and extremely implausible under your bed. In other words, when we are discussing the reality or lack of reality of aliens, it is necessary, or at least helpful, to specify location.

Of the many things that we still don’t know about the universe, aliens are the biggest. I mean the biggest in the literal sense. Aliens–unless they are for some reason really small, like Goldin’s nanoprobes–have the interesting quality of being more or less on our own scale of physical existence, theoretically. If you contemplate the major mysteries of nature, the questions that will keep scientists in business for decades or centuries to come, you may notice that these unknowns often involve microscopic or submicroscopic or sub-submicroscopic phenomena. The questions may sound ‘large’ or ‘cosmic,’ but the answers are likely to involve things that happen on a small scale, too small to wrap your arms around. Let me offer a short list of major unknowns facing the world of science:

1. How did the universe come into existence?
2. What is the essence of matter and energy?
3. How did life originate?
4. How is consciousness manufactured in the brain?
5. Are there intelligent beings on other worlds?

The first four questions might excite scientists, but they’d never interest Hollywood. Why? Because in each case the answer is something almost incomprehensibly small.

The universe, the subject of the first question, started out so small it had no physical dimensions whatsoever. At the earliest moment in its history that can be described in physical dimensions, it was still far smaller than the head of a pin. How it sparked into existence is still a matter limited to theory rather than observation.

The essence of matter and energy? Could be ‘strings,’ little trembling loops that vibrate in 10 dimensions of space-time. Space itself is said to be created by these strings. Unfortunately, string theory is baffling to all but a few geniuses. For the moment, the world of physics relies on the so-called Standard Model for an explanation of the subatomic world. There are flaws with the model. No one understands gravity, at least not at the quantum level, the territory of quarks and leptons and all those exotic critters produced in collisions in particle accelerators. The Standard Model lacks simplicity. Physicists would like to junk it and come up with something more aesthetically pleasing. Not long ago, Japanese researchers working in a zinc mine 3,000 feet below Earth’s surface determined that the enigmatic particles called neutrinos have mass–a devastating blow to the Standard Model. Neutrinos weren’t supposed to have mass.

As for the origin of life, it’s hard for any human being who is not at this very moment wearing a lab coat to find the drama in a search unfolding on the molecular level. And consciousness? Possibly the most elusive question in the list. There is general agreement that consciousness isn’t a single operating element of the brain but, rather, an ’emergent’ property, the product of multiple mental processes. Some scientists would say that the brain is fundamentally a complex machine and that in principle there is no reason a computer could not someday be designed to think for itself. Others, the ‘mysterians,’ believe that consciousness cannot be reduced to a wiring diagram. Again, the riddle plays out on a microscopic level, requiring an understanding of tiny cells working in strange and perplexing patterns.

Now you see the magic of question five. Aliens are large. Aliens (as we imagine them) exist at the same scale as humans, roughly speaking. They are dynamic. Aliens do things. Aliens pilot starships and cruise across the galaxy and invade other planets. Aliens lay fat, oozy, pulsing, glow-in-the-dark eggs containing their repulsive larval offspring. What I’m trying to say is that, even though aliens are completely strange, we can still relate to them.

And aliens might have answers. If the aliens were to send us a message, or land on the White House lawn (crushing Sam Donaldson in the middle of his nightly stand-up), they might well pony up the answers to some of the other big unknowns.

But even aliens wouldn’t know everything. Presumably they wouldn’t be able to see the future (let’s assume that even advanced interstellar travelers can’t indulge in time travel), and the future, as it turns out, is the most intriguing unknown of them all. One reason the concept of making contact with aliens is so dazzling to the imagination is that it is a narrative that shows where humans are going. Contact with our space brothers and sisters would affirm our sense of being involved in progressive development, in emergence from terrestrial barbarism, on our way toward cosmic citizenship. We want something like that because we know there are more awful alternatives. We know that as we use the tools of science to discover the secrets of nature, we are also misusing that knowledge to design weapons of mass destruction and other technologies that ravage Earth. There has been, in this era of thrilling science, a steady drumbeat of doom.

So I suppose I should add a sixth question to my list: What is going to happen to us?

Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for The Washington Post and a contributor to National Public Radio. Excerpted from Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe (Simon and Schuster, 1999).

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