Our alien obsession
UFOs and aliens have been a widespread subcultural attraction for decades, but presently they’re bursting the subcultural boundaries and extending into Western society at large to reach the status of a bona fide, near-ubiquitous obsession. Even the (weird, incomprehensible, utterly Philistine) people who aren’t interested in them are now confronted by them at every turn, as the trend surges to new heights that were not even reached, I think, back during the 1970s era of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the 1990s era of alien abduction mania and The X-Files. Significantly, today’s surge isn’t just a matter of pop cultural items like movies, video games, TV shows, and comic books flooding shelves and screens — although they indeed are — but a matter of serious media attention being directed at the real-world question of real-world alien beings or life forms.
I find this cool.
Here are some signposts from the revolution
“NASA scientist claims evidence of extraterrestrial life“ (Guardian, March 6, 2011). Writing for the online Journal of Cosmology in March, respected astrobiologist Richard Hoover informed us that “filaments and other structures in rare meteorites appear to be microscopic fossils of extraterrestrial beings that resemble algae known as cyanobacteria.” Speaking of astrobiology, it’s good to bear in mind that the field has only been around since the 1990s, when it was launched as a reorganization and rebranding of the previously existing field of exobiology (which was also very young). Defined as “the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe,” it has become a central part of the mission-level raison d’etre for NASA and other space agencies around the world.
“Alien encounters ‘within 20 years’” (Guardian, June 27, 2010). The article’s teaser conveys the point: “A top Russian astronomer says he expects humans to encounter extraterrestrial civilisations within the next two decades.” The astronomer in question is Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Applied Astronomy Institute. He spoke at a forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. The story was propagated all around the media net. Space.com’s coverage included this interesting validation of Finkelstein’s position: “Though detecting life elsewhere in the cosmos sounds difficult, as it turns out, several astronomers believe that Finkelstein’s 20-year prediction is realistic. In fact, they have an equation that takes into account all the conditions that must be met in order to find life on other planets, and according to the equation, 20 years is a pretty good estimate for when we’ll find it.”
“Why Alien Life is Very, Very Likely” (Big Think, February 5, 2011). Late June’s announcement from Russia’s Finkelstein about our supposed imminent contact with alien life came several months after independent science writer and researcher David Berreby advanced precisely the opposite view. Invoking the Copernican principle, also known as the “principle of mediocrity,” which holds that “when anyone observes anything, his point of view is going to be ordinary,” Berreby argued that “the principle of mediocrity suggests that ours is an average planet, with an average history. That means there should be other planets with similar histories out there, including a history of life. But if we assume that we’re uniquely fit, in 2011, to communicate with other life forms, then we violate the Copernican principle in time even as we honor it in space. Isn’t it more likely that life on other planets died out long ago, or is just getting going, or isn’t recognizable to us at all? To hope for any other outcome is to hope for a most un-Copernican coincidence.”
“Flying Saucers Turn 64! A Look Back at the Origins of UFOs“ (Space.com, June 23, 2011). Space.com bills itself as “the world’s No. 1 source for news of astronomy, skywatching, space exploration, commercial spaceflight and related technologies.” Its media partners include such mainstream heavyweights as MSNBC.com, Yahoo!, and the Christian Science Monitor. In this article the site recounted the origin of the “flying saucer” image of UFOs in the misreported experience of amateur pilot Kenneth Arnold, who in 1947 spotted a fleet of strange-looking objects flying near Mount Rainier in Washington state.
“For the End of the World, a French Peak Holds Allure” (The New York Times, January 30, 2011). A major burst of UFO-and-alien-flavored subcultural mania that was specifically centered on the 2012 meme appeared in what Robert Duvall gleefully referred to in the movie Network as “the goddamned New York Times” when the paper reported in January on a phenomenon in southern France wherein people are flocking to the tiny village of Bugarach, located at the base of the mountain of the same name, because they believe it will be a haven during next year’s apocalypse. “Some French and international Web sites devoted to the apocalypse claim that the mountain of Bugarach is a sacred place that will protect them from the end of the world,” the Times reported. “Some even believe that, on doomsday, they will be spirited away by a group of aliens who live under the mountain. The date in question is when a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close.”
“Apocalypse prediction could spark mass suicide, French agency warns” (CNN, June 17, 2011). Five months after the NYT introduced the U.S. mainstream intelligentsia and reading public to the Bucharach phenomenon, word circulated that “The specter of a mass suicide tied to the widely predicted end of the world in December 2012 has prompted a warning from a government official in France, where people are already gathering at a place believers predict may provide the only escape from the apocalypse. Georges Fenech, president of French government agency Miviludes, which observes sect movements and warns the public of potential risks, told CNN that he had alerted French public authorities, including the prime minister, to the issue. ‘We fear that this message of fear could have serious consequences on fragile members of the French population,’ he said.” Fenech also told CNN that his agency has seen “Properties being bought in surrounding isolated areas [around Bucharach] and construction of bunkers with underground tunnels and food supplies.” Significantly, those “fragile” members of the French population are apparently high in number; in reporting on the mass suicide warning, The London Daily News noted that “The Apocalyptic scenario is spreading across France with a ‘mood of gloom’ that is engulfing the French. Opinion polls in France regularly show the French as one of the most pessimistic in the world.”
When Aliens Attack (National Geographic, June 2011). The venerable and venerated NG continued its trend, established in recent years, toward offering obeisance to popular culture as it aired this documentary about real-world responses to the extraterrestrial alien invasion scenario. “What if an extra-terrestrial force attacked Earth?” reads the program’s official description. “What might that look like and how will the people of Earth respond? Consulting a cast of world-renowned scientists, survival experts and defense experts, this two-hour special, Alien Invasion explores this frightening scenario. Experts reveal what could motivate alien invaders to attack Earth, and speculate on how the attack might play out — the strategy alien invaders might use and the most effective ways for humans to respond. Well turn to science and history to figure out what works. Well show how humanity can survive this ultimate test.”
“When evidence is powerless” (Guardian, June 24, 2011). Science and humanities professor Salman Hameed felt led to comment on an interesting fact about the relationship between belief and evidence in this high-profile essay: “Millions of individuals in the UK believe in UFOs and ghosts. Yet we know that there is no credible evidence for any visitation from outer space or for some dead souls hanging out in abandoned houses. On the other hand, there is now overwhelming evidence that humans and other species on the planet have evolved over the past 4.5bn years. And yet 17% of the British population and 40% of Americans reject evolution. It seems that for many there is no connection between belief and evidence.” He went on to focus on the alien abduction phenomenon as a case in point.
Aliens and the Imagination. This was an event staged at the British Library on June 28. “Are we alone in the universe?” its description read. “While we wait for an answer that may never come, we seem compelled in the meantime to imagine alien encounters, devise extraordinary alien worlds and races, and find ‘the other’ much closer to home. You can enjoy fascinating presentations and discussion from film director Gareth Edwards (Monsters), author Gwyneth Jones, Mark Pilkington (Strange Attractor); scientists and writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, (What Does a Martian Look Like?: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life) and David Clarke, Head of the Department of Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University and consultant to the National Archives UFO project.”
“A Military Post’s Secrets: Espionage, Not Aliens” (The New York Times, May 15, 2011). Aliens, or at least the alien meme, made the Times again in this review of journalist Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, which marshals the author’s extensive firsthand research to argue that the base in question really was the site of much top-secret research, but not of the UFO- or alien-oriented variety. She also offers a novel explanation of the famous Roswell incident when she claims there really was a downed aircraft, but it was a Nazi experimental aircraft manned by deformed humans who were the result of Dr. Mengele’s horrific experiments, as opposed to an extraterrestrial craft manned by alien humanoids. Her conclusion was not without controversy; AOL Weird News reported on June 7 that although the people she interviewed for the book found the published result to be mostly laudable, its final chapter “is so controversial that it has shocked even its sources with an outrageous claim that the infamous Roswell, N.M., UFO crash of 1947 was really caused by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and one of the most notorious Nazi criminals. A group of retired test pilots, engineers and military personnel from the fabled Nevada military installation, who played a crucial role in investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen’s new book…are reportedly unhappy about the writer’s shocking conclusion. ‘It caught us completely by surprise — we were blindsided,’ said T.D. Barnes, a former electronics, radar and communications expert who first came to work at Area 51 in 1968.”