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June 25, 2021

Alien Myths: Strange Truths and Vivid Fiction

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From a meteor crashing down off the coast of South Florida, to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-N.V.) accusing Lockheed-Martin of housing UFO fragments, to the widely popular “Ancient Aliens” of the History Channel, curiosity about the existence of aliens has continually captured our imaginations. As just one example, take the Area 51 raid craze, where such feelings of curiosity evolved and gained mainstream traction. But why do aliens keep popping up?

Well, there’s a specific kind of enjoyment we get from entertaining the possibility of aliens. It’s somewhere between the mystery and wonder that comes from looking out at space and asking “what if?” It’s exhilarating, and the thought that there might be something indescribable and completely unknown in the dark of space captures our imaginations. But most of the time, we don’t actually need to imagine the possibilities ourselves because movies and video games do it for us. 

More and more, science fiction has become synonymous with aliens, and it’s impossible to miss in pop culture. From movies like Star Wars and ET, to video games like Halo, extraterrestrials have increasingly made their way into the physical world from the screen. In other words, aliens are already here — they have been living in our minds. Sci-fi’s overwhelming presence in the pop culture of today means there isn’t a single person that doesn’t have an image of a little green man in their head, or an alien popping out of a poor guy’s stomach. 

I apologize on behalf of the film industry if you didn’t get the reference, but the point is that science fiction has done everything it can to permeate the question of aliens — and its answers have not only opened our minds to the possibilities of aliens, but have come to define what we think aliens are. However, if we were to dissect the history of alien thought, would we find that aliens are more heavily rooted in facts, or in fiction?

If we ignore the terrifying speculation that Ancient Sumer’s 4000 year old tablets’ depictions of gods were actually honest portrayals of alien overlords, then the earliest known written account of alien life is Lucian of Samosata’s Vera Historia, written in 200 AD. In the novel, Turkish satirist Lucian writes about a fictional journey to the moon, where there are strange creatures based loosely on real life organisms like fleas, vultures and people. While these depictions were quite different from the images we now associate with aliens, it was still a huge leap for speculative fiction and the question of extraterrestrial life. In fact, the satirist’ main takeaway of the novel was the point that we don’t really know what we think we do. 

Throughout the centuries, authors would periodically revisit these themes, culminating in stories like the Japanese The Tale of Princess Kaguya circa year 900, Voltaire’s 18th Century Micromégas, and eventually leading up to H.G. Wells’ popular The War of the Worlds in 1898, which set off the time bomb known as science fiction. But those are just a few of the early influential written works — and when the film industry matured in the mid 20th Century, writers and producers became even more interested in the depiction of aliens

All of that said, early thoughts on extraterrestrial life actually date back to a group of philosophers in ancient Greece. Certain Epicurean philosophers (yes, there was more to them than “carpe diem”) believed in a pretty progressive view of the universe, one in which “atoms” randomly jostled together and caused different reactions. I mean, how ridiculous is that? Nevertheless, they speculated that if this were the case, it would be highly likely for there to be other “Earths” out there. 

But whether Epicurean thought was the initial catalyst for ideas about extraterrestrial life, or whether depictions of aliens in Lucian of Samosata’s novel and later works were all independently imagined is hard to say. And yet, one thing becomes clear when we step back and view the sheer scope of aliens that spread across time and continents: from Ancient Greece, to Turkey in 200 AD, to post-Early Japan, to Industrial Britain, to America 50 years ago, we see that wondering about the possibility of extraterrestrial life is a pretty normal response when thinking about outer space. 

But you must be wondering at this point what kind of evidence actually exists that supports the notion that aliens are real. Well, I wouldn’t so much as call it “evidence” as I would call it “chilling mystery.” For starters, crop circles, which are terrifyingly precise drawings of strange shapes and symbols that appear on crop fields. They are only visible from above, and as a result, they seem like they are carved from a bird’s-eye view — and the question of who made them is still up for debate, as it has been for over half a century. Some say that pranksters who worked overnight and were never seen were responsible, and others say it was visitors from outer space trying to communicate with us or with each other. And yet the lack of a clear answer is what makes these mysterious designs a chief artifact in the ongoing discussion about aliens.

That said, even stranger evidence came in last year when the Pentagon officially released Navy-filmed footage of UFO sightings. The strange objects in the videos move unlike any plane or jet designed on Earth, and the Pentagon admits that it has no idea what we are looking at. It’s pretty strong evidence for those who believe UFOs have already been all over the place. But that said, it’s not necessarily the nail in the coffin for the alien question — at least, not for all of us. The article isn’t wrong in saying that just because we don’t know the answer, it doesn’t mean it’s aliens. For me, I can’t personally think of a better alternative, but at the same time, maybe that’s only because of my extensive experience with science fiction. I’m willing to consider that a possibility, but still, it does make you wonder. 

In spite of all this, though, it seems we are no closer to verifying the truth about aliens — and this article is already on the long side. So I’m going to wrap up with what is probably the biggest lingering question on everyone’s mind: if aliens were actually real, why don’t we have decisive evidence? 

Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who created the first nuclear reactor, wondered the same thing back in 1950. His initial thoughts resulted in the Fermi Paradox, which proposes four possible answers to where the aliens are. The paradox assumes that extraterrestrial life does exist, but explains why we have never come across it, or haven’t seemed to notice. Those answers are as follows: space travel is more complicated than we think; aliens never chose to come here; advanced civilizations began recently, kind of like ours; or, they’ve come in the past and we didn’t have the means to observe them. 

Science and imagination tell us that it’s likely there’s life out there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we will meet them any time soon. So for those who imagine, keep imagining, and for those who don’t, start reading Sherlock Holmes, because the quality of mystery is usually more exciting than the truth.

Matthew Kassorla is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]