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Alien | Other

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January 15, 2024


ALIEN | OTHER: Is egocentrism universal?

We humans are nothing if not self-involved. We tend to think—if there are alien life forms anywhere else in the universe—that they would somehow keep hovering here on earth like fruitflies over bananas, obsessing over us, stalking, gawking, probing. Seeking to learn from us, squander our drained resources, elicit our help in their survival, or actually care about our own. And, of course, that they would happen to look like us too, or perhaps be kind or manipulative enough to come with handy disguises and overalls so as not to overly freak us out.

We are also indeed very easily freaked.

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We liberally apply the idea of “alien” to all kinds of ideas, things, and creatures we want to scapegoat, stereotype, and fear for no real reason or data beyond our very narrow margins of comfort and safety. No one’s louder at this than we jingoistic Americans chanting “build a wall,” or bussing our asylum seekers off to deposit unawares into other people’s backyards. The alien is anyone or thing other than us, one we don’t know or understand, which could be anyone at all. Especially dangerous are those that might hide in plain sight, those in our midst. The overly tall if harmless enough looking ogre architect who turned out recently to be the Long Island Serial Killer, for instance. One of us?

“Alien,” according to Merriam-Webster, is, as an adjective: belonging or relating to another person, place, or thing: STRANGE; relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government: FOREIGN; EXOTIC; coming from another world: EXTRATERRESTRIAL; or differing in nature or character typically to the point of incompatibility. And as a noun: a person who is not of a particular group or place; a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country; along with the above ETs and Exotics.

Interesting to me from this list of strange, foreign, exotic and extraterrestrial is this concept of the incompatible. Now we’re getting into relationship therapy territory. How does anyone know we wouldn’t get along if we tried? Might some areas of interest overlap? Alien sightings that used to be only the stuff of legend and secrecy are now becoming common talking points on CNN and getting Congressional hearings, so maybe coming soon might be alien ambassadors, summits, interstellar conferences, online certificates in alien-human mediation.

UFOs aren’t even UFOs anymore and ETs are really “having a moment,” according to this comprehensive Washington Post article.

Fascination with the concept of extraterrestrial visitors isn’t new, but it has enjoyed a 21st-century efflorescence. Military pilots have seen things that look otherworldly. The Pentagon has established an office to look into the sightings. Congress has held hearings. Even NASA got into the game, training the cool logic of science onto a scorching-hot cultural topic.

Somewhere along the line, UFOs got rebranded. Unidentified flying objects are now, per government edict, unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs).

That all said, all the UAPs sightings lean to more of a heightened cultural phenomenon than anything science can really sink its teeth into, taking what started with “War of the Worlds” via radio and imagination to the limits of what we can record, produce and share in our era of cyborgian merge with devices. Me, I put my faith in what the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute’s up to, combing the galaxies (more approachable than ever with the awesome new James Webb telescope images), than sitting back thinking all starry pathways lead to us. Plus, they have a new rousing PSA narrated by Morgan Freeman, the voice of all good things.

We are the SETI Institute (PSA ft. Morgan Freeman)

By the Big Numbers, it’s almost impossible not to believe in…something out there, even if it’s, as my kids assume, “just bugs.” And there’s the Copernican principle. According to both, we’re just not so special. Again, from the Washington Post:

The Big Numbers argument notes that our galaxy, the Milky Way, has something like 400 billion stars, and it’s just one of untold billions of galaxies in a universe that might be infinite. Moreover, in the past 30 years, astronomers have discovered that planets of all shapes and sizes are common in the universe.

With so much turf out there, even the most frowny-faced skeptic must admit it’s hard to run the numbers in a 13.8 billion-year-old universe like ours and wind up with just one self-aware, technological, telescope-constructing species.

The Copernican principle is inspired by 16th-century astronomer Copernicus, whose revolutionary model of the solar system put the sun and not Earth at the center. The principle suggests that, in the same way that Earth is not in a privileged place in the universe, humanity should not presume itself special, or unique. The universe is not about us, and what happened on this planet over the past 4 billion years could happen elsewhere.

Not to mention—because the past might wipe out when you reconstitute things and start over—that we might not be the first humans on this earth, nor is there necessarily even one universe. We can’t even begin to do the math on boundaries we can never traverse across the multiverse and back in time to earlier editions of earth. I like to picture not only all the gazillions of stars, galaxies, but then too the constellations of actual universes. Perhaps all form some imperceptible shape we can’t detect while in it, like the surface of a ball, giant Fibonacci spirals within spirals, a tree. How far can our science ever get with that? These aren’t just stars we see in the great distance but billions of them clustered in innumerable galaxies. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful to think how small we are in the scheme of things.

Could we be the odd inhabited intelligent Other in a universe of nothing but lifeless particles, or just stealthy solipsistic octopi who have no means to talk to us—or worse, don’t care? A major SETI project at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory on its 300-foot diameter dish is “Breakthrough Listen” where scientists are patiently pending the detection of one radio signal that may contain a message from afar.

Only a small fraction of our galaxy has been studied. Absence of evidence, as everyone knows, is not evidence of absence. Aliens may not consider radio waves to be a useful or dignified way to communicate. They could be pathologically shy. Or, at least with the kind of technology we have today, they could be just a little bit out of range.

For whatever reason, SETI has not found anyone out there, and at some point the silence could get deafening.

The physicist Paul Davies has written that SETI is a search for a needle in a haystack without knowing if the needles are really there.

All possibilities remain in play. Including the possibility that we are alone.

To extend the idea of our ultimate existential aloneness to a universal scale is just unfathomable to me. So maybe while we may very well be isolated in our skulls and skin, it just can’t be that we’re solo in this vastness. Way scarier than finding these Others, would be to be so alone.

Welcome the stranger. And wait.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hudson Independent readership. You can  subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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