Captured by Aliens, by Joel Achenbach

Captured By Aliens

Captured by Aliens is Joel Achenbach’s extended rumination on all things space, especially the people for whom—in intriguingly different ways—space is an obsession.

It’s a well-written, fascinating book from start to finish. If you have the slightest interest in space exploration, extraterrestrial life, or scientific and non-scientific ways of relating to the vastness and mystery of space, it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t enjoy this book.

Much of the book is devoted to the question of whether there is extraterrestrial life, especially intelligent life, and of the quest to find it. Which means the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation play prominent roles.

The Fermi Paradox is the notion that on the one hand there seem to be solid grounds for believing that intelligent extraterrestrial life is somewhat common in the universe, but on the other hand if it were, in all the billions of years surely some of the aliens would have spread throughout the universe or at least their home galaxy, and yet we’ve still never come across anyone. The Drake Equation organizes the relevant variables (e.g., number of stars, average number of planets per star, etc.) that would have to be estimated in order to estimate the total number of extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations.

The hero of Captured By Aliens is Carl Sagan. Clearly Achenbach thinks very highly of him, and with good reason. The aspects of Sagan that most impress Achenbach are precisely those of the ideal scientist.

Sagan was a man of extraordinary passions, especially the desire to discover extraterrestrial intelligence. He felt sure it had to be out there, and he spent the better part of his life pursuing the dream of finding it. And yet, as strong as this passion was, his commitment to science and to intellectual honesty was greater. So, with arguably only the occasional temporary lapse, he refused to believe or claim anything that was inconsistent with the evidence.

Furthermore, again like a true scientist and true critical thinker, his beliefs weren’t absolute. He believed what the evidence supported—regardless of whether he wanted to believe it—but only to the degree the evidence supported it. Everything was a matter of probabilities. Given the available evidence, he believed that the likelihood of life on such-and-such planet was low but nonzero, but that likelihood could go up or down in the future depending on additional evidence that might become available. He believed that such-and-such methodology had such-and-such likelihood of finding such-and-such type of life in such-and-such area of our galaxy, but if presented with a sound argument for a higher or lower likelihood he would listen and adjust his assessment of the likelihood upward or downward. He believed it was highly likely that such-and-such UFO was really a weather balloon, but he acknowledged that there was a small chance it was some other mundane thing and a very small chance it was indeed a spacecraft from some other planet.

One point that is mentioned in passing in the book but probably deserves more attention is the claim made by some that an encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence likely would end very badly for us or for them, more likely us, and that therefore we should be avoiding it rather than seeking it.

I find this highly plausible. Think about how human societies throughout history have tended to respond to each other by battling for dominance—and that’s within the same species. Aliens would be a lot less like us than we are like Indonesians or Tibetans; they may well be a lot less like us than we are like sponges or pine trees. I would think they’d be more likely to eat us than converse with us.

So listening for radio waves from distant solar systems, OK, but is it really such a great idea to send a probe off into space with a waving man with genitalia and a non-waving woman without and a map to Earth to see who might stumble upon it?

It’s interesting how the evidence for life can be so ambiguous. Leaving aside stupid stuff like the “Face on Mars,” there have been multiple occasions when some scientists believed they’d found evidence of life and others didn’t. Each time the consensus has ended up on the non-life side, but there have been times that earlier in the process a sizable minority if not a majority of the scientists who were familiar with the evidence were on the life side. Then even when a consensus has developed on the non-life side, often there’s still enough ambiguity that the holdouts on the life side can make a case that’s not totally implausible.

The most famous such case so far is probably the meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica. Eventually most scientists came to the conclusion that the vaguely worm-looking imprint was not from a living thing after all.

For one thing, it was suspiciously small. Probably when most laymen heard the story they assumed they were talking about a worm-size worm, but it was actually so microscopically small that—unless Martian organisms are different in this regard, which is always possible—it wasn’t even big enough to be the kind of life it supposedly looked like. I don’t mean just that it was smaller than a worm from this planet, but that a creature at the level of complexity of a worm needs to be structured a certain way and have a certain amount of stuff to function, and something as small as whatever the Martian thing was wouldn’t be roomy enough for everything.

When Achenbach switches to talking about UFO fanatics, abductees, people with kooky New Age beliefs that incorporate space elements, etc.—which is a good portion of the book—it’s a bit jarring, but still entertaining, just in a different way. It’s like stepping from a room where grown-ups are talking about something admittedly uncertain and speculative in some respects, into a room of little kids babbling confidently about roughly the same subject manner in a way that indicates they don’t have the slightest grasp of what they’re talking about—not the background knowledge, not the ability to think logically, not the commitment to believe what’s most likely to be true over whatever make-believe notion they enjoy believing, etc.

Some of that’s comical; some of it’s creepy in the sense that you often can infer that you’re in the presence of mental illness. It’s easy to imagine getting trapped in an exchange with someone like this, where they can always dance around in ad hoc fashion to make sure their claims aren’t quite disprovable, as if that somehow makes them justified to believe.

At least as far as the ones he writes about, it sounds like the overwhelming majority of those who express certainty that the aliens are here are quite sincere. There are a few scam artists and practical jokers and such, but far more of them seem to be delusional than dishonest.

As he notes, almost everyone who believes in aliens—not in the Sagan sense of thinking abstract arguments make them more likely than not to be out there somewhere, but in the UFO sense of insisting they’re already knowably here—is quick to distinguish themselves from those they consider crazy. It’s important to them that the listener know that while there is certainly a fringe of UFO crazies, they are not in it.

If you meet someone who is convinced that the Earth is being closely monitored in preparation for an invasion by a race of Dolly Parton clones, you can bet they’ll assure you that they only believe things like that that are strongly supported by the scientific evidence, and are not to be mistaken for those obvious nut jobs who believe fanciful things like that the Dolly Parton clones all speak French.

Achenbach makes the point that the non-scientific people seem to come up with what they come up with out of dissatisfaction that the universe as seen by science just doesn’t have enough interesting stuff, enough mysteries to explore, enough surprises, enough to be inspired by or passionate about, enough stuff that you’d have to be able to think outside the box to have discovered in the first place, and so on, when in fact the scientific universe has all those things in spades. What could be more bizarre and awesome, and at times so counter-intuitive that you can’t even get your mind around it, then the things scientists have discovered, especially in recent decades, or speculate may turn out to be true about the universe as we gather more evidence in the future? Why isn’t that enough?

Well, I guess for one thing in order to even understand where science has advanced, nowadays you have to have a grasp of higher mathematics that only some fraction of 1% of the population has, which leaves most people out of the fun. And arguably even those folks don’t really “understand” it; they can just describe it with equations.

People—at least people who give themselves permission to engage in non-scientific wishful thinking—want a simple universe, one that someone of their level of IQ and education can make sense of. They want not just a universe that has elements of the bizarre, the wonderful, and the mysterious, but specifically one that conveniently has just these elements that happen to fit their emotional or religious preferences. It also helps if humanity, or even they as individuals, are at the center of the narrative.

So are we on the verge of finding the aliens? Are we ourselves destined to travel to the stars? Achenbach discusses all the big plans scientists and others have for the future, and the technological advances they predict, but he’s more skeptical than not about what he hears. He makes the point that the future has a way of surprising us, that discoveries tend to happen unpredictably. So if we encounter aliens, it’ll probably not be in whatever way and in whatever time period seems to make the most sense to us today. And by “us” here I’m including scientists who are basing their speculations on the evidence—the point is that the evidence is just too sparse to warrant confident predictions.

Achenbach concludes that we may well have to get used to the idea that for all practical purposes we are indeed alone, that interstellar travel, for us or for any hypothetical civilization elsewhere, is likely impossible and/or undesirable, but that furthermore that’s fine. After spending all this time exploring the world of folks obsessed by space and aliens in one way or another, he decides not to join them. There’s nothing wrong, he contends, with focusing our efforts, our goals, and our ideals closer to home. There is plenty here on Earth to inspire us, plenty of problems to solve, and plenty of mysteries to explore.

So in spite of his obvious admiration for Sagan, in the end he decides not to follow him.

I don’t know. I’m not a hard core space buff, but I felt a little sadness at his conclusion, at his suggestion that we reorient ourselves away from the space dream. Even though I haven’t made it my life’s work like so many of these folks, or even a hobby or something I keep up on in a big way, I find myself siding with the space buffs after all. I don’t want to give up the dream. I want to keep programs like SETI going to look for extraterrestrial life. I’m disappointed we pulled back so drastically on the manned space program after reaching the moon. I think that space shuttle bullshit is incredibly lame and unambitious. I want people to walk on Mars, and I want scientists to continue exploring how they can go even farther—to the stars indeed if such a thing turns out to be possible.

Yes, I know that it takes resources, and there are plenty of worthwhile things on Earth to expend those resources on instead. But do you really think that $1 billion that doesn’t go to the space program is going to be used to feed starving people instead? Or isn’t it enormously more likely that it’ll be eaten up by some boondoggle for corporations with enough resources to manipulate the system, or similarly wasted?

Yes, I also know that super-sophisticated cameras and computers and such can gather information from space more efficiently and certainly much less expensively than actual people can. But it’s not about that, or at least not just about that. Sending some device, like a helium balloon, to the top of Mt. Everest isn’t the same as climbing Mt. Everest. I don’t care if it is just as good or better at gathering information, or testing some scientific hypothesis, or discovering something or other that can then be converted into some new and useful industrial technology. It’s still a fucking balloon. Life is about more than pragmatism.

If I can’t walk on some planet in another solar system, I at least want a human being to do so. And the more wild things like that that we can do in space while I’m still around to know about it the better.

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