Why I Prefer “Flying Saucers” to “UFOs”

By | Government, Ramblings, UFO | 2 Comments

Words are important.  In 1947, after pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed to have seen several crescent-shaped objects flying like saucers skipping on the surface of a pond, sensationalistic journalists coined the term “flying saucers.” (Notwithstanding the evidence that the term “flying saucers” was in use for years prior to that to describe clay pigeons used in skeet shooting) And a phenomenon was born.  Reports of flying saucers soared, leading up to the 1952 “summer of the saucers”, in which thousands of reports hit the news.

Despite journalists having originated the phrase, most journalists back in the day seemed unable to utter it unironically, and usually added “so called” before it, as in “Mr. Jones saw a so-called flying saucer over his house.”  The phrase rolls so easily off the tongue now, after sixty years of cultural programming, it’s easy to forget that it is actually conjuring an image of dishes soaring through the sky.  That said, it is usually said in reference to 1950s sci fi movies, because it’s not a term that people use much anymore.  It is, really, a silly term.

But the US government was compelled to investigate. Obviously they can’t investigate flying dishes, so they had to look at it from a more distanced and one could say distinguished perspective.  Thus, Edward Ruppelt, director of the USAF’s Project Bluebook, coined the term “UFO”, for Unidentified Flying Object.

Ruppelt sought a new term that could be used to describe objects that were of any shape and size (not just saucer-shaped), as well as to describe objects which were completely mundane but just not readily identifiable. After all, a weather balloon is a UFO if you don’t know what it is.  But if you hear someone use the term “UFO”, you know they are talking about a spacecraft that carries little green men.  It will still be a UFO if it’s on the ground, and it will still be a UFO if it’s ethereal and not a solid object.  Though the term UFO was intended to distance these sightings from the sensationalism and foregone conclusion that they were aliens from space, it now means exactly that.

To address this, the term UAP for Unexplained Aerial Phenomena has come into vogue. Even Hillary Clinton, on the Jimmy Kimmel show, corrected his usage of “UFO” by saying “You know there’s a new name….unexplained aerial phenomenon.”

So “flying saucers” was a joke, and “UFO” became saddled with cultural baggage.  Will “UAP” be any different, or will it too become a perjorative?

“UFO” does not describe the craft the Contactees saw.  UFO is (literally) a military term, a clinical way to describe some unknown other.  In the book pictured above, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt begins with a story of an F-86 fighter that opened fire on a UFO because the pilot didn’t know what else to do.  Consider how Ruppelt pronounced “UFO”, as well:  “You Foe.”  It means these things are to be feared, to looked at with suspicion.

In other words, precisely the opposite of the Contactees.  They regarded these craft and the beings within them as objects of wonder, things to be in awe of, things to revere.  They also knew that these things were not “unidentified” at all.  Adamski knew that the scoutship he saw was Venusian.  Menger’s similar, but slightly different scouts were Saturnian.  Aura Rhanes came to earth on a ship from the planet Clarion.

“Flying saucers” evoke a simpler time, and while it isn’t the most precise of descriptions (as it can be attributed to disks, crescents, triangular, or cigar-shaped craft), it doesn’t leave room for mystery.  These are vehicles that bring our alien visitors here.

Some UFOlogists could arguably be called saucerologists, as they’re more interested in proving that these phenomena are alien visitors, rather than coming up with other things they could be.  Stanton Friedman, for example, frequently uses the term “flying saucer”, presumably for similar reasons to mine.  I would argue that Friedman is the spiritual successor to Major Donald Keyhoe, the former head of NICAP, who used the term “saucers.”  Both of these men would be horrified to be lumped in with the Contactees, and that’s not what I’m attempting to do; rather, I’m just saying that, basically, if you know what something is, and you know it’s a spaceship, why would you call it “unidentified”?

I, for one, think it is time we bring this back into the lexicon.  When modern UFOlogists talk about “UFO disclosure”, aren’t they really talking about flying saucer disclosure?  They’re not looking for the government to release the secret files of weather inversions or swamp gas…they want acknowledgement of the existence of alien visitations.  The Secret of the Saucers, as Orfeo Angelucci put it.

How to Hoax a Contact

By | Contactees, Ramblings | 2 Comments

It’s pretty simple.  All you have to do is say that you had a contact experience.

Contact experiences, as scientists and UFOlogists alike will tell you, are problematic because of the lack of evidence behind them.  Though there are some exceptions to this–various people from George Adamski to Howard Menger have offered up photographs and other artifacts–most of this evidence is rejected out of hand, because Contactees are the unwanted stepchildren of UFOlogy.

Adamski offered a number of photographs; in fact, that’s how he became famous, by presenting photos of flying saucers with unprecedented detail and clarity.  Over the years, these photos have been generally dismissed as being the lid of an egg brooder or the top of a Coleman lantern, as a man named Joel Carpenter notes.  But of course, no direct evidence of fabrication or hoaxing was ever found.

The chicken brooder I found on the family farm. I was shocked to see it at first because it did resemble a flying saucer so much.

Howard Menger’s photographs seem almost painterly in comparison.  Which is tricky, considering he was, in fact, a painter by trade.  But again, the only evidence we have of Menger’s hoaxing his evidence is his saying that he did so. (Which he later recanted, saying he was part of a government campaign to test the waters of how the public would handle a UFO Contact).

In both of these cases, these men could have told their tales without changing them at all without providing evidence.  But they chose to back up their claims with photographs and artifacts, which perhaps increased their visibility and gave them more attention, but also made them more controversial figures.  Because it’s one thing to fabricate a story in a public forum, but it’s another thing entirely to fabricate evidence.  Whether Adamski’s claims are true or not, I think his reputation as a polarizing figure is largely derived from this distinction. If a skeptic analyzes the claims of, say, Orfeo Angelucci, they will likely dismiss his stories.  But to dismiss Adamski’s story requires also rejecting the accompanying photographs and the corroborating statements from others.  If that additional evidence is perceived as fake, the effort that went into them becomes somewhat more dastardly, leaving a sort of bad taste in the mouth.

The average modern person definitely finds it difficult to stomach the claims of the Contactees of the 1950s.  Beautiful blond humans from the planet Venus fly in the face of what NASA tells us about the surface of that planet, for example.  So, the tendency is largely toward labeling them as hoaxers or as insane.  And some Contactees, undoubtedly, were mentally unstable or hoaxers, and a few were even convicted of criminal offenses.  But the same could be said for almost any group out there–butterfly collectors, graphologists, census-takers, and IT personnel.  To wipe away entire groups with a simple brush of the hand is, to me, missing the point.

Just looking at the four Georges–Adamksi, Van Tassel, King, and Hunt Williamson–all of these men have been dogged by claims of being con artists, out to make a buck, delusional, and demagogues in training.  Generally speaking, when I’ve met with Contactees and their representatives, I’ve found them to be some of the kindest, most sincere people I’ve ever met, and describing them as outright frauds doesn’t jibe with my experience.  Perhaps I’m naive.  Even if I’ve not always been convinced of the truthfulness of their stories, I have been convinced of their sincerity.  But who really knows?  Without evidence, anything is possible.  It’s also possible that their claims were totally or partially true, a story that started with a germ of fact that became a big fish story.

Regardless, the Contactees are not so easily dismissed.  Strange phenomena seemed to follow Adamski in his wake; people around him saw craft in the sky.  The Integratron, allegedly given as mental blueprints to Van Tassel via mental channeling, is a marvelous building with fascinating construction and peculiar acoustics.  The Aetherius Society, still running, is the spiritual home of many kind and wonderful people.

Some of their stories may have been exaggerated.  Others may have been totally fabricated.  Others may have been legitimate, or perhaps involved interpretation that others would not agree with.  In my experience, too much emphasis is placed on the literal truth or falsehood of these stories.  What is lost is the message and implications behind them, which is a message that can seem quaint, but is becoming ever more relevant; that the world is headed for a major disaster, and it is up to us to do something about it.  The Space Brothers, whether real or imagined, serve as a role model towards which we can strive as a species.  To overcome conflict and the foibles of human evolution; to raise ourselves both spiritually and technologically; to concern ourselves deeply with the welfare of our fellow beings…these are the important things to take away from the Contactees, not whether Adamski’s Venusian scout ship was the top of a Coleman lantern.

It is not the intention of this film to give any solid answers to these questions.  I am not going to comment on whether Adamski or Van Tassel was telling the truth, because I have no way of knowing.  I want merely to present the information in a way that lets people decide for themselves.  Perhaps that’s a cop-out.  But I honestly feel that too often in this world, we’re told what to think and feel, and I don’t want to contribute to that.  So I allow and welcome comments from believers and nonbelievers alike on this blog.

Movie Review: This Island Earth

By | Movies, Ramblings, Reviews, Science Fiction | No Comments


The late Bill Warren (who I interviewed for my film) called This Island Earth “the best and most significant science fiction movie of 1955.”  I will defer to his judgment on that, but I will say that it’s probably the best movie ever to be spoofed by MST3K.  Here, you can see it in all its glory:

But why review this movie?  It’s not a Contactee film at all.

The last time I saw TIE, I took it for what it was probably intended to be: an entertaining sci-fi film capitalizing on the popularity of flying saucers.  Since working on my own film, I’ve noticed a few Contactee-eque elements in TIE that make me suspect the filmmakers had at least a passing familiarity with the stories of Adamski et al.  Or I would think that, were it not for one inconvenient fact: The story predates the Contactees.

Though the movie came out in 1955, well into the Contactee craze, it was based on a novel by Raymond F. Jones that was originally published in serial form in the late 1940s, only a couple years after the modern era of flying saucers began.  There are many differences between the novel and the finished film, so is this an example of life (being the Contactees) imitating art, or were the filmmakers perhaps influenced to adjust things from the source material to make it a little more similar to Contactee tales?

In the film, Dr. Cal Meachum (Rex Reason) is a renowned scientist with a square jaw and clearly overdubbed superhero voice.  He’s also an experienced pilot who casually flies jets like going for a Sunday stroll.  On one of his flights, when his instrumentation goes out, his jet is in the process of crashing, only to be saved by a mysterious green glow which gently sets his plane on the ground.


Dr. Meachum is then given mysterious instructions for creating an “interociter”, which proves to be a fantastically powerful and rather nonspecific machine.  Is it a communications device or weapon or tractor beam or spy machine?  Or all of the above?  With the interociter, he makes contact with Exeter (Jeff Morrow), a friendly-faced and giant-foreheaded fellow who invites him to a scientific retreat called “The Club”.  Once there, Meachum finds himself surrounded by the best and brightest scientists of earth, and grows suspicious of Exeter’s motives.


It turns out that — SPOILER — Exeter and his fellows are actually aliens from the planet Metaluna, involved in an interestellar war with the Zahgons.  Their planet is on the brink of destruction, and they need our nuclear technology to save themselves.  Exeter takes Meachum and another scientist named Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) to Metaluna, where he encounters a Mutant (pronounced “mute ant”), an insect-like being (“larger of course, with a higher degree of intelligence”) that acts as a security guard. Meachum discovers that the Metalunans intend to invade and take over the Earth, and it is only the intercession of Exeter and the timely explosion of the entire planet that stops them.  Meachum and Adams are returned to Earth, and Exeter dies a noble death as his flying saucer runs out of gas, becoming a fireball somewhere over the Pacific.


While the Metalunans are far from the peace-loving Space Brothers (they do, after all, intend to conquer the Earth), the Space Brother “feeling” is personified in Exeter, who defies orders from his superiors in order to save two human beings.  His actions earlier in the film showed him to be a rather ineffective middle manager, but near the end, he is redeemed when he says “Our universe is vast–full of wonders.  I shall explore, perhaps find another Metaluna, a place inhabited by beings not unlike myself.”

There are a number of further correlations with Contactee lore.  Dr. Meachum wasn’t just some random Joe who got abducted; he was sought out by the aliens and given special access.  “I don’t remember applying for a job,” Meachum says to Exeter.  “You didn’t,” says Exeter, suggesting they’ve been watching him for some time.  “We’d like you to join our…team, you might say, at once.”  Being “chosen” is a core element of Contactee lore; the people chosen by the Space Brothers are chosen because, they’re told, they will be able to carry out a mission effectively.  (One could argue that the Space Brothers really need better sampling practices).

When they come to pick up Dr. Meachum, they do so by sending a self-flying airplane.  He is the only occupant, and it takes him to their secret hideout in the middle of nowhere.  This sequence echoes a scene described by Orfeo Angelucci, in which an egg-shaped craft descended in an empty field and shuttled him up to the mothership in orbit.

Once chosen, the Space Brothers give their contacts a mission; usually this means to spread the word of the Space Brothers, but in some cases, it means to build machines that will change our world.  Much like how the Metalunans gave Dr. Meachum instructions for building the interociter, which would potentially advance human technology immensely.  This is not unlike George Van Tassel constructing the Integratron at the bidding of the Space Brothers, and has the added bonus of having a similarly cool sounding name.

Dr. Meachum was taken aboard the Metalunan craft and given a brief tour, much like in many a Contactee tale.  The detail I found interesting is that Meachum and Adams had to enter “conversion tubes” that adjusted their physiology to withstand the Metalunan atmosphere.  In his book From Outer Space to You, Howard Menger describes an incident in which he was first invited into a flying saucer.  His guide fired a beam at him, which caused him to feel a warm tingling sensation over his entire body.


When Howard asked what this was for, the man said:

“We projected the beam on you to condition and process your body quickly so you could enter the craft.  What actually happened was that the beam changed your body frequency to equal that of the craft.  Thus you felt entirely comfortable inside the craft and suffered no ill effects.”

Then This Island Earth puts a new twist on the typical Contactee tale:  it is the aliens who need help from the Earth, rather than the other way around.  Their planet is dying, not ours.  They are the ones who need nuclear energy to save their world.  The fact that nuclear energy enters into the equation and it is not something to be feared, but rather a savior technology is unique in many ways.   And how would it be a savior technology?  By creating an impenetrable shield that the cold, calculating Zahgons cannot pierce.  Could Metaluna be a symbolic version of peace-loving America, beset upon by monstrous Soviets, forced to use nuclear energy to save the planet?

Also worth mentioning is the Mutant: a lumbering insect-like being with an exposed cerebrum and giant, staring eyes.  It appears to be a brainless automaton slaved to the will of the humanoid Metalunans.  While its presence in the film is jarring, there is a cultural significance to it.  Most Contactees described only human-looking extraterrestrials; but later Experiencer tales feature alien crews composed of both the human-like and the more “alien” aliens, such as Grays, Reptilians, or Insectoids.  The Mutant is a nice blend of all three: the eyes and roboticism of the Grays, the bulk and power of the Reptilians, and the physical appearance of the Insectoids.

Whether the makers of This Island Earth had any familiarity with Contactee tales is unclear, and certainly the Metalunans are not Space Brothers.  The Contactees told of Space Brothers coming to Earth in friendship and with our best interests at heart.  But in the movies, as Bill Warren says in his book Keep Watching the Skies!:

Benign visitors from space are few in the 1950s; the best we can hope for is indifference (It Came from Outer Space) or well-intentioned but stern policemen (The Day the Earth Stood Still).  The choices we are presented with aren’t between invasion and friendship, but between invasion and exploitation, and invasion and indifference.  The wonders of the universe seem to be for those other than human beings.  This Island Earth reverses the message of the novel, which is that we must be admitted to the congress of the planets, and instead seems to be claiming that we should just be left alone.  Everyone out there is fighting, and too much intelligence isn’t good for you.





Fear the Flying Saucers

By | Contactees, Ramblings, UFO, Video | One Comment

This past weekend, my California friends were peppering my Facebook feed with videos and photographs of a UFO in the sky.  It hit the national news as a comet-like object coursed over the skies of Los Angeles and beyond.  In the absence of any definite information, it was in fact an unidentified flying object.

You can hear the confusion in the video above:  “it’s a star or something” and “a blimp.”  A truck driver is concerned about a “bright light hovering in the area.”   Seeing something like this, without any context or expectation, is a terrifying thing.  I know this, because it happened to me a few years ago in Los Angeles, but back then, the fears were totally different.

It was 2001, not long after September 11.  For several days, the only airplanes in the sky were the fighter jets that occasionally flew over the city, and in the months following, the fear of the next attack was in the back of everyone’s mind.  And then one night, I heard a commotion outside my apartment, and stepped out into the courtyard to see what everyone was talking about. Then I saw it: an iridescent blob hanging in the western sky, slowly changing shape.  The group gathered there nervously threw ideas out there, much like the nervous voices in the video above.  “is it a gas attack?”  “What about a dirty bomb?”  Some of us wondered if it could have been a nuke out at sea.  Like those people in California this past weekend, we had no idea what it was, but we were fairly sure that the only reasonable explanation was that the terrorists had struck again. No one said anything about UFOs.

Then, as now, the military came out and said “Oh, uh, whoops, our bad.  That was just a missile test.  I guess we should have mentioned something.  Sorry guys!”  Sadly, I don’t have a photograph of this, because we were all too stunned to think of taking a photo.  (Which, interestingly, is a phenomenon often reported by UFO and bigfoot witnesses.)  However, I came across this article which has a photo that is somewhat similar (though far less dramatic) to what I saw all those years ago.

Now, while this new missile test looked a bit different, more comet-like and less cloud-like, it also reminded me of the “Norway spiral”, which people went nuts over in 2009.

Unexpected celestial events tend to highlight the sharp divisions between the various factions of believers:  the hopeful will say it is the opening of a new age; the fearful will say it’s an alien invasion; the conspiratorial will say it’s Project Bluebeam.  Some can’t seem to make up their minds and say it’s all of the above; but ultimately, the answer is almost always what would be exciting in any other context: A missile test, bolide, or other celestial phenomenon.

Our fears often dictate what conclusions we’ll jump to, and with time, narratives form.  In the wake of 9/11, strange lights in the sky meant that the terrorists were back, but 14 years later, the immediacy of the Twin Towers collapsing has diminished, and we look outward to the stars for our bogeymen.  A similar effect happened in the late ’40s through the ’60s.  Immediately after the war, strange lights in the sky signaled atomic bombs or secret Soviet weaponry.  But by the 50s and 60s, when the immediacy of the war had died down, the explanations deepened; strange lights became alien spacecraft.  As years went on, the logical progression followed, and narratives appeared around those alien spacecraft: Beings came from those craft to speak to humans on Earth.  The Contactees were born.

Whatever you think of the Contactees, whether you think they made it all up or they had real experiences or somewhere in between, their stories reflected the fears that people felt back in the day.  Or rather, their stories reflected the hopes that people had back in the day.  We as humans were on the brink of destroying ourselves, and the Contactees offered a narrative that there were powers far greater than our own that were here to help.  It’s a reassuring thought, much like the idea of the Norway Spiral being an announcement of the coming of Maitreya.  Even the theories that declare these lights in the sky to be the result of government conspiracies offer us a chance to seize our freedom.

These narratives, true or not, are reflections of our fears as human beings.  The Contactees, like the frightened teens uploading videos of this latest missile test to Youtube, were seeking comfort.

Jack Kirby, comics pioneer and…contactee?

By | Contactees, Mythology, Ramblings, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Jack Kirby, for those of you who are not familiar with him, was a pioneering artist and storyteller in comic books.  While Stan Lee gets most of the credit, it’s Jack Kirby who is largely responsible for this:


Sorry, Jack, I don’t mean it.

Okay, not so much the movie, but he was a guiding force behind the creation of the Fantastic Four, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, the newly cinematic Ant-Man, and even Captain America back in the 1940s, when Marvel Comics was known as Timely.  It was this period of time, after he was drawing Captain America punching Hitler in the face and before he drew The Thing facing down Dr. Doom, that Kirby turned his attentions to more esoteric sci-fi and even philosophical adventure stories.  As observed by Christopher Loring Knowles in this blog post on The Secret Sun, it was during this period that Kirby started exhibiting some remarkably consistent traits in his storytelling that continued for the rest of his career.

In 1959, Kirby “wrote” a story called “The Face on Mars.”


I say “wrote” in quotation marks because Kirby was not credited as a writer, but it was no secret in the industry that he was heavily (and sometimes solely) responsible for the plotting, drawing, and writing of his comics.  What’s interesting about this story is that it involves astronauts landing on Mars and discovering a giant stone face, left behind by an ancient civilization on the red planet.

Mars Face

Sound familiar?

This story was published in 1959, 17 years before the Viking spacecraft took the infamous “Mars Face” photograph.  Ideas of ancient civilizations on Mars made popular by the likes of Richard C. Hoagland and Mike Bara came decades later.  In and of itself, this is an intriguing coincidence.

But the Face in Kirby’s story is only the page 1 grabber.  What’s really interesting happens on later pages, when an astronaut climbing into the caves inside the face discovers an ancient Martian race under attack by another spacefaring species from a mysterious fifth planet between Mars and Jupiter.  The enraged Martians, seeking revenge, then obliterate this planet, creating the asteroid belt.  This whole thing turns out to be a hallucinogenic memory recording that the astronaut experiences as if it were real.

The idea of a destroyed fifth planet is a common idea amongst various proponents of the ancient Martian theories, and has been making the rounds since the 1800s.  Known today as the “disruption theory” or “Exploding Planet Hypothesis”, it’s the idea that the fifth planet was destroyed by Jupiter’s gravity, planetary collisions, or warfare amongst ancient civilizations.  Over the years, this hypothetical planet has been called Phaeton, Tiamat, Astra, Lucifer, and Maldek.

Though this idea makes a certain amount of logical sense, most scientists disagree with this hypothesis, saying that the asteroids are actually remnants of the building blocks of the planets from the early solar system that are still left around in a gravitationally weak spot in the solar system, like cosmic dust bunnies in the corner of the room.

As Knowles points out, Kirby’s idea of an ancient Martian civilization came long before Zechariah Sitchin’s theories of ancient aliens or Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.   However, it did not come before the Contactees.  It seems to me, though I have no supporting evidence whatsoever, that Kirby was likely either a fan of the works of many of the mid-century Contactees, or he was a Contactee himself.

Though the Contactee movement got going in 1952 with George Adamski, it was at its peak in 1959.  Joining the crowded field of Contactees were George Hunt Williamson, Orfeo Angelucci, George Van Tassel, and Richard Miller.  All of these men told tales of ancient civilizations  on a destroyed planet, the debris of which became the asteroid belt.  Angelucci wrote a book called The Secret of the Saucers, in which he claimed to have taken over the body of a space brother named Neptune, who lived on an etheric plane on an asteroid in the belt that was once part of a larger planet that had been destroyed in war.  Richard Miller claimed to have channeled a being who discussed the fate of Maldek, as did Hunt Williamson.  Van Tassel also mentioned these ancient aliens in his works, and Maldek is of crucial import to George King’s Aetherius Society, who point out that Maldek’s destruction is a warning that we should be wary of our own destructive tendencies.


In this frame from the story, our main character describes something else that Contactees (and later, Experiencers) have come to call “downloads”, in which large volumes of information are fed directly to their brains.  Was Kirby getting this idea from the Contactees, or was he describing this from personal experience?

It’s easy to dismiss all of this as fiction, because Jack Kirby was a master storyteller, after all.  But it’s the fact that he kept coming back to these ideas again and again that I find intriguing.  (I won’t discuss them here, I’ll send you over to Christopher Knowles to read about them.)  Why couldn’t he let the idea of ancient aliens go?  It seems like he was dealing with something intensely personal.  But what made it so personal?

This idea that Kirby was perhaps in contact with something outside himself is suggested in another post on that same blog, The Secret Sun:

Starting in the late 50s, Kirby began receiving transmissions that seem to transcend the boundaries of time and space. He buried it all in allegory (read: “wacked-out sci fi”), or rather, translated whatever he was picking up.

Indeed, Kirby’s penchant for prophecy was pretty staggering.  Is it possible that he was a Contactee?  What was going on in the mid-50s that was giving people all these similar ideas?  Some might suggest the early days of LSD and various hallucinogens, or the resurgence of the Theosophical Society and its ideas.  But one never knows…maybe the Contactees were really making contact.

World UFO Day

By | Ramblings, UFO, Video | 3 Comments

Apologies for the long silence on this here blog.  I’m back in the saddle, and so these posts will come with better regularity now.

Today is World UFO day.  You can see a video summarizing the history of this day, as well as a summary of the UFO phenomenon in general here.

It’s always interesting to see what happens when the UFO subject goes public, as it were, beyond the realm of the specialty blogs and into the mainstream media.  Generally, there is X-files music and lots of puns about things being out of this world.  That’s why today, when I saw this article, I was pleasantly surprised.

In that article, Cambridge University Professor Simon Conway Morris suggests what I was postulating in an earlier post myself.  Namely, that the concept of humanoid aliens isn’t necessarily all that far fetched, because evolution works via principles of efficiency and physics.  When you take that into consideration, a lot of the same patterns come up over and over again.  He puts it well when he says:

Certainly it’s not the case that every Earth-like planet will have life let alone humanoids. But if you want a sophisticated plant it will look awfully like a flower. If you want a fly there’s only a few ways you can do that. If you want to swim, like a shark, there’s only a few ways you can do that. If you want to invent warm-bloodedness, like birds and mammals, there’s only a few ways to do that.

In other words, if a creature is evolving the ability to fly, odds are likely that it will evolve a symmetrical wing system.  There are other possibilities, of course, but the point is that we shouldn’t be surprised when we see it.  This is a phenomenon called convergent evolution; the idea that various complex characteristics can evolve independently and in a nearly identical form in different species.

Contrast this with Carl Sagan, famed astronomer and author of the book Cosmos, in which he says:

But the Darwinian message is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere.  Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species.  Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious.  If a human disagrees with you, let him live.  In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.

An amazing sentiment from an amazing thinker.  And curiously close in many ways to the Contactee message, which I think is fascinating because he is in that short quote rebuking the notion that humanoid aliens could exist elsewhere in the universe while simultaneously saying something that could have come out of Orthon’s mouth.

So who is right?  I don’t think it’s important if there is a convergent line of human evolution somewhere out there in the cosmos.  What is important is that wherever it is and whatever it is, it is precious.

The Fermi Paradox

By | Ramblings | One Comment

This is an interesting visualization of the Fermi Paradox:

For those who don’t want to sit through a video, I’ll sum it up.

The Fermi Paradox is the notion that there are potentially billions, if not trillions of planets in our galaxy alone capable of supporting life. If even only .1% of those develop advanced civilizations, we should surely have met them by now because an advanced species would inevitably seek to colonize the entire galaxy. If that’s the case, where are they?

The video gives a few possible explanations:

1) Advanced civilizations form much less frequently than we think they would, and maybe we’re it for our galaxy, or they formed so long ago that they’re extinct by now.

2) There are “great filters,” which prevent a civilization becoming too advanced, such as advanced technology almost always causing the destruction of the entire civilization (like a nuclear war).

3) Perhaps the early galaxy was too harsh to develop life, and we are actually one of the first civilizations to develop.

4) We are alone.

I notice it doesn’t mention at least a few other possibilities:

1) Advanced civilizations are so advanced, we can’t recognize them as life. They’ve evolved beyond anything we’d recognize. They’re invisible, they’re hyperintelligent shades of blue, they’re energy-absorbing nanobots that resist detection.

2) They indeed came here to Earth, but in our distant past, where they may have been perceived as gods or not at all.

3) They are here, but are avoiding our detection so as to not interfere with us (See: Star Trek Prime Directive.)

4) They are here, right now, and the claims of Contactees are real.

To the Contactees, and to many UFO believers around the world, there is no Fermi Paradox. The aliens are already here.

I understand why the video and various papers and articles on this subject would ignore the possibilities I listed above. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Anecdotal accounts of contact with alien beings are simply not evidence enough to be recognized scientifically.

But until recently, evidence for ball lightning was only anecdotal. The same for the phenomenon of earthquake lights. Things that can only be validated through observation are the hardest things to prove, especially when those observations are few and far between, and rarely by people qualified to scientifically examine them. Which is to say nothing for the lack of will to make those observations in the first place.

The same could be said for UFOs and Contactee claims. And also for ghosts, elves, poltergeists and angels. Or anything even slightly on the wacky side, as it were. There is absolutely a need for certain standards of evidence.

I would argue that there need to be standards of imagination, as well. Lines of thought that are grounded in things “as we know them,” as if human development is static and unmoving have a tendency to be wrong quite often. That video, for example, says that traveling to other galaxies is impossible, and will be forever, because they’re so far away and moving away from us so quickly, that no matter what kind of technology we develop, we can never reach them.

Years ago, some scientists felt the sound barrier could not be broken. Or that it was impossible for a rocket to go fast enough to break Earth’s gravity to reach orbit. This kind of thinking is linear, focusing only on our current state of knowledge, and fails to take into account future potential. Twenty years ago, it was a virtually impossible task to work with DNA. Now, you can create your own genes for relatively cheap. The future has a way of making the impossible mundane.

As such, I don’t think it’s fair to say things like traveling to other galaxies will be impossible for us “forever”, or to suggest that there are only those few possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox that they listed. It seems to me that there are an almost unlimited number of possible solutions, and while not all of them are scientifically “plausible,” they deserve some level of recognition.

Here are some more:

5) What if the aliens, not being colonially minded like humanity, never left their homeworld?

6) What if the aliens, not being violent like much of humanity, they realized that the Earth was inhabited and moved on without stopping?

7) What if they came here and established a colony, and we are the colony?

That last one is exactly the scenario that many Contactees like George Van Tassel claimed to have been told by his space contacts. Definitely an extraordinary claim, for which there is no concrete evidence. But it is a possibility. The Fermi Paradox is a thought experiment, a creative writing exercise, not a solid scientific hypothesis (Nor does it claim to be, though it is often presented as such.) The unknown variables are just too unknown to make any useful conjectures. Perhaps in the future, when we’ve traveled the stars a bit more (or, you know, at all) we’ll be qualified to make some better guesses.

On the Implausibility of Human-looking Aliens

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First, I want to issue a disclaimer: I love science. I think it is a wonderful, life-affirming, magnificent process that we humans have developed.  But it often gets spoiled by people being people, turning science into a religion of sorts, and gets interpreted as the Truth before all the facts are in.  I may say some things in this post that sound like I’m down on science, but really, this is about what people do with it, not the science itself.

With that said, onward.

Serious Science, with a capital S, tends to poo-poo the idea of aliens visiting us.  Many reasons are given, such as “space is simply too vast for civilizations to travel here”, or “We are just not very interesting”, or “Aliens would destroy themselves before they got advanced enough to visit us.”

This always struck me as peculiar.  Why would scientists who agree, without blinking, that alien life almost certainly exists, insist that under no circumstances has it ever come here. Not only that, but the idea is so absurd to them that they will refuse to even humor the argument.  I’m all for healthy skepticism, but automatic dismissal seems an ironically unscientific response to the idea of alien contact.

The Contactees of the ’50s and ’60s didn’t make things easy for themselves.  Faced with the unbelievers, they doubled down by saying the aliens were coming from our own solar system, they looked just like us, and they found us very interesting indeed.  In the basic Contactee tale, a person meets with beings from another planet that are not only humanoid, but human.  They might have slightly slanted eyes, or be unnaturally tall, but are otherwise indistinguishable from we Earthlings.  Consider the film The Day the Earth Stood Still–Klaatu was a regular man to all appearances, and was in many ways something of a Space Brother.

A little ahead of his time in terms of fashion, however.

Even to UFOlogists of the era, this was just too ridiculous.  It’s hard enough to believe that aliens could be visiting us.  But that they could look like us?  That they could be kind and have our best interests at heart?  Preposterous.

This is a pattern that continues even today.  I often find articles or papers written by scientists that seem hell-bent on making up for the sins of geocentrism by making humanity as insignificant as possible.  Aliens must be alien, and must not be like us.

Some, like Susan Schneider, think they must be “postbiological,” which is to say, they’ve uploaded themselves into immortal machinery.

I do not believe that most advanced alien civilizations will be biological, Schneider says. The most sophisticated civilizations will be postbiological, forms of artificial intelligence or Alien superintelligence.

This assumes, of course, that intelligent aliens would have a similar manner of thinking that we do, in terms of mechanistic, technology-based intelligence.  What if they found spirituality more important than mechanics, and their “technology” was based in the mind, or in psychogenic drugs?

SETI proponents have stated that intelligent alien races would almost necessarily be vastly older than us, as we are a relatively young planet, and would therefore be so far advanced as to be unrecognizable to us.

More recently, cosmologist Fergus Simpson stated in a paper that aliens must be huge in comparison to us.  He speculated that the average size of an intelligent alien would be 650 pounds.  The article linked to above goes into the specifics, and while the conclusions are interesting, the article makes this point:

However, that work, just like Simpson’s paper, is all speculation. Fun and fascinating stuff, but still speculation. “It’s interesting, but there’s really no concrete data to work with,” he says. We only have our planet and its inhabitants to serve as a model for what life looks like. 

It is fun, but without any data is about as valid as the Jetsons.  Could these scientists be right?  Certainly they could.  But so could the Contactees or the experiencers, whose stories are a stark contrast to what these scientists say.

In the spirit of speculation, I offer some thoughts that came to me after a conversation with a microbiologist a couple years ago.  I asked him if, given identical conditions to Earth, could DNA like ours possibly evolve by chance?  Not only was it possible, he said, but “damned near inevitable.”  There are only so many ways amino acids can combine, and if you have the right conditions, they’ll probably do it in the way that leads to DNA.

So, extrapolating on that, assuming evolution proceeds by balancing energy expenditure and reproductive prowess, it stands to reason that only so many form factors would be ideal for an intelligent species.  One of the best shapes happens to be humanoid.

Sure, there’d be a few planets of Wookies and Grays, but there would also be beings indistinguishable from humans.

It’s a nice setup for a science fiction novel, and has about as much validity as any of the scientific papers I’ve mentioned above.  I don’t know how accurate the science I’m making up is, but it doesn’t matter, because aliens will be aliens and are therefore undefinable.

Speculating on what alien life is like can never progress further than fantasy, because there is literally zero data (at least data acceptable for scientific study) to speculate from.  Conversely, you can’t speculate what alien life isn’t like, either.

NASA scientists look for planets in the “Goldilocks zones” around stars, where water would be liquid and life as we know it could exist.  But even on our planet, we find creatures that shouldn’t exist–bacteria in nuclear reactors and chemosynthetic plankton in boiling water at the bottom of the ocean.  What could we say about a planet that orbits a blue giant?  Or a white dwarf?  Could there be lighter-than-air creatures living on a gas giant?   What if a creature was silicon-based, instead of carbon-based like we are?  What if it was arsenic-based?

Speculation is fun, but useless, and articles pronouncing that aliens would be huge, or microscopic, or evil, or squids, or so advanced we couldn’t understand them, are so filled with assumptions as to be nothing more than sensationalism.

That’s what appeals to me about the Contactees.  To them, space is a fairly ordinary affair.  Not only are some of the planets inhabited, they all are.  Not only are some aliens human-looking in their appearance, almost all of them are.  And the main reason for that is not that they are, in fact, our ancestors.  They put us here, either as a colony or a prison or a slave race, depending on whose story you listen to.

In their view, the aliens are literally space “brothers”, because they’re related to us.  And because of that relation, they were compelled to help our civilization navigate the troubled waters of nuclear self-destruction.

Are the stories of the Contactees scientific?  Absolutely not.  Are they fun?  Most definitely.

An Alien Perspective

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When Edgar Mitchell, astronaut on Apollo 14 and current record holder for longest stroll on the moon, was returning to Earth in 1971, he saw the planet from space and had something of a religious experience.  Seeing our planet from so high up, beyond all our petty conflicts, he realized that our home was a complete, interconnected, living system, of which we are an integral part.  As a result, he abandoned outer space for the inner kind, and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences.  Mitchell’s experience was so intense, in fact, that he remains transformed even now, 44 years later.

Contactees report similar transformative experiences, sometimes as a result of seeing their planet from above, from seeing technology so far beyond ours as to be magical, or simply from meeting beings from above.  Recently, I spoke with a Contactee about his experience, and he described it as “like meeting Jesus.”  He said that his life was forever changed in the space of a few moments, and he will never see anything the same way again.  That shift was not easy and almost destroyed his marriage and reputation.  But he persisted in the face of such opposition and stuck to what had happened and became outspoken about it.

This is key to the Contact experience.  Whatever happens to Contactees, whether it’s a hallucinatory break or an actual meeting with beings from another world, their lives are transformed.  Orfeo Angelucci comes to mind.

On May 23, 1952, Angelucci started feeling ill at work.  While driving home, he claims he encountered beings who appeared to him in holographic form and gave him an elixir to drink that immediately cured his ailment.  He describes his reaction to these beings in The Secret of the Saucers:

As I listened to that kind, gentle voice I began to feel a warm, glowing wave of love enfold me; so powerful that it seemed as a tangible soft, golden light.  For a wonderful moment I felt infinitely greater, finer and stronger than I knew myself to be.  It was as though momentarily I had transcended mortality and was somehow related to these superior beings.

Phrases like “I had transcended mortality” give Angelucci’s story a religious flair, and that is one of the common criticisms of the Contactees: that they are religious fanatics grasping at the flying saucers as their new source of prophecy.  And the conversation ends there.  But why?

I’ve said before that belief in the Contactees is irrelevant to the study of their claims; it’s that moment of “religion” that comes over them and transforms their lives that makes them worthy of attention.

It’s no different than the shift in perspective that might come from someone being born again at a revival on a riverbank; from seeing the sun rise over Haleakala in Maui; from looking at the Earth from a vantage point of millions of miles away; or from meditating under a bodhi tree.

The source doesn’t matter nearly as much as the shift in perspective that comes with it.  The Contactees claimed the Space Brothers could tell us how to run our planet because they were literally coming from a higher perspective.  They were emissaries of that higher perspective, trying to explain to us the beauty and interconnectedness of us all.

This idea of interconnectedness is often applied to spiritual and New Age topics, but I’m more interested in how they are directly applicable in perfectly practical ways.  Our ecosystems are interconnected.  So are our economies, our lives, our shopping habits, our hygiene, but most importantly, our belief systems.  What we believe about our world and our universe affects everything else.  For example, if we believe that humans have no role in runaway climate change, then we strip ourselves of the power to change it, potentially affecting our ecosystem irreparably, which in turn would affect our economies, and so on.

We all know this.  But I think we forget it, and that’s why we need people like the Contactees.

There’s nothing new in what the Contactees said, only in the way they said it.  Like Moses before the burning bush, the Contactees struggled to express that sense of awe.  Their burning bushes were shiny metal discs, and their angels wore blue jumpsuits.  But the message was the same.  They were unable to explain their sense of awe at what had just happened to them, whether it was real or imagined.  But that sense of awe, of having one’s perspective shifted even momentarily to a higher level, can be life-changing.  And if someone is willing to throw away their reputations, their marriages, their careers to attempt to express this, then I think it’s at least worth a listen.

On ETs and Human Insignificance

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Twenty five years ago, astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the Voyager I spacecraft around to take a picture of the Earth from a vantage point of 3.7 million miles away.  The result was the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph, which, when accompanied by Sagan’s eloquence, has the kind of poetic power to bring tears to one’s eyes.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

Carl Sagan fits uniquely into the Pantheon of Scientists.  In some ways, he was far more open than many other scientists to the notion of extraterrestrial life–and, more to the point–that it had visited us.  But in the end, he rejected that notion, as indicated in the above quote with the line “There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”  Sagan had a particular dislike for Contactee tales, likening them to religious fantasies, and I wonder if he had them specifically in mind when he wrote that line.

Pale Blue Dot was full of pathos and made its message explicit: humanity has only itself to rely upon, and we must learn to treat this planet with respect, or else we could lose the only home we’ve ever known.  Ironically, Sagan was essentially saying the exact same thing as the same Contactees he despised.

But Pale Blue Dot was also an entry in a trend I’ve seen growing in the last few years amidst the resurgence of science in the mainstream: a relentless attempt to show us how incredibly insignificant we are.

While I can’t argue with the factual truth that the Earth is, realistically, less than a mote of dust in the solar system, let alone in the universe, to suggest that size alone indicates significance seems to me like a bit of a mean-spirited nihilism.  Many have used words like “humdrum” and “backwater” to describe our home. Stephen Hawking once said in an interview that we are “just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”

However, many of the Contactees were making the exact opposite argument and said that humans are incredibly significant.  So significant, in fact, that highly evolved beings from elsewhere in the universe were coming here to make us aware of that fact to keep us from destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons.  In their view, humanity was so wrapped up in its own affairs it had become suicidal, and the Space Brothers were coming here to tell us how much we meant to them.

Because human value, according to the Contactees, is not in our physical scope or the size of our weaponry, but in the depth of our compassion for one another.  Our art, our music, our literature, our interpersonal relationships, our familial bonds–these are the true things of value.

Adamski claimed that the solar system was a finely tuned system, and if we upset that system by blowing up the earth, the whole system would be damaged.  George King of the Aetherius Society held the view that the key to human significance is the law of karma, and that some of the most effective ways of growing spiritually through karma were by manifesting in this relatively meek earthly plane.  Van Tassel’s contacts, having created humanity in the first place by genetically combining with native primates, seemed to feel guilty about the mess they’d made and sought to clean it up.

The Contactees were, theoretically (though practice didn’t always bear this out), all about reducing conflict in human interaction.  One of Adamski’s main goals was to separate the mythological aspects of religion from the practical aspects, leaving only the common core that existed between all the major teachings.

There are many philosophical similarities between Contactees and concerned scientists like Carl Sagan.  But their methods were almost diametrically opposed, and for that reason, there is little regard in scientific circles for anyone claiming ET contact.  And many armchair scientists have further conflated the method for the message, which has led to what I see as an increasingly common pessimism regarding humanity’s importance.  But listen to Sagan’s perspective, again from Pale Blue Dot:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

By using our human insignificance as a way to bring us all together, he shows that we are all dependent on one another, and therefore worthy of saving.  I can’t imagine that most of the Contactees would disagree with that basic notion.