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The Carletonian

Aliens. Need I say more?

<ir="ltr">On any given weekend, our family would make sure to stop by the Redbox before leaving the grocery, to pick the movie that we would watch. Renting the movie discs from those convenient red kiosks was but another form of a continuous tradition of diversions we shared as a family. We dropped by Blockbuster to rent movies when it was in business years ago, and today, it’s more likely now that we would tune in to Netflix than hit the Redbox. Another tradition was my dad’s in-film commentary.  Sometimes his interjections were obnoxious in killing the mood, other times they were his claim to pretention in things like, “I saw that scene coming!” or “I knew they were going to say that.” A common thing he’d comment on is oddly specific: his “alien theory.”

Allow me to explain. Science fiction happened to be an element of several movies and TV shows we watched at home. Whenever we reached a suspenseful scene with an unexplainable event, whether or not the plot unraveled that way, my dad would say comment that the extraterrestrials had something to do with it. And he doesn’t stop there. He’d recall this same idea: “I think that they must have been to Earth before. And I think God is an alien. How else can you explain miracles and other unbelievable things? They have the technology for it!” How’s that for provocative?

I asked my dad recently, “How does this make sense? Do you really mean to say that God – the deity – is from outer space? How could they account for the rest of the universe as we know it?” I continued to get caught by surprise with my dad’s alien theory when it comes up while watching movies, knowing well that he and my mom raised us in the Christian tradition. Maybe I had misunderstood my dad for years, for he clarified that what he really meant was the other way around. The aliens are God. I heard that to mean that the extraterrestrials are proxies of some higher, cosmic power. Though not divine themselves, their mastery of technology is but a reflection of something more ultimate.

How my dad came unto this theory – or theology – I may never know. He never watched those TV programs about ancient astronauts, that theory suggesting that aliens came long ago to help humans gets started technologically. (He’s much less aware of the meme spawned about it.) Yet his commentary on aliens speaks of his own attempts to make sense of nature, in a folksy melding of “science” and the metaphysical, the supernatural, the extraordinary.

Indeed, nothing new is under the sun. My dad sure isn’t the first to be fascinated by life beyond what we know. Even Voltaire wrote about extraterrestrials. His 1752 short story Micromegas spoke of its title character, from a planet orbiting Sirius the star, somehow arriving to Saturn in this manner:

“…with the help of a ray of sunlight or some comet, he jumped from globe to globe like a bird vaulting itself from branch to branch.”

I too have had my own wonderings about extraterrestrials. It must have come from my private pleasures reading science fiction books growing up, leaving me to imagine different worlds and places that could be inhabited. After all the science lectures and news in the field, I am convinced, with more concrete reasons, of extraterrestrials being out there.

The prospect of extraterrestrials seems to be somewhat a no-brainer for me, although not in the form my dad and others imagine. We continue to find thousands upon thousands of exoplanets (2107 of them so far), some with conditions that can yield life. Nearby us, we also continue to work on detecting the ingredients of life on asteroids, comets, and the moons of Jupiter. (Europa, if you were keeping score.) And as always, the theorists among us crank out creative theories explaining the origin life, or at least how it may spread. This isn’t merely an appeal to the fantastic, although the possibility that comets spread microorganisms across planets sounds pretty exciting to me. The science we practice today makes likely that there is some kind of life, at least the microbial kind, out there, beyond the confines of the mote of dust that is Earth. Maybe not intelligent life, no Overlords or Formics, but nonetheless, life.

There is also, dare I say, in the vein of my dad, a spiritual dimension to the prospect of extraterrestrials. Confirming their existence, microbes or otherwise, would make the universe less simple, but even grander than we can imagine. It would be a game changer to know we are suddenly part of a greater scheme of life across the universe. Admittedly, this must make me a tad biased. Despite all we know about exoplanets, there’s still reason to doubt the existence of life nearby, given the vastness of space and the distances to traverse. Regardless, I can’t help but have a sense of certainty, and a bit of hope that out, there are replicating molecules that could one day constitute themselves to wonder about other life like them.

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