OAKLAND, Calif. — I don’t know if it’s just me, but alien life — and our fascination with it — seems to have hit something of a crescendo recently. There’s the question of alien life in Earth’s atmosphere. We have the continued search on Mars, despite an utter dearth of evidence, and there’s even a claim that rain in India’s Kerala suggests that extraterrestrial life has visited our planet.
The image above went viral recently as “proof”, apparently, of life in the upper atmosphere. A group of British scientists had lifted a balloon almost 20 miles up and seen evidence of plant life, as captured by the piece shown above. As reported in the Journal of Cosmology, Wanwright, et al. noted, “Here we report, using a relatively simple low-cost stratospheric sampling methodology, the isolation of a particle which, beyond doubt, is a fragment of a diatom frustule. We believe that this is the first- ever report of the isolation of a diatom frustule [image above; a part of algae] from the stratosphere and we provide arguments to support our view that this biological particle may have arrived from space.”
The claim was quickly debunked, but not before images of the frustule went viral on the web. In a recent article in Slate debunking the aliens-in-the-atmosphere claims, astronomer Phil Plait noted his own interest in the topic:
I’ll note that I find the idea of panspermia — life on Earth originating in space — really interesting. We certainly have good circumstantial evidence life could exist in space; conditions on Mars looked pretty good a billion years ago, and we’ve found amino acids in comets and meteorites. What we don’t have is direct evidence.
It’s interesting to think about the roots of our fascination with alien life. Very few of us have seen a diatom frustule, much less one photographed in odd black and white, so it is as mysterious as any alien being, despite its terrestrial origin. Every news item inevitably feeds the beast of public curiosity.
We have, of course, popular television shows about intelligent life from afar (X-Files and Mork & Mindy, for instance) and they reflect a belief, or a desire for belief, that extraterrestrials are not only real but present on the earth. Then there are other pop culture movies and serials, like Independence Day and Star Trek, which suggest that alien life may be nearby. But the popularity of these images has also diffused the oddness. In Roswell, New Mexico, for instance, there are a number of shops that embrace the town’s reputation as the possible site for a UFO crash. The aliens, once mysterious, are now part of tourist memorabilia.
But while stories of intelligent life enter pop culture, the discoveries of life that we pine for on Mars and in our atmosphere remain on a more basic level. The creatures supposedly floating around in our atmosphere are no stranger than a jellyfish or blobfish or other odd creature in our ocean. But the strangeness of the image alone, coupled with its potential origins from outer space, is cause for the fascination and flurry.
Stepping back a few millennia, when traveling to outer space was not even in the realm of possible imagination, humans’ fascination with life in the great beyond extended to oceans and foreign continents. The legend of Polyphemus depicted in Homer’s Odyssey assumes a one-eyed giant deep in an island in the Mediterranean, and other stories tell of terrifying sea serpents and multi-headed beasts. A fascinating article in The New York Times looked at how ancient Greek and Roman monster myths may have originated from their discovery of prehistoric life; they found the same bones we did, but their imaginations took them in a different direction.
Move up a few centuries, and we have the Victorian Freak Show, whose posters are documented on the British Library’s websites. As the world was rapidly globalizing, life outside Europe still remained mysterious. The “OURANG-OUTANG” was suggested to be “an Extraordinary FREAK of NATURE,” and a “living mythological Mermaid” was supposedly found by a Harry Phillips. The latter is clearly marketed as an illusion, but its oddness at the time is part of its appeal.
Although we’ve only explored less than 5% of the ocean, our access to information and images has taken the mystery out of even the oddest creature. A giant squid is now the subject of a TED talk, and the extraordinary blobfish became a meme. It’s very rare to come across a truly odd and unexpected image that can captivate us quite like the cyclops or orangutan once did.
But many of us still crave that mystery, and space is increasingly where we project our imaginations. Like those before us, we take any image–any image at all–of what life could be like beyond the realm of what we know, and these quotes and conjectures spread rapidly around the web like the freak shows and Homeric tales of yesteryear. We want to believe.