Joel Achenbach. Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe. Simon & Schuster, 1999.
“The temptation, for those of us who have not scared the door of a church in a long time, is to give the topic of religion a wide berth. The truth is that many of us are not capable, intellectually, much less spiritually, of engaging the issue of faith, of knowing how to discuss such things without revealing our ignorance. … I certainly didn’t have a clue about the structure, nature, or dimensions of the human spirit. Yet as I spent time in the UFO world it became apparent that, as a cultural phenomenon, the study of aliens had nothing to do with astronomy, chemistry, biology, or planetary geology. … This involved the even more exotic and incomprehensible territory of the human mind, or, if you prefer, the human spirit.”
The quote is from page 187 of Joel Achenbach’s captivating, perceptive, subtly tragic book about extraterrestrial life, published 18 years ago but which I never read until the past couple of months. Of course his words are music to the ears of a religious-studies professor with an ambition to be a UFOlogist.
Achenbach, science columnist for the Washington Post, is a clever and witty writer. This is not normally a recommendation for someone who undertakes to write, from outside the arena, about UFOs. It’s just too easy for the clever and witty to make the less clever and less witty–which the sweatily earnest UFO advocates almost inevitably are–the butts of ridicule, not necessarily of the hardy-har-har-har type but the even more devastating superior-smirk variety. Easy, and comfortable, and applause-provoking. Given a choice between smirkers and smirked-at, who wouldn’t prefer to be among the former?
But Achenbach mostly resists the temptation. Although his book contains a few regrettable cheap shots at the UFOlogists–there’s a particularly nasty one aimed at Kevin Randle, who deserves much better–it provides a mostly insightful exploration of why (as Achenbach puts it) “some people construct their world-views around ideas that other people find ludicrous.”
His short answer: “It’s not intelligence or social class. It’s not like poor, fat, Velveeta-eating people believe in aliens and rich, thin, Brie-eating people don’t. Socioeconomic and educational status don’t seem to be factors of great import.” The real distinction, he suggests, is “the attitude toward intellectual authorities–toward the ‘reality police.’ To believe in aliens requires a rejection of official wisdom. It requires that we believe that the individuals in power, and particularly the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge–Sagan, Goldin, and the American Astronomical Society–are either wittingly or through ignorance telling us a story that simply isn’t true” (page 167).
These last sentences convey Achenbach’s divided sympathies, and it’s this division, this tension, that gives his book its depth and power. On the one hand, Carl Sagan is the book’s hero. He’s there in the first chapter, puts in appearance after appearance as the story unfolds, and the book ends with his funeral. A tragic hero–brilliant, charismatic, dead much too young of a rare illness, never knowing (any more than we do) whether the extraterrestrial civilizations he longed for will ever emerge from their silence and near-infinite distance. Yet from another perspective he’s one of the “reality police,” the authoritarian goons who dictate to you what you must and mustn’t think.
Captured by Aliens is not, despite what you might think from its title and what I’ve said so far, a book about UFOs. It’s divided into three parts, entitled “Adventures in the Unknown,” “Visitors,” and “Onward and Inward,” of which only the second is primarily devoted to UFOlogy. Since the 1960s, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (conveniently abbreviated SETI) has been a respectable if controversial scientific enterprise of which UFOs are the dark and disreputable shadow. Achenbach could have written a perfectly adequate book comprised only of parts 1 and 3, with SETI and space exploration as its subject and UFOs dismissed as a fringe lunacy. But he didn’t.
Perhaps his choice was influenced by Henry Harris, the out-of-the-box scientific genius (“bursting with knowledge … ideas rocketing around the brain case at all hours of the day and night”) whom we meet in the final chapter of part 1. Harris has his own solution to the “Fermi Paradox,” the problem of why, if there really are space-traveling civilizations out there, they haven’t come to visit us. Maybe they have, Harris says. Maybe they’re here and people have seen them. They’re called UFOs.
“He began choosing his words carefully, knowing that most JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] scientists would heartily disagree with him. Merely admitting a receptivity to UFO stories could make him a laughingstock on lab. It also put him on the wrong side of the issue from the gatekeeper, Sagan, who’d worked with him on the Ice Clipper team. Sagan, said Harris, didn’t grasp the simple fact that history wasn’t the same thing as science”–and UFOs, according to Harris, are a question not of science but of history, which by its nature is “cobbled together from stories, memories, anecdotes.”
Harris’s arguments never quite persuaded Achenbach, who makes no secret of his disbelief in UFOs. But once you’ve known a man like Harris, stereotypes about “kooks” and “flying saucer nuts” cease to be sustainable. The “gatekeepers,” even Sagan, cease to be beyond challenge. UFOlogy becomes part of the SETI story, whether the SETI scientists like it or not. Sagan himself is “captured by aliens”–the aliens of his hopeful imagination–no less than the abductees whose half-remembered, still baffling experiences gave Achenbach’s book its title. It’s an excellent title; no wonder Achenbach chose it. He’s been “captured by aliens” too.
But are there any aliens to do the capturing? Possibly not; and in this lies the book’s deeper tragedy.
The Fermi Paradox will not cease to dog Sagan’s steps, a kind of memento-mori skull, its soulless grin rebuking his cosmic optimism. It’s become the water-cooler wisdom, as Achenbach calls it, that we’d be insufferably arrogant to imagine we’re alone in the cosmos; and I don’t know whether it was Sagan’s fantastic popularity that turned this into an axiom or the other way around. (Maybe Sagan became the beloved oracle he did because he expressed so eloquently what the millions, gathered around their water coolers to ponder our vast universe, already thought they knew.) But could it be false?
Might we really be alone, not necessarily as living organisms but as thinking beings? Is there any guarantee that evolution must lead to intelligence, even after millions or billions of years? As one of Achenbach’s interviewees asks: would the smart little mammals of 70 million years ago have survived long enough to turn into us, if not for the accident of the asteroid strike that wiped out the big, dumb, evolutionarily successful dinosaurs? And if not–what reason do we have to think it would happen anywhere else?
In the end Sagan dies, his quest unfulfilled. So what else is new? So did Don Quixote; so, in all probability, will you and I. A memorial service is held in New York City, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine–named after the man to whom “a door was opened in heaven” and who was invited to “come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter” (Revelation 4:1). There Achenbach hears from the Reverend Joan Brown Campbell that “of course Sagan was an atheist–which sounded like her way of finally winning an old argument.” Typical of Achenbach to include that detail. Religious faith, religious awe, religious doubt are his themes, central to UFOlogy and SETI alike; and although he advertises himself as an unbeliever he handles them with a sensitivity and intelligence that professional religion scholars might envy.
George Orwell wrote, in his essay on “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool,” that “it is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God: at any rate, it is not compatible with disbelief in human dignity and with the kind of ‘moral demand’ which feels cheated when virtue fails to triumph.” For these last words, substitute: when the universe turns out to be too large, and we too small, to find in it the Life (not just bacterial life) and Truth (not just a set of facts) that we crave.
“A tragic situation,” Orwell wrote, “exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.” Achenbach’s book is a tribute to the sublime, tragic nobility, not only of the accredited SETI-seekers, but of the much-scorned UFOlogists. I’m grateful he wrote it as he did.
by David Halperin
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