Hollywood, Astronomy, and the Alien Question

What do astronomers expect from aliens? Ask them what movies they’ve been watching lately.

It’s probably no big surprise to learn science fiction has had a profound impact on NASA’s programs and policies from its inception. Pioneering rocket scientist and JPL founder Jack Parsons admitted his early dreams of making manned space flight a reality came directly from reading the sci-fi pulp magazines of the 1930s. More recently, take a look at NASA’s proposed contingency plans for dealing with a killer asteroid on a collision course with Earth, and it’s clear they’ve all been lifted directly from assorted asteroid movies (The Day the Sky Exploded, A Fire in the Sky, Asteroid, Meteor, Deep Impact, etc.).

It’s even less surprising to hear what kind of profound influence both the prevailing political atmosphere and the overall mood of the country as a whole has had on the space program. NASA’s continued funding is dependent on the enthusiasm of both the federal government and the public at large. The Space Race of the ’50s and ‘60s, after all, was less about pure scientific discovery than it was simply another military and political flank of the Cold War. And look at what’s happened to NASA after everyone got bored with the shuttle. 

From the Buck Rogers serials to the sci-fi explosion of the ‘50s to the present, Hollywood has played a major role in what turns out to be a very complex relationship, both bolstering public enthusiasm for space exploration as well as re-emphasizing the current political agenda.  And I’m not even going to get into the whole “Kubrick filmed the fake moon landing” business here. Hollywood reflects, distils, and simplifies the current mood of the nation, which is then reabsorbed by the masses, who then reflect it back on the scientific community, which is then expected to make cinematic science fiction a reality if they want to keep their jobs.

All that may be clear and obvious, but what is surprising is that the cold, objective science of astronomy itself seems to be as deeply entangled in this same relationship as a federal agency like NASA. The One Big Question at the heart of both space exploration and astronomy, the one that trumps all others, concerns the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The general perception seems to be that since astronomers are essentially on the front lines when it comes to making contact with any aliens who may pop up one of these days, the public expects them to be either diplomats or security guards, depending on how we’re feeling, and how we’re feeling is largely determined by Hollywood.

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With rare exception, throughout the ’50s, extraterrestrials visiting Earth were malevolent sonsabitches. In Invaders from Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, Killers from Space, Prince of Space, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, War of the Worlds and hundreds of others,  their ultimate goal was to undermine if not straight out demolish the American Way of Life. Even if they weren’t intended to be read this way (though many were), it was very easy to read alien invasion pictures as a reflection of Cold War paranoia. Extraterrestrials were the ultimate foreigners, after all. They didn’t look like us or talk like us or think like us, and so were regularly interpreted as little more than insidious bug-eyed communists. 

(It’s interesting to note that the sci fi explosion in Hollywood was inspired by the nationwide UFO craze which began in 1947, a craze some researchers are now claiming really was the result of a Stalinist plot to trigger a nationwide panic.)

Even those rare well-spoken, erudite, super intelligent, and well-meaning aliens in the likes of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Cosmic Man, even It Came From Outer Space were interpreted by some Right-leaning critics as commie propagandists. Who the hell were they to come down here uninvited and tell us to stop building atomic weapons? Nope, no matter how you sliced it, aliens couldn’t be trusted, and the very idea of trying to deal with them, let alone reach out and contact them, on friendly terms was unheard of. 

There wasn’t much of a change in attitudes toward would-be alien visitors in the ‘60s, and for much the same reason, but the growing Space Race did lead to a slight change in emphasis away from alien invaders to manned space exploration (and sometimes the two were combined, as in Quatermass 2, Monster Zero, and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster). Then along came 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, a poetic celebration of manned space exploration in which alien intelligence not only wasn’t hostile—it wasn’t even comprehensible to most viewers. Certainly was psychedelic, though, and a distinct step away from simple paranoia.

Roughly two decades after the height of the commie alien boom, and just a couple years after Kubrick’s film, a string of moon landings and the success of the Apollo-Soyuz mission ushered in a major shift in thinking.

On August 20th, 1977, the Voyager space probe was launched from Cape Canaveral on a mission that would eventually carry it out of the solar system into the empty reaches of the cosmos beyond. Far more than its scientific payload, Voyager captured the public imagination as the first far reaching officially-sanctioned attempt to make friendly contact with alien life. Thanks in no small part to the lobbying of pop astronomer Carl Sagan, Voyager was equipped with not only audio and visual greetings from the people of Earth for whatever form of intelligent extraterrestrial life might one day encounter it, but also a simple and clear map showing them exactly how to get here should they ever care to pay a visit. 

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It was an optimistic time. Nixon and Vietnam were behind us, Jimmy Carter was in office, the world for the moment no longer seemed on the brink of a US-Soviet nuclear war, and after three decades of Cold War science fiction featuring cinematic aliens who were either bloodthirsty goblins or commies in disguise, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind helped change the general perception of visitors from outer space. For the first time in a long time, the film presented a vision of aliens who were not only super intelligent, but gentle and benevolent as well. They weren’t here to kidnap our women to repopulate their dwindling numbers, conquer Earth by force to escape a dying planet, turn us all into mindless slave labor, or even give us a self-righteous tongue-lashing about the dangers of atomic weapons. No, this new breed of aliens just wanted to stop by, wish us all the best, let us know things were cool, and then go home.

In 1985, despite a re-kindled Cold War, hopes were still running high that whoever or whatever might live out there would at least be wiser and less trigger happy than us. The continuing cultural resonance at that point of Spielberg’s E.T. from three years earlier may have had something to do with it. Aliens may be ugly, but in a cute plush toy kind of way, plus they liked candy, so we should try to get in touch. Toward that end in September, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute went into operation, beaming coded radio signals into the far reaches of the universe while a team of technicians scanned the skies for any kind of response. Although SETI has experienced some hopeful and promising moments, they have yet to encounter any data they could present as definite proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Since then, things have grown a bit more confused and much less optimistic when it came to imagining our potential new neighbors. 

In 2010, renowned celebrity astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who had in the past been accused of being an alien himself and whose behavior seemed to be growing increasingly erratic, issued a stern and dire warning. Astronomers, he insisted, needed to stop trying to contact aliens, given in all likelihood they would turn out to represent a deadly and well-armed menace who would destroy us all. For godsakes, people, have you never seen Earth vs. The Flying Saucers?

It was an odd and unexpected thing to hear coming from a brilliant scientist who’d devoted his life to uncovering the mysteries of time and space, but it was perhaps also an understandable reaction. At that point in history radical Islam replaced communism as the West’s biggest bugaboo, and the US and Europe alike were overwhelmed with a paralyzing fear of inevitable attack by foreign terrorists. The world was a far less optimistic place than it had been in 1977, and comforting movies about kind-hearted aliens were hard to come by. The warm and happy-go-lucky aliens of E.T. and Close Encounters had since been replaced by the rampaging hordes of Independence Day, the scheming devils of District 9, and the ongoing Alien franchise. Even Spielberg traded out his earlier optimism for a remake of War of the Worlds. In the mass media. the general perception of what might be living out there had apparently shifted back to the paranoia of the ‘50s. There seems to be an easy and predictable tendency to reflect the reigning fears and paranoias here at home on whatever or whoever might be living in a distant solar system. Take a look around the world we’ve created and the vision created by Hollywood special effects units and it’s easy to conclude that of course aliens, even the superintelligent kind, would be as savage and brutal as we are.

Which is why it was both confounding and perfectly comprehensible a few weeks back when on the one hand Hawking seemed to have a change of heart while another group of astronomers took xenophobic paranoia to the next logical level.

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In mid-April 2010, it was announced that Hawking, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have pledged $100 million to a feasibility study of what they’re calling the Breakthrough Starshot Project. The project involves building an armada of camera-equipped laser-powered miniature spacecraft (each about the size of a postage stamp) which could travel at an as-yet-unheard of and astonishing 16 million mph, or roughly one-fifth the speed of light. The tiny space drones would be dispatched by the thousands to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, in search of a planet that might conceivably be home to alien life forms. 

So why the change of heart on Hawking’s part, from trying to stay as far away from aliens as possible to actively seeking them out? One possibility is simple PR. At the present, astronomers have found no evidence at all the Alpha Centauri system contains any planets that might even remotely sustain life, making the ultimate success of the project extremely doubtful. But given the star is only 4.5 light years away, the nanocraft, if they work as proposed, would be able to reach the system in about 26 years, and allowing for the additional four years for the data to beam back to earth, it’s possible we could begin gathering up-close data from another star system within three decades. It’s a major stepping stone in space exploration, and given the chances of actually encountering alien life (hostile or otherwise) are slight at best, Hawking can rest easy while making a show of advancing space research and not sounding like an insane paranoid kook who’d seen too many sci-fi movies.

Two weeks before the Breakthrough Starshot Project was announced, astronomer David Kipping and grad student Alex Teachey, both of Columbia University, published a paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society describing a method of cloaking the entire planet, making it invisible to any would-be predatory world-conquering extraterrestrials. Unlike the supposed light-bending techniques developed by Navy scientists in 1943 to cloak U.S. battleships from enemy fleets (with supposedly disastrous results), Kipping and Teachey’s approach is much more straightforward. 

Since earthly astronomers detect planets orbiting distant stars by noting a slight dip in the star’s brightness as the planet crosses in front of it, the assumption is any evil marauding aliens in search of new worlds to conquer would use the same technique. The trick, then, is to replace the light from the sun that would be blocked as the Earth passes between it and those prying alien eyes on that evil planet. To achieve this effect they propose launching a massive space-based laser, or series of lasers, which would blast intense beams of light at the offending planet, creating the illusion from a distant vantage point that there’s nothing here at all. 

While the paper describes a number of different and subtle angles and uses for the proposed laser system, that’s essentially what it boils down to. Intriguing an idea as it is, it’s one with a number of troublesome assumptions. First, it assumes any bloodthirsty commie terrorist aliens would use the same method we do to discover distant planets. It also assumes the aliens in question are themselves on a planet and not cruising around the cosmos in a mothership. Since the laser beams coming from earth would be highly focused and unidirectional, the plan’s efficacy depends on the would-be invaders likewise being stationary. If they had the ability to zip a neat light year to the right or left, the laser cloak would have no effect.

Which leads to the biggest problem of all facing the proposed planet cloaking system. Because the laser system would make us invisible to the inhabitants of a single planet, we would need to know in advance that 1. the planet was inhabited and 2. those inhabitants had evil intentions. And by the time we figured that out, wouldn’t it already be too late?

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Beyond even that, after nearly eighty years of sending a steady stream of radio and television signals out into space in all directions, and some thirty years of coded Hallmark cards from SETI, it seems a little late now to ponder a quick duck behind the bushes. Although our dominant fear and distrust of Middle Easterners will likely remain the federally-mandated rule for quite some time to come, a change in our attitude toward the intentions of any extraterrestrial intelligence may well depend on the release of another Spielberg film about cute and good-natured aliens. 

Illustration by Emily Miller

A version of this article appeared in our San Diego Comic-Con print edition, which you can download here: