Utpal Kumar analyses why we are so obsessed with extraterrestrials and how physics has come closer to metaphysics
This summer we are witnessing an all-out alien assault. Thankfully, it’s confined to multiplexes which have witnessed, within the space of a few months, the American naval forces fighting an invading extraterrestrial Battleship, Men in Black coming out of oblivion for the third time in a decade-and-a-half to keep tabs of aliens, and a crew of spaceship Prometheus seeking the origins of humanity but instead discovering a threat that could cause the extinction of the entire human race.
The release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is significant in the sense that it’s the prequel of the filmmaker’s 1979 movie, Alien, which reminded us of a hard, inconvenient truth: That we are not alone in this universe; that our extraterrestrial neighbours can get blood-thirsty; and, that we are not the most advanced species either. The release of Alien was momentous as it changed the way we watched the sky: Till then, we looked into space with sanguine eyes. And, it was understandable: America’s Apollo mission to moon in 1969 showcased growing human dominance over the solar system; with Star Wars, George Lucas made us tame space in 1977; and, Steven Spielberg gave us friendly extraterrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Alien changed it all. It took away our sense of comfort; we were humbled and reminded of our peripheral existence in the vast, never-ending universe. If Star Wars was an overwhelmingly optimistic film, aimed at providing succour to the American ego shattered by the Vietnam war,Alien told us in no uncertain terms that our future might not be truly dazzling. From then onwards, we looked up into the sky and imagined gear-headed aliens all set to strike the earth!
Such has been the Alien influence that even a scientist of Sir Stephen Hawking’s calibre couldn’t remain aloof from this fear. The physicist believes that human encounter with extraterrestrials would be less like ET and more like Independence Day. “The outcome,” he observed in a documentary on the Discovery Channel last year, “would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the native Americans.”
Jill Tarter, who announced last month that she was stepping down as Director of the Centre for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Research, disagrees. She believes that if aliens can get to earth after a faster-than-light travel, then they will be advanced enough not to need the things we or our planet could provide them. She blames Hollywood for creating such an ‘outlandish’ popular perception. “Often such aliens are mere reflections of human beings,” emphasises she. No wonder, most Hollywood aliens share human body structure; their biochemistry is often the same; they come here because earth has some alluring natural resources. Ironically, the cosmos is believed to be composed of primarily the same stuff everywhere.