What would it really be like to encounter alien life? This is the subject of a newly-emerging academic field called astrobiology, or the study of life beyond Earth. Now, in a new book called Alien Life Imagined: Communicating the Science and Culture of Astrobiology, astrobiological researcher Mark Brake combines stories from both science fiction and the world of science to explore how our ideas about alien life have changed over time. In this excerpt from his book, he deals with how astrobiology has changed in an age when we are actually traveling to other planets.
Pioneers of the airwaves
He died without much money to his name, but Nikola Tesla lived a life rich in colour. Widely esteemed as one of the greatest engineers working in America, Tesla was born in 1856, an ethnic Serb in a village that is now part of Croatia. Variously an inventor, engineer, and businessman, Tesla's theories and patents in electromagnetism formed the basis of wireless communication and radio.
Tesla was also at the forefront of alien contact. As early as 1896, he had proposed that radio could be used as a form of contact with extraterrestrial life.4 And in 1899, while experimenting on atmospheric electricity using a Tesla coil receiver at his Knob Hill laboratory in Colorado, he reported observing repeated (very probably artificial) signals, which Tesla interpreted as being of extraterrestrial origin.
Tesla thought the signals were grouped in ones, twos, threes, and fours, and decided they were coming from Mars, as a Martian interpretation of all things cosmic was very popular at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, lesser scholars have suggested that Tesla detected nothing, and that he was simply misconstruing the new technology.5 Others proposed that Tesla had been picking up the natural signal of the Jovian plasma torus, a phenomenon caused by the interplay of Jupiter's magnetosphere and the plasma from its planetary moon Io. Nonetheless, other eminent scholars, such as Guglielmo Marconi and Lord Kelvin, also suggested that radio could be used to establish Martian contact in the years following Tesla's advance. Indeed, Marconi even suggested his stations too had picked up possible Martian signals.6
The myth of Mars continued. Percival Lowell had published his original Mars book in 1895. His follow-up, Mars and Its Canals, came in 1906, though by 1909 better telescopes had nailed the canal theory firmly in its cosmic coffin. Even so, between 21 and 23 August 1924, Mars entered opposition. It was now closer to Earth than any time in a century before or since. In the United States, a National Radio Silence Day was declared. During a thirty-six hour period on the relevant dates, all radios were quiet for five minutes on the hour, every hour. Noted American astronomer David Peck Todd led the programme, and a cryptographer as assigned to decipher any resulting Martian messages.
Then came SETI.
After the war, physicists Phillip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi had identified the potential of the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum, proposing a set of initial targets for interstellar communication. A year later in 1960, astronomer Frank Drake from Cornell University made the first modern SETI experiment. Christened ‘Project Ozma' after the Queen of Oz in L. Frank Baum's fantasy books, Drake employed a radio telescope at Green Bank in West Virginia. With the scope he examined the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani close to the 1.42 GHz marker frequency, a region of the radio spectrum known as the ‘water hole' due to its propinquity to hydrogen and hydroxy radical spectral lines. Little of interest was found. But it was a start.
The first SETI conference also took place at Green Bank, also in 1961, and funding programmes for an actual scientific search of extraterrestrial intelligence began in earnest. Scientists from the Soviet Union soon took a strong interest, and in the 1960s performed a series of searches in the hope of detecting powerful radio signals from space. Indeed, international cooperation in the field was heightened by its the first definitive book, Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966), written by Soviet astronomer Iosif Shklovskii and US astronomer Carl Sagan.
The book was intriguing. Not only did Sagan and Shklovskii provide a scientific introduction to the subject that was soon to be better known as astrobiology, but they also devoted chapters to extraterrestrial contact. Though they stressed their ideas were speculative, Sagan and Shklovskii nevertheless argued that scholars should countenance the possibility that alien contact had occurred during recorded history. Further, they suggested that sub-lightspeed interstellar travel by a sophisticated alien civilisation was a certainty, especially when considered against the developing pace of technological progress in the late 1960s.
Perhaps inspiring the wave of ancient astronaut books that were to prove popular in the 1970s, Sagan and Shklovskii became more daring. They maintained that recurring occurrences of alien visitation to Earth were credible, and that pre-scientific narratives proffer a possible means of describing contact with outsiders. They cited the tale of Oannes, a fishlike being attributed in several rational and independent ancient sources with introducing agriculture, art, and mathematics to the early Sumerians. They urged the global community of scholars to scrutinise ancient documents for further possible instances of paleo-contact.
As the scientific world was abuzz with the élan of contact, fiction produced a sceptic to match the hype. As we shall see, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (1961) is ultimately about the problems of contact, and the shortcomings of any potential communication between man and alien. In exploring and probing the ocean planet Solaris from an orbiting research station, the human scientists too are being probed. The planet is sentient, and delves into the minds of the humans who are analysing it. The ocean planet is able to manifest guilty secrets in human form, which each scientist is forced to personally confront.
With a life in writing ahead of him, and his books translated into forty-one languages, selling over twenty-seven million copies, Lem was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1921. His biographical essay, Chance and Order, published in The New Yorker in 1984, portrays Lem as a child hungry for science, and full of imagination.7 Motivated by his father's library on anatomy, Lem soon became a child prodigy, creating fantasy worlds, each with its own maps and archives. By his early teens, Lem had performed so well in a school IQ test that he was known as ‘the most intelligent child in Poland', although he was not made aware of the accolade until much later.8
Described in 1976 by fellow fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon as the most widely read science fiction author on the planet, Lem is perhaps best known for Solaris, in all its forms: the 1961 novel, along with the two cinematic interpretations, the 1972 adaptation by acclaimed Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, and the 2002 remake by US director Steven Soderbergh. And yet, despite its undoubted popularity, there has until 2012 been only one English version of the text, translated in a rather stilted manner, through French. According to Lem, this has led to inaccurate interpretations of Freudian messages in the text: ‘One American reviewer made a fatal mistake in that he was unaware of the fact that the idioms of the Polish original are different – hence they do not allow such [Freudian] conclusions'.9
Such Freudian nuance notwithstanding, the narrative arc and intent of Solaris are apparent enough. The story unfolds onboard an orbiting research station floating above the ocean planet of Solaris. The book's narrator, Dr Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, gets to Solaris after the long journey from Earth. His brief: to gauge the viability of the continued study of the planet, as precious little progress had been reported to Earth. Kelvin finds a cosmic Mary Celeste.10 The station is deserted, save a large but elusive African woman, and a Dr. Snow, who behaves peculiarly on meeting, probing Kelvin's identity and even questioning his existence.
As the story unfolds it becomes clear to Kelvin that the crew, him included, are experiencing the materialisation of physical human simulacra, or ‘Phicreatures'. Through these creatures, each scientist is, in turn, confronted with their most painful and repressed thoughts and memories. Witness the ‘giant Negress', Dr Gibarian's visitor, who twice appears to Kelvin, and seems to be unaware of the other humans she meets, or simply chooses to ignore them. His own Phi-creature, Rheya, is a simulacrum of his dead wife, whose suicide a decade earlier had left Kelvin wracked with enduring guilt.
Lem uses techniques to help enhance the threatening and alien feel of the Phicreatures. The scientists onboard the orbiting station probe the makeup of the creatures. Kelvin, along with Drs Sartorius and Snow, attempts an analysis and understanding of Solaris, and its associated phenomena. They carry out tests. Kelvin takes and investigates blood samples from the Rheya simulacrum, finding the Phi-creatures to be neutrino-based. The discovery leads eventually to the humans making an anti-neutrino gun, capable of destroying the Phi-creatures, as all other attempts to terminate them had met with failure. Though human in appearance, they seem indestructible. Kelvin had previously tried ‘removing' the Rheya simulacrum in one of the escape pods. On her return, and upon realizing she is not the real Rheya, the simulacrum unsuccessfully tries suicide by drinking liquid oxygen.
During his stay on the station, and cut off in his cabin with only the Rheya simulacrum for company, Kelvin attempts to understand the ocean planet. He delves into the research station archives, a library holding hundreds of volumes, which represent a century of research into Solaristics. But more is less, for Kelvin. As he ploughs through the archives, the more he realises that Terran science will never understand the alien complexities of the ocean planet and its phenomena. Likewise, the crew continue their attempts at contact with the ocean through X-ray stimulation linked to Kelvin's brain activity. All comes to nought. And Kelvin is left questioning the very idea of contact and the nature of life in the universe, concluding that the ocean planet is a flawed God-like sentience that cannot be understood by human science.
The problems with contact
The moral of Lem's message is clear. The stars are not for us. No matter how much we desire contact and communication with an alien civilisation, it may never be achieved. Terran science may not decipher something so alien from the human, making a symbiotic communication between alien civilisations nigh on impossible. Indeed, Lem also explored the alien contact theme in two other novels, Eden (1959), in which there is face-to-face contact with aliens but a barrier to translation, and His Master's Voice (1968), where, as with Solaris, the barrier of translation is further explored by taking away the possibility of face-to-face contact.
Lem's Solaris, then, is a book about the culture of science and its impact on contact. In particular, it focuses on the ideology of scientific culture, which, in the context of Lem's narrative, revolves around the science of Solaristics. The surface of the Solaris ocean is composed of a colloidal substance that can morph into many shapes, some of which (‘mimoids') are simulacra of terrestrial objects. But the ocean planet has so long been a subject of study for Terran scientists that Solaristics has evolved into an institution. And so the story centres on the history and controversies of this alien science. The nature of the planet itself, as an example of alien life, and the empirical data gleaned by the research station, also feed into Solaristic studies.
4 Seifer, M. J. (1996) Martian Fever (1895–1896) in Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius, New Jersey, p. 157
5 Spencer, J. (1991) The UFO Encyclopaedia, New York
6 Corum, K. L. and Corum, J. F. (1996) Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Signals of Planetary Origin, OCLC 68193760, pp. 1–14
7 Janes, L. (2009) Lem under the Lens: The Communication of the Science and Culture of First Contact within Stanislaw Lem's novels Eden (1959), Solaris (1961) and His Master's Voice (1968), Cardiff
This excerpt (c) Mark Brake and reprinted with permission from Cambridge University Press.