Loving the alien

Let’s be honest: if we ever encounter an extraterrestrial, we’ll probably lose our marbles—and not in a good way. We’ve been contemplating the meeting for a long time, and the stories we’ve told ourselves have not been encouraging.

There is H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, in which invading Martians lay waste to much of the Earth until they are defeated by a terrestrial virus. There is Independence Day, the 1996 movie in which invading aliens—who clearly haven’t been paying attention—lay waste to much of Earth until they are defeated by a computer virus. There is the celebrated episode of The Twilight Zone that involved seemingly kindly aliens who arrive on Earth carrying a handbook called To Serve Man, which is a perfectly nice beginning—until it turns out the handbook is a cookbook.

In fairness to us, we do seem to have moved a bit beyond our afraid-of-the-dark ways. We sent the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft aloft in 1977 carrying golden disks encoded with information explicitly designed to introduce ourselves to aliens and even tell them where we live. The one time we thought we had uncovered solid evidence of extraterrestrial biology—in 1996, when NASA announced that a meteorite from Mars appeared to contain a microbial fossil—the reaction was far more celebratory than scared.

From TIME (March 2015)

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