Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Antelope Question

People have asked me if I believe in alien abduction phenomena. I guess the question is natural, seeing as how I write a comic strip parodying the subject. My answer, though, will satisfy no one... I don't know. I've experienced some weird stuff. I've read about weirder stuff happening to others. After all that, I still have to sit on the fence.
However, I will say this... it is an intriguing possibility. And I have little patience with those who outright dismiss the suggestion of it. Many people whom I otherwise admire seem to have their blinders on when it comes to this subject... a good example is SF and science fact author Rudy Rucker. An intelligent fellow by any definition of the word, a funny, interesting, and engaging writer (author of the Software / Wetware / Freeware cycle), and seemingly brimming with ideas, dismisses the idea and even ridicules it in a certain book of his which I will not mention here. He does so for most of the same reasons that seem to be trotted out, including the "physical impossibility" angle... the Earth is too far, too many light years away, there is no propulsion system that can bridge the gap, etc.
He may be right. That very well may be true... but he really shoots himself in the foot when he complains that it is ridiculous to believe that alien beings would brave the rigors and distances of space to come to our planet just to study our genitalia.
Oh, really?
Imagine, if you will... a researcher in California. She kisses her husband and child goodbye, takes her suitcase and lab equipment, and catches a plane to New York. There, she meets with her mentors and finalizes a plan. She takes control of a wad of cash and takes a plane to Nairobi. From there, it's into a smaller plane to a smaller town, and from there into a jeep, and from there to an airstrip where she takes a helicopter out into the savannah. She spies a herd of antelope and tells the pilot to fly low. She fires her rifle and darts one. The pilot lands, and she hops out. She weighs the animal, takes a blood sample, and gathers other information. She fits it with a radio tag and leaves. The animal wakes up and bounds off to join its fellows.
Now... we have a human being who has taken a month or more out of her life, travelled a ridiculous distance (especially when we consider the natural pace of human locomotion), spent a lot of money and resources, endured hardship in travel and camp life, and all for... studying an animal's genitalia. What the hell for? Why do it?
Let's consider the same thing from the antelope's perspective. This thing dropped out of the sky. Vague memories of being handled... then I'm awake again. If you could communicate with the antelope and tell them that this creature, this human, had come from the other side of the planet (a distance too vast to imagine) by way of a flying machine that flies six miles in the air and travels 20 times faster than you can run at full speed (a concept beyond belief), wouldn't the antelope call you crazy?
How about going to the moon? We spent how much money? We spent ten years of the best work of how many of our best scientists? How long, how many years, did those astronauts train for? Three of them died in training, three more nearly died en route. They endured weeks of isolation in a pair of tiny tin cans, ate tasteless goop from tubes, pissed and shat in plastic bags, risked their lives, and all for what? Bringing back a pile of rocks?
Of course, the researcher's expedition to the savannah and the moon landings meant much more than the sum of their parts, and reap dividends far beyond the simple knowledge that they acquired. So why would studying a green planet, teeming with life, NOT be of enough interest to other civilizations to spend the time, money, and sweat to get here? Why is it that Rucker, like so many others, finds it impossible to believe that other civilizations would have the same rabid scientific curiosity that we have... and go to roughly equivalent lengths to fulfill it?
One mistake, as Michio Kaku has observed, is thinking of alien civilizations as being a couple of hundred years or so more advanced than we are. In the scale of the time the universe has existed, though, this is kind of ridiculous. Why wouldn't they be thousands of years ahead of us? How about millions? In other words, their mode of transport is to ours as ours is to the antelope... A million years ago, early man was not getting around in 747s... we were walking, swimming, perhaps paddling on logs. The very idea of a flying machine that could haul hundreds of people at 600 miles per hour with a range of over 6,000 miles was nothing more than the purest fancy a hundred years ago, to say nothing of a million.
Let's just say that I don't believe that we have yet discovered the fastest way to get around in space... and to think that we have, and that all civilizations forever will be limited to puttering around in chemical or atomic rockets is a little naive. Sure, there are fundamental physical laws to be considered... but do we really understand physics all that well? We know far less than we think... which is a wonderful thing, because there is so much cool stuff left to discover.

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