July 4th is coming up and that means, barbecues, fireworks, and an annual re-watching of the Jeff Goldblum/Bill Pullman classic, Independence Day. Yet, even though July 4, 1996 is a historic date in humanity’s contact with extraterrestrial life, it is not the only entry in the history of alien invasions on this planet. People have been seeing little green menaces for years and, unfortunately, not all of them have been welcomed to Earth with a Will Smith-sized fist.
In order to understand humanity’s fascination with aliens we should really turn the clock back to Percival Lowell, who in his 1895 book, Mars, proclaimed that the Martian surface was covered in canals created by an advanced Martian civilization. Lowell, was not the first person to talk about these “canals,” that honor goes to Giovanni Schiaparelli, who first discovered the “canali” or channels, by observing the planet through his telescope. However, Schiaparelli stopped short of attributing them to any sort of civilization or sentient construction effort. Lowell, on the other hand, wrote three books on that very subject and captured the imagination of the public with the possibility of alien life. It wasn’t long after that when H.G. Wells -the British Roland Emmerich- published War of the Worlds, taking the idea of a Martian civilization to new and London destroying heights.
Suddenly, beings from the sky no longer seemed as friendly or as inviting. The populace was given images of alien walkers parading through Europe, blowing up landmarks, and generally being rude house guests. In response, the people of Earth were suddenly seeing Martians everywhere. In 1897, Alexander Hamilton, a farmer from Kansas -and not the founding father/rapper- reported the first incident of a UFO cow abduction and mutilation. Hamilton told of witnessing an actual alien craft that took his cows and left them butchered. The story was first run in the local newspaper, but was eventually picked up nationwide. It wasn’t debunked until 80 years later when an elderly Kansas woman admitted that she had heard Hamilton bragging about how he had made the whole thing. Yet, the damage had been done. In the popular subconscious, Martians and little green men were on Earth and they had a taste for beef.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles -no relation to HG- and his Mercury Theater troop performed an updated version of War of the Worlds as a fake newscast on the radio. The broadcast began at 8:00 pm, but being the golden age of radio, most Americans were listening to the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy “Charlie McCarthy” on NBC and only turned to CBS at 8:12 pm after the act was over. That means they missed the announcement at the beginning of the show that marked the production as a “fake broadcast.” So, what American listeners found when they switched the channel was what sounded like an extremely convincing emergency newscast. As many as a million Americans believed what they were hearing -obviously forgetting that it was the night before Halloween. Panic broke out, especially in New Jersey, where the first “alien walker” had been said to land. One woman in Indianapolis was even reported as running into a local church where services were being held and yelled out, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”
Battle: Los Angeles
The biggest twist in the story of War of the Worlds is that each version -the Wells and the Welles version- were in some way prophetic of events to come. HG Wells talked about a massive war that would engulf Europe and destroy its cities. More than a decade later the planet found itself fighting just such a war, The Great War. Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds talked about a foreign enemy invading and reeking havoc on a peaceful and isolated America. Less than a five years later, the United States would be embroiled in World War II after just such an attack at Pearl Harbor. Even Steven Spielberg’s version seemed to predict Tom Cruise’s religious views, but in the end that has always been kind of the point of good science fiction. It often works as a reflection of ourselves and the tensions in our society. Maybe that same concept is also why we are most vulnerable to stories and hoaxes during times of turmoil.
At 3:16 am, on the morning of February 25, 1942, the skies over Los Angeles lit up with anti-aircraft fire. When all was said and done, the military had fired more than 1,400 rounds, and eight people were dead, five from falling shrapnel and three from heart-attacks. Yet, no aircraft wreckage was ever found and there was no indication that anything had been attacked -other than by falling shrapnel. A picture published by the LA Times showed search beams focused on a patterns of light, possibly emanating from the bottom of some massive craft. This is what became known as the Battle of Los Angeles, and to this day people still claim it was an alien spaceship that triggered the air raid response.
World War II saw an increase in UFO or “Foo Fighter” activity. That was partially because of the stresses of war, partially because air superiority was so important, -and everyone was looking up for possible threats- partially because of possible Nazi super-weapons, but mostly because of a time traveling Dave Grohl. However, most Foo Fighters have been explained away over the years and the Battle of Los Angeles is no different. Experts seem to agree that the air raid was triggered by a weather balloon that was sighted by a nervous sky watcher. The massive response was actually understandable. It had only been 79 days sine the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and 24 hours since a Japanese submarine has surfaced near Santa Barbara and shelled the oil fields in that location. The city was on high alert, America was expecting another attack, and it only took one sighting of a balloon to set a match to the tinder. Most experts believe that the balloon probably popped and sank into the Pacific. The famous photo of the alien craft, on the other hand, can be explained by lens flares that had been “touched” up by a photo artist at the Los Angeles Times, a common practice before the invention of Photoshop.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The sad truth is that Earth has never been invaded by aliens and we will probably never get a chance to use snappy one-liners as we casually defeat them with a computer virus that infects their oddly MS-DOS based computer systems. However, that does not mean we have stopped looking. The SETI program was established by NASA in 1959 to begin searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. In its time it went through several funding problems and eventually became a private endeavor, but it is still alive and kicking today, and mostly likely manned by a Hawaiian shirt-wearing geek playing office golf while listen to REM. On Aug. 15, 1977, the Big Ear radio observatory at Ohio State University received a 72-second transmission coming from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. The signal was 30 times more powerful than the average radiation from deep space, and Jerry Ehman, who was watching the stat printout at the time, circled the anomaly and wrote “Wow,” next to it. This became known as the Wow Signal, but it was never duplicated or found again, and there were no links ever established to an alien civilization.
SETI is not the only tool humans are using to look for aliens that can be seduced by Jeff Goldblum’s chest hair. The Keplar spacecraft is a telescope that NASA is using to identify extra-solar planets, and its been pretty damn good at it’s job so far. It has currently identified and confirmed 1,284 extra-solar planets. It also may have inadvertently identified an alien megastructure. In October of 2015, Keplar discoverd an odd intermittant signal around the star, KIC 8462852. Keplar identifies planets by plotting the dimming and brightening of stars as planets pace in front of them. However, the dimming discovered at KIC 8462952 is irregular and random. The problem is unsatisfactorily explainable by most known natural celestial bodies. There are still some possibilities, such a swarm of comets, but the discovery still has most experts asking questions rather than finding answers. Listen, we’re not saying it was aliens, but… Also, don’t strap on your flight suit and 1990’s aviator glasses just yet. The star in question is 1,500 light away from the Earth, which means the 8462852ians have a long way to go before they mind control our President and throw Mr. Data across a room.
Still, according to recent findings it is becoming incredibly more and more likely that aliens existed, at least at some point in the history of the universe. This comes from Astronomer Woodruff Sullivan, who not only won the Best Name in Astrophysics award, but published a paper recently, basically proclaiming that aliens existed… at some point. Don’t get too excited because he didn’t get visited during the night by little grey men with big eyes. No, he proves this all through math and with the help of the famous Drake Equation. This equation was first created by Dr. Frank Drake as a hypothetical way to determine the odds of extraterrestrial life in the universe. It takes into account things like the average rate of star formation, the number of planetary bodies around stars, the amount of planets that might be able to host life, etc. What Woodruff Sullivan basically claims, -Do his friends call him ‘Woody’ or ‘Sully’- is that a lot of these factors are actually becoming known to us through science. With the rate of extra-solar planetary discovery and our ever increasing knowledge and catalogs of stars and the rate at which they form, we are filling in a lot of the factors that Drake himself could only estimate, and the numbers are looking very much in favor of the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Life among the stars is an exciting and scary prospect, and that is kind of the point of all this. Humans have been wondering what might be out there since Giovanni Schiaparelli aimed his telescope at the red planet. The rest has been pure human imagination. You see, the existence of alien life, hostile or friendly, is as much about our own feelings and ideas as it is about any actual science involved. Much like Wells and Welles we project our own ambitions, fears, and motives on what we think alien invaders should be. In 1942 they were the Japanese, and in 1897 they were cattle rustlers, because those were things that we feared during those eras of our history. So aliens may exist in the constellation Sagittarius or it may be radioactive comets. Aliens may exist around KIC 8462852, or it may be a swarm of comets -come to think of it comets kind of explain a lot of things- but even if there is life out there we will probably never meet them. Our aliens are the ones we see in films that like to blow up national monuments, not because they are strategic targets or because of their military value, but simply because Roland Emmerich knows that stories about alien invasions are more about us than about them.