Science outreach, crossing the mainstream divide, and “Chasing UFOs”

24 05 2012

Hosts James Fox, Me, and Erin Ryder during the filming of National Geographic’s “Chasing UFOs.” (Credit: David West)

I know there will be quite a lot on this here at the Astrowright blog in the coming weeks and months, but to begin very briefly, I’m excited to report that I’m set to appear on/host a National Geographic series next month (somewhat sensationally) entitled, “Chasing UFOs.”  

The project zeroed in on the “top 5%” – the most bizarre or inexplicable – of all alleged unidentified flying object cases in history.  However, unlike previous programs, in addition to firsthand interviews, we physically travel to the site of each alleged event, whether on a mountaintop or in the Amazon, to see if any material evidence exists to support extraordinary claims.

Aside from the “field adventure” component, the show’s presentation is novel in that three different viewpoints are represented in each case – skeptic, believer, and “agnostic.”  I’m thrilled that NatGeo has endorsed including someone like me on a project like this – essentially allowing the scientific/skeptical viewpoint to be heard. 

This is ultimately why I decided to engage in the project in the first case. 

For those who have been reading this blog for any length of time, it is obvious that I sit squarely on the skeptical side of the fence.   (In my view that’s the side that history ultimately bears out.)  However, I’m also comfortable enough in my own “scientist” skin to be willing to dive into any question, even if it has been (perhaps justifiably) shrugged off by mainstream academia.  This is particularly true when it concerns something for which there is a great deal of public interest and that exists in such close proximity to my personal passions – planetary science and space exploration.  In my view, the important thing to note is that people curious about UFOs are asking the right sorts of questions:

  • “What is going on in the night sky?”
  • “Are we alone in the universe?”
  • “What is the possibility of extraterrestrial life?”

-And with pseudoscientific, speculation-riddled and archaeology-confounding programs out there like “Ancient Aliens,” if scientists refuse to engage in mainstream media and contribute to the conversation, the conservative scientific viewpoint will rarely (or worse, never) be heard or explained.  If it is obvious to an astronomer that a flashing “UFO” is simply light from Venus on the horizon taking a long path-length through the atmosphere, and he or she doesn’t bother to explain it, science doesn’t stand a chance in the face of a passionate “talking head” declaring it to be proof of extraterrestrial intelligence in our own skies.  We fail twice – first to capture an excellent learning moment and secondly in that we ultimately succeed only in disenfranchising a curious public with respect to the scientific establishment.

As anyone in the sciences knows, STEM outreach needs all the help it can get.  We have to engage.  (And who knows?  I’m open to the possibility that people have really seen something extraordinary if evidence backs it up, though I would be just as excited were it to be exotic high-altitude electrical phenomena as opposed to green men from Mars.)

So, here goes.  Set the time circuits for June 29, 2012 at 09:00 on the NatGeo channel.  I haven’t seen the finished product myself, but I know what we did and guarantee it to be an action-packed, thought-provoking ride. 

Tune in and please feel free to let me know what you think!





Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

25 01 2012

Human explorers discover an alien vista over an extraterrestrial-designed pyramid in the movie "Stargate." (Credit: MGM)

Clashing Pioneers of Xenoarchaeological Thought

The idea of alien archaeology, or more appropriately, “Xenoarchaeology,” is a mainstay of current science-fiction.  Hopefully, it may soon graduate to the realm of science-fact.  In this light, it is fruitful to consider a couple of prime examples of cultural influences and to discuss which amongst them leans more toward fiction or fact.

For many, the idea of xenoarchaeology practiced here on Earth is best exemplified by the works of Erich von Däniken, who in the 1960s and 1970s popularized the idea that many ancient human beliefs, artifacts, technology, and structures could be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials in the distant or even prehistoric past, (known generally as the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis.) 

His landmark non-fiction work, “Chariots of the Gods?“, has inspired numerous popular stories, including the prominent films Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the History Channel television series, Ancient Aliens.   

Ironically, while admittedly fun to consider, von Däniken’s work to me strays far afield of the work any reasonable xenoarchaeologist might pursue.  In my opinion, as a non-fiction book the content fails to rise above anything other than science-fiction.  This is due to the fact that 1) the concepts presented are entirely speculative and/or circumstantial, 2) the work willingly ignores conventional archaeology and anthropology, 3) the work trivializes the achievements of ancient human cultures (i.e., implying that they “needed” extraterrestrial assistance and did not simply create vast works on their own,) and 4) because to my knowledge no adherents have yet to supply a sensical tapestry of evidence ruling out more conventional explanations to support their claims. 

Frankly, it seems the ancient astronaut proposal is simply a pop-cultural rather than scientific phenomenon.  However, in a fitting twist, it is from pioneering science-fiction nearly a half-century earlier that we find what I believe is a fitting xenoarchaeology archtype.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who may have served as an example for Lovecraft's protagonist geologist William Dyer, preps for a scientific measurement during his 1911 antarctic expedition. (Credit: Corbis)

H.P. Lovecraft and the Prototype Xenoarchaeologist

I must admit – I had H.P. Lovecraft all wrong.  

Before reading Lovecraft’s staggering 1931 antarctic research science-fiction novella, “At the Mountains of Madness,” last fall, I assumed he was a horror writer in the same vein as Edgar Allen Poe, with whom he is commonly referenced. 

This is a gross and possibly criminal mis-classification.

The story, written with shocking adeptness from the perspective of a research geologist leading an antarctic research expedition, was amongst the most grounded, compelling adventure science-fiction tales I’ve ever experienced.  It is certainly the most realistc terrestrial xenoarchaeology story I’ve ever encountered, which is doubly shocking given that it was penned nearly a century ago. 

Allow me to elaborate.

Whereas von Däniken’s work centers on objects of human history, Lovecraft reaches much, much farther back – demonstrating a unnervingly clear understanding of geologic deep time.  In “Mountains,” an interdisciplinary team of researchers, who are deploying drills to collect exploratory geological core samples, discover evidence of apparently artificial influence in ancient strata. 

This to me is a realistic xenoarchaeology scenario, as opposed to identifying surviving artifacts in historical human cultures that betray extraterrestrial influence. 

Then, geologist Dyer, after discovering the mummified remains of what it becomes increasingly obvious is non-terrestrial life, becomes a de-facto xenoarchaeologist as he and a graduate student are thrust on a rescue mission into the barely-surviving, non-Euclidian (!) ruins protruding from an ancient, uplifted antarctic range.  Deciphering the petroglyphs found there, Dyer reconstructs aspects of the ancient alien culture and history, leading him to attempt to ward off all future deep antarctic exploration.

What Lovecraft Got Right:

  • Age of artifacts.  To me, considering the potential distances and times involved with and available to interstellar travel, the odds of encountering evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence across a broad range of cosmic and geologic time is much more likely than something practically contemporary, (say, of ancient Egypt).
  • Scientific approach.  The research team in the story was composed of an array of scientists and technicians of different specialities.  Together, utilizing interdisciplinary thinking, they are able to tackle what becomes a clearly xenoarchaeological situation.
  • Bizarre/Incomprehensible technology.  While some of the petroglyphs are physically intelligible to Dyer, the architecture of the alien ruins defies conventional explanation (and even defies conventional mathematics!)  Advanced bioengineering is also alluded to, something completely foreign to human understanding.  Again, it seems true that artifacts of a truly alien culture would not be readily intelligible to ours.
  • Non-terrestrial biology.  Bipedal humanoid morphology is all-too-often invoked in science-fiction as well as ancient astronaut lore, which to me is nothing more than an anthropomorphological conceit.  The mummified beings in Lovecraft’s story are radially symmetric, vaguely vegetable in form, with a myriad of appendages and sensory organs.  -A wonderful exmaple of truly alien but biologically-sensible morphology.

So, there you have it.  A clash of the titans, as it were, in popular culture from a xenoarchaeological context.

I would venture, in sum, that from von Däniken those seriously considering xenoarchaeology might learn what not to do; From Lovecraft’s speculative “At the Mountains of Madness,” however, those considering xenoarchaeology can explore how pioneering xenoarchaeology might actually be achieved – with a healthy dose of pop thrill to help the concepts go down.








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