The following dialogue, which critiques some of the assumptions of most conversation about close encounters of the alien kind, takes place in a fictionalized college-campus (possibly one of the Ivy League), where the speakers are graduate-students sharing an hour of leisure on the grounds. Andrei, the upperclassman, serves to lead the discussion; first-year Jessex poses the initial question; Martin & Rachel are classmates of theirs.


Jessex asked: ‘Something’s been on my mind awhile, Andrei: the universe, as far as we know it, is uninhabited. What becomes then of the U.F.O. encounters, and such? They can’t all be hallucinations, can they?’.

Rachel interrupted: ‘While we’re at it: why not?’.

Jessex answered: ‘Because they’ve happened over the centuries, with the “flaming spears and shields” seen by the Roman Army, and the “Heavenly Chariots” in Indian mythology, and what have you; and seen, most of the time, by people who don’t normally prove subject to hallucinations. To say, Someone, or some hundred, had this hallucination, and no other all its life, is less credible, almost, than to say, They must have seen something real, even if not what they thought they saw’.

Said Martin: ‘And if it was what they thought, why doesn’t anyone find it, when we go looking later?’.

Said Jessex: ‘That was my next question, too. Thanks, Mart.’.

Said Andrei: ‘Think of this, Jess: if an entomologist were to break into a termite-nest, remove some termites for study, and put them back alive, what would the colony afterward think? When they looked again, the entomologist is gone, and there is no sign he or she was ever there. Nothing happened, which the termite psychologists, if any, could not explain as the work of the imagination. What did happen, was so strange to the termites, they have scarcely the words, or scents rather, to explain it; and their explanation owes more, again, to imagination than memory. It happened by means beyond their comprehension, for reasons they didn’t know, and which cannot accurately be translated into their form of communication. The visitor appeared from beyond the realm of their knowledge (we might say, From outside their world), and returned whence it came. They haven’t the wherewithal to measure or verify or even to properly record what happened, nor to explain it otherwise than as some aberration of the minds of its particular victims, who after all were the only people to see it, and may not even be right about what they saw. The encounter makes no difference to society, and very little to the victims, who afterward talk about it, but make no other alterations in their behavior. Etc., etc.

What I mean, as you no doubt see by now, is: close encounters of an alien kind might be real, or not; but if they were, the space-men or whatsoever we call them, are beyond our means of knowledge. I don’t take them for gods from outer space, or “supernatural” in any sense; but as different from us, as we from hive-insects. Get the idea?’.

Said Jessex: ‘Now I think about it, you’re right; and that accounts for the intangibility of the encounters, too, as you said’.

Said Martin: ‘But what about the distances? There are thousands of light-years between this, and any other habitable planet. How could any living thing travel such a distance in a reasonable time, and undetected at that?’.

Said Andrei: ‘You and I can walk in minutes across yonder hockey-field, where any wingless insect would take the day. In a car, or a bus, or a train, or aboard ship or airplane, we can cross distances and visit landscapes too distant and too strange for the same insect to imagine. What would a carpenter-ant or earwig make of the ocean, or even of a lake, if she’d never seen one? The very engines work on principles those creatures don’t understand, and consist of materials they’ve never seen. Try to explain metals and glass and plastics to a termite, which works in wood and sand and its own saliva! To such a species, the idea of any other material in artifacts, is nonsensical. They have neither the technology to work such materials, nor the science to classify them. Even if the best chemist explained the manufacture, and showed the process step-by-step, the insects could never do it; it’s beyond their skill’.

Said Rachel: ‘Is anything beyond the skill of an insect, which builds elaborate colonies and lives in a hierarchy as complex and stratified as the Byzantine Empire?’.

Said Martin: ‘No, I think I see what Andrei’s at. Insects are better than we at social living, and indeed at building; but even the most social ants don’t make machines. Just so, we might build whatever we can, but even the best human engineers can’t build faster-than-light space-ships out of stellar plasma, or whatever the aliens use. The very idea seems absurd’.

Said Andrei: ‘That’s it. Just as we leave no trace discernible by insects on land we travel, so, too, the occupants of interplanetary craft leave no trace discernible to us, no matter how refined our instruments. A termite colony might know as much about the composition of their environment, as the best astronomers know about space; but even so, the alien in either case is too big and too rarefied to appear in any measurement. Their existence, presence, and journeys are beyond our power to falsify, let alone verify, and therefore beyond any of our sort of proof. By the time our instruments are improved enough to detect them, they’ll be long gone, and all the evidence of their passage, with them’.

Said Jessex: ‘Then it’s true, you think, that these space-creatures simply judged us unfit to take part in an interstellar community, if there is one?’.

Said Andrei: ‘Not judged us unfit; do we judge a tube-worm at the bottom of the ocean, unfit to join the United Nations? Of course not: we don’t even consider it; and for the same reason we don’t, the saucer-men from other planets don’t consider us. Their visits to us are like M. Cousteau’s to the depths: he finds plenty there of interest, but nothing to treat as an equal, and those he finds, hardly remember his visit at all, or remember it improperly. I certainly don’t take all those silly details of close encounters to be true!’.

Said Jessex: ‘What about Contact Day, when dozens of people got together and tried to send a telepathic signal into space?’.

Andrei answered: ‘What about it? If I get a dozen people together and had them all shout in chorus, you couldn’t hear them in the next town, let alone light-years away. Besides, Contact Day happened only once; so if any alien scientist heard it (which is unlikely, because space is big enough to lose signals like that every waking minute, and never miss them), he or she or it or whatever must have listened for it again, never heard another, and dismissed it. What happens only once, signifies nothing in science. Science is concerned with the recurrent, just as philosophy is with the universal. If something happens only once, it doesn’t mean anything to a scientist. That’s why miracles don’t interest physicists’.

Said Jessex: ‘But if I understand it correctly, telepathy, if it exists, is nonlocal’.

Andrei answered: ‘Telepathy is a sporadic, probabilistic, irregular phenomenon; and even though based on nonlocality, it’s very local. Most people never get even one telepathic experience in a lifetime. Those who do, are lucky to get even one. Anyone who gets it often, becomes either a magician (if it can turn the effect on and off), or a lunatic (if it can’t). It’s the same as the old saying, Who spends a night on the mountain, comes down either a poet, or a madman; and there isn’t an insuperable difference between the two: look at Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and all that crowd. But telepathic or not, Contact Day was only a chorus, shouting, We are significant! into space; and that, of course, doesn’t last long enough to be noticed. Telepathy doesn’t propagate, like radio-waves, through vacuum, and nor does sound’.




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Siddharth Mehrotra

Siddharth Mehrotra

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