Nice try, PBS
Next time, try dealing with UFOs a little closer to Earth
Without constant maintenance, plants would’ve long ago erased the bunkers at Khe Sanh, where human beings indiscriminately slaughtered each other more than 50 years ago.
Last June, with the UFO conundrum on a slow but seemingly inevitable collision course with policy machinery, Ohio State University poly sci professor Alexander Wendt laid out multiple scenarios for mass reaction to official confirmation of superior nonhuman intelligence (NHI) operating at will in our biosphere. Most were destabilizing. He called on social scientists to familiarize themselves with the phenomena in hopes of planning for better outcomes. But Wendt’s not the only one thinking about contingencies.
PBS began the new year with one of those what-if exercises, triggered not by UFOs darting within smartphone range but by an interstellar visitor at a safe theoretical distance. It was inspired by the brief appearance of ‘Oumuamua, the unidentified, spinning mystery object that surprised astronomers worldwide in October 2017 by skirting through our solar system at 196,000 mph. With an uncanny sense of timing, ‘Oumuamua breezed through just two months before the New York Times 12/17 expose on a secret Pentagon UFO project, whose repercussions have triggered an ongoing congressional inquiry.
PBS rolled out a speculative 90-minute BBC production of the discovery of an ‘Oumuamua-like mystery that crosses paths with Voyager, NASA’s far-flung real-life space probe that evacuated our heliosphere in 2012. Unlike ‘Oumuamua, which emitted no radio signals, this hypothetical enigma does, in fact, generate a global buzz by producing a potential but indecipherable message in the 1420 MHz hydrogen band. The dramatization, “First Contact: An Alien Encounter,” compresses a frenzy of global networking into a 13-day detective story, against the background noise of international media coverage and public reaction.
Why bother to pay rent?
Lacking the intimidating proximity of UFOs, the distant visitor – dubbed the Artifact – nevertheless stokes public anxieties and aspirations as astronomers confirm and verify a growing body of evidence. The revelations animate talk radio, podcasts, and social media, which provoke crowd responses not dissimilar to Wendt’s projections: street protesters charging government coverup, frantic hoarding, looting, soaring gun sales, air-defense mobilization, Cassandras predicting “full scale alien apocalypse,” kumbaya dreamers lugging telescopes to open spaces for skywatch parties, blizzards of tweetstorms (“I can either submit to my new overlords or pay my rent – I cannot do both,” “If aliens are anything like us, they most certainly are not coming in peace”) and international security debates.
Ultimately, “First Contact” has a tidy and bleak resolution. Cross-referencing the Artifact’s chemical signatures with its trajectory, scientists are transformed into cosmic archaeologists as they trace its origin to an eight-billion year-old binary star system, 21 Sagittarii. They discover the remains of a planet reduced to a ring of debris scattered around one of the suns. Awash in chemicals that appear to have been manufactured, the scene suggests the orbiting rubble is the graveyard of a civilization likely annihilated by solar gravitational forces, or worse.
“First Contact” intersperses this imaginary storyline with reflections on state-of-the-art detection technology, largely through the perspectives of the SETI crowd. And yes, ubiquitous radioastronomy performer Seth Shostak is in the mix; fortunately, the BBC producers weren’t interested in a discussion of atmospheric UFOs, so they didn’t give him the opportunity to make shit up. Anyway, by expressing itself through radiowaves, the Artifact fits neatly into a manageable box. And that allows SETI pioneer Jill Tartar to continue to regard ET contact as a big-dish problem, requiring 20,000 light years or whatever of passive waiting for a return signal that may never come. “(First contact) is much more likely to be a one-way communication,” she says, “such as we currently have with Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks and the Romans. We can’t ask questions of them but they have provided us a wealth of information that we can learn from.”
Sounds so, um, scholarly.
The need for more voices
Frankly, “First Contact” works best when it goes beyond the astronomers and delivers more diverse voices – an anthropologist, a Harvard music professor discussing the intelligent vocalizations of whales, the former director of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs – to preview the challenges ahead. And those deeper contexts even allow us to take Tartar more seriously on at least one observation.
“One of the things that we often forget is that a sense of time scale might be incredibly different for a technological civilization that evolved somewhere else,” she says. “They might think in much faster time, or much slower time. And the rate at which things change and present information, as humans, we just might not be able to appreciate it at all.”
Exactly. When, and if, officialdom ever acknowledges advanced NHI is operating not way out yonder with the gas giants but in our skies and seas, we probably won’t have the luxury of treating it with leisurely contemplation. And if, as Tartar suspects, NHI inhabits a different time and space – as UFOs demonstrably do – we’re going to need more than rocket scientists and anthropologists. If PBS or the BBC decides to do a followup to “First Contact,” they would do well to consider touching base with Italy’s International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology (LINV), run by scientists like Stefano Mancuso.
Formed in 2005, research at LINV is rewriting everything we know about the once heretical concept of plant intelligence. I keep bringing it up because UFOs continue to reveal how little we know about our own environment. And in 2016’s The Revolutionary Genius of Plants, Mancuso, whose plants-in-microgravity experiments have flown aboard the International Space Station, reminds us that homo sapiens may ultimately be at a strategic disadvantage with an alien species organizationally aligned with the flora societies that surround us every day.
Mancuso touts plants’ “modular, diffused construction” for an ability to lose 90 percent of its mass without dying. Their individual and collective design is the “epitome of modernity: a cooperative, shared structure without any command centers, able to flawlessly resist repeated catastrophic events without losing functionality and adapt very quickly to environmental changes.”
Is the brain ‘archaic’?
He cites experimental evidence of plant memory, of botanical energy converted to voltage, and as platforms for vibrational, olfactory, chemical and visual sensors. He revisits their influence on architecture, in form and function. They mimic, they cloak, they manipulate, their intentionality persists, they push our own technologies to slow down and catch up. More than a century ago, they forced the invention of time-lapse photography to catch them stretching at dawn to follow the sun; more recently, high-speed photography has evolved to freeze-frame seed dispersal patterns sometimes spinning at more than 400 revolutions per second.
If intelligence pivots on problem-solving abilities, plants and their decentralized, non-hierarchical flock-brain decision-making anatomy presents “a template so different that, by comparison,” Mancuso writes, “all the alien life forms in sci-fi movies are but lighthearted fantasies dreamt up by children.” By comparison, the human brain is a vulnerable and “archaic” top-down housing “whose only advantage is to provide quick responses – not always correct ones – but that is very fragile and … not innovative or always effective.” Meaning humans can, in the short term, dominate and transform their environment. But plants, with more than a half-billion year head start on human evolution, are designed for the long run by becoming wizards of adaptation.
Do plants hold clues to deeper connections with UFOs? We may not know that until we decide whether we’re serious about cracking the code. What we know for sure is this: Without them, we’re as dead as the fictitious debris of 21 Sagittarii.
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They released it now to deflect attention away from my blog. Bastards!
We haven't scratched the surface. We are the scratch.