Crop circle, 2009

Cocktail party show stoppers, of which there are many, include any mention of a proof for the existence of god, the possibility of aliens in our realm and the supernatural creation of crop circles. Bring up any of these topics and the air in the conversation deflates instantly. It is the spoken equivalent of uncontrollable flatulence.

This used to perplex me before a friend explained that most artistic personalities tend to seek after the uncertain. They are quite at home in the domain of the inchoate and the nonlinear. But other personality types find that track abhorrent, and moving away from that path is a form of self preservation. This was helpful to hear and further proof that the adage, “normal is me”, is our perpetual tendency to get blindsided.

So indulge me for a moment while I make my case for the existence of “other” energies in our sphere. As I have gotten older I have become even more conscious of how little I truly understand about life. Older and wiser, I have adopted a two-pronged pragmatism for viewing any idea presented to me.

My creed:
1. Anything is possible.
2. You don’t have to understand something to say yes.

As a result it is easy for me to hear the stories from my friends in New Mexico who happen to live in the zone that has the most UFO sightings of anywhere in the world. Or to feast on the visually lush crop circles (which now are showing up in rice paddies and ice flows as well). And to be interested in books like The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, by Paul Davies.

Davies is a Brit (a special kind of credential for the rational, wouldn’t you say?), a physicist, cosmologist, popularizer à la Carl Sagan who has written 20 books and done radio documentaries for BBC and Australian TV. He is also the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University which seeks to “create new and exciting ideas that push the boundaries of research a bit ‘beyond.’ ”

In a review of the book in the Times, Dwight Gardner puts Davies’s queries into perspective in relationship to SETI:

The scientific project known as SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — began in earnest 50 years ago, when an astronomer named Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope toward a few nearby stars and began to sift through the aural static. A half-century later SETI has matured and remains a bustling enterprise, even though it no longer receives government financing and even though E. T., if he’s out there, does not appear to have Earth on his speed dial…Davies’s new book…is a birthday card of sorts to SETI, an appraisal and acknowledgment of the interesting (if quixotic) work the project has done thus far.

Gardner makes the book sound very readable. (But I’m an easy sell!):

More saliently, for the purposes of this book, Mr. Davies is chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, dedicated to thinking about how Earthlings might react, and how we should react, to a signal from beyond. He’s an interesting and sometimes funny thinker on this topic…As it happens, Mr. Davies is an interesting thinker about nearly every aspect of our search for other intelligent life in the universe. “The Eerie Silence” may reprise material from his earlier books and lean on the work of futuristic thinkers like Freeman Dyson and Raymond Kurzweil. It gets moderately woo-woo at times, too. But Mr. Davies is smart enough to coax you rather slowly out onto the mental gangplank with him, from where the view becomes genially starry and mind-bending.

The problem with SETI as it’s currently conceived, in Mr. Davies’s view, is that it has been blinkered by anthropocentrism, the assumption that alien beings will be anything like us. He quotes the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, who remarked that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

We must “jettison as much mental baggage as possible,” Mr. Davies advises.

I’m for that.

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