Astronomers announced this week that they found a possible sign of life in the inhospitable atmosphere of Venus — traces of phosphine. That’s gas that microorganisms on Earth make.
Scientists aren’t saying they’ve found alien life in the clouds of Venus just yet. But news of the gas discovery had the astronomy community and space watchers abuzz. Why do so many humans want alien life to exist? What’s behind the fascination with E.T. and UFOs?
Journalist Laura Krantz became interested in these questions after learning about a mysterious interstellar visitor to the Milky Way – spotted in the sky over Hawaii a couple years ago. In her podcast “Wild Thing,” Laura Krantz explores humans' quests for the unknown. In the first season, it was Bigfoot. In the second season, “Wild Thing: Space Invaders,” she looks to the skies.
KCRW: Many people wonder if there’s life out there when they look up at the sky. Was that what started you on your quest?
Laura Krantz: “It was a question that was kind of in the back of my head. But then this interstellar object that came into our view … that happened in October of 2017. And then that was followed closely on the heels by the reports of a secret Pentagon UFO program. And what was interesting to me was just how much both of those stories blew up, like everybody was talking about them. They were all over the internet. They were all over major newspapers. They were in science journals.
… I kind of was coming off the heels of the Big Foot exploration and wondering why people were fascinated by that. But this one seemed to me an even bigger, astronomically larger, you could say, topic. It's really interesting because it's not necessarily a question that we'll be able to get an answer to, at least in our lifetime.
… We might have an answer on microbial life. And in fact, if there is microbial life in our solar system, I think we will definitely get an answer about that one. In fact, I might even be willing to put money down that they're going to find it on Venus or Mars. I just think that it's based on what I've heard, and all of the information that just came out this week about Venus, and what I know about the Perseverance mission that is now headed to Mars. I think there's a really good chance.
But when it comes to intelligent extraterrestrial life that we're going to shake hands with and have a treaty with or who are going to teach us things and give us technology, I don't think that's going to happen in our lifetime. And maybe not ever, because something like that is probably so far away in terms of time and distance, that it just doesn't seem that likely.”
Do researchers have a unanimous sense that there’s a possibility of life out there?
“I think almost everybody I talked to, be it SETI scientists who are really doing search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or astrobiologists who are looking more at the precursors for life and the chemical and biochemical origins of life, everybody just had this feeling that there's something out there.
We don't have the concrete proof. We don't have the evidence that would rise to the level of scientific scrutiny. But I think most people are really pretty certain that there's something else out there.”
Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb says, “I don't think that we are special or unique. I think it's a sign of arrogance on our behalf to think that we're special. And I think it's a purely scientific program to check for the existence of alien civilizations out there because we exist.”
The discovery in Hawaii in 2017 — what did scientists observe in the skies there?
“There were a series of photographs that were coming in from the telescopes that they have on the top of one of the Hawaiian islands. And I think scientists didn't really catch this until sort of last minute when they saw this very fast moving object, which they could chart because subsequent photographs gave you a sense of how fast it was moving and how bright it was.
And they realized that the trajectory of this thing showed that it was coming from outside our solar system, that it was likely an interstellar object. And then the question became, ‘All right, what exactly is it? Is it a comet?’ But they couldn't see what's called a cometary tail, which is sort of the dust and the gas and the little bits of rock that are coming off from behind a comet that you normally might see.
And it also wasn't moving the same way they had thought of comets as moving. Every time they sort of plotted a course for it, it would just veer off that course ever so slightly, so it was a little tough to predict. So that raised some questions as to what actually it might be.
And one of the hypotheses that was put forward was by a guy named Avi Loeb, who we just heard from. He is an astronomer at Harvard. And he suggested that maybe, just maybe, this might be an alien light sail. Now, he is working on light sail technology here on Earth. So he probably is thinking along those lines anyway.
But I think his bigger point was that we really ought to be considering the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life as a possibility as well. And he didn't come right out and say that yes, this is definitely an alien lightsail, this is proof that E.T. is out there.
But I think what he wants is to have scientists think about the possibilities and open their minds to more than just sort of the standard natural occurrences that seemed to be the most obvious choices.”
There are skeptics who think the likelihood of extraterrestrial life is vanishingly small right?
“Right. … His was one hypothesis that was put forward. It caught everybody’s attention because, I mean, who doesn't want to imagine that aliens are out there? But it has also been raised that as you go down the list of things that it could be, aliens is probably pretty close to the bottom of that list. And it's much more likely to be something that we can explain based on the knowledge we already have of the solar system and of the galaxy. So, in part, it's an exercise in imagination and creativity and thinking a little bit differently. But we also have to sort of consider the real probabilities.”
You did go to Roswell, right?
“I did go to Roswell, ground zero for people who believe in UFOs. Yes.”
What do people tell you about it?
“Most of the people I spoke to in Roswell think that something crashed in the desert in 1947. And the government is covering it up. What that is, nobody really seems to know. And there are a lot of conflicting opinions about what it is, where it came from, where it actually crashed, were there little green men or little gray men inside? I heard stories of bodies that were then squirreled away to area 51. So there's all kinds of conspiracy theories that surround this.
But Roswell I think is interesting because something did happen there. And I don't think there is any question that there was a crash that left the desert littered with little bits and pieces of wood and other materials from whatever this craft was. The government line is that it was a weather balloon.
And then the government line 50 years later was it was actually part of a top secret project to keep an eye on the Soviets, which if you think about where Roswell is, in the middle of the desert, and what Roswell is home to, which is the Army airfield where the 509 bombing division came out of. The
509th were the planes that dropped the bomb on Japan. There was a lot of concern about nuclear, and this was kind of a hub for that sort of information and that stuff that they were doing. There's a lot of little pieces here that make sense when you think about it in the larger context of the time and what was happening.
But it also … gets to the fact that people don't necessarily trust the government and the government's information, especially when the government clearly changed the story 50 years later, and has also not always been forthcoming about operations that it's doing in that region. They set off those atomic bombs, the test ones in the 40s, and didn't really give anybody much notice or warning, and certainly didn't warn the citizens of the area. So you can see why there's a little bit of disenchantment with the government line.
The government has also funded studies and investigations into UFOs.
“Yes, so this came out in 2017. … There was [sic] all these newspaper stories saying that the government had run, or the Pentagon had run, a secret UFO program between 2007 and 2012. And the thing I think that's important to remember here is when the military is talking about UFOs, they're not necessarily talking about aliens. They are taking a very literal definition here, which is unidentified flying object. So again, it makes sense that the government would have a program like that, because if there's weird stuff flying around in your airspace where you're running military operations, you're going to want to know what it is. They're not saying it's aliens.
There are people in the military — or who were formerly in the military — who do think it could be aliens. But this kind of goes back to the other point where until you have the kind of solid proof that's going to verify that, you kind of have to go with the most obvious solution.”
Did you come to any different conclusion after having done all your research? Were you skeptical originally and now you're less so or vice versa? Or what?
“I think it's kind of a mix. So with the UFO program with the Pentagon, I'm probably one of those people, like the majority of people in America, who sort of equate UFOs with aliens. I think that's just been tabloid fodder for so long that those are synonymous in our minds. And this kind of clarified that for me, when the Pentagon says they're running a UFO program, it's very different than say, the ufologists in Roswell running a UFO program. It's kind of a different cultural definition. That kind of helped me understand the context in which that program was being run.
… I hadn't really spent a lot of time thinking about extraterrestrial life. It was a sort of thing that you'd might be, ‘Oh yeah, there's probably something out there.’ And when I realized what kind of work we're doing, and the kind of research and time and the technology we have to go out and look for extraterrestrial life, be it single-celled or big brained, it's pretty exciting. If they do prove that there is life in Venus' atmosphere or they're able to find proof of life on Mars, what that says is if there's multiple examples of life in our solar system, chances are there's life all over the galaxy, which is amazing to think about.”
— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney