Not loving the alien


Jupiter's moon Europa - a likely place to find alien life?

Life on Earth is weird and amazing enough to keep science going for the forseeable future, but that doesn’t stop us wondering about aliens. Are we ever going to find any? And if we did, what would they be like? This week a conference at the Royal Society is asking those very questions (among other things). I’m sure they won’t let the total lack of aliens discovered so far put them off.

The search for extra-terrestrial intellience has so far concentrated on ‘Earth-like’ planets, and some scientists believe that aliens are likely to be quite similar to life on Earth, made up of the same substances and perhaps even based on DNA. But surely it’s possible that aliens could be so strange we wouldn’t even recognise them as life at all?

Sadly, science fiction writers and film-makers often seem to suffer a similar lack of imagination. Take James Cameron’s ridiculously successful new film Avatar. It’s got weird blue aliens that look a lot like people. Six-legged aliens that look a lot like horses. Some more six-legged aliens that look a lot like wolves. The most interesting sequence shows a phosphorescent jungle at night – and even that looks suspiciously like a coral reef (Cameron’s a keen diver, apparently). I can’t deny that reefs are wonderful, but surely evolution on another planet could come up with something a bit more unusual?

Star Trek at least had a good excuse for all their aliens looking spookily like actors – it’s a lot easier to stick some putty on a someone’s face than come up with crazy animatronic creatures every episode. And the writers concocted a vaguely plausible reason to cover up their lack of puppet budget (apparently the original humanoids spread their DNA throughout the galaxy, leading to all the extremely similar humanoid aliens).

The budget can’t have been James Cameron’s excuse (he’s King of the World, right?). Perhaps they screen-tested lots of weird aliens and found the audience didn’t identify with non-humanoid blobs of goo. Or maybe it was just a lack of imagination. Either way it seems like a waste of the rather amazing 3D computer animation to have come up with just another set of humanoids.

Science fiction god Arthur C. Clarke created some far more original and believable extra-terrestrials, such as floating creatures living in the gases of Jupiter, and a kind of sentient sea-weed in the ocean under the ice of the planet’s moon Europa. He’d obviously thought about what kind of creatures would live on these very different worlds, both from a scientific and an imaginative point of view. Astrobiologists now think that Europa could be one of the most likely places in our own solar system to find alien life.

I hope the scientists meeting this week aren’t too constrained by their imaginations. Science needs creativity and inspiration too, and good science fiction like Clarke’s is exciting because it lets you to immerse yourself in new worlds and new ideas. Maybe one day in the future we’ll get the chance to do study a new world for real, but for now we’ll have to get our fix from books and movies – and with luck the aliens in the next sci-fi blockbuster will be a bit more, well, alien.

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