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Sunday 31 March 2013

Cosmic Relics

There’s something very appealing about “ancient aliens” – the idea that it might be possible to find archaeological evidence on Earth (or elsewhere in the Solar System) of alien visitation in the distant past. In the popular mind, of course, the subject is associated with the fringe theories of people like Erich von Daniken, David Hatcher Childress and Giorgio Tsoukalos... but there is a more serious side to the subject as well. From an a-priori point of view, the probability that aliens visited the Earth at some random time in the last 4.5 billion years is a lot higher than the probability that they should suddenly arrive on the scene in the last 65 years, just when human civilization got to grips with the idea that interstellar travel might be possible.

I’ve already mentioned a scientific paper with the intriguing title “On the likelihood of non-terrestrial artifacts in the Solar System”, in my post on Searching for alien artifacts. There is even a scientific name for the subject – xenoarchaeology. But when scientists say they’re looking for alien artifacts, they mean real technological hardware. A chunk of limestone bearing a vague resemblance to a Soyuz re-entry capsule doesn’t count.

Sadly, “alien relics” that are unambiguous enough to convince hardnosed scientists are yet to be found in the real world. But in science fiction it’s a different matter. The discovery of an obviously artificial construct on the Moon is the starting point for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was developed from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 short story “The Sentinel”. Another film from the same period, Quatermass And The Pit (1967), deals with the unearthing of an ancient spacecraft, deep beneath the streets of London, in the same archaeological strata as five-million-year-old fossil hominids. Again, that film had its origins in the previous decade (a TV serial that aired in 1958/9).

Overlapping to some extent with the ancient astronaut theories is the idea of ancient high-tech civilizations here on Earth – often associated with the “lost continents” of Atlantis and Lemuria. Like ancient aliens, lost continents are very much a fringe topic. Hard archaeological evidence for a high-tech “lost continent” is—like unequivocal evidence for ancient aliens—easier to find in the pages of science fiction than in the real world. And sometimes evidence for one turns out to be evidence for both! In my recent article in Fortean Times about Lionel Fanthorpe’s Badger Books, one of the titles I referred to was Space No Barrier (1964), which was published under the pseudonym of Pel Torro. All I said about the story in the article was that it “starts with an alien artifact being unearthed at an archaeological dig in Iraq”. In fact the artifact turns out to be a buried spaceship, inside which there is a robot-like alien in suspended animation. It turns out he’s been stuck there since the days of Atlantis!

An interesting inversion of this idea can be found in Eric Frank Russell’s short story “The Cosmic Relic”. This was originally published in 1947, and reprinted in the June 1961 issue of Fantastic Stories (from which the illustration at the top of this post is taken). The “relic” featured in the story isn’t an archaeological find, but a battered-looking spacecraft that lands on the Isle of Man one day. After much consternation among the locals, and lengthy investigation by scientists, the spacecraft eventually yields its secret. It isn’t extraterrestrial at all, but a product of Earth! The spaceship was built and launched by the lost civilization of Lemuria, thousands of years ago. The “Cosmic Relic” finally returned home after travelling all the way round the Galaxy! For an even longer-term version of the same idea, see my Dinosaur Orbit post from two years ago.


Kandinsky said...

Hello Andrew.

I'm similarly dubious about the existence of ancient artefacts and evidence of lost civilisations. That isn't to say they aren't great topics for fiction and oiling the wheels of imagination and awe. They're the stuff of dreams for many of us down the ages.

Evidently one man's oopart is another man's Champion spark plug or illustrated anecdote.

The notion of looking for technological artefacts makes my mouth water with the magical possibilities.

I've read the papers of Brin, Papagiannis, Arkhipov and Livio and enjoy their open-minded questioning. Although there is zero chance of looking in our immediate neighbourhood without an incentive (a unicorn hunt?), speculating is healthy isn't it? Also, it'd be the safest and ideal way to discover evidence of life outside of our planet.

Detecting a signal originating from a Lagrangian point or just a crashed contraption on Mars would be a kick-starter for 'Big Science' and, who knows, maybe elevate the minds of humanity towards greater things?

Last year a small team started a search for Dyson-style objects. I admire them for pursuing the idea although you are far more able to weigh the merits.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for all those ideas! There are lots of viable ways to search for extraterrestrial intelligence besides the "official" one of looking for radio signals. A point people always seem to miss is that an outward-looking extraterrestrial intelligence, if it exists, is likely to be thousands or even millions of years ahead of us. In the million-plus years of human life on Earth, we have only had an outward-looking perspective (in the Galactic sense) in the last 50-odd years... so we are only beginners! I find the idea of looking for signs of intelligence, even if it's thousands of light years away, more exciting that fiddling around looking for microscopic microbes on Mars or the moons of Jupiter.

I don't know if you're a regular reader of Fortean Times, but the latest issue has a review by me of a book called "Are We Being Watched?". I was struggling to express myself within the word count, but my basic criticism was that the author takes the typical scientist's "bottom up" approach -- find the microbes first, then worry about higher forms of intelligence. I think it should be the other way around!

Kandinsky said...

I've just read your review today and understand your points.

There is so much space and great possibilities to explore at no more cost to us than our own time and mental energy. Despite all that, as you say, a lot of scientists insist on the 'bottom up' approach and still frequently lack the imagination to speculate.

There is always convergent evolution whereby life develops from prokaryote-types into more complex forms that are still essentially alimentary canals requiring propulsion. As far back as the '50s Willy Ley was contemplating the likelihood that such travelling intestines would be better able to move with a leg at each corner no matter what world they inhabited.

Then we have Michael Swords pointing out that, without an atmosphere suited to sustaining a simple flame, technological life couldn't develop anyway.

It's fun for a time when futurists and respected PhDs regurgitate the idea of membrane lifeforms in the upper atmospheres of gas giants. I can rememberf the same ideas 30 years ago. However, I wish they'd take the ball and run with some of the ideas generated by Swords and Ley et al.

Before a life-form can evolve to the stage where it's knapping stone for edge-blades and developing lithic tools, it may very well need to be on a world where conditions are broadly similar to ours i.e. breathable atmosphere, competitive ecosystems, fuels and accessible quantities of metal ores.

Upper atmosphere gliders and subterranean gill-breathers won't be having any combustible eureka moments involving fire will they?

Andrew May said...

Thanks for some more very interesting thoughts. There are a lot of hoops that life has to jump through before it can get to the point of being interested in interstellar travel or communication. Or it might never get to that point -- it might go off in a different direction altogether. Here in the West it's often taken for granted that a sufficiently advanced civilization is always going to want to look outwards from its planet, but that isn't necessarily true at all. There have been, and still are, many human cultures on Earth that are advanced in many ways but have no interest in life beyond the planet.

Looking to the future, I can see two possible directions human civilization could go. One possibility is that our modern high-tech world is too vulnerable and unstable to last long (e.g. destroyed by natural disasters, cometary impact, riots and civil unrest, economic meltdown etc).. to be replaced by a more long-term viable culture along simpler, mediaeval lines (which some would say is a more spiritually enlightened way of life). The other possibility is that the digital revolution (probably using technologies more advanced than the silicon chips of today) will progress to the point where humans are able to digitize themselves (effectively becoming immortal and being able to translate themselves from place to place at the seed of light). It's extraterrestrial civilizations in this latter category that I think we have any chance of contacting.

Kandinsky said...

I agree that we don't know and it's hard to 'do science' with a population sample of At the same time I err towards 'a sufficiently advanced civilization is always going to want to look outwards.' Not so much as a noble spirit of endeavour, but as a consequence of the biological programming to occupy environments. In that sense, I suspect the urge to visit the stars is often framed as being glamorous when it's actually a base genetic expression of Life's imperative towards survival.

That isn't to say I'm all-in with the 'biological robots' perspective whereby we only think we have free-will. It's just that we have so many immeasurable elements contributing to our decisions that I like to keep an open mind. Sure, it'd be nice to view ourselves as sole sovereigns of our actions although we have to consider genetics, parasitology and all the social stuff too.

I'm completely with you about digitising (a neologism will surely replace this term) consciousness and think that we might even live to see an aspect of this in our own futures. Not a clear-cut example, but maybe a proof of concept? Something along the lines of mapping neural activity to the extent of perhaps designing predictive software that can confirm the general thoughts of an individual and emulating them in an AI proxy.

Who knows? One day we could be 'digital' data-strings of consciousness being beamed to non-terrestrial locations and occupying prefab utility bodies. We're still stuck on the interstellar travel problem though...sigh.

Andrew May said...

Thanks - I hadn't thought of it before, but it's an interesting question as to whether we do things(as a species) because we decide to do them, or just because it's an expression of what's built into our genes.

ΠολιτηςΧ said...

Andrew Hi,

Indeed a VERY interesting subject.
You refer to a novellette: The Relic, by Russel...

**Hard to find. Totally impossible i'd quote.Are you aware of any public links maybe?

Also: Any more moviez upon the subject 'xcept those two mentioned? As far as I'm concerned, Hollywood (or Bollywood for that matter) should have produced a couple of blockbusters out of it,(eg. about Mona Lisa so-call, findings) but to no avail, as far as i know.. only exceptions might as well be 10,000 Bc, BSG '78,Star-Gate,predators, stuff like this...but not quite close to the CORE subject of discovering any antediluvian HI-tech relics, either in space or down here...Still as i said: A very interesting subject!

Andrew May said...

Thanks very much for your interest! I'm not really aware of much on the subject beyond what I wrote - I can't think of any other major movies, although I'm not a fanatical SF movie buff so there may be one I don't know of. As to the Russell story, "The Cosmic Relic", I read it in a second-hand copy of the June 1961 issue of Fantastic Stories that I came across - you might be able to find it on eBay, Amazon Marketplace, Abebooks or a similar online site. I understand the story was also reprinted in a 1967 paperback called "The Human Zero and Other Science-Fiction Masterpieces", edited by Sam Moskowitz and Roger Elwood... again you may be able to track down a used copy somewhere. Best of luck!

ΠολιτηςΧ said...

Hey there Andrew,glad 2 read from you again..
well, in fact, i already did so.
I searched 4 it ,found the issue it was first published, downloaded it,and , guess what - it was the only MISSING story from inside.Now to my very surprise...even the owner who uploaded that Amazing stories magazine had NO idea it was missing(!)Talkin'about ..conspipary theoriez here or what! maybe someone 's not so keen in letting stuff like this, just...hanging around exposed on public view after all :)