The scene above, from the 1989 movie Communion, staring Christopher Walken and based on the story of Whitley Strieber, might still be a source of nightmares for its viewers. But more importantly, I am quite sure that many who have seen this motion picture asked themselves at the end whether there truly might be other, perhaps even intelligent lifeforms out there amongst the stars.
The purpose of this post is not to give you a definite answer to the question, rather share with you some of the thought processes and ideas I have incorporated into my psychedelic science-fiction debut Ascension.
As of today, 13th April 2021, we have not officially found any evidence of life off planet Earth. Although I must say that scientists have never been as open (yet still plenty of room for improvement) to the possibility. We are aware of the fact that most stars in our galaxy have at least one planet, and we have found worlds orbiting stable stars at the right distance (circumstellar habitable zone or Goldilock zone) of the right size and mass. We have discovered building blocks of life on asteroids and comets, as well as compounds which might be produced by life on other planets of our solar system (i.e., seasonal changes of methane and oxygen in the martian atmosphere). Some scientists are even convinced that the Viking probes did actually find life back in the seventies on the surface on Mars. More recently, Avi Loeb has been entertaining the idea of Oumuamua, the first ever detected interstellar visitor to enter our solar system, being an alien artefact. All of this is already quite a lot, and we have not even gotten into what some people might consider more “outlandish” theories, like the UFO/UAP phenomena, alien abductions and contacts with non-human intelligences after ingesting a psychedelic compound.
1. Primitive life in this solar system
Despite what the general population might think, there might be multiple places in this solar system harbouring at least some primitive lifeforms, which evolved independently of Earth life.
The first place is Earth’s hellish twin – Venus. The surface of this world most likely will not host any life due the crushing pressure of around 90 atmospheres, scorching 460°C and sulphuric acid rains. But above the acid clouds, one can find a region in the venutian atmosphere, which has remarkably similar conditions to Earth’s surface, though it is still mainly carbon dioxide and barely any oxygen. The recent discoveries of dark streaks in the atmosphere and of phosphine might indicate some kind of life, but it needs further investigation.
Next up is our other neighbour, Mars. The conditions there are far less deadly than on Venus. Seasonal streaks of mud have been observed on the surface, as well as underground ice, and organic molecules. What might be indicating that something is alive there, are the seasonal changes in methane and oxygen in the atmosphere, which is intriguing, to say the least. Any methane in the atmosphere would have been broken down within 300 years (give or take) by UV light, if it weren’t being replenished. Geological activity might be responsible for it, though that does not explain the seasonal changes.
Then there were the famous Viking missions. The landers were equipped with instruments which were meant to find life in the martian soil samples. Although some of the experiments were indeed successful, the results ended up inconclusive at best. The problem might have been in heating up the samples, and as mentioned above, after re-examining the results, some scientists are convinced that the Viking landers did actually find signs of life.
The only way to find out whether there is something once and for all, would be sending a manned mission to the Red Planet. This might happen in the late 2020’s, and the only real contender is SpaceX, led by Elon Musk.
Moving away from the Sun and past the asteroid belt, we have Jupiter. Carl Sagan, as well as Arthur C. Clarke in his brilliant book series 2001: A Space Odyssey, speculated that there might be gaseous lifeforms in its atmosphere. These would be extremely alien, as well as extremely resilient, compared to any known life. As of today, they remain a mere speculation. Or possibility.
A much better target in Jupiter’s space are his moons, mainly Europa. It is a well-established fact that moon (ever so slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon) has a global underground ocean of liquid water, and the entire moon holds much more water than Earth. The entire crust is made of ice, which cracks due to the mighty tidal forces of Jupiter (this keeps the ocean liquid, and as we know from Earth, hydrothermal vents are teeming with life). The cracks themselves are very colourful, which led some to the idea that it might be bacteria responsible for the vivid colours. Scientists have also observed geysers of water on the surface of Europe, similar to the plumes on Enceladus.
Enceladus, one of many moons of Saturn, is similar to Europa, though it is much smaller. Covered entirely in ice, its geysers are relentlessly shooting water into space, creating one of Saturn’s rings, which is the bluest object known in the solar system (fun fact). There is an underground ocean of liquid water to be found, and it has organic compounds in it. Humanity needs to send probes which would be able to physically penetrate the thick icy crusts of both Europa and Enceladus, though this is still decades away. Perhaps a powerful and cheap enough heavy-lift vehicle, like Starship/Super Heavy might speed up the process.
Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons (larger than Mercury) and the only moon in the solar system with a thick atmosphere, is another candidate. In this case any life present would be significantly different to anything known to us and discovering a native lifeform would open our minds to whatever exists on distant exoplanets, as well as once again decrease the chances of being alone in the universe.
With an atmosphere made out of nitrogen, methane and hydrogen, temperatures around -180°C, pressure of 1.45 atm, with lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane and less gravity than the Moon, any life found here would become the discovery of the century. It would not be capable of utilising water like we do, though water is to be found in the crust and as ice solid as rocks, sometimes escaping out of local cryovolcanoes. It would have to rely on the liquid methane raining down from the hazy skies.
Not much is known about the outer reaches of the solar system, as neither Uranus, Neptune, nor the beautiful dwarf planet Pluto, have ever been studied long-term by an orbiter. In fact, no probe has visited the icy gas giants since the 80’s, so I shall leave it there.
2. Life outside of this solar system
Knowing all of the above, the fact that we have found similar objects in other solar systems, as well as planets like mini-neptunes, super-earths, possible water worlds, planets much older than Earth, etc., the chances of all of these objects being sterile are very slim. If we look at the big picture, at the unimaginably high numbers of galaxies, stars and planets in the observable universe, the chances of us being alone are close to zero. If the universe is larger than we currently think, which it might be, it is even more likely that life evolved elsewhere and even surpassed that of Earth. How this kind of life on exoplanets would look like is a whole other question.
From Earth we know that species, despite not being closely related, in order to adapt to an evolutionary pressure, ended up with very similar traits. This is called parallel evolution. Nature always seeks the most effective way and there are many patterns which repeat themselves all over the cosmos, almost in a fractal-like manner. Hence, to me it does not seem very far-fetched to think somewhere out there might be species of humanoid-looking extra-terrestrial inhabiting worlds with similar conditions like Earth. And considering we have found planets much older than Earth (up to 12 billion years old!), it seems likely that some of these civilisations might be ahead of the human race – technologically, and intellectually.
On planets which widely differ from Earth, whether it be super-earths, planets in compact solar systems around red dwarfs, eyeball planets, water worlds, planets with atmospheres unlike Earth’s… it is everyone’s guess what kind of lifeforms might be hiding there. Perhaps we would not be even capable of discerning whether we are dealing with an intelligence or not.
How much a race that is thousands, millions, or billions of years more advanced than we would differ from us, is awfully hard to even imagine. Most of the time we extrapolate from what we know about ourselves in order to envision such civilisations, but that might be truly short sighted. Just because we tend to build great structures, try to control, and manipulate our environment physically, it does not necessarily mean a non-human intelligence a million years ahead of us would do the same, but on a much greater scale. Instead of changing the environment to their needs, they might change themselves. Or they could change the surroundings through means we deem impossible. Have a look at how futurists predicted our times between 1900 and 1950. Now multiply that by a billion and you might get an idea of how alien more advanced non-human intelligences might be.
3. UAP sightings, close encounters and more
I know, UAPs, formerly known as UFOs, alien abductions and related phenomena deserve a separate article, and it is a topic most scientists shy away from. Yet, I cannot leave them out.
Yes, many of the amateur UAP sightings have very ordinary explanations. Meteorological phenomena, drones, experimental aircrafts (like the Stealth bombers), astronomical objects (Venus, bolides, satellites), rocket launches and re-entries… Most scientists would end there and will not look at much more fascinating cases reported by highly credible and trained witnesses, including US Airforce pilots, commercial pilots and law enforcement officers, data from military radars, FLIR videos directly from military aircraft with metadata, visual encounters from aircraft carriers, as well nuclear installations. These encounters remain unexplained for decades, despites efforts from experts (UAP Taskforce) on behalf of the Pentagon. Most explanations from sceptics fall short to explain these sightings too.
Top secret aircraft of the enemy? Russian or Chinese? Perhaps in some cases. But many of the well documented encounters resist this explanation too. If any state on the planet was capable of constructing a craft which doesn’t need any wings or rotors, without an exhaust, is capable of traversing air as well as water, can do sharp 90 degree turns at insane speeds, can instantaneously accelerate, travel faster than the speed of sound without a sonic boom, and does not make any sound altogether, can drop from 80 000 feet to sea level in less than a second, which are all capabilities of these crafts that have been observed, some of these technologies, or at least the science behind them, would have surfaced to the mainstream. Yet we do not even have an idea how any of that can be possible.
(See the USS Nimitz encounters, Aguadilla sighting, recent leaked material from the UAPTF showing pyramidal UAPs and more).
Alien abductions are an even more controversial topic, and the victims are usually looked down upon as people with mental disorders or simply liars looking for attention. In some cases that might be true. But if there is something we can take from the work of John E. Mack, M.D. (former head of the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Pulitzer Prize winner), it is that there are people claiming to have been abducted that are none of the above, and that the scientific establishment is very reluctant to even conduct proper research in this field.
Mack concluded that the contactees he did his research on did have an authentic experience, which led many of them to develop PTSD in many of them (especially those who had a more negative experience, as the nature of these encounters is very varied). Whether these events took place in ordinary reality or solely in the consciousness of the abductees (including infants) is another question. Though there seems to be a physical element to it – arguably the most famous case being that of Travis Walton back in 1975. Multiple witnesses were present, all of them passed lie detectors, Travis was physically missing for 5 days straight and decades later none of the witnesses changes their story.
At the end I would like to add that many of these incidents bare resemblance with folklore and myths from many countries. Small grey boy-ish creatures paralyzing families, intruding into a house despite all doors being locked, light orbs flying in the sky… all that can be found in European folklore from centuries ago. It might well be phenomena that have always been with us throughout the ages, mislabelled in the past, and science has not explained it yet. Whether there is a non-human intelligence behind it remains a possibility.
4. Warping reality
One thing I can say with confidence about a far more advanced non-human intelligence, is that its perception of reality, as well as the way it interacts with these realities, will be vastly different from ours. In more materialistic terms, think of the electromagnetic spectrum. We can see with our eyes only a tiny portion of it. Microwaves, UV radiation, gamma rays, all that is hidden from us. We cannot hear most frequencies, unlike other animals. And our brains have a limit of how much information they can process and be consciously aware of. They do not directly perceive what is “out there”, they construct their own reality. When it comes to the universe at large, most of it is unknown to us. Humans have learned quite a few things about regular matter and energy, yet that is only 4-6% of the entire universe! The other ~95% of the cosmos remains almost entirely unknown to us.
Despite the average person being most of the time convinced that this is the real reality, we do not know what reality truly is and how it looks like. The notion of space-time being base reality, the canvas upon which everything unfolds, might be on its way out. We already know thanks to quantum mechanics, that the cosmos is a, let’s say, very crazy and counterintuitive place on the subatomic level. Some scientists suggest space-time arises from a deeper level of reality which is hidden to us, some even go as far as saying this deeper level of reality is consciousness itself. Sounds familiar? Well, if you are familiar with eastern philosophies and religions, you might see some parallels here. Instead of consciousness arising within the universe, the entire universe arises within consciousness. Beautiful.
Whether this turns out to be true, remains to be seen. Remember, we are always trying to find new models of reality (mental constructs) which encompass and explain observed data and phenomena. And the current models leave us with quite a few questions unanswered.
Back to non-human intelligences. I am convinced these entities, given their longer evolution and greater scientific progress, would have found answers to most of these questions. Resulting in a different relationship with reality than we have, opening up a myriad of possibilities for them.
Now, can we humans interact with other realities? Perhaps even encounter other entities there? We do have reports of people throughout the millennia accessing other realms and communicating with beings in those realities, by means of changing their state of consciousness. There is one state of consciousness which modern humans can reliably induce and study. It involves ingesting a psychedelic compound, just like many of our ancestors in pretty much every culture around the world did. These compounds include psilocybin, mescaline, LSD as well as the most powerful molecule known to man – DMT, which can be found in every mammal, including Homo Sapiens Sapiens. All of the aforementioned molecules have been found to be anti-addictive and have many therapeutical uses when administered correctly and in the right set and setting. (By no means am I encouraging anyone to take any legal or illegal substance, this entire post is a mere thought experiment with the ultimate aim to expand the reader’s horizon).
Especially in the case of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), witnesses experience a reality switch, where one can no longer perceive this reality even with open eyes. Instead, they enter a much more vivid psychedelic reality. Many would dismiss this as meaningless hallucinations, but the researchers conducting rigorous scientific enquiry into these experiences, like professor of psychiatry Rick Strassman, would argue otherwise. The test subjects described it as being more real than real and, in many cases, it was one, if not the most meaningful experience of their lives. These test subject often reported encountering other entities in the “DMT realm” which communicated with them. Whether these are actual non-human intelligences and not part of the test subject’s subconscious mind remains to be seen and it is part of Dr. Andrew Gallimore’s (computational neurobiologist, pharmacologist, chemist, and writer) ongoing research and efforts into mapping out the DMT realm and bringing back valuable information.
5. Final words
These were some of the themes and premises I worked with when writing my sci-fi debut Ascension whilst letting my imagination go wild. Whether there are creatures reaching out to us during altered states of consciousness, scanning our nuclear arsenals, taking us away whilst we sleep in the middle of the night or not, that was not the main point of this post. What I want you to take away is knowing that the probability of extra-terrestrial life is exceedingly high and that it is acceptable to entertain sometimes unacceptable ideas. Ideas that are being ridiculed or frowned upon. Remember, most of today’s knowledge used to be an absurd idea rejected by the establishment in the past.
In an infinite universe, everything becomes an inevitability.