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Imagine living in ancient Greece and being asked to speculate about Earth being round. What might that discussion entail? Well, there likely would not have been much of one since most educated Greeks then believed Earth to be spherical.
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Fast-forward 2,000 years, say around the 16th century and being asked to consider the same question. Chances are you would not actually be asked that, primarily because fear of the Church making both parties lives’ miserable via the Inquisition would prevent it. Just ask Galileo.
Such hypotheticals — What ifs? — are popularly called thought experiments. Through them, a person can allow their imagination to explore potentials for purposes ranging from entertainment to speculating about the unknown such as whether there really are little green men.
When I taught in the classroom, thought experiments were routine, not only about what might be but also what might have been if an actor from history chose a different course or an event like the Battle of Gettysburg had gone the other way. It’s called hypothesizing.
Such endeavors made school and learning fun. There’s nothing better than prompting imaginative, inquisitive minds about unknowns to get them chattering. Public schools traditionally have been bastions of such liberal education, although that is under assault. It allowed the schools to be fertile grounds conducive to such inquiry-based education. That was true even if the topics ranged into areas that got at the core of beliefs: morals, behavior, identity, and the even the existence of extraterrestrial life and divine beings.
When teaching Age of Reason literature on the heels of having gone through the Age of Faith, I used the film version of Carl Sagan’s book, “Contact,” to develop the concept of the dichotomy of religion and science. My goal was to demonstrate how they offer differing ways of exploring the world and universe. I wanted my students to also see how the two can intersect or overlap since they share parallel missions: To ascertain Truth. After all, many scientists are persons of faith, and the Catholic Church has inched away from its Inquisition Era. Then, Galileo was condemned as a heretic for positing that Earth is not the center of the universe but, instead, a relatively tiny speck orbiting a minor star in the far reaches of the Milky Way, which is one among billions of galaxies. OK, Galileo did not go that far, but he helped open the door to our understanding of it.
Prior to writing “Contact,” Sagan gained public notoriety and acclaim with his book and PBS series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” In “Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” Sagan metamorphically called Earth’s surface the cosmic shore since it is from here that we observe the vast expanse of the cosmic ocean. He famously, or infamously if one is of an Inquisition mindset, declared that we are made of star stuff. No voila! No act of creation for Carl. Just a slow but timeless evolutionary process. When you have eternity to get stuff done, why be in a hurry?
Are we alone in this vast expanse? That question has intrigued me since I was a student in Mr. Hauser’s Earth and space class. When I was 20-something in the 1970s, Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” caused me to wonder more about it. Eventually, I came to reject his arguments as farfetched ramblings, but now I wonder anew if he was not on to something.
New York Times columnist and podcaster Ezra Klein posed this thought experiment: An otherworldly object, clearly not of human design, crashes on Earth with no life aboard. Seemingly, it is a probe sent from some distant planet, much like probes we send to explore Mars and planets beyond it. What are the implications for our national and global politics?
How does it challenge certain religions’ claim that human beings were created in God’s likeness and that act of creation was a one-and-done act on his part? Another conundrum: If interstellar travel is possible and heaven is a literal place, can one hop a flight to it? And, as Joseph Campbell wondered, if Jesus was traveling at the speed of light after his ascension, is he still on his way?
What new scientific discoveries would an alien probe reveal? Was Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” more a prophet than a creative sci-fi fabulist?
And if Gene Roddenberry was a prophet, what about Harry Bates, who wrote the short story, “Farewell to the Master,” on which the 1951 movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” was based? The film was set in Washington, D.C., and within the context of the burgeoning nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the film, an alien named Klaatu came to Earth with a peaceful mission but one coupled with a stern warning: Abandon your arms race, which could endanger other planets, or be annihilated. To demonstrate that he meant business and capture everyone’s attention, Klaatu neutralized electronical devices across the globe. Lights went out, elevators stopped, and cars stalled. It was an eerie scene, conveying an awesome power beyond human scale that evoked a sense of helplessness.
The depiction of alien life forms in that film raises another question: If proof arises, even if not totally substantiated, how would you react to it? How would existence of intelligent life beyond Earth affect you, your beliefs and your outlook from local to national to global? Would it take an act of power from the alien life form — like neutralizing electronic devices — to impact your beliefs and outlook or would the mere existence of a life form be enough?
What if we behaved and treated each other as if there were little green men? Now there is a thought experiment.
Are there little green men? If there aren’t, imagine all the space in space sitting dormant.
Beam me up, Scotty.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.
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