The Way We’ve Been Imagining Aliens Is All Wrong

Philip Ball says both science and fiction about aliens are low on imagination and accuracy.

Oct 19 2016, 6:57pm

Why do we always picture aliens as distorted humans?

Science fiction has failed to creatively, or even accurately, imagine alien life, said British science writer Philip Ball in an article, "The Aeon Idea: Why our imagination for alien life is so impoverished." Now Aeon, a digital ideas and culture magazine, just released a video called Stranger Aliens, adapted from Ball's theory and narrated by Ball himself.

He said it seems as if we already know a lot about aliens, their civilizations, cross-galaxy spaceships, and interstellar greetings to us. "We know [all this] because it stands to reason," he said. "When we start speculating about what advanced extraterrestrials are like, we are really just talking about ourselves."

Ball went on to discuss the history of researching alien life, even referencing pop culture, to prove how unimaginative we have been about aliens so far. Even last September, scientists at Yale suggested that seemingly unnatural light coming from the star KIC 8462852 might have come from an enormous structure that alien engineers built. Like human engineers, but alien.

Projecting human qualities on aliens "constrains our thinking along a very narrow path," Ball said. "Do these failures of imagination mean that we should shut up about what alien civilizations might or might not do? Not at all...But how can we move beyond solipsism and tired Hollywood tropes?"

One way around this issue is to not get too drawn into science fiction, which also requires characters and plots with which the (human) audience can identify, he said. By noticing the "human-centric narratives" applied to SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—more imaginative conceptions of aliens may be easier to think up.

"Dig a little," Ball said. "It's possible to find more creative ideas about how intelligent aliens might exist yet not be detectable to us."

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