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Nashville Scene Eyes to the Skies

Searching for aliens in our own and other worlds

By Michael Sims

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  For his new book, Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach has come up with a wonderful topic. Captured By Aliens explores all the colorful ways that our imaginations have been captured by the idea of aliens from outer space. To do so, he addresses both the serious astronomical search for extraterrestrial life and the outrageous claims of true believers. Such a range allows for the most comprehensive approach to this fruitful topic that I have ever seen. Achenbach had the intellectual courage to tackle such a huge project, and the stick-to-it-iveness to pull it off. The result is one of the most satisfying books of the year.

Achenbach is not a professional in planetary science, the psychology of self-delusion, or any other scientific discipline. He's a journalist and author. As a well-informed generalist, he researched until he knew the right questions to answer. Then he asked them of experts in every field from molecular biology to sociology. At times the experts themselves are eccentric and colorful. Several well-drawn characters reappear frequently; they include Carl Sagan, himself a passionate advocate of the search for extraterrestrials and yet a devastating critic of the UFO crowd, and Dan Goldin, NASA's chief optimist in the field of space exploration.

In his enlightening rambles through this fascinating interweaving of topics, naturally Achenbach visits Roswell, N.M. This little town has shamelessly exploited its sole claim to fame by promoting itself into the epicenter of alien fever in millennial America. The facts behind the fictional Roswell spaceship crash have long been known, although they seldom make it into Fox Channel pseudo-documentaries and never into The X-Files. Achenbach not only recounts the phenomenon, he visits Roswell to dramatize its sheer goofiness. Although he remains fair and open-minded at all times, this section of the book shows that he is a skeptical, critical investigator, and one who doesn't mind having fun along the way.

Achenbach is also good at expressing the inadequacies of what passes for reasoning among the UFO believers. We claim that these alien races are more advanced than we are, he points out, and yet they're supposed to be obsessed with us. "They come across mind-boggling reaches of space to meet us, experiment with us, mate with us," he writes. "We have such enchanting DNA, they just can't stay away. Ufology, for all its generosity in filling the universe with life, nonetheless has a distinctly anthropocentric flavor." This attitude is much like our preoccupation with angels: It always comes back to how special we think we are--our desperate hope that surely somebody up there is keeping an eye on us.

Sadly, Achenbach doesn't analyze E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the movie that best dramatizes this savior theme in alien visitation. However, he does touch briefly on Spielberg's other mishmash of alien daydreams, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What Achenbach calls "the wimpy little critter" that walks out of the spaceship at the end of the movie is one of the progenitors of the ubiquitous modern image of aliens. But even this has an ancestor: Spielberg based the creature on the one that appeared in the 1975 TV movie The UFO Incident, which gullibly dramatized the alien-abduction claims of Betty and Barney Hill.

Interestingly, although most alien encounter scenarios match Spielberg's cinematic version, Betty and Barney Hill disagreed in their separate accounts of their abductors. In Achenbach's words, "Betty said the aliens had huge noses, sort of like Jimmy Durante. Barney said they had no noses at all, just a couple of slits for nostrils. Betty said they had dark hair. Barney said they had no hair at all."

On the other side of the ledger, Carl Sagan seemed to believe passionately in the inevitable discovery of extraterrestrials. He had no more evidence than the naysayers; he just had conviction, which is different from science. Along with many others in his field, he pushed numbers around to manufacture estimates of the "likely" number of habitable planets in the universe. To Sagan's credit, in each case he would hold out hope as long as he could, but finally the scientist in him had to admit when another possible home for aliens bit the dust--the moon, Mars, Venus. Still, like the UFO believers, his enthusiasm echoed the words of the 1950s monster film The Thing From Another World: "Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!"

However, as Sagan himself liked to intone, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence." In Captured By Aliens, Joel Achenbach looks for the evidence to match the extraordinary claims of the flying saucer crowd. In a recent interview on NPR, he admitted that he wouldn't believe in aliens if one bit him on the leg. A typically colorful Achenbachian remark, but a bit extreme: If it contained a little alien saliva, a leg bite would be the rarest thing of all--genuine evidence.


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