Humans have been staring at the sky for a long time now, a fact reflected in our most ancient monuments. The oldest known stone circle, Gobekli Tepe, was erected 12,000 years ago, and not only does it align to the stars, the “Vulture stone” features zodiacal inscriptions.
The sophistication of Gobekli Tepe is quite perplexing, given that the site dates back to the era when hunter gatherers were (possibly) wiping out the last of the megafauna. Of course, it’s always possible that the stones were put there by space aliens, in line with the ancient astronaut theory of civilisation’s origins as advanced by Erich von Däniken (and mocked by Frank Zappa in his finest composition, Inca Roads).
Von Däniken’s books were massive in the 70s. By the time the 90s rolled around, however, visitors from space had shifted their attention to creating crop circles, and inserting foot-long anal probes into science fiction writers. The X-Files became a global cultural phenomenon, and posters depicting an alien smoking a joint beneath the legend “take me to your dealer” became popular. However, this enthusiasm for extraterrestrial life seemed to wane around the time a very different sort of UFO hit the Twin Towers, demonstrating with grim finality the truth of JG Ballard’s maxim that the most alien planet is earth.
And yet, twenty years on, it seems that we are once again ready to look to the stars. In fact, a new NASA-sponsored survey finds that the search for alien life is the top priority for astronomers over the next ten years. Perhaps this is not surprising coming from people whose job is to stare into space, but interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life is enjoying a broader revival in society. A recent Gallup survey found that 40% of Americans think that UFOs containing alien beings have visited earth, up from 33% in 2019. Belief is up the most among college grads, where 37% now believe, over 27% in 2019. In addition, last year Trump declassified a trove of documents about UFOS, while Jeff Bezos recently took Captain Kirk himself into space.
Of course, enthusiasm for cosmic exploration is not universal. Prince William criticised Bezos (albeit without naming him), stating that billionaires should focus less on space and more on saving earth. I thought this was a bit churlish myself, an expression of the type of misrerabilist puritanism it used to be almost compulsory to lampoon, but which in these strange times marks you out as a righteous soul.
Speaking of righteousness, my own take on the search for alien life is that, rather like wokeness, it is an expression of a sublimated religious impulse that used to be directed at the real thing. You can even hear it in the language used by enthusiasts, who often speak of a desire to not be alone, which is of course the very same promise made by evangelical churches. That said, the differences are more significant than the similarities, as the type of organic molecules Curiosity Rover has been turning up on the surface of Mars since 2012 are a poor stand-in for a loving Heavenly Father, for sure.
If the astronomers did find intelligent life, we would still be completely alone, as it would be so far away we would never be able to touch it, or communicate with it. But regardless, this hope that is deep and ancient. So have at it, my astronomer friends, gaze through your telescopes and map the stars, following the same impulses that guided our long ago ancestors in Gobekli Tepe: continue their holy work.