In A Star-Crossed Year, Anything Can Happen

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far.  In fact, it’s fair to say that 2020 is not only below average, it is probably the worst year that I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  With the coronavirus pandemic, government-ordered shutdowns, massive shocks to the economy and resulting unemployment, and widespread civil unrest, it’s safe to say that, when the clock nears midnight on December 31, no one is going to be looking back fondly on the year limping to a close.  To the contrary, I would expect that people will be drinking heavily to forget the year gone by and to toast the arrival of a new year that is bound to be far better — that is, assuming we make it to December 31.

And that’s really the significant, underlying problem with 2020:  it has forever altered our perception of what could actually happen.  Before 2020, anyone predicting the arrival of a strange new virus, sweeping closures and stay-at-home edicts, and the other elements that make this year such a bummer would have been laughed out of town.  But now — well, it seems like just about anything is possible, doesn’t it?  That’s why gun sales, survival gear sales, and, relatedly, liquor sales are through the roof.  So far, 2020 has been like Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.

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So when I read that scientists have measured significant “earthquake swarms” underneath Yellowstone National Park that could presage the eruption of a catastrophic “supervolcano” in one of Earth’s hottest hot spots — something I would have scoffed at until recently — I now think:  “well, it’s 2020 — why not?”

The strikingly counterfactual element of 2020 opens the doors to many possibilities that seemed absurd only a few months ago.  Remember those stories we see from time to time about asteroids and meteors coming uncomfortably close to Earth?  Well, it’s 2020, so . . . better get that survival gear handy.  And for everyone who’s wondered about when we’re actually going to make contact with intelligent alien life, well, it seems like 2020 is the ideal year for that to happen, doesn’t it?  And it’s not going to be cuddly, adorable E.T. aliens, either.  Because it’s 2020, after all, think Independence Day or Predator or Aliens, and you’re probably going to be closer to the mark.

To prepare myself mentally for the rest of this year, I’ve tried to identify every worst case, disastrous scenario that we’ve been warned could happen — locust invasions, massive solar flares, global warming and cooling, zombie apocalypses, Ragnarok, the reunion of ABBA — and am bracing myself that they all might happen this year.  And if we make it through without finding ourselves on a denuded, brutalized planet that has to endure a remake of Waterloo, I’ll raise my glass to 2020 come December 31.

Deciphering Alien Communications

Astronomers have discovered an intriguing fact:  an object in a galaxy 500 million light years away is sending us regular, repeating radio signals.

602x338_cmsv2_c88622f3-b54d-5980-a3e0-35b6c127b70c-3573104Fast radio bursts are not uncommon in the universe — observatories have recorded more than 100 in recent years — but repeating fast radio bursts are rare.  And this particular radio burst, which was first recorded in 2017, is the only one that is sending out fast radio bursts in a regular repeating pattern.  The bursts come in 16.35-day cycles, with 1-2 bursts per hour over a four- day period and then 12 days of silence before starting up again.

In short, the source is like the Old Faithful of fast radio signals.  And, intriguingly, at a distance of 500 million light years it’s the closest fast radio burst we’ve detected.

So, what’s causing this regular pattern of radio bursts?  Scientists have come up with several hypotheses:  it could be a natural radio signal-emitting object, like a neutron star or a binary system, where the frequency of the bursts is caused by the object’s wobbling or orbit or rotation.

Or, it could be aliens.  There’s no way to know for sure.

It raises a serious question:  if there are aliens out there, how do we know if they are trying to communicate with us, and what they are trying to say?  The 16-day cycle of radio bursts could be sending a clear, friendly greeting, or an important warning, using the alien version of Morse code, with the initial bursts being the dot-dot-dashes and the 12-day interval the method of letting us know that the message is repeating.  But without knowing the code, we can’t decipher the meaning — or even recognize the radio bursts as a message in the first place.  It’s similar to the inability to decipher ancient hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

It reminds me of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:

“As for the story itself, it was entitled “The Dancing Fool.” Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”

Unfortunately, a mysterious repeating radio signal is no more understandable than the farting, tap-dancing Zog.

Checking Out Saturn’s Geometric Weirdness

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken its first plunge past Saturn, and the results are pretty amazing.  On its dive, Cassini goes from 45,000 miles from Saturn’s surface to as close as 4,200 miles from the spinning cloud cover, and it even threaded the needle by passing between the planet and its famous rings — where Cassini was hit by a few stray particles.

The brief video above shows some of the highlights of the first pass, and you can read about the first pass, and get links to the longer videos, here.  Forget the fact that the video footage from Cassini is black and white, and focus on the fact that we are seeing video taken from a planet that is more than 750 million miles away from our little part of the universe.  And take a good look at Saturn’s incredible strangeness — like the defined hexagonal shape that is formed by the cloud formations at Saturn’s north pole and the completely distinct eye that is found at the center of the polar vortex.  What could cause the clouds to form such unusual, seemingly unnatural shapes?

Why, aliens, of course.

Nazis Under Antarctica

Ten years ago, satellite observations by NASA detected a gravitational anomaly in the Wilkes Land section of Antarctica.  The gravitational changes caused scientists to discover a massive impact crater and, at its center, a huge object buried under the Antarctica ice.  The object is more than 151 miles long and a half mile thick.

So . . . it’s an asteroid, right?  We know that, from time to time, Earth has been struck by asteroids, leaving impact craters scattered across the globe.  Some scientists believe that large asteroid strikes, and the impact they have had on the planet’s climate, are responsible for some of the mass extinctions seen in the fossil record.  An enormous asteroid striking Antarctica could be responsible for the great Permian-Triassic extinction event, when something happened that wiped out almost all of the plant and animal life on Earth, on both land and in the sea, about 250 million years ago.

Not so fast!  Ancient meteor strikes aren’t really all that interesting, are they?  I mean, that just makes this intriguing anomaly a super big rock buried in ice.  And in fact, when the massive object under the icy wastes of Wilkes Land was first discovered, nobody paid much attention to it.  But when a UFO hunting outfit recently posted a YouTube video about the Antarctica anomaly, suddenly the conspiratorially minded among us started to get interested.

So now the internet with abuzz with the possibility that the massive object could be an ancient UFO, or maybe an alien landing base.  Or the lost city of Atlantis!  Or the entrance to the creepy underworld lair called “Hollow Earth.”  Or — my favorite — a massive base secretly built by the Nazis where they planned to develop and use “flying saucers.”  Lucky for us that those inventive Nazis spent the time, money, and effort to build an enormous snow-encased base for flying saucers, when they could have used those resources, and those flying saucers, to avoid losing the war instead!

I think the possibility that we’ve located a gigantic asteroid that almost killed off every life form on Earth seems pretty interesting, but for some people nothing is as fascinating as speculating about Nazis and UFOs.

More Of Earth’s Curious Ancient Mysteries

Scientists recently discovered the existence of hundreds of curious and colossal earthwork formations in Kazakhstan.  The Steppe Geoglyph formations, which include geometric patterns and a kind of curlicue form of swastika, are visible only from high in the air.

As the New York Times reports, scientists estimate that the earliest of the mound formations was built approximately 8,000 years ago.  They had long since been forgotten and were discovered only when a Kazakh amateur archaologist started using Google Earth images to search for pyramids in Kazakhstan.  He didn’t find any evidence of pyramids in his home territory, but he did notice the huge, sprawling patterns that appeared.  After he announced his findings, NASA and other scientists got involved, began photographing the formations from satellites and analyzing their contents, and the mystery only deepened.

No one knows who built the earthworks, or their purpose.  They apparently aren’t burial mounds.  One scientist speculates that the geometric shapes were built to track the path of the rising sun.  But that explanation doesn’t account for the odd, curlicue swastika shape — which looks like the sort of insignia you might see on a uniform or a flag — nor does it gibe with what we know about the nomadic tribes that lived in the area at the time the formations apparently were built.  Why would nomads stop for the period of time needed to build such enormous formations, only to leave again?

I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t watch TV shows or read books about “ancient astronauts” or lost Atlantis or theories about the alien genesis of the Sphinx or the pyramids or Stonehenge or the Nazca Lines in Peru.  But there’s obviously a lot we don’t know about the Earth and human history in the period before the early Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations developed.  Perhaps there is a rational explanation for all of these formations that were visible only from the air, and investigation will uncover a period of human culture that we aren’t currently aware of that helps to make sense of it all. And if there was a previously unsuspected, higher form of early human civilization that somehow disappeared, we might be able to learn something useful from its downfall.

Or, perhaps, there is another explanation.  The possibilities are intriguing.

One other point.  If you’ve got some spare time, you might decide to spend it searching Google Earth images of the terrain in your neck of the woods.  You never know what you might find.

That Alien Feeling, On Falling Skies

This year’s episodes on Falling Skies — the TNT series about a hardy band of people trying to fight back after an invasion of Earth — have been interesting and somewhat, well, alien.

Last year introduced us to the skitters and their fish-faced masters who had conquered parts of the world and enslaved children through use of a devilish harness device, as well as the folks of the Second Massachusetts militia who were resisting them.  We met the men and boys of the Mason clan, the lantern-jawed, perpetually gruff Captain Weaver, the ultra-sensitive Dr. Glass, and the fabulous, rebellious, truth-telling Pope.  They tried to figure out how to battle the aliens and develop weapons that could puncture alien armor — but mostly they just tried to survive and get along.

This year the story line has taken a different turn, one that focuses more on the aliens.  It turns out that not all of the skitters are happy with their towering overlords and apparently want to join the humans in defying the conquerors.  What’s more, some of the captured children seem to like the harness and being linked closely with other humans and skitters.  The middle Mason son, who had been harnessed and still is physically and mentally affected by the experience, has strong feelings of anger at the aliens, but also has some lingering connection with them.  In the meantime, the Second Mass has learned that some form of American government has been established down south and has decided to try to find it.

The series still has the shoot ’em up scenes, the inevitable romances between characters, and the other hoary plot devices that have been part of TV shows since Uncle Miltie ruled the airwaves, but I applaud Falling Skies for trying to do something more and plow new ground with the alien-on-alien rebellion plot line.  It’s a show worth watching.

Apocalypse (Not Quite) Now

Weird things are happening in the French Pyrenees.  New Agers have descended on the village of Bugarach because they’re convinced that aliens will emerge from a nearby mountain on December 21, the date that marks the end of the Mayan “long count” calendar.  The helpful aliens will cart all humans in the vicinity off to, in the words of one believer, a new era celebrating the “energies of tomorrow.”

The aliens expect we humans to perform some bizarre stunts in order to get a seat on the spaceship to the coming age.  Groups of naked believers regularly hike to the top of the mountain, which they believe emits special magnetic waves.  Some have been seen carrying a ball and a golden ring connected by a single thread on their hikes.  Is it some kind of a communicator?  An exercise device?  One of those desktop time-wasters, like the five silver balls that clack together until they become annoying?  No one knows for sure.

It’s hard to believe that aliens who are capable of living undetected under the Pyrenees would need — or, for that matter, want — to see a bunch of naked humans trudging up a magnetic mountain with a ball and ring.  Mountaintops can be cold; aren’t the aliens even a bit concerned that the humans might suffer from (ahem) exposure?  But maybe that’s just part of the aliens’ careful plan.  Perhaps it’s not going to be easy in the new era filled with the “energies of tomorrow,” and they have to separate the hardy few from the rest of us luxury-loving softies.

It’s hard to call what’s happening over in Bugarach a cult, because there doesn’t seem to be the standard “charismatic leader” who makes everyone wear a new track suit and carry a roll of quarters before they drink the Kool-Aid.  Still, you can’t help but reflect on how apocalyptic scenarios have changed over history.  In the past, religions often emphasized doing good deeds (at least, as the religion defined them) during this lifetime, so that when Judgment Day came your efforts would be assessed and found not wanting.  Now, people don’t really need to do much of anything to qualify for the next life — they just have to be present when the benevolent super-beings decide it’s time to save a few of us.

In these New Age scenarios, humans are little more than science experiments, to be rescued from the grimy Petri dish of our world by those helpful aliens.  Let’s hope they don’t just wash out the Petri dish, take their ball, string, and ring, and decide it’s time to head back to Andromeda.

Alien Love

Casting is underway for the next Star Trek movie.  According to the BBC, a British actor named Benedict Cumberbatch — and was there ever a more British name than Benedict Cumberbatch? — has been signed to play a role.  Cumberbatch is rumored to be playing the villain, and will join the actors who will reprise their roles as Kirk, Spock, Scotty and others from the last movie.

I don’t know Cumberbatch or his work, but I’m hoping he plays an alien.  Why?  Because we desperately need a good new Star Trek alien.

I’ve loved the Klingons, the Romulans, the Gorn, and the Borg.  I’m talking about aliens with large, throbbing veins in their heads, aliens with squiggly, snapping spinal columns that get inserted into machinery, and aliens that are wildly implausible from an evolutionary standpoint.  I want to hear the back story about some weird culture where aliens communicate solely by rhythmic slapping of their rear ends or children are required to fight to the death from the age of three.

I don’t want overdone computer-generated images, either.  I want an actor to sit in the make-up chair for hours to achieve the appropriate alien appearance.

It’s been a tough few years for the humans on Planet Earth.  Star Trek, give us a new alien to distract us from the concerns of our own, weary world!

Welcome, Alien Overlords!

Don’t look now, but aliens are circling Mercury in an enormous, cloaked spaceship.  At least, that’s what some people believe.   They point to an image recorded by NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, which shows a coronal mass ejection from the Sun flowing over Mercury and, apparently, another object of comparable size.

UFO enthusiasts contend that the image captures a planet-sized cloaked spacecraft, rendered visible only by the electronically charged material from the Sun.  However, scientists say the apparent shape really is just Mercury, at its position the previous day, that shows up as a result of the enhanced imaging techniques NASA uses for space photographs.  The scientific explanation is boring, so it’s a lot more exciting to speculate about huge spaceships.

If there are aliens orbiting Mercury in a masked spacecraft, what the heck are they doing there?  After all, any alien race that could build and power a planet-sized spaceship, send it careening to a distant solar system, shield it from our perception, and park it into orbit around Mercury without anyone noticing obviously has technological capabilities far beyond ours.  If they want to conquer Earth, what are they waiting for?  They could waltz over and pulverize us in short order.

Of course, it could be a ship of alien scientists who just want to study the puny affairs of humans, like we might study an ant farm.  It’s hard to imagine that we are of interest to an advanced alien race, but we humans have always found ourselves fascinating, so perhaps aliens would, too.  Hey, if the aliens can hide a spaceship as large as a planet, maybe they’ve landed already!  Maybe they’re here right now, invisible and undetectable, observing us, taking notes, and getting ready to file a report about whether we should be permitted to survive or whether we should be stamped out before we spread across the galaxy like a virus.

We’d all better be on our best behavior, in hopes that we impress our alien overlords as a promising race that is well worth saving.  I’m looking at you, Congress!