Todd Duncan: Glimpses of Wonder

Aliens Among Us?

Reflect for a moment on what tasks await you during the rest of the day. What phone calls need to be made, emails replied to, clothes washed, projects completed, or dogs walked? What’s your attitude toward each task? Excitement? Dread? Acceptance? Laziness?

Now imagine your experience if that commonplace state of awareness were pierced by confirmation that an intelligent civilization lives on the planet Kepler-22b (a recently discovered planet in the habitable zone near a star about 600 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Cygnus). How would your view of the rest of the day change? What emotions would you feel in the instant you heard about it, and in the instant you became convinced it was true?

I would be dramatically transformed, but it’s difficult to pin down exactly why, since I already feel pretty confident that there is intelligent life out there somewhere. I'd feel a rekindled sense of wonder, awe, amazement. I'd want to know how they came to be, what they think about, what they feel, what they experience that is similar to my own experience and what parts of their awareness have no analogs for me. The atmosphere would be electric. A sense of magic would embrace the way I looked at the world—something akin to falling in love. Any mundane hazy feelings about life would vanish. All those tasks I face (some of which I would ignore as I plunged into investigating this new discovery) would look very different, embedded in a magical context. I would be transported into mystery, immersed in the reality of the basic questions of existence. How did life arise, and self-awareness? What do the existence of these things say about the meaning of existence itself?

Now consider this: To those beings on Kepler-22b (or wherever there may actually be intelligent civilizations), our existence here on Earth represents that magical, perception-changing discovery! The extraterrestrials might feel their world transformed by the knowledge of our existence. This is true even though we would of course be unchanged in the moment of their discovery. We would still be just who we are, with all our abilities, faults, and difficulties. (And depending on how far away they are from us, we might even be long gone at the moment our light reached them, bringing to their awareness the news that we once existed.)

What are we to make of this fact? It means our sense of wonder is a matter of perception. The existence of aliens does not create the wonder. It only serves as a trigger, a portal, reminding us of a perspective that is available all the time. The triggers matter, of course. We can’t always turn that sense of awe and wonder on and off at will, but still it is a matter of perception. You can shift your frame of mind so everything you experience in daily life is like the discovery of aliens. You're fully justified in treating every interaction with every part of the world with that same sense of wonder and amazement. Another way to look at it: There are “aliens” among us all the time if we only shift our frame of mind to take notice. You are an alien to beings on another planet, and on this planet. Dolphins, whales, chimps, your cat or dog, even other humans are in a very real sense aliens to you. (For that matter, don’t you often feel even that you are an alien to yourself, with thoughts and feelings you can’t completely explain or understand?) Look into their eyes for a moment and you know you are in the presence of another being with a view of the world all its own, alien from your perspective.

Whenever things seem a little mundane, close your eyes and try to recreate the feeling of wonder and magic you would experience if we discovered extraterrestrial life. Savor it, mull it over in your mind, play with how it feels in your body. Then recall once again that to those aliens, you are the alien life. You do exist. So the wonder is yours. It is real. Go visit your neighbors and view them as if they were aliens with a totally new perspective to share with you. You might even try transforming any judgments you feel toward people you interact with. What if you replaced those judgments with the curiosity you would experience while talking to a completely alien life form with something to teach you?

Adapted from an essay originally published in Glimpses of Wonder, Science Integration Institute, November 2011.

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