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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

From the War of the Worlds to Star Wars: Are We Alone?

The War of the Worlds 

“The War of the Worlds” is a science fiction novel by British author Herbert George Wells (H.G. Wells). The novel was published in 1898 and is one of the earliest stories to detail a conflict between humankind and an extraterrestrial life-form that has invaded Earth from Mars. The War of the Worlds remains popular, spawning several feature films, radio dramas, a record album, various comic book adaptations, a number of television series, and parallel stories by other authors. 

In 1938, the novel was most memorably dramatized. An up and coming radio presenter, Orson Welles (no relation to H.G. Wells), produced an adaptation of Wells’ novel which was performed and broadcast live as a Halloween episode of the “Mercury Theatre on the Air” program at 8 p.m. (United States Eastern Time) on Sunday, October 30, 1938, over the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network. 

A stamp issued by the Royal Mail of Great Britain honouring H.G. Wells and his book "The War of the Worlds". This stamp was one of a four part series, all honouring various works by Wells.

The one-hour program began with the theme music for the Mercury Theatre on the Air program and an announcement that the evening's show was an adaptation of H.G. Wells novel, “The War of the Worlds”. This was the only indication that listeners received of the broadcast being a fictional event. 

Orson Welles then read a prologue which was based on the opening of H. G. Wells' novel, modified slightly to advance the story's setting to 1939. For about the next twenty minutes, listeners were presented with a typical evening of radio programming being interrupted by a series of news bulletins. The first few news flashes were broadcast during a presentation of "live" music and they described a series of unusual explosions being observed on the planet, Mars. This was followed by a seemingly unrelated report of an unusual object falling on a farm in Grover’s Mill, near the township of West Windsor, in New Jersey. 

The musical radio program then returns briefly before being interrupted by a “live” report from Grover's Mill, where apparently, police officials and a crowd of curious onlookers have surrounded a strange cylindrical object that has fallen from the sky. The situation gradually escalates when bizarre-looking life-forms emerge from the alien cylinder and attack observers using a lethal heat-ray. The credibility of the story is further enhanced when the stunned “reporter” at the scene describes events until his audio feed abruptly goes dead. This is followed by a rapid series of increasingly alarming news updates detailing a devastating alien invasion taking place around the country and the futile efforts of the U.S. military to stop these attacks. As the broadcast progresses, an increasing number of alien cylinders are reported to land, all over the world. 

The illusion of realism was further accentuated because CBS sustained the broadcast without interruptions, the program only taking its first commercial break a full thirty-eight minutes after Welles's introduction. It is alleged that the broadcast caused widespread panic as those listeners, who did not hear Welles’s initial introduction, were unaware that the Martian invasion was fictional even - though the actual scale of the "widespread panic" has been disputed by some.

Orson Welles went on to become an Oscar (Best Writing / Original Screenplay) winner in 1941 for the movie “Citizen Kane” but my personal favourite rendition of H.G. Wells’ novel is Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds. The album was released in the United Kingdom in June 1978. Its emotive music score, overdubbed with the regal and distinctive voice of Richard Burton (delivering the narrative of the of the on-site journalist), the soothing and melodious voice of Justin Hayward (of Moody Blues fame delivering the sung thoughts of the journalist), and Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) amongst others, perform on this enjoyable and thoroughly captivating example of rock opera. 

A series of stamps from the Republic of Togo, a country on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, commemorating the works of the incomparable and much respected Welsh actor, the late Richard Burton 

The two-disc album remains a bestseller, having sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. In 2018, it was named the 32nd best-selling studio album of all time in the United Kingdom. 

The War of the Worlds is a story of how Earth is overrun by Martian invaders but eventually, the technologically advanced aliens are defeated by an invisible ally of all humankind. Pathogens, which are harmless to humans, infect the invading aliens and this proves to be fatal, saving the human race from extra-terrestrial annihilation. Thus, concludes the story of The War of the Worlds, as life on Earth returns to normal and the aliens are eliminated. 

But can a story about aliens from deep space ever really have a final conclusion?

COVID – 19 and UFOs 

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an illness caused by a novel coronavirus, which was first identified amid an outbreak of respiratory illness cases in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. It was initially reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019. On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global health emergency. By March 11, 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. As of the date of this post, 1 April 2021, nearly 130 million humans have contracted COVID-19 and about 2.8 million have succumbed to the disease. The containment of the spread of the disease required a virtual global restriction of movement. The resultant negative impact on global economic activity has been extremely severe, prompting governments to act. 

As vaccination programs are frantically rolled-out, people continue to suffer the fatal effects of this disease.

A series of stamps from the People's Republic of China commemorating the fight against the
COVID -19 disease

These stamps were issued by the United Nations, probably to demonstrate the global nature of the medical battle against COVID - 19 faced by humankind.

In the United States, a gargantuan US$ 2.3 trillion Appropriations Bill (which included $900 billion in stimulus relief initiatives for the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States) was passed. The legislation, which President Donald Trump signed into law at the end of December 2020, was a bureaucratic nesting doll, that at 5,593 pages, is the longest Bill ever passed by US Congress. 

I write about this Bill because within its 5,593 pages nests the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. This Act carried an unusual provision, instructing that the Director of National Intelligence collaborate with the Secretary of Defense and deliver a report to the American people detailing everything the US Government knows about unidentified flying objects (known also as “unidentified aerial phenomena” or “anomalous aerial vehicles”). 

For the first time, it has become a legal requirement for US Government agencies to disclose all they know about UFOs. It is likely that this disclosure will be made by June 2021 and the expectation is that released documents will contain testimonies of numerous sightings, observations, and encounters of unexplained aerial phenomena, some of these reported by credible witnesses. 

Are We Alone: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence 

Starting from 1899, when Nikola Tesla thought he had detected a signal from Mars, there have been many searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. In 1960, Cornell University astronomer, Frank Donald Drake undertook the first modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) experiment, code-named “Project Ozma”. Project Ozma entailed using a radio telescope 26 metres (85 ft) in diameter located at Green Bank in West Virginia, to examine specific stars (Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani) for signals that could indicate the existence of intelligent life. Drake found nothing of interest. 

The 1960s were heady times in the Space Race (see my previous posts dated 7 July 2020 and 19 July 2020) and Soviet scientists also took a strong interest in the SETI activities. They performed a number of scans of deep space with omnidirectional antennas in the hope of picking up the evasive radio signals but their efforts were to no avail. These setbacks did not deter Soviet astronomer Iosif Shlovsky from writing the pioneering book in the field, “Universe, Life, Intelligence”, published in 1962. His seminal work was later expanded upon by American astronomer, Carl Sagan, as the best-selling book, “Intelligent Life in the Universe”, published in 1966. 

A stamp issued by the Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa, quoting the words of American astronomer, Carl Sagan 

In the realm for the SETI, the name of Frank Donald Drake recurs. He proposed and developed the Drake Equation, a statistical approach to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations existing in the Milky Way Galaxy. To avoid introducing a mathematical equation in this post, the Drake Equation is shown as a Post-Script to this article and summarizes the main concepts which scientists must contemplate when considering the question of other radio-communicative life. 

The Drake Equation should be thought of as an approximation rather than as a serious attempt to determine a precise number - more simply put, it attempts to present the odds of finding intelligent life in the Milky Way. The challenge (at least for now) is that astronomers do not have firm inputs for most of those variables that are required to resolve the Drake Equation so any result derived from using the Drake Equation remains currently, only a rough estimate. 

Nonetheless, estimates have been offered for each of the parameters used as an input into the Drake Equation. Using a reasonable minimum value for every parameter of the Equation indicates that 20 planets within the Milky Way Galaxy could be populated with an intelligent life-form able to beam radio signals into deep space. On the other side of the scale, if instead the maximum value was used for every parameter of the same Equation, then we would compute that 50,000,000 planets within then Milky Way Galaxy could be inhabited by civilizations of intelligent extraterrestrials. 

A stamp from the Ivory Coast. It features the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the Drake equation and Carl Sagan, noted for his pioneering writings questioning if we are alone in this Multiverse.

Another approach would be to use alternative techniques to physically count the planets orbiting the stars of the Milky Way. This approach is considered in a section later in this post subtitled "Exoplanets". 

The Wow! Signal 

It would be remiss of me to write about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence without making reference to the “Wow!” signal.

On August 15 1977, a SETI program under physicist, the late John Daniel Kraus (known for his contributions to radio astronomy and the design of the “Big Ear” radio telescope at Ohio State University) gained fame when one Jerry R. Ehman, a project volunteer, witnessed a startlingly strong narrowband radio signal received by Big Ear. The signal appeared to come from the direction of the constellation, Sagittarius, and bore the expected hallmarks of a signal of intelligent, extra-terrestrial origin. It lasted for the full 72-second window during which Big Ear was able to track it. 

Jerry Ehman quickly circled the indication of the signal on a printout and scribbled the exclamation "Wow!" in the margin, thus christening the event the “Wow!” signal. This event is  considered by many to be the strongest candidate for a radio signal from an artificial, extraterrestrial source, ever discovered. Unfortunately, it has not been detected again after several additional searches. 

Coverscape commemorating the Wow! signal

Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain the origin of the Wow ! radio emission, including natural and human-made sources, but none of them adequately explain the signal. 


Since the early 1960s, astronomers could imagine the existence of other planets outside the Solar System but it took until 1995 for the first confirmed exoplanet, orbiting a sun-like star, to be discovered. 

Didier Patrick Queloz FRS and Michel Mayor, both Swiss astronomers, discovered 51 Pegasi b, the first planet discovered that orbits a sun-like star, 51 Pegasi. The planet was detected by the measurement of small periodic changes in stellar radial velocity produced by the orbiting planet. For this discovery, Queloz shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics with collaborator,  Michel Mayor. 

A stamp from the Maldives honouring Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor - 2019 winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995. Also sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics was Jim Peebles (in another field).

Estimating the total number of planets in the universe is difficult but one statistical study suggests that within the Milky Way, each star has an average of 1.6 planets. Given the estimate that there are about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way alone yields a potential 160 billion alien planets in our home galaxy. 

In the two decades since Queloz and Mayor discovered the first exoplanet, more than 3,700 of these have been confirmed. 

Appropriate for Life? 

Among the planets that have been discovered, only a tiny fraction of them are likely to have an environment suitable for life. Astronomers have not been able to precisely measure this metric but a few factors are likely come into play, such as how close a planet is to its parent star and what its atmosphere contains (also known as the “Goldilocks Conditions”). 

As of March 2018, the Habitable Exoplanets Catalogue has 53 planets, that on an optimistic basis, could be suitable for life. Among those, 13 that are more likely to be habitable.

Finding life outside of Earth within or outside the Solar System — even microbial life — would likely be the most amazing discovery made in the history of humankind and would also be an  important step towards an improved comprehension of the validity and utility of the Drake Equation. 

The Fermi Paradox 

“The Fermi Paradox” presents the conflict between the arguments that scale and probability seem to favour intelligent life being common in the Universe, against the fact that there is a lack of evidence that supports intelligent life having ever arisen anywhere other than on the Earth. Other names closely related to Fermi's question ("Where are they?") include “The Great Silence”, and “Silentium Universi” (Latin for "silence of the universe"), though these only refer to one portion of the Fermi Paradox, i.e. we see no real evidence of alien civilizations. 

Enrico Fermi was an Italian (later naturalized as an American) Nobel Prize winning physicist and the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor (called the “Chicago Pile-1”). He has been called the "architect of the nuclear age” and the "architect of the atomic bomb", which effectively brought World War II to an end. 

Stamps from the USA honouring the physicist, Enrico Fermi - the "architect of the nuclear age” and the "architect of the atomic bomb", which effectively brought World War II to an end. 

He also asked the critical questions which resulted in the construct of The Fermi Paradox. It is reported that in the summer of 1950, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Fermi and his colleagues, Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller and Herbert York had one of several casual lunchtime conversations. It is uncertain as to whether the conversation was about the existence of aliens or whether it related to the probability of travel at the speed of light but at one of the lunches, Fermi suddenly exclaimed, "Where are they?" (Teller's remembrance), or "Don't you ever wonder where everybody is?" (York's memory), or "But where is everybody?" (Konopinski's recollection). 

In 1984, Herbert York wrote that Fermi "followed up on these questions with a series of calculations on the probability of the existence of earth-like planets, the likelihood of life given Earth-like conditions, the probability of intelligent life, given life-supporting conditions, the likely development of high technology, and so on. Apparently, Fermi concluded that on the basis of such calculations, Earth ought to have been subject to repeated and multiple alien visits since a very long time ago. To Fermi’s mind, the fact that no evidence had (and has) been presented to demonstrate these visits to Earth coupled with the fact that we see no signs originating from deep space (notwithstanding the Wow! Signal discussed in preceding paragraphs of this post) of the existence of alien civilizations, then it is more likely that we are indeed alone in the Universe and that The Great Silence, or Silentium Universi, should be of no surprise. 

Eric von Däniken

Whilst Enrico Fermi was making conclusions on the unique place held by humankind in the Universe, Erich Anton Paul von Däniken, a Swiss author of several books, has made claims about extraterrestrials having already visited Earth and influencing very early human culture. Von Däniken has been responsible for popularizing the "paleo-contact" and “ancient aliens” hypotheses. His books and movies include “Chariots of the Gods?”

The ideas put forth in his books are rejected by a majority of scientists and academics, who characterize his work as being unsubstantiated even-though, according to von Däniken, books in his series have altogether been translated into 32 languages and have sold more than 63 million copies.

Barney and Betty 

The characters of Barney and Betty Rubble have been immortalized through the animated television sitcom series “The Flintstones”. Unlike the stories of Barney and Betty Rubble, which are set in the prehistoric town of Bedrock, Barney and Betty Hill, inhabitants of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the United States, claimed they were abducted by advanced extraterrestrials while travelling in a rural area of the state of New Hampshire. 

This was the first widely publicised report of an alien abduction in the United States. 

Stamps from Mongolia celebrating the characters of the animated sitcom series, "The Flintstones"

The incident came to be called the "Hill Abduction". Their story was later adapted into the best-selling 1966 book, "The Interrupted Journey" and the 1975 television movie “The UFO Incident”. 

The alleged UFO sighting occurred on 19 September 1961, at around 10:30 p.m. The Hills were on a five-hour journey, driving home after a brief vacation in Niagara Falls and Montreal in Canada, when Betty claimed to have observed a bright point of light in the sky. Betty reasoned that she was observing a falling star, only that it moved strangely upward. Since it moved erratically and grew bigger and brighter, Betty urged Barney to stop the car for a closer look. Betty, looking through binoculars, observed an "odd-shaped" craft flashing multi-coloured lights travel across the face of the visible Moon. 

Betty later testified that the craft was about 40 feet (12 m) long, and that it seemed to be rotating. 

The couple watched as the silent, illuminated craft moved erratically and bounced back and forth in the night sky. Using the binoculars, Barney claimed to have seen about 8 to 11 humanoid figures, who were peering out of the craft's windows, seeming to look at him. In response, Barney "tore" the binoculars away from his eyes and ran back to his car. In a near hysterical state, he told Betty, "They're going to capture us!" 

Barney watched the object again shift its location and move to a position directly above their vehicle. With great anxiety, he drove away at high speed, telling Betty to keep a lookout for the object. At some later stage during this journey, the Hills claim they were captured, physically examined, and then released. 

Both Barney and Betty Hill had only vague recollections of these events which seem to have occurred over several hours. 

On September 21, Betty Hill telephoned Pease Air Force Base to report their UFO encounter, though for fear of being labelled eccentric, she withheld some of the details. On September 22, Major Paul W. Henderson telephoned the Hills for a more detailed interview. Henderson's report, dated 26 September, determined that the Hills had probably misidentified the planet Jupiter. (This was later changed to "optical condition," "inversion" and "insufficient data.") (Report 100-1-61, Air Intelligence Information Record). 

His report was later forwarded to Project Blue Book, the U.S. Air Force's UFO research project. 

In later years, the Hills were separately subject to several sessions of hypnosis by Benjamin Simon, a Boston-based psychiatrist. After the sessions, Simon concluded that Barney's recollection of the UFO encounter was possibly a fantasy inspired by certain dreams that had been affecting Betty. 

Whilst there may be some uncertainty surrounding the authenticity of the events surrounding the Hills encounter of  September 1961, on 27 April 2020, the Department of Defense released three videos taken by U.S. Navy pilots, taken during training flights,  revealing mysterious flying objects that remain unidentified. One video was captured in 2004 with another two being shot in 2015. The video footage shows unidentified objects flying at high speeds in the Earth’s atmosphere along with the accompanying audio of Navy pilots expressing shock and awe.

Drake or Fermi? 

In the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells, technologically advanced aliens are defeated by an invisible ally of all humankind – pathogens - which are harmless to humans but fatal for the Martian invaders. 

In 2019, it is humankind that is subject to the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus which results in a global economic meltdown that has, in an unexpected manner, brought to the fore the potential disclosure (by June 2021), of hitherto classified records of sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena as maintained by various, credible American government agencies. 

These forthcoming disclosures could well challenge the very validity and robustness of the Fermi Paradox leaving humankind to contemplate the high probabilities as suggested by the Drake Equation or even the much criticized hypothesis of von Däniken.

Indeed, Barney and Betty Hill may soon be be vindicated! And the myths of the heroism of that famous Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker, the antics of Earth-stranded extraterrestrial, E.T. (of the much loved and commercially successful 1982 movie by Steven Spielberg entitled "E.T."),  or the pioneering journeys of Capitan Jean Luc Picard of the Federation Starship, the USS Enterprise, may soon all move away (at warp speed) from the silver screen and cruise into the realm of everyday reality.

Stamp from the U.S.A. celebrating the most famous of extraterrestrial superstars "E.T." from the 1982 movie of the same name, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. This movie won 4 Oscars at the 55th Academy Awards. In 1994, the film was added to the National Firm Registry of the Library of Congress, being cited as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

A First Day Cover, issued by the Royal Mail of the United Kingdom celebrating the characters of the movie (and its prequels and sequels) "Star Wars"


Post Script:

Note: Stamps / the First Day Cover / the Coverscape shown in this blogpost are all from my personal collection.