“…There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”
– Shakespeare (Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5)
‘Oumuamua’, they called it.
(‘Scout’ in Hawaiian).
In all honesty, the astronomers at the University of Hawaii in October of 2017 had no idea what to call it.
It wasn’t quite a comet. It wasn’t really an asteroid.
A quarter-mile long reddish cylinder-ish metallic object darting around in our heavens – not at all with the flow of traffic.
Some of Earth’s most brilliant minds were observing the interstellar visitor through some of Earth’s most fancy schmancy telescopes. Peering curiously through looking-glasses high in the mountains of Hawaii, Chile and West Virginia – and even through eyes already in the sky (space-based satellites Spitzer and Hubble).
For all they didn’t know about Oumuamua, they were all certain that it wasn’t from around here.
An ‘eccentric’ space oddity, hailing possibly from somewhere near the Vega star in the Lyra constellation – 25 light years away from our sun, roughly.
Was this its first close encounter of this kind? They had no idea.
But it seemed to be the first object of its kind that we’d encountered.
A cigar-shaped rock, definitely not native to our neighborhood.
Structured kind of ideally for space travel, though – ironically.
Its motion? Highly unorthodox.
Our celestial bodies tend to dance to our sun’s rhythm – spinning in a standard solar orbit.
But this stone was ‘tumbling’ – rotating along its own non-principal axis.
An off-speed pitch. Perfectly unaffected by our sun’s gravitational pull, it seemed. Nearly impossible to catch or contact.
In the words of one such observer at the Green Bank observatory in West Virginia – Andrew Siemion (director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center);
“…Oumuamua behaves oddly. Planets and asteroids circle the sun on the same plane, like water swirling around a basin. Oumuamua dipped into the solar system from outside the plane, as if leaked from a cosmic faucet..’
Our visitor didn’t stay long, in any case.
By the time we discovered its entrance, it was already making its exit – leaving many of our astronomers with much to reimagine.
As you are reading this (May 2018), that scout stone is likely slingshotting past Jupiter toward Saturn.
Next stop – the constellation Pegasus (I hear it’s heavenly out there this time of year).
In all honesty, I was fascinated.
The science. The philosophy. The history. The mystery.
The timeless existential questions of stargazers revisited; ‘Is there (intelligent) life out there? Are we alone in the world?’
As you can imagine, there seemed to be as many written opinions as stars in the night sky.
However, the posts that seemed to intrigue me most were written by people who seemed sure as hell that there wasn’t anything smart happening anywhere else in the cosmos.
In their eyes, Earthlings were the only game in town. The one and only movie showing at the multiverse’s multiplex.
The crown jewel of creation.
Over eons of evolution, humans had developed very sophisticated instruments and carefully-calculated measurements.
All very intelligently designed.
We could think, therefore we were.
And we could observe, therefore we’d surely see if we had company, right?
To them, Oumuamua was obviously a lifeless rock.
It had no water or ice, so how could it have life (or be life)?
Could it be some kind of spaceship or satellite? Nope, they said. No hope,
Our world-class super-sensitive instruments could pick up any signals it might be emitting – and there were none. Strike one.
No systems with which to navigate or propel, as far as they could tell – and no visible navigators (pilots or crew). Strike two.
If there were beings on board, certainly they would’ve seen us, landed on our surface, knocked politely on one of our doors, and struck up an ‘intelligent’ conversation.
To me, many of these insights felt Intolerant – and kind of arrogant, to be honest.
The authors could only view themselves – their views. They could observe no other possibilities through their lens. And they didn’t want to. Or perhaps – they were afraid to?
They didn’t seem willing to expand their strike zones. Unable to stand in their truths without standing on someone else’s throat.
Oddly universal, this short-sightedness.
I’ve observed it in umpires, artists, scientists, and religionists alike – even some Unitarian Universalists.
They declare – ‘There is no there there’ – or anywhere else. Only here (theirs).
No intelligent life in anyone else’s -ism, -ology, book, ballpark, etc.
Of course, If there were – they’d see it (Because they’re intelligent).
So any unidentified flying objects are met swiftly with stones thrown from their own glass houses.
The umpire strikes back.
Herein lies Hamlet’s knuckleball to Horatio.
Might there be more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy? Or in our facts and figures? Or in our faiths?
Would I be a space-cadet to imagine that there might be intelligent life elsewhere within (or beyond) our 92 billion light-years of observable universe?
Maybe even on Jupiter (the fifth stone from our own sun).
What if all intelligent life isn’t based on carbon or water?
What if all life is intelligent?
Is it possible that other species could exist that we could neither see, hear, nor feel?
Perhaps, they could teleport (no need for ships or instruments).
Perhaps, they’ve already crossed our home plate.
What if they communicated entirely through thought-waves or vibrations – and didn’t have a spoken or written language (or frequency) that we could understand?
Would they even have physical hands to shake?
Is it possible that while we were taking giant leaps to plant a flag on our own Moon, some very intelligent (and invisible) beings were watching us – and having a good laugh? Politely practicing the Prime Directive?
Is it possible that there are brilliant minds on the Vega star (twice the size of our sun-star) wondering if there is any intelligent life on the distant blue-ish rock in their sky that we call Earth?
Maybe they sent a scout to find out.
In the Stone,
P.S. – May the 4th Be With You
Gail Thompson Guy
One of my favorite mind-wanderings. Or could we be like bugs in a drop of water, being observed by other as an interesting experiment? Most of our Earth species can be seen to communicate and teach their own if one just observes. We are just not smart enough to speak their language. Thank you Anthony. These thoughts help tuck us into our beds for further contemplation.
Anthony, is this comment space new? If so , a
wonder idea. Don’t have time to offer a thoughtful
response now but looking forward to the opportunit in the future . Thanks
As always, love the way your mind works!
Wonderful essay. I love the way you hold up doubt as an essential part of any exploration. One of my teachers says her new favorite thought before any judgement is “I could be wrong?”
Anthony, imagining explanations for the source and purpose of the spiraling knuckleball rock is great fun and challenges our sense of what’s possible out there in the billions of worlds beyond our little blue dot. This example opens yet another gap to our current unknowing, leaving us to ponder the limitless possibilities of ‘life’ not yet seen or even imagined. From my own level of life awareness, your essay also reminds me of the usefulness of giving equal consideration to the possibility that the unusual spiraling rock, though not yet understood by our best science, is in fact operating within the laws of nature. I’m comfortable with that hypothesis for now but will be thrilled if it turns out to be self-aware or otherwise alive. As quoted often, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.