Erving library speaker mulls question of alien life

  • Salman Hameed, a Hampshire College professor who has studied and taught classes on the phenomena of alien sightings, visited the Erving Public Library for a presentation on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/19/2019 6:47:01 PM
Modified: 7/19/2019 6:46:46 PM

ERVING — The question of alien life still fascinates people, even 50 years after the moon landing. The people of Erving are no exception.

The Erving Public Library on Wednesday hosted Salman Hameed, a Hampshire College associate professor of integrated science and humanities, who has taught courses on the cultural phenomena of alien sightings.

The conversation was far-reaching, touching on the U.S. government’s space policies, past visits to the moon and the potential reasons for visiting Mars.

But mostly, the focus was on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

“Do I believe there is extraterrestrial life out there? One hundred percent,” Hameed said. “Is there any evidence that we have had contact with aliens? No.”

The issue with UFO sightings, Hameed said, is that with hindsight they are clearly influenced by popular culture. The first wave of UFO sightings was in 1896, when airships were the hot new technology. Accordingly, people claiming to have seen UFOs described cigar-shaped ships.

In 1947, a pilot reported seeing mysterious flashing lights while flying. When asked by reporters to describe how the object moved, he said it was like how a saucer skips on water. After that, other people started seeing flying saucers.

“It’s not that people are lying. Your brain restructures information depending on what you think the object is,” Hameed said. “We know that our eyes, our senses, deceive us. We don’t have evidence for spacecrafts.”

Still, the odds are good that there is some sort of extra-terrestrial life, even in our own solar system, Hameed said. The odds that those lifeforms are advanced enough to visit Earth are lower.

The reason is that the raw materials of life — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, amino acids — are relatively common in the universe. If liquid water is the key ingredient, then there are other planets and moons in our solar system that might be able to support some sort of life, Hameed said.

Mars has polar ice caps, and some scientists now think that it used to have liquid oceans, Hameed said. It could still have groundwater, which could mean that relatively insulated structures like caves and crevices could harbor living organisms.

So extra-terrestrial microbes could well exist in our solar system. The chances of intelligent life in our solar system are slimmer; but if the scope is expanded to our galaxy, which has hundreds of billions of stars and probably hundreds of trillions of planets, the odds are better, Hameed said.

Ideas about what kind of creatures those things may be, and how they would deal with us, are variously optimistic and pessimistic. At one extreme is Stephen Hawking, Hameed said, who guessed that any alien visit to Earth would go the way of the European encounters with the natives of the New World. On the other side is Carl Sagan, who thought that any species advanced enough to reach another planet would surely have discovered the secret of peace, Hameed said.

Now that humans are seriously considering going to Mars, there are ethical issues involved in the possibility of life there, even if it is only microbial. If humans colonized Mars, Hameed said our germs would contaminate the environment and possibly wipe out the native species. So, do we go anyway?

“Knowing the human record,” Hameed said, “I think we are still going to go.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.


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