“A warning light just came on in the car,” Rich announced Friday morning.
“That the warning light is no longer functioning.”
“But … if it’s not functioning, you can’t trust what it’s telling you. Which could actually mean it’s functioning perfectly.”
Oh, horrors. This was like that classic riddle: you come to two doors, one leading to freedom, the other to certain death, and there are two guards, one who always lies and the other who speaks only truth. You can ask just one question before making a choice. It’s the kind of conundrum that makes my head want to explode.
It seemed particularly unfair of the Universe to spring that on my poor brain while it was still reeling from the previous night’s online lecture from the Bay Area Atheists/Agnostics/Humanists/Freethinkers/Skeptics, aka the Skeptics Society. The moment I’d learned one of the world’s leading astrophysicists was addressing the topic Extraterrestrial Life? I knew I had to include it in my Nutters’ Tour of California.
Now, I don’t like to brag, but my home state claims 15,480 UFO sightings, the highest number on Earth (possibly in the galaxy). Thousands of close encounters have been reported in my neck of the woods by residents of Calistoga, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and Sebastopol. And Oakland-born Alex Filippenko, astrophysics professor at University of California Berkeley, was just the guy to do the topic justice. His groundbreaking work in such subjects as black holes, supernovae, dark matter, and the expansion of the universe means that if the truth is out there, he’ll be among the first to spot it.
His students love him and always vote him best teacher on campus. However — and I will be the first to admit this — I do not happen to have a graduate-level understanding of astrophysics. Ten minutes into the talk, as Filippenko burrowed deep into details of biosignatures in the JWST spectra — apparently something to do with the scarcity of water necessary for life — I pretty much lost the plot. In fact, it was all I could to not to abandon my post and nip out to the kitchen to grab a glass of wine. However I stayed put and soldiered on in complete sobriety, knowing I’d need my wits about me.
When it comes to the existence of extraterrestrials, explained Filippenko, “The evidence is underwhelming.” He quoted science writer Mark West and others who have shown famous so-called UFOs to be weather balloons, optical illusions from flawed radar systems or cameras, and other Earthling phenomena. But even the most hardened skeptics can’t find reasonable explanations for all the reported sightings. And there are baffling oddities such as ‘Oumuamua (Hawaiian for “scout”), the first known visitor from another star system. OK, it appeared to be a rock with no signs of life, but it was traveling strangely fast and tumbling in a way that made it difficult to determine its dimensions. Some scientists calculate it was shaped like a pancake. Or — dare I say it? — a saucer.
"We believe it's a natural object, but we can't actually prove that it's not something artificial," said astrobiologist Karen J. Meech in her TED Talk on ‘Oumuamua. "The color, the strange shape, the tumbling motion could all have other explanations." What was certain? "We were the first to say hello to a visitor from another solar system."
By the end of Filippenko’s talk, here’s what I’d grasped. If we think intelligent life is hard to find here on earth, it’s even more rare in outer space. Although there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the universe (give or take a couple of billion), few have water or other life supports. And then there’s the timing problem. It took four billion years and 100 billion species for Earth to come up with one creature smart and dextrous enough to invent the machines necessary to communicate and travel over interstellar distances. (I’m talking about us, in case you’re wondering.) What are the odds of it happening again elsewhere? And in the same timeframe as our own foray into space?
“But he’s looking at it from a human perspective,” objected Rich. “Maybe alien life doesn’t need water to survive, or opposable thumbs to invent machines that move about in space.”
“Good point," I replied. "For all we know they could be non-corporeal beings, made of pure thought, or light, or something far stranger.”
So the debate continues. However diligently scientists attempt to dismiss the idea that little green men and women are visiting, two-thirds of Americans believe intelligent life exists outside of Earth. And even more surprisingly, 51% of all citizens say they are not worried UFOs pose a major security threat.
Why aren’t they worried? I suspect it’s because people find it oddly comforting to think we are not alone in the universe. This month, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy raised the alarm over the public health crisis of loneliness and isolation in our country. He wants to raise awareness and build a culture of connection, “cultivating values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another,” elements sadly lacking in modern society. Is it any wonder people are attracted to the idea someone is eager to travel trillions of lightyears just to reach out to us?
For decades, social scientists have lamented the trend toward social distancing — not the kind where you stand six feet apart at the bagel counter but the one where we lose our sense of belonging, spend less time with others, and draw in on ourselves. Social connection isn’t just a feel-good emotion; it increases our chances of survival by 50% and decreases our chances of dementia by about the same amount. If there was a drug that could do that, we’d all be lining up to buy it at any price. Feeling disconnected is literally a matter of life and death.
And this is why nature, in her wisdom, gifted us with the emotion of loneliness. Feeling lonely sends us a powerful signal that some element in our lives has to change. It’s designed to be uncomfortable to prod us into figuring out how to fix things. Much like the warning light in our car, it alerts us that something is wrong, even if it doesn’t clearly spell out what we need to do about it.
These days, whenever I feel that I’m getting too deeply ensconced in my favorite easy chair, I start researching Nutter activities. I study local newspapers and check out Meetup, a social media platform for finding like-minded enthusiasts; it’s where I found the Skeptics Society, as well as travel groups, book clubs, a pop-up drive-in movie, and people who like to gather in a pub for no real reason. My kind of folks. And yes, there are groups for those of us struggling to come to grips with the new AI chatbots.
This week I signed up with Google’s Bard, a process far easier than enrolling in ChatGPT; refreshingly, it didn’t keep asking me to prove I was human. Feeling that Bard and I were off to good start, I asked it to answer the old riddle about the two doors and the lying and truth-telling guards. It thought for a few split nanoseconds and replied, “If I asked the other guard which door leads to freedom, what would he say?” (See full explanation here.) So there you have it, folks. Another mystery of the universe sorted. You’re welcome.
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS WORLD TOUR SO FAR
IN PROGRESS: THE NUTTERS TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
The Nutters' Guide to Modern Comfort Food (Vegan Cooking)
Relationships: Do Humans Stand a Ghost of a Chance? (Hangtown)
For Nutters, There's No Place Like California (Petaluma)
Can Artificial Intelligence Help Me Plan the Next Nutters Tour?
RECENTLY COMPLETED: THE NUTTERS TOUR OF SPAIN
Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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