Fantasies of Alien Life

Human beings have never encountered extra-terrestrials, but we’ve been imagining them for thousands of years

Fifty years ago this month, Kurt Vonnegut published “Slaughterhouse-Five,” his classic semi-autobiographical, quasi-science fiction novel about World War II and its aftermath. The story follows the adventures of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survives the bombing of Dresden in 1945, only to be abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and exhibited in their zoo. Vonnegut’s absurd-looking Tralfamadorians (they resemble green toilet plungers) are essentially vehicles for his meditations on the purpose of life.

Some readers may dismiss science fiction as mere genre writing. But the idea that there may be life on other planets has engaged many of history’s greatest thinkers, starting with the ancient Greeks. On the pro-alien side were the Pythagoreans, a fifth-century B.C. sect, which argued that life must exist on the moon; in the third century B.C., the Epicureans believed that there was an infinite number of life-supporting worlds. But Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics argued the opposite. In “On the Heavens,” Aristotle specifically rejected the possibility that other worlds might exist, on the grounds that the Earth is at the center of a perfect and finite universe.

The Catholic Church sided with Plato and Aristotle: If there was only one God, there could be only one world. But in Asia, early Buddhism encouraged philosophical explorations into the idea of multiverses and parallel worlds. Buddhist influence can be seen in the 10th-century Japanese romance “The Bamboo Cutter,” whose story of a marooned moon princess and a lovelorn emperor was so popular in its time that it is mentioned in Murasaki Shikibu’s seminal novel, “The Tale of Genji.”

During the Renaissance, Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, advanced in his book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” (1543), and Galileo’s telescopic observations of the heavens in 1610 proved that the Church’s traditional picture of the cosmos was wrong. The discovery prompted Western thinkers to imagine the possibility of alien civilizations. From Johannes Kepler to Voltaire, imagining life on the moon (or elsewhere) became a popular pastime among advanced thinkers. In “Paradise Lost” (1667), the poet John Milton wondered “if Land be there,/Fields and Inhabitants.”

Such benign musings about extraterrestrial life didn’t survive the impact of industrialization, colonialism and evolutionary theory. In the 19th century, debates over whether aliens have souls morphed into fears about humans becoming their favorite snack food. This particular strain of paranoia reached its apogee in the alien-invasion novel “The War of the Worlds,” published in 1897 by the British writer H.G. Wells. Wells’s downbeat message—that contact with aliens would lead to a Darwinian fight for survival—resonated throughout the 20th century.

And it isn’t just science fiction writers who ponder “what if.” The physicist Stephen Hawking once compared an encounter with aliens to Christopher Columbus landing in America, “which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” More hopeful visions—such as Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” about a lovable alien who wants to get back home—have been exceptions to the rule.

The real mystery about aliens is the one described by the so-called “Fermi paradox.” The 20th-century physicist Enrico Fermi observed that, given the number of stars in the universe, it is highly probable that alien life exists. So why haven’t we seen it yet? As Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?”

The Dark Lore of Black Cats

Ever since they were worshiped in ancient Egypt, cats have occupied an uncanny place in the world’s imagination

For the Wall Street Journal’s “Historically Speaking” column

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

As Halloween approaches, decorations featuring scary black cats are starting to make their seasonal appearance. But what did the black cat ever do to deserve its reputation as a symbol of evil? Why is it considered bad luck to have a black cat cross your path?

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the first human-cat interactions were benign and based on mutual convenience. The invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era led to surpluses of grain, which attracted rodents, which in turn motivated wild cats to hang around humans in the hope of catching dinner. Domestication soon followed: The world’s oldest pet cat was found in a 9,500 year-old grave in Cyprus, buried alongside its human owner.

According to the Roman writer Polyaenus, who lived in the second century A.D., the Egyptian veneration of cats led to disaster at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 B.C. The invading Persian army carried cats on the front lines, rightly calculating that the Egyptians would rather accept defeat than kill a cat.

The Egyptians were unique in their extreme veneration of cats, but they weren’t alone in regarding them as having a special connection to the spirit world. In Greek mythology the cat was a familiar of Hecate, goddess of magic, sorcery and witchcraft. Hecate’s pet had once been a serving maid named Galanthis, who was turned into a cat as punishment by the goddess Hera for being rude.

When Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 380, the association of cats with paganism and witchcraft made them suspect. Moreover, the cat’s independence suggested a willful rebellion against the teaching of the Bible, which said that Adam had dominion over all the animals. The cat’s reputation worsened during the medieval era, as the Catholic Church battled against heresies and dissent. Fed lurid tales by his inquisitors, in 1233 Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull, “Vox in Rama,” which accused heretics of using black cats in their nighttime sex orgies with Lucifer—who was described as half-cat in appearance.

In Europe, countless numbers of cats were killed in the belief that they could be witches in disguise. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII fanned the flames of anti-cat prejudice with his papal bull on witchcraft, “Summis Desiderantes Affectibus,” which stated that the cat was “the devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches.”

The Age of Reason ought to have rescued the black cat from its pariah status, but superstitions die hard. (How many modern apartment buildings lack a 13th floor?). Cats had plenty of ardent fans among 19th century writers, including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, who wrote “I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one.” But Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the gothic tale, felt otherwise: in his 1843 story “The Black Cat,” the spirit of a dead cat drives its killer to madness and destruction.

So pity the poor black cat, which through no fault of its own has gone from being an instrument of the devil to the convenient tool of the horror writer—and a favorite Halloween cliché.