Historically Speaking: Fantasies of Alien Life

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

The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2019

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?”

Historically Speaking: Poison and Politics

From ‘cantarella’ to polonium, governments have used toxins to terrorize and kill their enemies

The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2018

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Among the pallbearers at Senator John McCain’s funeral in Washington last weekend was the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza is a survivor of two poisoning attempts, in 2015 and 2017, which he believes were intended as retaliation for his activism against the Putin regime.

Indeed, Russia is known or suspected to be responsible for several notorious recent poisoning cases, including the attempted murder this past March of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Britain, and his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichok. They survived the attack, but several months later a British woman died of Novichok exposure a few miles from where the Skirpals lived.

Poison has long been a favorite tool of brutal statecraft: It both terrorizes and kills, and it can be administered without detection. The Arthashastra, an ancient Indian political treatise that out-Machiavels Machiavelli, contains hundreds of recipes for toxins, as well as advice on when and how to use them to eliminate an enemy.

Most royal and imperial courts of the classical world were also awash with poison. Though it is impossible to prove so many centuries later, the long list of putative victims includes Alexander the Great (poisoned wine), Emperor Augustus (poisoned figs) and Emperor Claudius (poisoned mushrooms), as well as dozens of royal heirs, relatives, rivals and politicians. King Mithridates of Pontus, an ancient Hellenistic empire, was so paranoid—having survived a poison attempt by his own mother—that he took daily microdoses of every known toxin in order to build up his immunity.

Poisoning reached its next peak during the Italian Renaissance. Every ruling family, from the Medicis to the Viscontis, either fell victim to poison or employed it as a political weapon. The Borgias were even reputed to have their own secret recipe, a variation of arsenic called “cantarella.” Although a large number of their rivals conveniently dropped dead, the Borgias were small fry compared with the republic of Venice. The records of the Venetian Council of Ten reveal that a secret poison program went on for decades. Remarkably, two victims are known to have survived their assassination attempts: Count Francesco Sforza in 1450 and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1477.

In the 20th century, the first country known to have established a targeted poisoning program was Russia under the Bolsheviks. According to Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian agent, Lenin ordered the creation of a poison laboratory called the “Special Room” in 1921. By the Cold War, the one-room lab had evolved into an international factory system staffed by hundreds, possibly thousands of scientists. Their specialty was untraceable poisons delivered by ingenious weapons—such as a cigarette packet made in 1954 that could fire bullets filled with potassium cyanide.

In 1978, the prizewinning Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov, then working for the BBC in London, was killed by an umbrella tip that shot a pellet containing the poison ricin into his leg. After the international outcry, the Soviet Union toned down its poisoning efforts but didn’t end them. And Putin’s Russia has continued to use similar techniques. In 2006, according to an official British inquiry, Russian secret agents murdered the ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko by slipping polonium into his drink during a meeting at a London hotel. It was the beginning of a new wave of poisonings whose end is not yet in sight.