Reality in the melting pot  By Paul Davies

Last Updated 05/06/05 22:50

The following article was published in “The Guardian”, 23rd September 2003.


( Paul Davies is a physicist in the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University, Sydney. His latest book is The Origin of Life, published by Penguin.)


According to 'multiverse' theorists, life as we know it could be nothing but a Matrix-style simulation

Five hundred years ago it was widely believed that the Earth lay at the centre of the universe and mankind was the pinnacle of creation. Then along came Copernicus and showed that our planet was merely one of several orbiting the sun. Since then the lesson of Earth's mediocrity has been reinforced again and again: ours is a typical planet around a typical star in a typical galaxy, of which there exist untold billions.

The Copernican principle - that our location in space is unremarkable - is the default assumption for most scientists. But recently this principle has been challenged by a group of cosmologists who claim that what we have all along been calling "the universe" is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a tiny fragment of a much vaster and more elaborate system that, for want of a better word, has been dubbed "the multiverse".

The basic idea is simple. Cosmologists think the universe began with a big bang about 14bn years ago. This means we can't see anything farther than 14bn light years away, however good our telescopes may be, because light from those regions hasn't had time to reach us yet. But this doesn't mean there is nothing there, and for decades astronomers supposed that what lies beyond this horizon in space is likely to be more or less the same as we observe in our cosmic backyard - just more galaxies.

Now this assumption is in serious doubt following major developments in fundamental physics. A key premise of the more-of-the-same view of the universe is that the laws of physics are identical everywhere and for all time. But physicists have found that some features of nature thought to be law-like might actually be frozen accidents - properties that were locked in only as the universe cooled from its fiery birth.

Take the mass of the electron. Why does it have the value it does? Well, maybe the mass isn't decided in advance once and for all by some deep law, but just comes out at random, like the throw of a die, in the searing maelstrom of the big bang. In which case, it could come out differently somewhere else. In the same way, the strength of gravity or the number of space dimensions might also vary from place to place.

There is no evidence for any substantial variation in these features out as far as our best telescopes can peer. But that is no guarantee that a trillion light years away it will be the same. Electrons could be heavier there or space might have five dimensions. A God's-eye view of the cosmos would then resemble a patchwork quilt, with a haphazard pattern of properties. What we took to be universal laws of physics would be relegated to mere by-laws, appropriate only to our local "Hubble bubble", while far out in space other "bubbles", possibly generated by other big bangs quite distinct from ours, possess other laws.

Multiverse enthusiasts bolster their claims by pointing to the astonishing bio-friendliness of the universe. It has long been known that the existence of life depends rather sensitively on the exact form of the laws of physics. Change things a bit and life would never have happened. This looks suspiciously flukey, but it can be readily explained by the multiverse. Most of the cosmic patches in the quilt will be sterile, their physics all wrong for making life. Only here and there, in rare patches where all the numbers come out right, will life arise and observers like us evolve to marvel at it all.

History has thus turned full circle. According to the multiverse theory, if you look at Earth's location in space on a grand enough scale, then it does occupy a special and privileged position, namely one that can support life. Like winners in a gigantic cosmic lottery, we find ourselves in a rare bio-friendly patch for the simple reason that we could not exist in any of the bio-hostile ones.

If one accepts recent advances in fundamental physics, then some sort of multiverse seems inevitable. But how far down this slippery slope should one go? Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that there is no need to stop with properties like the strengths of forces or the masses of particles. Why not consider all possible mathematical laws? Don't like the law of gravity? No problem. There's a universe out there somewhere with gravity that waxes and wanes in a paisley pattern. Of course, there's nobody there to admire it.

Tegmark's speculation forces us to confront what is perhaps the deepest of all the deep questions of existence: why there is something rather than nothing. There are only two "natural" states of affairs. The first is that nothing exists. The other is that everything exists. The former we can eliminate by observation. So should we conclude that everything exists - all possible worlds? Those who would argue against this position must concede that there is some rule that divides what actually exists from what is merely possible, but not real. But where does that rule come from? And why that rule rather than some other?

These are murky waters, but they get even murkier when we scrutinise what is meant by the words "exist" and "real". In the Tegmark multiverse of all possible worlds, some worlds will have intelligent civilisations with computers powerful enough to create authentic-looking virtual worlds. Like in the movie The Matrix, it may be almost impossible for an observer to know which is the real world and which is a simulation. And if the simulation is good enough, is there any fundamental difference between the two anyway?

It gets worse. Mathematicians have proved that a universal computing machine can create an artificial world that is itself capable of simulating its own world, and so on ad infinitum. In other words, simulations nest inside simulations inside simulations ... Because fake worlds can outnumber real ones without restriction, the "real" multiverse would inevitably spawn a vastly greater number of virtual multiverses. Indeed, there would be a limitless tower of virtual multiverses, leaving the "real" one swamped in a sea of fakes.

So the bottom line is this. Once we go far enough down the multiverse route, all bets are off. Reality goes into the melting pot, and there is no reason to believe we are living in anything but a Matrix-style simulation. Science is then reduced to a charade, because the simulators of our world - whoever or whatever they are - can create any pseudo-laws they please, and keep changing them.

The final twist in this saga is that almost all multiverse theories predict the existence of infinitely many duplicate cosmic regions, including duplicate Earths and duplicate Guardian readers. There will also exist all possible variations on this theme.

So if you are uncomfortable with the multiverse idea, content yourself with the fact that there will be another you out there somewhere who has just read a thoroughly convincing refutation of the entire multiverse concept.



Aliens in Our Galaxy? Stefan Lovgren



The following article was published by National Geographic News January 6th, 2004


The team of astronomers has identified stars that contain enough heavy elements to form terrestrial planets; are sufficiently distant from disastrous supernova explosions; and have existed for at least four billion years—the time it took for complex life to evolve on Earth.

Using a sophisticated computer evolution model, they found that ten percent of the stars in our galaxy, located in a ring around the center f the Milky Way, meet those criteria.

"This is a crude first map of where life could be in our galaxy," said Charles Lineweaver, an astrophysicist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who led the study.

The research also shows that 75 percent of the stars in this habitable zone are older than our sun; so if there is actually life there, it's probably more evolved than life on Earth.




Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains more than 200 billion stars and countless other objects. It is one of billions of other galaxies in the universe.

The Milky Way was formed some 12 billion years ago out of a large cloud of gas, mainly hydrogen and helium, that collapsed on itself and began forming stars. Since the cloud was rotating, its spherical shape flattened into a disc.

As the formation of the new stars continued, the most massive stars exploded and enriched the gas in the cloud with new, heavier elements. The new stars that were created in these disc regions contain the heavier elements required to form terrestrial planets, which may be spinning around them.

In their search for possible life, scientists look for favorable zones of "metallicity." A star with no heavy metals can't form terrestrial planets or life.

"Anytime you can identify regions that have higher concentrations of metallicity, that's where you may find life," said Lineweaver. "In our model of the galaxy, we keep track of where and when these metals were produced. We can do that because we know how many massive stars went 'boom' as a function of time and place."

Planets in regions that are too rich in metals, meanwhile, are vulnerable to so-called Earth-killers, preferentially found in such regions. If a gas-filled, Jupiter-like planet migrates through an area that is too rich in metals, it will kill any "Earths" that are there.


Exloding Supernovae


But the right level of metallicity isn't the only prerequisite for life. The astronomers also had to look for regions that have experienced relative calm for at least four billion years, the time it took for life to evolve on Earth.

"In a high-density stellar environment, you will not have four billion years of clement, let's-sit-back-and-evolve life," said Lineweaver. "For complex life to evolve, you may need about four billion years without too many supernovae going off."

The computer model used for the study is based on local observations. Scientists can look at stars all over the galaxy and determine the metallicity at the time they were formed.

The region the researchers have concluded is the most favorable to host life is a ring that measures 21,000 to 27,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy. Created between four and eight billion years ago, this region is where 10 percent of the stars of the Milky Way were formed.

"We're not saying anything about the probability of extraterrestrial or complex life," said Lineweaver. "But if it does exist, and we're right about our prerequisites for it, this is the distribution it will have. This is where life will be."


Humans vs. Aliens


The astronomers were also able for the first time to determine the age of the stars in the habitable zone. They found that 75 percent of them are older than our sun.

"If people think that intelligent life will happen on these planets, then 75 percent of this intelligent life will have had a longer time to evolve than people or the entities that are circulating around our sun," said Lineweaver.

"We're all trying to figure out how we compare to any life-forms that may exist in the universe," he added. "This study is the closest thing I can think of to answer that question. If there are aliens, 75 percent of them will have had longer time to evolve than we have. That may be the most fundamental take-home message of this study."



WHEN UFOs ARRIVE" - What will you do? By Jim Wilson


The following article was published in “Popular Mechanics”, February 2004.


The U.S. and other world (sic) governments already have detailed secret plans for first contact.



Within the scientific community, the question is no longer whether extraterrestrial life exists, but if ET is smart enough to do long division. Scientists are of two minds regarding the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Skeptics acknowledge simple life-forms

might be found on other planets, but insist that intelligent life is unique to Earth.

Their belief is based on the assumption that Earth possesses unique physical attributes, including a magnetic field that deflects cosmic rays and a moon that absorbs asteroids. Together, these protective features make Earth a rare safe harbor - one that nurtured the evolution of primitive life-forms into intelligent beings.

The opposing camp sees the prospect for discovering alien life in more mathematical terms. Its touchstone is the Drake Equation, which links the probability of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence to factors such as the size of the universe and the number of stars with earthlike

planets. With the discovery of each new planet beyond Earth's solar system -t- here are now more than 100 - the odds of encountering intelligent alien life increase. Governments and international organizations around the world have taken notice of the changing odds.

No governmental official has gone on record claiming that UFOs are real, let alone a threat. Yet with little public fanfare, they have begun preparing for the single most important event in human history: first contact. That is, the moment earthlings discover incontrovertible proof

that they are not alone.


Early Warning

Unless ET materializes from another dimension in the middle of the Super Bowl, humans most likely will have some advance warning of its arrival. How much time we get to straighten up for extraterrestrial company depends upon who spots ET first.

The privately funded SETI Institute uses radio telescopes owned by observatories around the world to sweep the sky for signals broadcast by advanced civilizations. If ET has read Emily Post, or her intergalactic equivalent, and calls ahead, we could have years, even decades, to prepare for first contact. Unfortunately, the current SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project can afford to look at only small swatches of the sky, so any extraterrestrial courtesy calls probably will be missed.

A more likely scenario is that the U.S. Air Force would spot ET's spacecraft as it traverses the void between the Earth and the moon. Using powerful radar and optical telescopes in Hawaii, Greenland, Florida and the Indian Ocean, the Air Force Space Command tracks satellites, monitors missile launches, and spots baseball- and larger-size bits of orbiting debris with the hope of preventing it from perforating a space shuttle or the International Space Station. If ET turns up on Space Command's radar, it would mean the alien visitors are only hours or minutes away.


Countdown To Contact

The broad-brush outline for Earth's response to the first alien encounter

is set out in an international agreement called the "Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence." Written by a committee of scientists organized by the SETI Institute, the declaration spells out what astronomers should do, and what they should avoid doing, immediately after first contact.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the agreement is that astronomers who sign on to the declaration agree to keep the news of an imminent contact under their hat until the astronomy community and authorities have been notified.

The declaration also establishes fairly specific guidelines regarding the protection of the radio frequencies that alien civilizations might use to communicate with Earth. As soon as a radio signal is confirmed as originating from an extraterrestrial source, the International telecommunications Union would ask governments around the world to forbid use of that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is hoped that ET will have sufficiently studied human habits to understand that calling earthlings on the frequencies used for microwave ovens and garage door openers will be interpreted as a belligerent act.


Close Encounter

About five years ago the first contact protocols were put to the test. For 12 hours, SETI astronomers marveled at the prospect that their golden moment had arrived. A signal that repeated in an organized pattern was detected beaming straight at the Earth from 1 million miles in space.

The first priority was to alert radio astronomers around the world to redirect their telescopes. The signal from the distant stationary object quickly faded as the relentless rotation of the Earth swept it out of the telescope's listening range. Douglas Vakoch, the SETI Institute's social scientist responsible for preparing Earth's reply to an extraterrestrial message, tells POPULAR MECHANICS what happened next: "At this point, all of our discussions were internal to our team. We didn't want to cry wolf. Then, in the midst of the process, we get a call from The New York Times."

So much for the secrecy provision of the SETI protocol. within hours, the story evaporated. The SETI team identified the mystery signal as a data transmission from SOHO, a sun-watching observatory on an almost-stationary orbit about 1 million miles from Earth.

Vakoch says he was not surprised that the story of the possible alien contact leaked so quickly. "These guidelines have no legal force. They have been drafted in the hope of getting broader discussion."

As far as the U.S. government is concerned, that discussion started and ended more than 40 years ago. Regardless of how the world's astronomy community might want to handle first contact. Uncle Sam has ideas of his own. And they rest on the assumption that ET is first and foremost an illegal alien.


Presumed Dangerous

The question of how humanity might react to its first contact with intelligent aliens was officially raised in the late 1950s by the then newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Curious as to how discoveries about the origin of the universe might

affect society as a whole, NASA contracted with the Brookings Institution, a leading think tank, to research the question. Only a small part of its 100-page answer, which came to be known as "The Brookings Report," dealt with alien encounter. But it contained a stern warning. "Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the

universe, which have disintegrated when they had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behaviour."

In 1972, as engineers prepared the first space mission that would travel outside of Earth's solar system, NASA decided to ignore warnings in the 1960 "Brookings Report" about the dangers inherent in contact with an advanced alien race. Instead, the space agency sent an invitation for extraterrestrials to visit Earth. A gold-anodized aluminum plaque engraved

with a map showing the location of Earth was attached to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft. When it sent its last message, in January 2003, it was more than 7 billion miles along on a trip that will take it to the star Aldebaran.


State Of Emergency

If ET turns up at NASA's doorstep bearing that invitation, it is in for a surprise. Instead of getting a handshake from the head of NASA, it will be handcuffed by an FBI agent dressed in a Biosafety Level 4 suit. Instead of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, the alien will be whisked away to the Department of Agriculture's Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, off the coast of New York's Long Island.Here it will be poked and probed by doctors from the National Institutes of Health. A Department of Energy (DOE) Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) will tow away its spacecraft.

Unfriendly as this welcome may seem, it is the chain of events that most likely will follow the visitor's arrival. Unique as the appearance of an alien-piloted spacecraft may be, the event incorporates elements of three situations familiar to federal emergency response workers: a plane crash, the release of radioactive material, and the capture of an animal suspected of harboring a contagious disease. Responsibilities in these situations are spelled out in Presidential Executive Orders.

Unless it is spewing exhaust, the craft would be assumed to be nuclear powered. This determination would put NEST technicians in charge of securing the craft and moving it to a DOE facility, most likely in New Mexico, where it would be in close proximity to the Sandia and Los Alamos nuclear laboratories and the White Sands Missile Range. International

agreements also put NEST on call if the craft lands out of the United States, as happened in 1978 when a Soviet satellite leaking nuclear fuel landed in the Canadian wilderness.

NEST, however, would operate in the background. In a nuclear emergency, the FBI is put in charge of public safety, public health and public information. Those, at least, are the plans. How things might actually turn out is anyone's guess.

Skeptics often ask why UFO sightings seem to take place only in remote locations instead of on busy city streets. Perhaps ET knows what earthlings have in mind when it lands.

"A signal that repeated in an organized pattern was detected beaming straight at the Earth from 1 million miles in space."

"Only a small part of 'The Brookings Report' dealt with alien encounter.

But it contained a stern warning."



Professor Searches for Aliens   By Rebecca M. Milzoff 


The following article was published in “The Crimson Daily” on February 9th, 2004:


Some professors like to communicate with students—others, with aliens.

Physics and Electrical Engineering Professor Paul Horowitz ’65 says he’s convinced that communicating with extraterrestrial life will soon be within scientists’ reach.

Horowitz, who has taught physics at Harvard since 1974, is a leading figure in the official Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI)—a national project devoted to identifying intelligent life outside our galaxy, with hubs at Harvard and Princeton.

Lounging in his newly renovated office in Jefferson Lab, Horowitz says he is excited about the future of SETI and his own involvement in the search.

             “We’re basically asking how would we communicate with these intelligent life forms without going over to [visit] them on a rocket,” Horowitz says and he quickly debunks the notion that extraterrestrial life is unworthy of academic investigation.

            “They’ve found that at least 100 planets exist outside our solar system. What happened here [on Earth] is probably very typical,” he says. “Somewhere, the magic happens that leads to self-reproducing organisms.”

Horowitz says people first became interested in extraterrestrial life in the mid-19th century. But he points to the discovery of the radio telescope in the 1960s, which he began working with in the 1970s, as the time when people realized communication over galactic distances might be possible. The discovery, Horowitz says, seemed the perfect alternative to expensive space travel and past attempts to measure charged particles, which bend in magnetic fields such as those in space.


Beam Me Up

Recent developments, however, have demonstrated the superiority of optical laser SETI over radio—and Horowitz has helped pioneer this technology. He explains that extraterrestrials are most likely contacting humans by aiming laser beams at receivers on earth. These beams, Horowitz believes, will illuminate their planet or star of origin to a level 5,000 times brighter than the sun.

          “When a laser pulse is aimed from a certain star, the star illuminates for a moment so that we can see it,” he explains. “We only do receiving.”

Horowitz says that he and physics graduate student Andrew Howard use a complex optical telescope to search the night sky for such flashes of light. The telescope has sensitive light detectors at its focus and measures five feet across its bottom. The actual optical telescope is operated by a team at the Oakridge Observatory in Harvard, Mass. While Horowitz says he has detected some flashes, he has yet to confirm their extraterrestrial origin.

Horowitz says that he can currently only observe a limited number of targeted stars but looks forward to developing what will be called the All-Sky telescope within a year or so. This telescope, which will be complete once a detector apparatus is installed, will be able to observe the entire sky—10,000 times more area than the team currently covers.

         “We’re only myopically looking at stars now,” he says.

He anticipates the All-Sky will allow his team to investigate not only stars, but the spaces in between them where he suspects that advanced civilizations may roam between various stars and planets.

He adds that his research is focused on “calculation, not speculation” and brims over with enthusiasm for the optical SETI.

Light Years Away?

Howard and Horowitz work concurrently with researchers at Princeton who make simultaneous observations. Each team generates observational diagrams, including the stars observed, the number of observations made and the signals detected. According to Howard, the teams’ findings always match.

          “Combined, the two results have never produced a false positive,” he says.

Jill Tarter, the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute in California, calls the project with Princeton “very innovative and clever.” She describes the Sky Survey instrument Horowitz already uses as “typically Paul—typically creative and inventive.” To Horowitz, the future of SETI seems both daunting and enthralling.

        “SETI hasn’t succeeded yet, so it’s clearly got a ways to go,” he says.

Of the 20,000 observations his telescope has made, Horowitz says, no decidedly conclusive observations have been reached.

Still, he says that he and Howard are excited about the coming years.

         “We like trying new and different things,” he says.

Other astronomers, such as Dr. Joseph Lazio of the Naval Research Laboratory, are more skeptical of the project’s short-term success, but affirm the significance of the study.

         “Will we have success in the near future? Define ‘near,’” he says. “In the next 100 years? Many astronomers are hoping that in the next 20 years, we’ll be finding Earth-like planets.”

Tarter also says she foresees some difficulties with Horowitz’s All-Sky project, namely the unpredictable New England weather.

         “Can you do something about the weather in Massachusetts?” she asks jokingly. “You need a lot of clear nights for the survey, and it’s going to take a lot of time to get 100 clear nights.” Still, Tarter says she supports Horowitz’s general project.

         “All this UFO, alien abduction garbage attached to SETI [is] what makes money, what people find sexy,” she says. “But the real SETI is a valid scientific exploration.”

She reminds any naysayers of the project’s monumental significance.

        “We have this opportunity now to answer the age old question: are we alone? I feel very privileged to do something which might have some impact on society,” she says.

Horowitz says it is that very possibility that motivates him to keep searching the sky each night.

       “My long view is, it’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when,’” he says. “We’re gonna contact them someday.”



Earth sows its seeds in space - Life could be leaking out all over the cosmos.


The following article was published in “Nature Magazine”, 23rd February 2004


The Earth could be scattering the seeds of life throughout our Galaxy. Microbes could ride on specks of dust, powered by the Sun's rays, says William Napier, an astronomer at the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.


Scientists have pondered whether life might ride between star systems ever since the nineteenth century. Some think that a collision between a life-bearing planet and another celestial body could scatter stones and boulders into space carrying living organisms. These deep-frozen spores could then make their way to other worlds - an idea called 'panspermia'.

But the chances are stacked against such an event. Spores would have to survive the meteor impact and be thrown into space. The boulder would then have to leave the solar system and land on another life-supporting planet. It would have to get there quickly, too. The radiation streaming through space will cook any organisms in space rocks. Typically, says Napier, "the boulders will be sterile by the time they are ejected from the solar system".

But microbes might survive if they can escape the Sun's gravity more quickly. And that might happen, says Napier, if the rocks they sit on are first ground to dust1.

The Earth and her sister planets travel through a cloud of grains called zodiacal dust. This is the debris from collisions in the asteroid belt and from the passage of comets.

This dust should sand-blast anything passing through it, says Napier. This process could grind a one-metre boulder down in 20,000-200,000 years, he estimates. If a comet breaks up, thickening the dust, as happens several times each million years, the process could take as little as five centuries.


Solar sailing

A grain less than a tenth of a millimetre across would still be capable of carrying microscopic life, says Napier. And the pressure of sunlight can quickly blow grains this small out of the solar system. The same force might one day propel spacecraft through the cosmos.

Such a grain could travel about six light years from Earth in 70,000 years - far enough to reach other stars. We could be surrounded by a huge 'biodisk' of frozen organisms floating on grains of rock, says Napier, all of which can wander in and out of our solar system quite easily. "The solar system is as leaky as a sieve," he says.

Earth should spread its seed widest when we pass through a giant molecular cloud, a mass of dusty material from which stars are born. This has happened about five times since life appeared on Earth.

Each time, Napier estimates about three billion trillion microbes passed from Earth into the cloud. The chances of some of these finding their way to an Earth-like planet are quite high, he says. A similar process could even explain how the Earth wound up hosting life in the first place, he adds.


Could sand-blasted meteorites carry life out of our Solar System?




Alien Abductions, Sleep Paralysis and the Temporal Lobe


The following article was published in European Journal of UFO and Abduction Studies, 1, 113-118

Susan Blackmore and Marcus Cox

Department of Psychology

University of the West of England

Bristol BS16 2JP




Twelve ‘alien abductees’ were given the Personal Philosophy Inventory (including a measure of temporal lobe lability) and a questionnaire about sleep experiences. They were compared with twelve matched controls and a student control group (n=51). No differences in temporal lobe lability were found between the groups but the abductees more often reported sleep paralysis than the controls.



According to a recent Roper poll nearly 4 million Americans have been abducted by aliens (Hopkins, Jacobs and Westrum, 1992). In fact this figure is misleading and almost certainly a gross over-estimate (Blackmore, 1998; Stires, 1993). Nevertheless, personal accounts of abduction by aliens have increased since the publication of Hopkins’ books Missing Time (1981) and Intruders (1987), and Strieber’s Communion (1987).

Over the years a typical abduction account has emerged (see e.g. Mack, 1994; Newman & Baumeister, 1996; Schnabel, 1994; Thompson, 1993). Most experiences begin in bed at night (Spanos, Cross, Dickson and DuBreuil, 1993; Wright, 1994); more rarely from a car or outdoors. The abductee experiences an intense blue or white light, a buzzing or humming sound, anxiety and the sense of an unexplained presence. He or she is then transported or "floated" into a craft and may be restrained or paralysed and subjected to examinations, medical procedures, or the implantation of a small object in the nose or elsewhere. The aliens are typically grey, about four feet high, with a large head and black almond shaped eyes, though other aliens are occasionally reported (Wright, 1994). The aliens’ purpose in abducting people varies from benign warnings of impending ecological catastrophe to a vast alien breeding program.

Occasionally people claim to be abducted in public, though there are few examples of independent corroboration. Physical evidence is extremely rare. A few ‘implants’ have reportedly been removed from abductees’ bodies but they usually mysteriously disappear (Jacobs, 1993), or turn out to be "of normal biological material" (Mack, 1994) or even dental amalgam (Blackmore, 1997).

The abductions may not be physically real but they still require explanation. There is no evidence that people who see UFOs are generally suffering from serious psychopathology (Bloecher, Clamar & Hopkins, 1985; Parnell, 1988). Parnell and Sprinkle (1990) found that MMPI scores were in the average range for 140 people who claimed communication with aliens, and Spanos, Cross, Dickson and DuBreuil (1993) tested 49 UFO experiencers and found they actually showed less psychopathology than a student or a community control group and higher intelligence than the students. Bartholomew, Basterfield and Howard (1991) found characteristics of fantasy proneness in 132 out of 152 contactees but when standard tests were used, no differences were found in either fantasy proneness or hypnotizability by Ring and Rosing (1990), Rodeghier, Goodpastor & Blatterbauer (1991) or Spanos et al (1993). Zimmer (1984) found that UFO reporters were as likely as the normal population to be high academic achievers and showed no more alienation, distress or maladjustment. However, most of the UFO experiencers in these studies had simply seen lights in the sky; some had seen alien creatures but few reported full-blown abduction experiences. In the only study specifically of abductees, Powers (1994) assessed dissociative symptoms in twenty people claiming abduction. Compared with ‘sightees’ the abductees reported far more symptoms of dissociation and of post-traumatic stress. Clearly abductees must be separated from people who have only seen UFOs in future studies.


Newman and Baumeister (1996) have provided a cognitive-motivational explanation of how spurious memories of abductions are created and maintained. The motivation is likened to sexual masochism, and hypnosis serves to elaborate and maintain the false memories. The role of false memories in abduction cases has been widely discussed (Clark & Loftus, 1996) and there is no doubt that complex abduction fantasies can be created under hypnosis. However, about thirty per cent of abduction accounts are obtained without hypnosis (McLeod, Corbisier & Mack, 1996). Another possibility is that abductions are based on some real and frightening experience which is then elaborated (with or without hypnosis) into the culturally acceptable alien abduction story. Two possible experiences have been suggested; visions induced by excessive activation of the temporal lobes, and sleep paralysis.

Persinger (Persinger and Makarec, 1987; Persinger and Valliant, 1985) has shown that mystical experiences, psychic experiences and paranormal beliefs are associated with unstable temporal lobes, or high "temporal lobe lability". He has also been able to induce out-of-body and other experiences by applying rapidly fluctuating weak magnetic fields across the temporal lobes of subjects in the laboratory (Persinger, 1995). These include unpleasant vibrations, lights, floating, flying, out-of-body sensations, sexual arousal, and a sense of presence (Blackmore, 1994). Spanos et al found no difference between two groups of UFO reporters and control groups using the temporal lobe lability subscale of the PPI (Personal Philosophy Inventory, Persinger and Makarek, 1987). However, their ‘UFO non-intense’ group had only seen lights in the sky. The ‘UFO intense’ group had seen craft close up or experienced contact with an alien but only two claimed to have been taken up in a spaceship. Therefore this study did not adequately test for temporal lobe lability in abductees.

The main alternative theory is that abductions are associated with sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a common experience in which a person wakes up but cannot move. It occurs occasionally in about 40% of the population (Fukuda, Miyasita, Inugami, & Ishihara, 1987; Spanos, McNulty, DuBreuil, Pires & Burgess, 1995; Blackmore, 1998) and more frequently in narcoleptics (Thorpy, 1990). It is often associated with a sense of presence, vibrations, lights, and sensations of being prodded or pulled, as well as emotions ranging from curiosity to intense fear or terror. Many cultures have sleep paralysis myths, such as witch or hag riding in England (Davis, 1996-7), the Old Hag of Newfoundland (Hufford, 1982), or Kanashibari in Japan (Fukuda, 1993). Alien abduction may be our modern sleep paralysis myth.

Spanos et al (1993) pointed out the similarities between abductions and sleep paralysis. The majority of their UFO experiences occurred at night and almost 60% of their "intense" UFO reports were sleep related. Of these experiences nearly a quarter involved symptoms similar to sleep paralysis. If sleep paralysis underlies abduction reports we would expect abductees to be especially prone to the experience. Further studies of sleep paralysis in abductees are clearly required.

The present study investigated temporal lobe lability and sleep disturbances in a sample of British abductees. Although people who have seen UFOs are easy to find, abductees are rare. Our sample is therefore small but, unlike most previous studies, consists entirely of people who claim full-blown abductions.





The abductees (5 men and 7 women aged 20-69) were recruited through the This Morning television programme in which the senior author took part, and through BUFORA (the British UFO Research Association). They were sent a covering letter, a consent form and a questionnaire about their UFO experiences. Some had had multiple experiences of meeting aliens or being abducted, and one had also observed UFOs once or twice a year since he was twelve. Ten of them were convinced their experiences were physically real. Seven complained of medical problems, scars or headaches after the experiences. Half (2 men and 4 women) reported being abducted from their beds and half (3 men and 3 women) experienced abductions in other situations. Two independent judges categorised them into "day-time" and "night-time" abductees from their descriptions (inter-rater reliability; r = 1.00).

There were two control groups. The first was matched for age group, gender and occupational group. The second was a student control group of 51 undergraduates from the University of the West of England, Bristol (17 men and 34 women aged 16-46).



Three questionnaires were used. Abductees were given a questionnaire about their abduction experiences, asking for full descriptions and for details about when and where the abductions occurred, what the aliens were like, and any after-effects of the experience. All participants were given the Personal Philosophy Inventory (Persinger & Makarec, 1987). This consists of 140 statements to be answered as true or false. 52 of these comprise the ‘temporal lobe lability subscale’. Scores on this subscale were recorded. A final questionnaire asked about sleep experiences including sleep patterns and dream recall, false awakenings, lucid dreams and sleep paralysis.



Mean scores on the temporal lobe lability scale were abductees 19.3; matched control 18.3; student control 20.2. A one-way ANOVA shows there are no significant differences between the groups. The PPI contains an item directly about alien beliefs "Alien intelligence is probably responsible for UFOs". As Spanos had found, there were significantly more believers among the abductees than the matched controls (Fisher’s exact test, p = .047) and the student controls (p = .001).

Differences were found in the sleep pattern questionnaire. There were three questions about sleep paralysis (waking paralysed, pressure on the chest and a sense of presence). The abductees reported all three experiences significantly more often than the matched controls (Fisher’s exact test gives p values of 0.006, 0.04, and 0.01) and two of the experiences significantly more often than the student controls (p = 0.007, 0.11, and 0.002).

When reports of sleep paralysis are compared separately for the day-time and night-time abductees, there are no significant differences for the day-time group but the night-time group report sleep paralysis more often than the matched controls (p = .00005) and more often than the student controls (p = .00003). The abductees also reported more sleep disturbances, nightmares and out-of-body experiences than the student control group.



This was a very small study, reflecting the fact that abduction reports are not common and probably far less so in Britain than in the USA. Also many abductees are unwilling to be involved in scientific research. Among the 24 approached, only 12 agreed to take part and some were scornful of the value of research (Cox, 1995). However, if abduction experiences require a different explanation from merely seeing UFOs then it is important to find people who claim full-blown abduction experiences for future research.

In spite of the small sample, the results strongly support the suggestion that alien abductions are related to sleep paralysis and not to temporal lobe lability. Temporal lobe lability scores were, if anything, lower in the abductees than controls, so a larger sample would have been unlikely to reveal a positive relationship. On the other hand sleep paralysis was significantly more often reported in abductees than either of the control groups, confirming Spanos et al’s findings, and the idea that abductions may be a modern form of sleep paralysis myth. Of course an alternative is that real aliens are causing the increased sleep paralysis, and abductees’ belief in aliens is well founded. The better we understand the psychological origins of the experience the less likely that alternative becomes. We hope that this study, small as it is, may help contribute to our understanding of these unusual experiences.

Susan Blackmore is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol, having a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). She is also a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster; her research interests include memes and the theory of memetics, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. Susan has written articles for a number of magazines and newspapers and is involved in radio and television productions. She is author of sixty academic articles and approximately forty book contributions as well as a number of book reviews. Sue’s books include Beyond the Body (1982), Dying to Live (on near-death experiences, 1993), In Search of the Light (autobiography, 1996), and Test Your Psychic Powers (with Adam Hart-Davis, 1997).
The Meme Machine (1999) has been translated into eleven other languages.
Her textbook Consciousness: An Introduction was published in June 2003 in the UK, and in October 2003 in the USA.



Are we alone?  Speaker tells of technology hunt for extraterrestrials.

The following article was published in “The Iowa City Press – Citizen”, March 24th, 2004


Not for Kevin Hansen.

By Kristen Schorsch


While he doesn't know what extraterrestrial life looks like or in what form it exists, he doesn't think it's a big-headed monster or cruises the universe in a spaceship. Maybe extraterrestrials are a machine. Maybe a form of energy, he says. Either way, Hansen, like many, thinks the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe is exactly that - a possibility.

"It's pretty pointless if this planet has the only living life forms on it," the Kirkwood Community College student said.

Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research at the SETI Institute in California, spoke to a crowd of about 200 people Tuesday in the University of Iowa's Van Allen Hall. The topics: Finding technology from intelligent life, and "Hollywood" ideas like Hansen's. Tarter's visit to UI was part of the school's Distinguished Public Lecture Series, which brings nationally known scholars to campus to discuss ideas in forefront sciences.

Talk of extraterrestrial life has become more mainstream lately with two rovers, or robots, sent a few months ago to Mars in search of life - maybe in the form of water - that might have existed on the Red Planet. Research for the project involved UI faculty members and students, who worked to develop software to help people who control the robots.

Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?

  “Yeah, it’s hard to rule out something like that.”

  Matt Johnson,

  University of Iowa senior


  “I don’t think we’re the only ones. There’s so many universes. It’s vast.”

  Equilla Webb,

  Iowa City resident


  “There could be life out there.”

  Christine Lothi,

  University of Iowa student


  “I’m a true believer in that where have they gotten the idea from if something wasn’t out there.”

  Tiffany Summers,

  University of Iowa senior


SETI is building a new radio telescope that will assist in finding technology from life elsewhere, Tarter said, similar to how the twin rovers are searching for microbes, or living organisms, on Mars. Before SETI's newest project, their researchers shared telescopes such as the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, sometimes giving them only weeks to work.

And while no one has offered concrete evidence so far of intelligent life, Tarter said the radio telescope could help.

"What's been happening is that we're finding microbial life on Earth is far more tenacious and able to live in a much wider range of environments than we've ever conceived before," she said.

Radio and optical telescopes look for signals, like a flash in the sky, that could come from other civilizations. An almost natural sound, such as pulsating tones, also could be signals, she said.

Linda French, an associate professor of physics at Illinois Wesleyan University, also has used radio telescopes in search for intelligent life.

She was one of several graduate students at New York's Cornell University in the late 1970s that worked with professors to decode messages that might have been sent from intelligent life. French now teaches a course for first-year students about portrayals of alien encounters in science fiction and popular culture.

"Most of my students think probably that it's more likely than not that there's life out there," French said. "I think that is probably true, but it is kind of perplexing that we haven't found anybody."

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