February 17, 2019

The Anthropomorphization of the Universe

“It is part of the human experience to slowly realize we are each an isolated mind in a sea of other isolated minds, and then to spend our lives trying to cross the mighty gulfs between ourselves and others, striving to make a connection. Everybody wants to be found. So it’s natural, as our science has progressed, that the human race should project its collective hopes onto the cosmos and see if anyone else is reaching out to us. The last century is permeated with science fiction of alien visitors, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) is the manifestation of our hopes that someone out there is trying to find us. So great is our desire for contact, we instinctually see aliens in emissions of radiation, in planetary landscapes, and in comets on hyperbolic trajectories. In a sense, we anthropomorphize the universe.

Ascribing human characteristics or motives to natural objects is nothing new. What science has done is to set a grander stage for our anthropomorphizations. We have seen faces in vegetables and toast and mountainsides for millennia, and a quick search for “pareidolia” will reward the reader with examples. But it took the Viking mission for us to see a face on Mars. For ages, people have heard voices calling to them in the wind, even from the northern lights. Is it surprising that when astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish heard periodic radio emissions from a pulsar for the first time in 1967, they named the phenomenon LGM-1, for Little Green Men?

We interpret shadows on a curtain, or a tapping branch at the window, as the arrival of a visitor. So it was in 2016, when our minds leapt to the thoughts of “alien megastructures” when it was discovered that the face of Boyajian’s star was intermittently veiled. We now know, however, that what shadowed the star was simply clouds of dust. Eventually, thanks to the scientific method, the actual causes for these surprising discoveries get sorted out, but science’s initial impact is to grant our imaginations new vistas to run wild.”

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