When Captain Cook’s Endeavour sailed into Whitianga harbour in 1769 Maori thought the ship was a god, and the people on board tupua, strange beings or goblins. This was confirmed as they rowed ashore, for the way they faced opposite to their direction of travel suggested they had eyes in the backs of their heads. This story, related by eyewitness Horeta Te Taniwha in his old age and reproduced in Anne Salmond’s book Two Worlds, makes me wonder whether, if we come across extra-terrestrial life, we will recognise or comprehend it.
When I saw Ben Cauchi’s photograph A subterfuge I was reminded again of this question, for the object he depicts really makes little sense. It looks somewhat as though it is constructed out of sheets of paper that have been crumpled and then flattened out again. But the actual structure is not an object that we would encounter in everyday life and neither does it look like something you would make (for what purpose?) It doesn’t seem to represent anything, nor be anything. Its lack of symmetry and the way it appears to almost fold up out of the table or base that it’s on don’t make sense either, let alone the two dark, silvery-edged blobs at bottom right. Then there is the strange tonality that makes the inner part of the object seem to be glowing, or at least highly reflective.
Science fiction has imagined aliens in every possible way, but it may be the 1960s TV series The Invaders (see my previous blog) that put its finger on the issue by suggesting that they could be unimaginable. In episode five a motorcycle cop stops a station wagon with a headlight out, unaware that it is driven by two aliens who have adopted human bodies. On hearing a noise in the back he insists on opening the tailgate and lifting a cover. There in a tank is a sight so incomprehensible that it makes him lose his mind – it’s a sick alien in its native form.
What is the chance that intelligent life exists beyond our planet? The philosophical argument known as Copernican mediocrity supports the notion. An extension of Nicolaus Copernicus’s 16th century proposal that the earth wasn’t the centre of the solar system is that there is nothing special about human beings, life on earth, earth as a planet, our solar system, or our galaxy. The odds just seem against intelligent life arising only once in the entire universe. There are counter arguments though. One is the Fermi Paradox. Italian physicist Enrico Fermi said that if you accept Copernican mediocrity then where is everyone? The universe should be teeming with intelligent life. One answer is that it is, but we just don’t recognise it. It may simply not ‘compute’ in our minds – that we see only what we already know, even when it’s right in front of us.
– Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography
This is no. 8 in my series on UFOs, aliens and outer space related to photographs held in Te Papa’s collections. Other ones include: Alien Power Source; New Zealand’s Roswell; Confusing Circles; Miniature Alien Invaders; Satellites of Love; Getting Close to the Moon; Rabbits on Mars?; Nostalgia for the Future.