2359: Evidence of Alien Life
|Evidence of Alien Life|
Title text: Both too cautious AND not cautious enough: "I'm skeptical that those are aliens, so I'm going to try pulling off their masks."
This comic depicts a table of possible responses to new information on the possibility of alien life. It is presented in table form, with the columns representing three categories of reaction to new evidence, and the rows representing the strength of new evidence, increasing down the table. Each intersection then shows a small scenario of what the response would be. The left and right-hand column scenarios are hyperbolic in either their acceptance or denial. The center column represents a reasonable course of action.
This comic was a reaction to the discovery of phosphine gas on Venus, which is where Ponytail's "V" figure in the second row comes from (a representation of the phosphine absorption feature). Phosphine is a molecule whose presence in the Venusian atmosphere came as a surprise. Light breaks phosphine down, meaning something must be producing it. However, there is no known abiotic mechanism on Venus that would produce the gas in the quantities observed. The phosphine could therefore be a sign of life on Venus, but more evidence is needed. Venus was also an unexpected place to find a possible sign of life — although it was a common pulp fiction setting in the early 20th-century, the arrival of the space probe era dashed hopes that the hidden surface might be, say, an exotic jungle (one of the more common pulp-fiction concepts). More recent efforts at finding life in the Solar System have mostly focused on Mars and various ice moons with suspected subsurface oceans, but life more-or-less as we know it could exist within the upper atmosphere of Venus, which has more Earth-like conditions than the surface. However, while the discovery of phosphine is interesting, it is not nearly enough evidence to claim that "life has been found" on Venus, and likewise, it is comically understated to refer to the paper as "evidence of molecules" in Venus's atmosphere.
The title text refers to an action which is simultaneously too cautious and not cautious enough: the speaker is skeptical that aliens exist, which is usually an appropriate belief, except that presumably Megan and Cueball are in the situation presented in the bottom row, where aliens have landed right in front of them. Rather than modifying his belief (presumably it's Cueball, who was the one to approach the aliens in the other panels), he expresses an intention to approach the alleged aliens and attempt to remove their masks. He believes that he will expose a human wearing a costume, perpetrating a "Scooby-Doo"-style hoax, but no matter what the outcome is, he's acting rashly. If the beings before him are aliens, he will be initiating a very aggressive first contact and will likely receive a violent response, and even if the alien is not violent, Cueball might end up removing an environmental apparatus that is protecting it from Earth's environment (or vice versa). On the other hand, even if the "aliens" really are fakes, Cueball might end up injuring someone who is just playing a harmless joke (and who'd want to keep some kind of mask on to reduce the spread of COVID-19).
Description of responses
In the first row, an asteroid looks like an "alien probe". The "least cautious" response immediately jumps to the conclusion that the asteroid is an alien probe. The "too cautious" response simply ignores the asteroid, while the "appropriately cautious" response seeks to discover more information about the asteroid.
The "alien probe" asteroid refers to 'Oumuamua, which passed through the Solar System in 2017. 'Oumuamua's hyperbolic trajectory indicated interstellar origin. Because of the unusual elongated shape suggested by its albedo (the object was never visualized as more than a point source of light) and indications of a slight non-gravity related acceleration, there were many wild speculations about 'Oumuamua's origin, including it being an alien probe similar to the one presented in the science fiction classic Rendezvous with Rama. The image of an astronomer looking through a telescope and being alarmed by seeing "something huge" which is actually very small and very close is an old comic gag, but the difference in parallax would immediately distinguish a close asteroid from a far one.
The second row refers to the discovery of phosphine gas on Venus, with the "least cautious" response to simply conclude that there is life on Venus. The "appropriately cautious" and "too cautious" responses provide more general conclusions about "molecules" on Venus.
In the final row, aliens have arrived on Earth. The insufficiently cautious approach is to immediately hug them. Cueball might make a new friend, but he might also be mistaken as an attacker, or perhaps the aliens are intending to make a meal of whoever approaches them. The more responsible approach is to (consider attempting to) communicate at a distance. In the final panel, the United Nations building is being vaporized by energy beams. This is technically "just" a "possible biosignature", as there are abiotic stellar events that produce energetic beams (although those are usually the size of planets or stars rather than buildings) and the beams could also be of human origin, but debating such semantics in the face of such destructive power seems excessively pedantic. For that matter, even though that panel is presented as "too cautious", it's only "too cautious" in the sense of "discussing the possibility of alien life"; Megan and Cueball are showing extreme lack of caution by remaining in the vicinity of an alien attack.
The destruction of human governmental buildings is a common trope in science fiction films, as a way of aliens removing the ability of humanity to co-ordinate a response to an attack. The United Nations building is allegedly the co-ordination centre for a worldwide response to an extraterrestrial incursion. However, since popular culture in the USA currently doesn't pay much attention to the United Nations, in American movies it is more commonly the White House or larger cities like New York or Los Angeles that get blown up by aliens.
The comic is laid out like a grid, with implements down the left-hand side (Weak Evidence of Alien Life/ Promising Evidence/ Definite Evidence) and the type of "reaction" across the top (Not Cautious Enough / Appropriately Cautious/ Too Cautious). The grid illustrates the "match-ups".
From the top left corner, going from left to right, top to bottom, with each first item being on its own line in the grid, the squares are as follows:
Row 1: Cueball, looking through a telescope
Weak Evidence of Alien Life/Not Cautious Enough: Cueball - "That asteroid is probably an alien probe"
Weak Evidence of Alien Life/Appropriately Cautious: Cueball - "This asteroid is weird and we should take a closer look". In smaller font: "It's not aliens"
Weak Evidence of Alien Life/Too Cautious: Cueball - "This asteroid appears to be far away, but it could also be nearby and just very small"
Row 2: Ponytail, holding a tablet or pad with "V" on it, approaches Cueball
Promising Evidence/Not Cautious Enough: Ponytail to Cueball - "They found life on Venus!"
Promising Evidence/Appropriately Cautious: Ponytail to Cueball - "Theses molecules might be produced by life or by weird high-heat chemistry"
Promising Evidence/Too Cautious: Ponytail to Cueball - "There is growing evidence that the atmosphere on Venus contains molecules"
Row 3: Flying saucers descend on Earth
Definite Evidence/Not Cautious Enough: Cueball - "I'm going to go give those aliens a hug!"
Definite Evidence/Appropriately Cautious: Cueball - "Oh wow, aliens! Should we try to communicate?"
Definite Evidence/Too Cautious: Megan - "The energy beams vaporizing the United Nations could be a possible biosignature"
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