Roswell still captures the imagination.
July 7, 2010 8:42 PM   Subscribe

63 years ago little green men landed in the desert, or did they? I've lived in New Mexico for large parts of my life, and if there is anywhere aliens would land, it probably would be there. If they didn't land there afterall, maybe they will soon with the installation of the new spaceport.
posted by ziadbc (40 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

The truth about Roswell.
posted by pjern at 9:00 PM on July 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

I've been to Roswell several times. Each time, I've been struck by a powerful, unearthly desire, one which I am scarcely able to properly express in this stupid, limited spoken language, much less without the IMG tag:


It's uncanny!
posted by vorfeed at 9:18 PM on July 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

'Horizontal Launch'? Where are they exploring, the mysterious planet of Kansas?
posted by mannequito at 9:23 PM on July 7, 2010

For serious UFO researchers and enthusiasts, Roswell is a dead topic. Twenty years ago or so when the story was mainstreamed, a lot of the original witnesses were still around to tell their side of the story. But they were pretty old then, and by now virtually everyone--even those people just tangentially connected to the events back on that day in 1947--has died. It's a dead-end as far as research is concerned.

Area 51, on the other hand...people actually still work there.
posted by zardoz at 9:23 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

They won't land in Arizona - too much risk of deportation.
posted by problemspace at 9:47 PM on July 7, 2010 [10 favorites]

I sometimes have very slight shades of regret that the combination of life and ideological choices that I've made in my adult life have virtually precluded me from ever being able to visit or work at a site like Area 51 where the skunk works, black projects, and whatever other weirdness the US government has under wraps. But I'm comforted by the thought that it is most likely very boring there and all the commuting would take a huge toll. But still, UFOs. (UFOs in the strictest sense of the word, not necessarily extra terrestrials).
posted by Burhanistan at 9:48 PM on July 7, 2010

where the skunkworks, rather. The skunk works not to far from my house judging by the occasional smell.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:49 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I dig out Six Days In Roswell around this time every year. The framing "storyline" with Rich Kronfeld is totally staged, but the SF-con-at-a-county-fair feel they captured is dead on (we went down for UFO Encounter a year or two before they did).
posted by Lazlo at 9:58 PM on July 7, 2010

If you're ever in Albuquerque or El Paso or, I don't know, Denver and you think you'd like to take a trip down to Roswell to see the Alien Museum, let me save you some time: don't do it. It takes hours of driving, over roads so empty and through places so remote that the last time I made the drive there weren't even FM radio signals to pick up. And then you get there and the museum is stupid and there's nothing else to do.

/grew up in an even more remote place
/Roswell is where you stop to gas up and pee
posted by sugarfish at 10:00 PM on July 7, 2010

The Goddard Museum is literally just down the street from the UFO museum. I've been to many museums all around the world, the the Goddard was one of the most moving I've been to.
posted by Tube at 10:08 PM on July 7, 2010

When I lived in NM I went to one of the two days a year when the Trinity site is open to the public, and the VLA does guided tours. I wanted to go to Roswell, but it was several hours out of the way and I had to be in Santa Fe for a get-together that afternoon. This is the trip where I encountered the foulest rest stop bathroom ever. Shit was literally overflowing the toilet. I decided to hold it for the three more hours to the Trinity Site.

I have had Roswell Alien beer. I found it wanting.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:09 PM on July 7, 2010

> The truth about Roswell.

That's a great lecture, actually. The prof really has a densely packed knowledge of how vibrations propagate, how various layers of the atmosphere, ocean, and lithosphere are formed and influenced by the Sun, and how they relate.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:21 PM on July 7, 2010

Both the Trinity Site (when it's open) and the VLA are absolutely, absolutely worth the trip. From anywhere. So's White Sands, and Carlsbad Caverns is worthwhile, too, if you want to go a good bit further. Roswell, not as much. It's OK, but I'd take the Carrizozo Malpais instead -- and once the sun on the lava-flow has baked you dry, you can go to Carrizozo and get delicious cherry cider! Only then is one truly ready to go on to Roswell.

Or to Alamogordo. For pistachios.
posted by vorfeed at 10:34 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember being young and reading about the Roswell crash and talking to my Vietnam Vet stepdad. I said "But this US Air Force Major said we had alien stuff, not a weather balloon!" and my stepdad said "You've never met any majors. Believe me, you don't want to."

Rather tore the scales off my eyes.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:21 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

NM is very very big, and doesn't have a lot of people in it. There's a lot of nothing to drive through in Eastern NM if you're going to go to Roswell, and it's probably not worth the trip unless you can plan to pass through there on the way to someplace else. Seconding Trinity Site (which is a full day trip, guided, no self-tours), White Sands (which is a huge playground -- look for overnight camping on a full moon night if you really want the full experience), and Carlsbad Caverns (which is more like a trip to another world than anything else in this list). Also in Alamogordo is the New Mexico Museum of Space History / International Space Hall Of Fame, which hosts the Omnimax theater that I used to drive to regularly when I was in high school. If pistachios aren't your thing, then zip over to Las Cruces for Hatch Green Chile (during harvest time, anyway) and pecans. Or why not head up to the cool of the mountains in Cloudcroft and visit the Mescalero Apaches at their Inn Of The Mountain Gods resort?

One thing to note: none of these things are actually near each other. We're not talking about a day trip here. Hitting all these places is probably a good week of travel and sightseeing. Getting back to the FPP, Roswell and the Spaceport are about a 5-hour drive from each other, through some of the most lonely (and starkly beautiful) country in the US.
posted by hippybear at 11:57 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's something I've always had a problem with in the idea of aliens and alien life in general.

The emergence of life and the process of evolution life took was so specific and particular to the environment of earth. We associate life with cells, reproduction, death, intelligence, movement, and senses, and for some reason assume that these things must exist elsewhere.

The idea that, elsewhere in the universe, self-replicating chemicals evolved in the exact same manner to create creatures that see, think, reproduce, die, and most ridiculously, are composed of cells, is laughable and childish. (To me at least.)

I would be content with this notion if it were taken with the same amount of salt as the existence of fairies and ghosts. But when I see actual scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins entertaining the idea like we're just waiting for first contact...I get depressed.

"Life" as we know it is as unique to earth as poetry and the Grand Canyon.
posted by Taft at 12:30 AM on July 8, 2010

Taft: In evolution, it's pretty normal for similar solutions to similar problems to be arrived at from different starting points. Eyes for example, have evolved independently many times, yet we recognise them all as eyes, even if they see in different wavelengths, and produce different kinds of "image", if an image at all.

Same goes for cellular structure. Sure, it's possible that it's not the only way out of the soup, but it appears to be a good one. Scientists have started wondering if there could be a thing as a liquid methane based lifeform (in the same way to us being water based), but with that fundamentally different structure (where an alien would boil on earth), there is an expectation that life would likely be cellular, and why not?
posted by -harlequin- at 12:46 AM on July 8, 2010

Skipped Roswell when I was in NM, but I did drive down The Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada.
posted by tuck_nroll at 1:08 AM on July 8, 2010

-harlequin-: Eyes for example, have evolved independently many times

Really? I'm not being snarky at all, but could I have some sources? From my (fuzzy, admittedly) understanding of phylogenetics, I thought all species with eyes came from the same ancestor.
posted by Taft at 1:25 AM on July 8, 2010

Taft: that's a really narrow-minded view of evolution.
posted by Pendragon at 1:26 AM on July 8, 2010

Hey....I don't care if Roswell isn't all true. I like to dream. I like to play "What if...." Let's not forget the concept and the idea, eh?

Let's not forget to dream....
posted by JtJ at 1:52 AM on July 8, 2010

Taft: An eye can start as a vaguely photo-sensitive area of a cell. Light interacts with chemistry whether you want it to or not (hence sunburn, microwave ovens, radiant heaters, etc) so it's no leap to say that building blocks of life - no matter what they're made from - are pretty easily able to become sensitive to some kind of light or other, no giant evolutionary leaps needed, whether the organism is water based, silicon based, methane, whatever. All are equally subject to the laws of chemistry, and the laws of physics. (Incidentally, research suggests all your skin cells are light sensitive)

Over aeons, vague response to light becomes, say, a patch of skin (skin = organism's outer surface) that is more acutely sensitive - perhaps it can sense bright and medium and dark, . Selection might results in a thinning of the skin layers or more translucence, allowing greater light penetration, thus greater sensitivity is gained even with no change in light-sensing chemistry. More nerves. More information. Perhaps folds of skin around the patch make it a directional sensor by blocking light that isn't directly in front of the patch, so now moving the body around gives directional light sensing. Selected successful variations in translucent skin starts to form crude optics, and so on.

It's not earth biology that forms eyes, it's physics and chemistry and mechanics and natural selection, and these will apply to aliens the same ways they apply to us.

The specific chemicals used in the photoreceptors - yes, that's going to be native, heavily influenced by things like what's already in the phylum. In the wikipedia entry on the subject, whether an eye has evolved once or many times depends on what you define an eye to be.

If you define an eye to be "a section of an organism with the primarily function of sensing light", I'm pretty confident that phsyics, chemistry, and evolution, are going to cause that to appear with fair frequency, regardless of the particulars of the building blocks of life being used.

And all evolution is like this. Which is why aliens could be so very different in so many ways, and yet likely also not so different in some ways. All galaxies must obey the laws of physics :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:16 AM on July 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

Incidentally, don't underestimate simple eyes. Roboticists will tell you that even the crudest of eyes, a photo-resistor on each side - unable to determine whether anything is bright or not, let alone resolve any kind of image, the most these patches can do is merely notice whether one side is less dark than the other - yet this can result in surprisingly responsive and active creature. And its behaviour can be made far more responsive with the addition of simple scraps of paper acting like horse-harness blinkers.

Simple eyes get the job done surprisingly well.
Complex eyes are nice for going to the movies and watching explosions and sexy people :)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:33 AM on July 8, 2010

"The emergence of life and the process of evolution life took was so specific and particular to the environment of earth. We associate life with cells, reproduction, death, intelligence, movement, and senses, and for some reason assume that these things must exist elsewhere.

The idea that, elsewhere in the universe, self-replicating chemicals evolved in the exact same manner to create creatures that see, think, reproduce, die, and most ridiculously, are composed of cells, is laughable and childish. (To me at least.)"

These are ridiculously outdated views, not shared by most mainstream scholars. The first sentence alone is almost certainly 100% wrong and totally unscientific.

In the last 15 years alone, the classification of what we call life and the conditions it requires to exist have been changed dramatically; see: extremophiles. This has totally opened up the possibilities for life on other non-earth-like worlds far, far beyond the expectations of biologists teaching in universities only 20 years ago, because we don't have to look for organisms which need a ground-level earth-like environment in the traditional 'habitable zone' of a star to maintain existence.

We already know that biological material can be and probably regularly is shared between planets in a solar system, and most probably between star systems over much longer distances and time spans. These are not closed systems.

There is a chance that all life on earth evolved from extraterrestrial life, if it did not generate from primitive protein chains right here.

It is inconceivable that there is not life elsewhere in the universe. All of the laws of physics and chemistry that allowed for the formation of the basic building blocks of life in the local environment are the same everywhere, unless there is a credible challenge to the cosmological constants, and given the vast size and age of the universe, it would be astonishing if these things did not occur elsewhere at least once.

Life elsewhere will certainly not be identical to us, but it will progress along parallel paths in similar conditions.

Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, has offered 50-50 odds of discovering intelligent aliens "out there" in the next 50 years. He says it's a reasonable bet because we already understand that where there's life, intelligence will surely follow.

In 2003 Cambridge University paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris published a book called 'Life's Solution'. In it he argues that, in order to survive the habitats available to it, life must diversify and evolve solutions to the problems it faces.

Life's solutions are constrained by the laws of physics, so although it might seem there are innumerable solutions, there really aren't. In actuality there are just a few. Which means that, wherever it evolves in the universe, life will look very roughly similar. The chemicals involved might change, but the structures and machinery will necessarily converge toward a small set of possibilities. And this convergence, Conway Morris argues, will always - given time - lead to the evolution of intelligence because intelligence is one of the best survival tactics available.

Piet Hut might already have won his bet.

If we apply Occam's razor to the signal received by the Ohio State University's Big Ear telescope in August 1977, we can conclude that it was a signal from an alien civilisation. Why? Because it exactly fit the most likely characteristics determined for such a signal as presented by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison in the journal Nature in September 1959.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 2:40 AM on July 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

taft Eyes for example, have evolved independently many times.

Eyes have evolved at least twice as evidenced by the fact that the eyes of at least mammals have a blind spot by dint of the nerve cells escaping from the retina from the inside. While with the eyes of the octopus the nerve cells escape from the retina from the outside, the backside, of the eye. Which is design wise more logical.
This fact is mentioned in the Blind Watchmaker if I recall correctly.
posted by joost de vries at 2:58 AM on July 8, 2010

-harlequin-: I really want to believe that we're not alone in this universe, and your response gives me a bit of hope.

I still have trouble accepting the idea that we'll find something else in the universe that fits our definition of life. To me, it comes down to probability. Every little detail in our very distant abiogenesis, the temperature of the atmosphere, the ratio of methane to C02 in the air, matters in what we see today. I'm sure you've heard of the 'butterfly effect', so to me, life is extremely unique to our very particular course of evolution.

I guess it's a question of whether life is bound to happen, or if it's a rare phenomenon.

I'm not an evolutionary biologist, and you seem to really know what you're talking about, so I could be sounding like a fool right now. I'm sorry if I do :\
posted by Taft at 3:07 AM on July 8, 2010

Henry C. Mabuse: Life's solutions are constrained by the laws of physics, so although it might seem there are innumerable solutions, there really aren't. In actuality there are just a few. Which means that, wherever it evolves in the universe, life will look very roughly similar.


This really changed my perspective. I feel really foolish for being so bullheaded in my first comment T_T
posted by Taft at 3:16 AM on July 8, 2010

Really? I'm not being snarky at all, but could I have some sources? From my (fuzzy, admittedly) understanding of phylogenetics, I thought all species with eyes came from the same ancestor.

Yes, really. Richard Dawkins's book Climbing Mount Improbable has an entire chapter on the evolution of eyes, and -- this is off the top of my head -- he noted that it's thought that eyes evolved independently somewhere between 30 to 60 times in nature; apparently there are some cases that are in dispute, but eyes are remarkably common things to evolve; there is a lot to be gained simply by having a single photoreceptive cell, even more to be gained by having two (a vague sense of direction where the light may come from), and even more by having three (more detail), and so on.

Once you have those it's relatively easy to start evolving into what we properly think of as an "eye;" the shape the photoreceptors fall into -- like a lens -- is both a common geometric configuration in nature (a drop of water can function as a lens, even, as can drops of many liquids) and makes sense because it helps distinguish the direction the light is coming from. From there, evolution can take the eye in a number of directions just depending on what mutations come up. As a consequence you can -- and do -- end up with some wildly different eyes.

It's apparently easy to get that first photoreceptive cell without having to have inherited it from anything, and once it's there, it's natural that it starts evolving into a proper eye as long as there's enough light around. What you consider to be a "proper" eye probably accounts for some of the divergence in opinions about whether an eye is a "new" eye or whether it was inherited from its immediate ancestor; eyes really do evolve on a somewhat smooth spectrum, though creationists don't seem to understand this and like to point to the eye as something that simply could not have evolved, much less dozens of times independently. It has, though.

The chapter on eyes in Climbing Mount Improbable goes into a lot more detail about how all this starts and how far it's come. But as far as I know, it's not even that controversial among evolutionists that we didn't all evolve our eyes from the same creature. I could be wrong, but I read around on these things somewhat frequently and I've never even seen that in dispute. Someone correct me if any evolutionists -- not creationists -- think this is arguable.
posted by Nattie at 3:34 AM on July 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just to be clear, by (more detail) above, I meant more detail about the direction of the light, not "detail" in the sense we think of vision details. There are no details in that sense to speak of, just whether there is light or not.
posted by Nattie at 3:39 AM on July 8, 2010

The real truth about Roswell.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:55 AM on July 8, 2010

The truth about Roswell.
posted by pjern

That was interesting, but the lecture moved at a grueling pace. I'd not heard of SOFAR Spheres before, but I learned a lot more in five minutes from wikipedia than from his hour-plus dramatic reveal of tiny bits of information.

I see that the course is titled Physics For Future Presidents, so maybe that explains the lack of pertinent technical details, but I want my future presidents to be able to grasp that kind of overview from a five paragraph briefing memo.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:04 AM on July 8, 2010

I learned a lot more in five minutes from wikipedia than from his hour-plus dramatic reveal of tiny bits of information

Ah, lucky you were able to get out by just googling the subject of his first anecdote, otherwise you'd have almost surely been subjected to a bait-and-switch technique known as teaching.

See, we impressionable people were brought in with the promise of revealing what happened at Roswell, only to find the answer spread out through a substantive and engaging lecture about the physics of waves!

This is a particularly crafty example of the technique, and I accuse pjern of facilitating it by linking to the ostensible "topic" of the video in a "related" and otherwise nothing post.

You, sir, owe me an hour of my morning.
posted by Mr. Anthropomorphism at 10:11 AM on July 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Heh. That lecture was a pretty artful attempt to tie many disciplines together, with a bit of fun modern history as icing. How dare it last longer than a commercial break!
posted by Burhanistan at 10:14 AM on July 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ah, lucky you were able to get out by just googling the subject of his first anecdote, otherwise you'd have almost surely been subjected to a bait-and-switch technique known as teaching.

I watched the whole thing. I'm not going to go back and extract the actual info, as opposed to the "raise your hands," and " a personal friend of mine" stuff, but I like my lectures, on both the giving and receiving side, to move at a peppier clip. An hour, two hours, six hours, is fine, and there's no problem with accessibility, but is there no expectation that some people will be drumming their fingers at that glacial rate of exposition?
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:04 PM on July 8, 2010

It's a video of a college class. It's going to be an hour.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2010

Thanks to several of you who contributed concise explications that life arises naturally, wherever it can, because physics and chemistry make it so.

Of course, we haven't moved terribly far in founding that idea in actual observations since Miller-Urey, but hey ... it's a lot more complicated than lightning (ironically a part of M-U). As simple as lightning seems, we still can't explain it (based on observations; there are lots of hypotheses), even though you'd never know that if you look at Wikipedia's List of unsolved problems in physics which frets about many things much more intellectual than mere lightning, which it never mentions.

So, much as I agree with your well-stated hypothesis, which is indeed the best we've got so far, it sadly isn't much more well-established in basic research than Taft's idea.

We're finally starting to figure out something as simple-looking as photosynthesis. Eventually we'll have a shot at -really- explaining lightning. But a well-established *theory* of life, as opposed to a hypothesis, still looks to be a long, long ways off.
posted by Twang at 10:38 PM on July 8, 2010

(Regarding the eyes semi-derail, I'm surprised no one's mentioned insect eyes. Compound eyes are probably polyphyletic in themselves (I wouldn't know), but even ignoring that, that brings us to vertebrate eyes, octopus eyes, bug eyes, and odd things like pit-viper pits and echinoderms' full-body vision.)
posted by hattifattener at 11:02 PM on July 8, 2010

I seem to have heat-detecting cells on my face. I occasionally pick up things like lit cigarettes or other heat sources. The sensation is weak and easy to miss, and I've had enough seemingly false positives, that I'm not certain it's not coincidence. Yet those false positives were only declared 'false' because I couldn't figure out what was making the sensation happen. When I do find the source, it's because moving my head reveals direction, so there must be more than one sensitive spot.
posted by Goofyy at 10:38 PM on July 9, 2010

Goofyy: AIUI we have some particularly heat-sensitive patches of skin under our eyes / on our cheeks. Sometimes I can localize a radiant heat source pretty well with them. I've read claims that one can perceive things as cool as body-heat under good conditions but I don't think I've ever managed that.
posted by hattifattener at 11:24 PM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hattifattener: Wow, I never heard about that. My sensitive spots seem to be along the facial crease running from the nose down beside the mouth. I never heard about it being known, and now that you say it's that sensitive, I wonder if the 'false positives' were cases where I didn't recognize something as warm enough. Or even someone lurking in the dark.
posted by Goofyy at 9:54 PM on July 10, 2010

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