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On the left: Avatar’s Neytiri, Star Wars’ Yoda and Scott Littleton. On the right: the photos accompanying the Feb. 26, 1942, Los Angeles Times cover story “Air Raid.” The caption reads: “SEEKING OUT OBJECT—Scores of searchlights built a wigwam of light beams over Los Angeles early yesterday morning during the alarm. This picture was taken during blackout; shows nine beams converging on an object in sky in Culver City area.”

Aliens Like Us

Anthropologist Scott Littleton believes the truth is out there, somewhere.

BY George Kenney

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” says Stephen Hawking, in the new Discovery Channel series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.” Hawking is the author of the 1988 best-seller A Brief History of Time.

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he says. “I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”

But trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky,” he says. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

But maybe Hawking is being a little simple–or hasn’t seen Avatar. Regardless, Lord Martin Rees begs to differ with the world’s most famous theoretical physicist.

In January, Rees, astronomer to the Queen and a professor of cosmology and astrophysics in the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, spoke at the Royal Society of London conference, “The Detection of Extra-terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society.”

Rees, president of the Royal Society, which celebrated its 350th anniversary this year, said: “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive. Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains. They could be staring us in the face and we just don’t recognize them. The problem is that we’re looking for something very much like us, assuming that they at least have something like the same mathematics and technology.”

So, what’s up with all this talk about aliens? Scott Littleton, an expert on Arthurian legend and professor emeritus of anthropology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, has some answers.

You were eight years old and growing up in Hermosa Beach, when, in the early hours of Feb. 25, 1942, you witnessed what came to be known as the “Battle of Los Angeles.” What happened?

First, remember, this was soon after Pearl Harbor, and two days after the Elwood Oil installation off Santa Barbara had been shelled by a Japanese submarine that had surfaced there. Anyway, I’m sleeping, when suddenly I heard the anti-aircraft guns going. This was about 3:15 a.m. I noticed the sky was very bright, so I look out the window and I see searchlight beams and shells exploding overhead. Something crazy was going on. My father said, “I better see what is going on, this might be the real thing.” So he threw on his air warden gear and went out. My father soon ran back in and says, “Everybody get down in the bomb shelter.” So we all go into the basement, in these old cramped quarters. And my mother was there for about 30 seconds, then she hustles out this little door and I snuck out behind her and we saw practically overhead–and I swear to this day it was hovering–this lozenge-shaped object like an elongated silver bug directly overhead. And outlined by seven or eight searchlight beams. They had it pinpointed. But it was glowing in addition to the searchlight beams. And it was surrounded by exploding shells that were falling on the beach.

How long did you and your mother observe this thing?

We were outside for ten minutes or so. It was hovering directly overhead. Then it began to lose altitude and veered inland over Rodando Beach and we lost sight of it.

If, as some people have suggested, it was a barrage balloon that had drifted, these anti-aircraft shells would have torn it to pieces. My guess is that it was surrounded by a forcefield of some sort that protected it–like something out of Star Wars.

How long did it take you to start thinking of it as a UFO and not just an unexplained phenomenon?

Decades. Not until the late ’70s. Afterwards, Frank Knox, the secretary of the Navy, held a press conference and said it was a “false alarm” due to “war nerves.” To this day that is the official interpretation. [Editors note: A Long Beach Independent editorial put it this way:”There is a mysterious reticence about the whole affair and it appears that some form of censorship is trying to halt discussion on the matter.”]

But there is not just that one dramatic sighting, there are scores and scores of such sightings. People see things flying around in the atmosphere. And you think these are objects that have come from somewhere else. As an anthropologist, what is your explanation for this?

I wish I had an explanation. The UFO phenomenon has been around for at least 10,000 years. A case can be made that our earliest ancestors noted them on cave walls in the Late or Upper Paleolithic.

Some people are convinced that the creatures who fly the things are responsible for bioengineering the human race. That’s ridiculous. You don’t need aliens to account for the evolution of homo sapiens.

I do think that they’re probes. At the beginning of the Ice Age, they discovered creatures who were intelligent but vastly more primitive than themselves. And–here I’m projecting my thoughts into their heads–they were curious and wanted to see what would happen to these creatures.

For all we know, these creatures and their craft are the equivalent of a mechanical rabbit at a dog track. We don’t know what’s being shown to us.

I see that, but I do think that you have to pay attention to the vast amount of anecdotal evidence. Nobody to my knowledge has a real picture of an alien. Nevertheless, there seem to be several varieties. And my hunch is–using the principle of parsimony, Occam’s razor–it’s better to assume that they originate in this universe and in this galaxy and probably in this corner of this galaxy. That is, within a several hundred light-year range.

If they’re using some type of technology that allows them to travel at light speed, then one has to think that at some point in the development of the universe some race developed this technology and at some point would have propagated it so that an intergalactic civilization would be not just a few thousand years ahead of us, but a million years ahead of us.

I understand that hypothesis. But if they’re vastly superior to us, why were they having so many crashes in the late ’40s and early ’50s? Somebody that far ahead, you wouldn’t expect to have operational failures. That’s what intrigues me.

As a former bureaucrat, I’d say that even in a bureaucracy that’s been around for a while you’re going to have things that don’t work as often as they do work.

Well yeah, technology isn’t infallible.

So you’ve got somebody driving around who doesn’t know how to fix it, something goes wrong. There could be a lot of different explanations.

Flying under the influence?

Yeah. [Laughs.]

I would peg them at thousands of years ahead of us rather than millions.

You have the hypothesis that there is a sort of Star Trek prime directive where the intergalactic civilization is not supposed to contact the primitive world, and that then you have some races of aliens who are breaking these rules.

I’m skeptical of people who suggest that they built the pyramids or built Stonehenge. On a whim, someone might have violated the rules and helped nudge a stone into place and was called on the carpet for it. But we have some interesting mythological ways to think about this. One of those involves the “rebel deity.”

Prometheus is the archetype, the god who is a culture-bearer but then goes away. In fact, Montezuma thought that Cortez was that deity coming back. He found out later that that was incorrect. And Lucifer, the rebel angel that comes down and gives human beings wisdom. He does the same thing that Prometheus does, but the only difference from the Hellenic tradition is that Prometheus is a hero and in the Biblical tradition Lucifer is a villain.

You have had a long and distinguished teaching career. At what point did you start talking publicly about UFOs?

The point at which I couldn’t be fired. A number of well-known academics involved in this subject have suffered from retaliation. There was an unsuccessful attempt to remove tenure from the late John Mack, who was a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author [in 1977 for A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T E. Lawrence]. Others have not been so lucky. So I started to come out of the UFO closet by the end of my teaching career. But I confess: I was a little reticent to do so.

I interviewed Edgar Mitchell once, the sixth man to walk on the moon. He believes in UFOs. He is also from Roswell [N.M., the site of the alleged UFO crash in June or July 1947]. Did you know that?

Yes, I did in fact.

This exchange was adapted from a podcast interview on ElectricPolitics.com.

George Kenney, a former career U.S. foreign service officer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. policy toward the Yugoslav conflict. He is now a writer in Washington, and host and producer of the podcast Electric Politics.

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