If E.T. or one of those cute little aliens in Close Encounters showed up on your doorstep, you’d invite them in, give them a hug, maybe even help them phone home. But if the extraterrestrials from Aliens or War of the Worlds came calling, you’d run for your life.

But what if the visitors from afar were invisible to the naked eye? Say, mere microbes or single-celled creatures?

Science magazine unveiled new research suggesting we’d welcome the microscopic stranger among us, according to three studies presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Austin, Texas.

In one study, a software program analyzed 15 articles about the possibility of alien life, and whether those articles indicated positive or negative emotions. The study found three times more positive words than negative ones. Another study indicated that people would have positive reactions to the existence of microbial extraterrestrial life. In the third study, participants were overwhelmingly positive in their reactions to a New York Times article describing microbial life on Mars.

Tellingly, writes Jessica Scarfuto of Science, the new research “did not look at whether people would feel differently if actual beings were discovered rather than microbes—those reactions might be quite different.”

The Atlantic interviewed Michael Varnum, who directed the first of the three studies mentioned above. Varnum, a psych prof at Arizona State University, is a member of the school’s Interplanetary Initiative, a space-exploration research project.

He told The Atlantic that as long as the extraterrestrial life was microbial, we Earthlings would welcome it/them with open arms. But “if there were a lot of spaceships and they had weapons and they were coming to Earth, I’m guessing the reaction would be very different,” Varnum says.

The story also reported that these findings were “welcome news” to those who study astrobiology, including René Heller, a German astrophysicist who recently asked subjects to decode a fake alien transmission. From the 300 responses, Heller told The Atlantic he was “delighted to see that the experimental subjects tended to associate the discovery of extraterrestrial life with positive emotions. This is good to see because an equally plausible outcome would have been for people to associate this kind of news with fear, e.g., of being conquered or being erased as a civilization in its entirety.”

Shifting opinions

Also at the AAAS meeting, physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies noted how people’s attitudes about the possible existence of alien life has changed in recent years.

“Opinion has shifted from life’s origin being a bizarre fluke unique in the universe . . . to the belief that the universe is teeming with life,” said Davies, a former Templeton Prize winner. “How can we settle the matter? For several decades, astronomers have been sweeping the skies with radio telescopes hoping to stumble across a message from ET. So far they have been met by an eerie silence.

“Meanwhile, astrobiologists have considered how signatures of microbial life might be detectable in the solar system or in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets. If life really does form readily in Earth-like conditions, it should have started many times right here on Earth, so we should look for a ‘shadow biosphere’ of life, but not as we know it, under our very noses.”

Indeed. It’s interesting that people seem relatively unafraid of microscopic invaders, especially in light of the most recent flu season, which killed almost 100 children in the U.S. Not to mention the numerous plagues throughout world history, including the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) of the 14th Century, which killed some 75 million people. And who can forget such films as Outbreak, The Omega Man, World War Z, 28 Days Later, Contagion, I Am Legend, and The Andromeda Strain?

And if there ever were a real alien invasion—not the cute, cuddly E.T. type, but the kill-and-destroy kind—we could always take a lead from H.G. Wells and fight back with microbes of our own.

Remember how the Martians were finally succumbed at the end of his book? By pathogens—“slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared . . . slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”

(ET image: Shutterstock)
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Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine