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Globe Focus: First Contact

Looking for aliens in all the wrong places Add to ...

In the television series V, flying saucers bring advanced “Visitors” to 29 cities of Earth. They cure disease and recruit teenagers to be ambassadors of cross-species peace. The Visitors soothe their new hosts with blandishments, but are secretly infiltrating Earth’s population and a few wily humans learn their secret: The aliens are lizard-like beneath their perfect human faces, concealing nefarious plans.

This scenario is not implausible, according to the world’s leading astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking. “Advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planet they could reach,” he proposes in a new documentary series launched on the Discovery Channel this week, kicking off a firestorm of media attention. Think of humans as the bewildered natives on the shore, Dr. Hawking added, and the alien as a tech-savvy Christopher Columbus – who got the best side of that story?

Trying to communicate with them, Dr. Hawking concludes, “is a little too risky.”

Unless they are already here. In April, , a survey of 22,000 people in 22 different countries reported that one in five respondents said they agreed either “strongly or somewhat” that extraterrestrials are already living in their communities, disguised as human beings. That works out to a lot of people presumably with humanoid aliens as neighbours – especially in China and India, where the number of people agreeing with that statement came in at an astonishing 42 and 43 per cent respectively. Canadians were more skeptical at 16 per cent: Which was less than the Americans at 24 per cent, but bigger believers than western European countries such as Denmark, at 8 per cent.

“Were the respondents drunk?” said Susan Clancy, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the author of Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens, echoing other sociologists’ doubts.

But surveys over the past few decades have shown an enduring belief in E.T. encounters. A 2005 Gallup poll, for instance, found that 24 per cent of Americans and 21 per cent of Canadians believe that “extraterrestrial beings have visited the Earth at some time in the past.” Believers also include Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who said in 2007 that the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration had covered up UFO visits; Miyki Hatoyama, the first lady of Japan, who insists a UFO carried her to Venus; and a portion of Denver’s citizenry who is pushing for an August vote that would require the city to form a commission to collect evidence that E.T. has already landed.

“There are a lot of people, more than you think, who do believe in impossible things, like aliens and abduction ..., and that [aliens]are here on Earth walking among us,” says Dr. Clancy, whose research included people from every social strata. “We’re exposed to a lot of cultural scripts [movies]that tell us it’s possible ... and most of us want to believe it’s possible.”

While India and China are not normally considered hotbeds of alien activity by science-fiction enthusiasts, news reports suggest that the level of belief in E.T. and UFOs may be on the rise. Both countries are emerging superpowers, with space programs. And both countries have a rich mythology of spirits and demons, and a strong tradition, in literature, of gods and goddesses taking human form.

“The notion that a being with the great powers of a godhead can move in the guise of humans or animals is already available in the mythology and religion of the region,” says Anand Mahadevan, a Toronto-based novelist who grew up in India, and who posed the question this week to some friends and colleagues back home. And supernatural beliefs can be sustained alongside science, he says. “Some teachers of physics who understand the mechanics of the lunar eclipse will still pray so that the demons Rahu and Ketu who are swallowing the moon will release it back.”

Science fiction is popular in Asia – Arthur C. Clarke was a long-time resident of Sri Lanka – and UFO sightings get widespread media attention. One theory, reported in the Times of India, suggests that the high number of UFO sightings in India may be linked to Hindu belief in mystical flying chariots.

China is also reaching for the stars, in reality and in imagination. An infamous sighting during a daytime solar eclipse in Deqing, China, was caught on film by students in 2009 and shown on Chinese television. The Chinese UFO Research Organization claims to be the largest network of ufologists in the world.

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