The Enterprise Mission and the Anatomy of Credulity: The Face on Mars in "Contact"
1. "Now You See It..."
In the opening scene in the Robert Zemeckis film "Contact," based on the best-selling novel by Carl Sagan, the viewer is given a jaw-dropping, faster-than-light tour of the Cosmos as the "camera" zooms out from a view of Earth. The planets are rendered with computer-generated savvy, so perhaps it comes as no surprise to note that Mars features an inconspicuous lump the special effects team assures us is none other than the famous "Face."
The Face in "Contact" is visible in the lower-left corner.
The blink-and-you-missed-it effect is noted by effects artists Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum in one of their "making of" featurettes on the "Contact" DVD, and came to my attention after The Enterprise Mission (TEM) posted its latest article ("The High Priestess of SETI Speaks"). I initially questioned TEM's claim, since I'd viewed the DVD and recalled no reference to the Face; as it turns out, I had listened to one of two FX voice-overs describing the opening sequence: the one that excludes mention of the Face.
Fans of "Mission to Mars," with its elaborate revisionist version of the Face, are likely to be disappointed by "Contact's" depiction of the controversial surface feature. Seen up close, it looks like nothing in particular, and neighboring anomalies such as the Cliff appear to be absent.
2. Cool Special Effects or Conspiratorial Sleight-of-Hand?
TEM suggests that the presence of the Face in "Contact" represents an inside agenda on behalf of Carl Sagan, upon whose book the screenplay was based. Possible? Yes. Likely? No.
Richard Hoagland and Mike Bara, TEM's most public advocates, are correct in their characterization of Carl Sagan as a politically conscious figure with the resources and know-how to sculpt his public image. In "Carl Sagan: A Life," author Keay Davidson notes that Sagan's early "debunking" of UFO reports was motivated more out of desire to appear acceptable to his colleagues (to whom Sagan's thoughts on exobiology and interstellar travel seemed esoteric if not downright eccentric) than personal interest in the phenomenon.
Dr. Carl Sagan.
Sagan's view of the Face on Mars evolved from outright dismissal to reluctant caution (as exemplified in his notorious article in "Parade" magazine and his commentary in "The Demon-Haunted World," respectively).
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However, the notion that Sagan controlled all aspects of the "Contact" film project (which was completed after his death) is false. Sagan obviously wielded a degree of authority in the adaptation of his novel, but the film bears Robert Zemeckis' creative signature. A case in point is the opening sequence described above. In one of the commentaries available on the DVD, Ralston and Rosenbaum point out that that the idea for the opening sequence was submitted to Sagan for his opinion (and not the other way around). This tends to cast doubt on TEM's implication that including the Face was Sagan's personal doing. (In theory, Sagan could have retroactively insisted on including the Face, but the jocular comments shared by the FX artists strongly suggest it was entirely their own doing. And if Sagan had spontaneously decided the Face demanded inclusion, I find it extremely odd that Ralston and Rosenbaum don't mention this most unusual request from none other than one of the century's most important scientists.)
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And why not simply mention the Face in his novel, over which he had unquestioned and complete control? The only reference to Mars is a dismissive comment about a rover revealing an unspecified Martian "pyramid" to be a natural landform. This is certainly bizarre behavior for a man supposedly bent on "leaking" the alleged reality of monumental architecture on Mars. Are we to accept that the Face's almost-cameo in the film is anything other than a clever attempt at verisimilitude?
3. Secret Agendas, Life on Mars, and The Enterprise Mission: An Epistemological Meltdown
Supposition is not evidence. By forcing the Cydonia enigma into a convoluted and restrictive conceptual framework, TEM has often helped to trivialize the planetary SETI inquiry. At the same time, there is no doubt that NASA has indeed misrepresented itself in its dealings with the Face. TEM's fault is not its willingness to address possible conspiracies and hidden knowledge, but its certainty that such conspiracies exist based on conveniently "symbolic" evidence. The Sagan/Face on Mars/"Contact" scenario (which makes no sense even if true) is the latest in a dreary parade of vague coincidences TEM has plugged into its grand unified theory, from the comical ("Tom Corbett: Space Cadet") to the illucid (i.e., secret knowledge of Cydonian tetrahedral mathematics encoded in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey").
Of course, TEM has accused me of dishonest and sinister motives whenever I've expressed even a hint of skepticism in the pages of the Cydonian Imperative. I don't blame them. TEM commands a prodigious readership, and principal investigator Richard Hoagland has become (rightly) near-synonymous with the "Face on Mars." His eagerly anticipated appearances on Art Bell's late-night talk-radio program are never less than fascinating, if for no other reason than the phildickian nuances he grants even the dry bones of NASA insider politics.
TEM's appeal is comparable to that of "The X-Files"--which, interestingly, TEM occasionally uses as a source. As entertainment, TEM fills a void with its inimitable formula of paranoia and science; Hoagland and Bara have created a thoroughly postmodern venue in which fact and fiction are broken down into pixels and liberally blended. TEM's role is seated more in myth-making than "science" in any conventional usage of the word.
Paradoxically (and to TEM's credit), a substantial portion of its science is quite real: TEM's website features provocative and plausible explanations for various Martian phenomena. But the site's substrate of unsubstantiated claims, reliance on (literal) science fiction, implied accusation, and truly Olympian leaps of "logic" only undermines the central issue: Are there artificial structures on Mars, and if so, how does such a discovery effect us as a civilization and as a species?
"Tom Corbett" in "Zippy the Pinhead"
The day after writing the above editorial (which references the alleged conspiratorial implications of the "Tom Corbett" mythos), "Corbett" was mentioned in my favorite comic strip, "Zippy the Pinhead." Cartoonist Bill Griffith satirizes our cultural obsession with oddball trivia; in this case, Griffy, Griffith's alter-ego, confides to Zippy (Griffith's other alter-ego) that although he's sure he's memorized the adventures of his boyhood hero, the exact shape of Corbett's spaceship escapes him.
Griffith's strip is an inadvertant commentary on the Mars anomaly community, with Griffy's "real-life" concerns overshadowing Zippy's credulity and sense of bemused wonder.
Thanks to Bill Griffith for permission to post "Zippy." For more weirdness, check out Zippy's official website.
SETI and Intelligent Alien Life in the Solar System
1. The Demise of "Academic" SETI?
The "mainstream" Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has finally conceded that it's not impossible that aliens are already here, rather than diligently manning radio telescopes hundreds of light years away. Inevitably interpreted by some as signaling a conspiratorial inside agenda, SETI's change of perspective is more accurately attributed to recent advances in science and their implications for the human future.
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While SETI continues to ridicule the UFO phenomenon as evidence of ET visitation, arguments by physicist/ufologist Stanton Friedman, outlined in the new issue of New Frontiers in Science, remain especially topical. Friedman, a long-time critic of SETI's justifications (he's interpreted the acronym as "Silly Effort To Investigate"), has justifiably lambasted the "old school" SETI assumption that extraterrestrial civilizations will necessarily forego interstellar travel because of the daunting requirements of chemical rockets. Indeed, SETI's long-held contention that beings thousands or millions of years more advanced than us would be constrained by Apollo-era technology (already near-obsolete here on Earth) has always seemed something of a convenient anachronism for researchers content to keep the study of ETI comfortably academic.
2. The Postbiological Cosmos
Rapid advances in computing, manufacturing and physics (theoretical and otherwise) suggest that intelligent extraterrestrials (assuming they exist), are almost certainly more exotic and technically capable that previously assumed. Scientists such as roboticist Hans Moravec, who predicts that the human species will become effectively obsolete within the next few hundred years, and K. Eric Drexler, whose work with nanotechnology has done nothing less than redefine how futurists view the coming decades, have collectively modeled a future in which artificial intelligence is near-omnipresent ("ubiquitous computing" or "ubicomp") and practical travel between stars is moved out of the arena of wishful thinking and into the realm of the imminently possible.
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Recent books such as Moravec's "Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind" and Ray Kurzweil's "The Age of Spiritual Machines" present technologies as optimistic as any dreamed by Arthur C. Clarke--and as potentially hazardous as the dystopian nightmares of neo-Luddite Bill Joy.
At the same time, breakthroughs in fields as seemingly arcane as quantum teleportation (and possibly antigravity) reveal a universe alive with untapped potential. If the human species can survive what astronomer Carl Sagan poetically termed our "technological adolescence," predicting the future with any hope of accuracy becomes impossible. In all probability, the minds that will plot our trajectory through the next millennium will be humanity's cybernetic offspring; the role of humans as we know them is quite unguessable (although Moravec argues that we will coexist peacefully with our "mind children," perhaps even merging with them until the distinction between "animate"and "inanimate" is thoroughly dissolved).
3. SETI's Disturbing Double Standard
Such speculation fuels SETI's new intellectual renaissance, as addressed by senior researchers Seth Shostak and Jill Tarter (the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in "Contact"). SETI's reappraisal of the galactic neighborhood is both welcome and long overdue. Rather than reflecting a hidden agenda, SETI's willingness to entertain once-heretical notions indicates the (perhaps grudging) need to acknowledge the changing scientific zeitgeist.
However, SETI's implicit rejection of UFOs and evidence for extraterrestrial artifacts on Mars betrays its frailty as a political entity. Ignoring the evidence in Cydonia is ironic, as Carl Sagan's own early calculations suggested that our solar system may have been visited once every 20,000 years. Even if Sagan grossly overestimated, a single visiting ET civilization could have left artifacts within our ability to discover. (This scenario is presented in the Brookings Institute's famous report to NASA, with Mars cited as a candidate for ET intervention.)
Interestingly, mainstream SETI astronomers have made no secret of their searches for "Bracewell probes," theoretical automatic devices left by visiting civilizations (much like the "monolith" left buried on the Moon in "2001"). Bracewell probes, in any exist, are thought to occupy orbital Lagrange points, where they can remain stable for millennia. Acting as calling cards, such devices could alert their long-departed creators upon detecting intelligent life; conversely, the probes themselves could establish a dialogue with an emerging technical species. (I personally think that such a "machine intelligence" could be responsible for some UFO encounters. A similar hypothesis has recently been advanced by Richard Dolan, author of "UFOs and the National Security State.")
Since SETI is willing to look for ET artifacts in space, why not planetary surfaces? Perhaps if the disconcertingly human-like "Face" hadn't first been discovered and popularized, radio SETI's attitude toward "planetary SETI" (the search for ETI on planetary bodies such as the Moon and Mars) would be different. Cydonia, with its implied "terrestrial connection," has been neatly excluded from mainstream SETI research for no apparent scientific reason (NASA's erroneous "tricks of light" and bungled MOLA data notwithstanding).
Merging planetary SETI and mainstream radio SETI promises to advance objective efforts to detect intelligent alien life, even if eventual "contact" is one-way. The hoped-for signal sought by Jill Tarter may not be an electromagnetic emission from some distant sun, but a collection of geometric anomalies on a planet we've already pronounced as "dead."
Not long ago, a geologist involved in JPL's robotic exploration of Mars remarked that the proper way to view the fourth planet was to "expect the unexpected." We would be wise to apply this maxim to the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence as well.
"Inca City" Part of Enigmatic Semicircular Formation
A fascinating new image posted on Malin Space Science Systems' website shows the famous "Inca City" feature (sometimes confused with the "City" area in Cydonia by debunkers) comprising a small portion of an unusual semicircular arrangement.
Surprising new image of the "Inca City" in context.
Close-up of Inca City. Note dark spots.
Close-up of Inca City. Note dark spots.
MSSS suggests we're seeing an unexplained circular feature, possibly caused by an ancient meteor impact. But the anomalous feature is clearly semicircular. If once circular, it's possible that the "missing" half has been covered by sand or otherwise "swallowed" by the landscape. Perhaps infrared imagery will reveal the assumed "missing" half, if it exists.
Circular or semicircular, the "Inca Ring" could be an immense artificial structure of some kind. Personally, I find a natural explanation harder to accept if this feature is in fact "merely" semicircular.
For more information on this unusual and controversial feature, see: "Life in the 'Inca City'?" on page 10.
Indigenous Humanoids on Mars?
1. Panspermia and Genetic Exchange
The more we explore Mars, the more earthlike our model of the planet becomes. Billions of years ago, Mars and Earth were probably virtual twins, and even mainstream aerologists agree that the prospects for primitive life at some point are good.
As NASA's harvest of Martian chemical and geological data continues, the implications of ancient Martian life take on special urgency. Are there "oases" of life on Mars? Could life be more varied and tenacious than expected (i.e., Arthur C. Clarke's "banyan trees")? And what, if any, impact has Mars' ecology had on Earth?
Space debris could transport hardy microbes from planet to planet. Image courtesy Dr. Tom Van Flandern.
Unfortunately, questions outweigh answers. Well-known astronomer Fred Hoyle promoted the concept of "panspermia," in which hibernating microscopic life is shuttled through space inside comets and planetary debris. (In "Diseases from Space," Hoyle argued that terrestrial life originated not on Earth but inside comets.) Panspermia has become increasingly accepted among exobiologists, who note that Earth and Mars actually exchange tons of matter annually.
Obviously, if lifeforms are capable of hitching rides between planets, then the classic debate concerning the presumed uniqueness of DNA becomes meaningless. Life on Earth could have Martian ancestry, or Martian life could have terrestrial ancestry. Or, if Hoyle's cometary origins theory is correct, Mars and Earth could host life foreign to both planets. Ultimately, we may all be unwitting immigrants from the Oort Cloud.
Theoretically, panspermia could accelerate evolution on a recipient planet by importing ready-made DNA sequences or even simple organisms. The possibility of bio-friendly planets being genetically "jump-started" threatens the prevailing exobiological wisdom that Mars "wasn't alive long enough" to produce advanced/intelligent life.
2. Whose "Face" Is It?
If the Face on Mars is artificial, how do we reconcile its humanoid likeness with its bizarre location? Two hypotheses address this problem by postulating
a.) an unknown Earth civilization that voyaged to Mars in antiquity
b.) extrasolar aliens who used terrestrial protohumans as their inspiration.
Either case could be close to the truth. But panspermia may discard the need for both "ancient astronauts" and aliens. If Earth and Mars "shared" their genetic heritage, it's not impossible that a human-like species could have evolved on Mars. But "human-like" is a broad description, and even the most literal adherents to the "parallel evolution" school doubt that dissimilar planetary environments could produce identical species. The Klingons and Romulans of "Star Trek" are good examples of such evolutionary impossibilities, as is the alleged "alien" in the eponymous "autopsy footage."
However, there's no reason why separately evolved species based on the same genetic template should diverge too radically. Although perhaps anthropomorphically biased, author Isaac Asimov argued that the basic human frame--two legs and arms with a head--is a practical shape with lots of room for deviation.
Of peripheral interest is "remote viewer" Joe McMoneagle's descriptions of indigenous Martians: tall and broad-chested (presumably denoting expanded lung capacity). These details match what might be expected for beings adapted to Mars' relatively low gravity and reduced air pressure. While such creatures would be hard-pressed to survive on Mars now, beings such as McMoneagle's humanoids could have flourished before Mars lost the bulk of its atmosphere.
[Comment: I cite McMoneagle's description of "Martians" simply because it's a good illustration. For purposes of this website, it's immaterial whether his description is based on actual psychic observation (whatever that may entail) or simply made up. --M.T.]
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Science fiction writer Frederik Pohl addresses similar issues in his novel "Man "Plus," in which an astronaut is surgically altered to withstand Mars' uncompromising conditions sans spacesuit.
3. The Architects of Cydonia
The humanoid Face on Mars has convinced a majority of speculators that--if artificial--it must have something to do with us. This possibility cannot be dismissed. But there is the equally unsettling possibility that the Face was constructed by beings who just happened to look something like us, never dreaming that their megalithic art would ultimately become a controversy among beings from a neighboring planet.
(The Face, debatably a split image comparable to cultural iconography on Earth, might represent an indigenous Martian leader or god. If so, the anthropological insights provided by an expedition to Cydonia would likely tell us just as much about ourselves as the presumed Martians. There just might be a crucial lesson to be learned if it turns out the Face is a relic of an extinct Martian civilization.)
One doesn't have to browse too many esoteric Mars websites to know how this particular scenario plays out: threatened by decaying conditions on their native planet, the Martians evacuate to a prehistoric Earth to start anew...
Perhaps the single-most startling aspect of this clichéd notion is that it's entirely possible.
Preliminary Comments on Enterprise Mission/THEMIS Controversy
Cydonia-watchers have recently been treated to (or subjected to, depending on one's point of view...) a lengthy, convoluted argument by Mike Bara and Richard Hoagland, who now insist (not for the first time) that the "smoking gun" for artificial structures on Mars has been discovered. The evidence for this is a supposed THEMIS infrared image showing the Face, Fort and D&M Pyramid protruding above an apparent underground patchwork of rectilinear features.
While I'm waiting for Hoagland, et al, to release more information before writing my own "final" report on the recent claims, study of the available data leads me to the opinion that Hoagland/Bara have fallen victim to a clever hoax.
I'll post more as soon as some of the digital dust has settled (as I write this, the Enterprise site is so choked with requests that even looking at the images under debate is near-impossible).
Thanks for your patience. In the meantime, refer to The Electric Warrior and
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