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Little Green Men are enough

One of the better-known quotes from the original “Star Trek” series came from Mr. Spock, who, in describing a space colony, said “there is no life .... at least no life as we know it.” That quotation is echoed in the breathless descriptions by scientists of a newly found bacterium, one that can digest arsenic instead of the phosphorus processed by other life forms. The organism was found in California’s Mono Lake.

The discovery was important in itself, but scientists were quick to extrapolate from it to speculate about what it might mean for extraterrestrial life. NASA described the discovery as “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Gerald Joyce, a chemist and molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, said: “It’s a really nice story about the adaptability of our life form. It gives food for thought about what might be possible in another world.”

Perhaps, but we don’t see popular culture abandoning its preference for alien life forms that look like human beings or (in the case of monsters) terrestrial animals. From the blue-skinned inhabitants of Pandora in “Avatar” to the bulbous-brained aliens of “Mars Attacks!,” aliens in films and television programs tend to track the template of human beings. Even on “Star Trek,” the memorable aliens had two arms, two legs and recognizably human faces — even if their ears were pointed.

Hollywood has been a bit more flexible in depicting non-intelligent alien life forms. “The Blob,” a memorable 1950s monster, didn’t look like any known species. But other menaces — giant spiders and Gila monsters, for example — were recognizable kin to real-world creatures.

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In the past, this earthbound approach to the depiction of alien life reflected the practicalities of production. Putting a mask or a prosthesis on a human actor was a lot easier than constructing an alien from scratch. But in the age of computer-generated digital effects, it’s possible to portray a truly exotic life form — even an arsenic-eater. Yet the appeal of “human” aliens persists.

It may be that despite scientific breakthroughs, humans simply lack the imagination to conceive of intelligent beings dramatically different from themselves. We’re interested in encountering life beyond the stars — but only life as we know it.


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