For beings that are supposedly alien to human culture, extraterrestrials are pretty darn common. You can find them in all sorts of cultural contexts, from comic books, sci-fi novels and conspiracy theories to Hollywood films and old television reruns. There’s Superman and Doctor Who, E.T. and Mindy’s friend Mork, Mr. Spock, Alf, Kang and Kodos and My Favorite Martian. Of course, there’s just one hitch: They’re all fictional. So far, real aliens from other worlds have refused to show their faces on the real-world Earth — or even telephone, text or tweet. As the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi so quotably inquired during a discussion about aliens more than six decades ago, “Where is everybody?”
Scientific inquiry into the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence still often begins by pondering Fermi’s paradox: The universe is vast and old, so advanced civilizations should have matured enough by now to send emissaries to Earth. Yet none have. Fermi suspected that it wasn’t feasible or that aliens didn’t think visiting Earth was worth the trouble. Others concluded that they simply don’t exist. Recent investigations indicate that harsh environments may snuff out nascent life long before it evolves the intelligence necessary for sending messages or traveling through space.
In any event, Fermi’s question did not launch humankind’s concern with visitors from other planets. Imagining other worlds, and the possibility of intelligent life-forms inhabiting them, did not originate with modern science or in speculative fiction. In the ancient world, philosophers argued about the possibility of multiple universes; in the Middle Ages the question of the “plurality of worlds” and possible inhabitants occupied the deepest of thinkers, spawning intricate and controversial philosophical, theological and astronomical debate. Far from being a merely modern preoccupation, life beyond Earth has long been a burning issue animating the human race’s desire to understand itself, and its place in the cosmos.