By Brady Ng
It was the 1990s. I paced a sidewinder’s path between the columns in front of old shophouses on my way home from school, or cut through a wet market that was wetter back then than it is now. At night, once a week, four words flashed on our living room TV screen—I want to believe—before The X-Files plunged me into a world of paranoia, uncertainty, and chaos for an hour. There were resolutions, sometimes, for one-offs, but the important questions in the show were rarely answered. Some of the worst assumptions metastasized in my mind and in the series for years, but there were a few ideas that were overarchingly clear as the story unfolded: Monsters are real, even though they are not always monstrous. Powerful people do not care about you; cover-ups abound. There is something unfriendly out there, intelligent and conspiratorial.
Maybe believing the worst, believing in something that you can’t see, is a way of thinking that nobody is ever alone. That there can be other forces linking us together even if we’re unaware of those connections.
Decades later, something real happened. In 2017, a Canadian physicist named Robert Weryk noticed a curious baguette-shaped object in an image of the sky captured by the Pan-STARRS telescope at the Haleakalā Observatory in Hawai’i. Studying the object further, researchers discovered it was up to 1,000 m long and just about one-tenth that wide, with an axis ratio unlike anything else previously identified in our own Solar System. It gained speed in space, but not because it was interacting with gravitational forces from nearby planets or stars. And unlike comets that get close to our sun, it did not have an observable tail or a coma, deepening the mystery. These physical qualities and behaviors baffled Weryk and other folks who wonder about what goes on beyond our atmosphere. The celestial object became the subject of intense scrutiny among scientists and astronomers. Someone named it ‘Oumuamua—a Hawaiian word meaning scout, leader, messenger.
No proposition was too far out. News outlets were quick to seize on the idea that ‘Oumuamua was more than a crag in space.
CNN: Interstellar object may have been alien probe . . . but experts are skeptical.
CBS News: Harvard scientists say interstellar object may be a probe sent by “alien civilization.”
Fox News: Mysterious interstellar object could be “lightsail” sent from another civilization.
You get the idea. The fear or excitement or wonder of intelligent life from another world get clicks, even if Pan-STARRS didn’t really give us a glimpse of an alien creation. The word “visitor” was used to describe ‘Oumuamua often, invoking mental links to intergalactic tourists who might treat a stop on Earth like a roadside picnic, and the “interstellar” label pointed squarely at Christopher Nolan’s film from 2014. Textual cues blended science with fiction. It was a diversion from problems on Earth, the sort of share you would come across on Facebook or Twitter or Reddit, letting it suck up five minutes of attention. Pop science makes for a good escape hatch.
‘Oumuamua points to our sensorial limitations. We can see it in the sense that we know it’s there, but we can’t see it clearly enough to say what it is definitively. If the universe ever actively showed us there was an unsettled relation between what we see and what we know, then this was it. We knew just enough for some scientists to suggest ‘Oumuamua is an assembled craft. But more likely, this “first interstellar visitor” was a rock that had been pulled and pressed by the gravities of a new world as it was formed, or an expulsion from a planet that was destroyed during a star’s supernova—the product of extreme forces, birthed in uncaring devastation. Celestial flotsam. Origin unknown. Destination uncharted.
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Suspension of disbelief provides a sense of certainty, a groundedness that is absent in many other moments of our lives. Who wants to be alone in the universe—or in any headspace, however unlikely our imagined futures may be? Popular fronts are not formed overnight. I am not alone when I say that, for years, an ambient presence has been percolating, waiting to be named, impossible to ignore if you care about the place you call home and the strangers who share it with you. The turning point is constantly five ticks away, but still it is so hard to define or describe it.
It was the final year of the 2010s. Streets were no longer being used in the way they were intended. Light-emitting diodes embedded in smartphones lit up the night like constellations piercing through the deep blue firmament. Chills shot through from body to body as the inchoate became manifest, ideas and expectations nearly palpable. Everyone was serious but also ready to smile. Tears dropped. Our sweat beaded on skin that eventually broke and bled and formed scars later. Still we ache for comfort in unnamed associations as we drown in the conspiracies and confusions of a city of greed and greatness.
Brady Ng is a nonfiction editor of Cicada. His work covers contemporary visual culture, world news from East and Southeast Asia, as well as tech.