The existence of aliens is entirely possible, but unfortunately for amateur conspiracy theorists everywhere, they’re probably not controlling every aspect of human civilization. UK-based tabloid Daily Express is doing its part to ring in the festive post-truth season with an “ALIENS R REAL” take that is roughly 50 percent ALL CAPS, 50 percent slideshow, and 0 percent facts. That article, published Monday as “SHOCK CLAIM: Aliens CREATED the universe and are controlling every aspect RIGHT NOW,” was inspired by a recent Nautilus piece that speculated to what extent the laws of physics, especially the ones that govern dark matter, could have been artificially generated by an alien civilization vastly more advanced than our own. The Express interpretation can most charitably be characterized as ‘different, but the tl;dr is that it is wrong.
In publishing the original essay, Nautilus (which, it should be said, is a online magazine covering science, culture, and philosophy — not a journal, as the Express claims) decided to explore an unorthodox idea for the sake of discussion. It was not asserting a fact or presenting data for academic consideration. The Express apparently still felt super comfy saying that experts” were now doubting the Big Bang.
Dark matter, wrote Columbia University astrobiologist Caleb Scharf, is generally believed to be without a microstructure — but some believe it actually has a “rich inner life.” If that were the case, there’s the possibility that it’s being deliberately, artificially enhanced by a (very advanced) civilization, one that’s developed a method of transferring data from normal matter to dark. A dark-matter 3D printer, as Scharf says we might think of it.
Scharf ‘claimed’ nothing, but the Express’s mangled conclusion will be widely read and believed anyways. That’s a bummer, because the original piece is a nuanced, scientifically detailed, and rather beautiful exploration of the “fun possibilities” of a deliberately coded system so sophisticated, so total in its complexity, that we could interpret it only as natural laws of science — far beyond how even our technology today would be perceived by the earliest humans as mere magic. While there’s some science in the direction of supporting this, we don’t know enough to say anything definitive.
Yet the Express still took this passage written by Scharf:
“For example, if machines continue to grow exponentially in speed and sophistication, they will one day be able to decode the staggering complexity of the living world, from its atoms and molecules all the way up to entire planetary biomes. Presumably life doesn’t have to be made of atoms and molecules, but could be assembled from any set of building blocks with the requisite complexity. If so, a civilization could then transcribe itself and its entire physical realm into new forms. Indeed, perhaps our universe is one of the new forms into which some other civilization transcribed its world.”
And turned it into this:
“Columbia University’s Professor Caleb Scharf writes in an article for the scientific journal Nautilus the universe as we know it is what remains of super-intelligent aliens that dictate all aspects of the physical existence, ranging from gravity to light.”
People love the possibility of aliens, and this kind of deliberately reductive fact-massaging is merely the latest example of a long tradition of careless alien-hyping. Yes, the Express is a tabloid, and that we are all of us in the media beholden to the almighty click. But baiting people into the notion that aliens control everything — and attempting to say it was a scientist who said so — is not just real fucking silly, but also harmful to the discourse of actual science.
To the Express writer’s very marginal credit, he does use the word “argues” at other points, but the whole thing’s still a pretty careless distortion of the truth. As a general rule, maybe don’t trust a headline that begins with “SHOCK CLAIM.”