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E.T., Phone Home

Probably one of the most-quoted lines from any movie with an alien plot line. Elliot’s buddy, and one of cinema’s most beloved characters, owes his name to the word “extraterrestrial,” or life that originated in any place but on Earth. Due to lack of universally accepted scientific evidence, the existence of alien life remains hypothetical, but the idea of meeting and communicating with aliens remains widely popular. In fact, the University of California at Berkeley has an endowed chair, the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, devoted to SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In addition, the SETI Institute was founded in 1984 to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”

Flying Saucers Attack! Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Copernicus discussing matters of astronomy beneath Medici family ducal crown and banner. 1632

The belief in a “plurality of worlds” dates back to the time of Copernicus. Copernicus wasn’t revolutionary—he agreed with the Aristotelian model of the universe wherein all the stars were thought to be affixed to an outer sphere surrounding Earth with the sun at the center. The person who first suggested that stars are suns, those suns have planets and their planets have inhabitants was the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, whose views got him was burned at the stake in 1600.

Benjamin Franklin was a firm believer both in other worlds and in the superiority of their inhabitants to humankind. In Poor Richard’s Almanac for September 1749, he wrote, “It is the opinion of all the modern philosophers and mathematicians that the planets are habitable worlds.” Many of our nation’s other revolutionary thinkers were interested in the idea of extra solar worlds, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Thomas Paine.

The Library’s Science, Technology and Business Division has put together a Science Tracer Bullet on extraterrestrial life. Listed are resources that can be found in the Library itself and at public libraries, along with additional sources of information such as web sites and organizations in the field of study. The Library’s Science Tracer Bullet Series contains research guides that help researchers locate information on science and technology subjects, offering brief introductions to the topics, lists of resources and strategies for finding more.

The presence of organic compounds in space has been observed, linking the search for life on other planets to the search of understanding the origins of life. In July 2007, the Library hosted a lecture with 2006 Nobel Laureates Craig Mello and John Mather, who discussed the fundamental question of origins of life and the universe. In addition, Buzz Aldrin was also a featured lecturer at the Library. Participating in the 2005 National Book Festival, he presented a talk on his children’s book “Reaching for the Moon” and his ideas on exploring the universe.

A. Flying Saucers Attack! Prints and Photographs Division. SUMMARY: Poster for movie starring Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor and Donald Curtis, illustrated with flying saucers, dead Earth people and spacemen from an alien planet. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZC2-553 (color film copy slide); Call No.: POS - MOT. PIC. [P&P]

B. Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Copernicus discussing matters of astronomy beneath Medici family ducal crown and banner. 1632. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-95172 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: Illus. in QB41.G14 Rosenwald Coll. 1350 [Rare Book RR]