The monoliths from outer space (or maybe not)
Do we Earthlings NEED to believe in aliens? The appearance of strange monoliths in the Utah desert and Romania has fuelled speculation that creatures from another world want to make contact.
In prehistoric Africa, a tribe of apes wakes to an extraordinary sight. A tall, perfectly carved monolith has mysteriously appeared among them. The apes can make nothing of it – but shortly afterwards one of them picks up a bone and realises that he can use it as a weapon. The monolith seems to have triggered a crucial step in the development of mankind.
Many thousands of years later, a group of American scientists visits a colony on the Moon with which contact has been lost. There, they discover an identical monolith. As light from the sun strikes it, it emits an eerie high-powered radio signal.
These are scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s classic science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Based on a short story by Arthur C Clarke, The Sentinel, it was released in 1968. Now, over half a century later, echoes of it have started appearing in different parts of the Earth.
Two weeks ago, a team of biologists counting bighorn sheep by helicopter in the Utah desert spotted a gleaming monolith in a remote canyon. Made of metal and measuring over 12ft high, it had been carefully embedded in the ground.
How it had got there was a mystery. “It’s odd,” said a spokesman for Utah’s Department of Public Safety. “There are roads close by, but to haul the materials to cut into the rock, and haul the metal… To do all that in that remote spot is definitely interesting.” He added that the monolith could have been there for 70 or 80 years – and that leaving it in the desert without permission was illegal, “no matter what planet you’re from”.
One theory was that it was a land art installation – possibly by John McCracken, a minimalist artist with an interest in science fiction who died in 2011. Others suggested that it was a left-over movie prop: Red Rock Country, as it is known, has been a location for the Star Trek and Indiana Jones movies. But McCracken’s gallery and the Utah Film Commission dismissed both ideas.
So, had it been left by aliens? Those who believed it had were encouraged by the helicopter pilot’s description of it as “about the strangest thing that I’ve come across out there in all the years of flying”.
Then, on Friday night, there was a new development: a visiting photographer, Ross Bernards, saw four men arrive as if from nowhere and lever the monolith out of the ground. As it fell, it broke into pieces, which they carried away in a wheelbarrow. One of them was heard to say: “Leave no trace.”
Disappointingly, Bernards’s photos showed that the monolith was partly made of plywood. But this has not stopped speculation that it was removed by government agents to conceal evidence of alien activity.
The story does not end there. Yesterday brought reports that a similar monolith, triangular in shape and covered in a looping scrawl, had been found on a hill in Romania. Whether it was the work of a copycat artist or something more mysterious has yet to be established.
Do Earthlings need to believe in aliens?
Some say, yes: life would be very dull if we only thought about the physical world we inhabit. We have imaginations that need to be fed, which is why story-telling is such an essential part of human culture. And once we have imagined things, they can become reality: many works of science-fiction by writers such as Arthur C Clark have proved prophetic.
Others argue that the world is such an extraordinary place that there is no need to look beyond it. You only have to watch one of David Attenborough’s wildlife films to realise that miraculous things happen right under our noses. Buddhists teach that wisdom comes through acceptance – experiencing life as it is rather than trying to shape or embellish it.
- How would you explain to an alien the difference between human beings and the rest of the creatures on Earth?
- Would there be any point in creating a work of art in a place where nobody could see it?
- At the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, an astronaut finds a monolith orbiting Jupiter. Draw a map of the solar system showing the distances between Earth, the Moon and Jupiter.
- Draw a picture of a monolith in a remote location, with an inscription explaining in three sentences why aliens want to make contact with people on Earth.
Some People Say...
“If the government has been suppressing information about other life forms, that's the cruellest hoax of all.”Dwight Schultz (1947 - ), American actor
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that Arthur C Clarke had extraordinary insight into the future. In 1945 he predicted the creation of communication satellites, and in the 1960s he forecast that they would make possible a world “where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, possibly 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.”
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether crop circles are evidence of alien activity. These patterns have often been executed so skilfully and on such a large scale that some people believe that no human could have created them. But after a proliferation of them in the 1980s, two men, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, admitted to creating over 200 of them. They then demonstrated how to make the circles with a plank of wood and a rope.
- Stanley Kubrick
- An American film-maker famous for his perfectionism. His other films include Dr Strangelove and The Shining.
- Arthur C Clarke
- An English writer who published over 20 novels, as well as books about exploring space and the oceans.
- Bighorn sheep
- Mountain sheep native to North America. Their horns can weigh as much as 14kg.
- A state in the west of the US. Its capital, Salt Lake City, is the headquarters of the Mormon religion.
- Land art
- A movement which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, using natural materials found in the landscape. Its most famous practitioners today include Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy.
- John McCracken
- A Californian artist best known for his sculptures made with planks, such as Red Plank (1969), Plank (1976) and Plank (1980). His works have sold for over $200,000.
- Originally meaning a monument made out of a single piece of stone, the term is now applied to other pillar-like objects as well.