Dear Mom

My mother is spunky and smart and I love her very much. But she’s got this one trait that drives me crazy: she believes everything she sees on The History Channel.

I visited her in Michigan a few weeks ago. One night at a local brewery, with my sister, Charlotte, and her boyfriend, Greg, in tow, Mom began telling us about why she believes humans came to earth from another planet. “Your evolution theories can’t explain the pyramids,” she said triumphantly.

“How does that have anything to do with aliens?” I asked triumphantly.

Charlotte, who goes out to eat with Mom much more often than I do, looked at Greg and smirked.

“How else would the Egyptians have known how to build them?” Mom said.

“And what evidence, exactly, do you have to support our alien origins?” I said.

“Geometry!” she said.

She then went on and on about latitudes and longitudes and the Maya and alien images in cave paintings. I understood little of what she said, but knew enough to proclaim, too loudly, “That’s such bullshit, Mom!”

For the sake of continuing an otherwise pleasant meal, we dropped it. But I resolved to find out what nonsense she was talking about and eventually set her straight.

So I found out. And it’s as crazy as I thought.

Mom was most likely gleaning from a History Channel series called Ancient Aliens, which is based on the works of the “father of ancient alien theory” Erich von Däniken. In 1968, von Däniken wrote a book called Chariots of the Gods?, which is described on the History Channel’s website:

Däniken put forth his controversial hypothesis that, thousands of years ago, space travelers from other planets visited Earth, where they taught humans about technology and influenced ancient religions. As evidence, he pointed to religious texts in which heavenly beings with supernatural powers descend from the sky. He also suggested that extraterrestrials with superior knowledge of engineering helped ancient civilizations build architectural marvels like Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Maoi statues of Easter Island.

Some of the examples that Däniken (and the TV show) use as “evidence” are pretty amusing. Take a look at a relief found on the walls of an ancient Egyptian temple at the Dendera complex:

Reputable Egyptologists look at these depictions and see pillars, lotus flowers and snakes. Alien theorists see this as proof that the ancient Egyptians used electricity to light up their tombs.

Another example points to Pakal, a  leader of the Maya. To historians, the beautiful and intricate carving found on the lid of Pakal’s tomb shows him falling into the underworld, past the sun, the moon, celestial birds, a snake and a Maya water god. But to Däniken, Pakal is sitting in a rocket-powered spaceship, with his hands at the controls, his foot on a pedal and his mouth open for an oxygen tube. (Take a look at an outline of the carving here and see what you think.)

Then there’s the pyramids business. According to the History Channel’s website, the Great Pyramid of Giza lies “at the intersection of the longest lines of latitude and longitude.” Well, no, it doesn’t. The longest line of latitude is the equator, and the longest line of longitude is, well, all of them.

The pyramid lies at 30 degrees north and 31 degrees east. Perhaps what the website producers meant to write was a theory I found on the illustrious website Sacred Sites, which attests that the Giza Pyramid’s latitude and longitude lines “cross more of the earth’s land surface than any other lines, thus the pyramid is located at the center of the land mass of the earth.”* What does this mean? A whole lot, says Sacred Sites. “The builders knew the exact dimensions of the planet as precisely as they have been recently determined by satellite surveys.” Of course: it’s just geometry.

These ideas are amusing until you remember that some smart people like my mom will buy into them. I’m reminded of an essay I was assigned to read in one of my first science writing classes. It was written in 1982 by physicist Jeremy Bernstein, who had an eight-page bone to pick with Carl Sagan about the way he portrayed science in the wildly popular television show Cosmos. In the essay, Bernstein lays out three laws for explaining science on TV: 1) Do not try to make things more visual than they really are; 2) Do not speak more clearly than you think; and 3) Don’t overplay your hand.

Ancient Aliens doesn’t follow any of these rules, but the third one is the real tragedy. By “don’t overplay your hand,” Bernstein meant that writers and scientists should not frame science solely in terms of breakthroughs and discoveries. The best part about science is the thinking, the analyzing, the consolidating — the mystery. I’d say the same goes for history. There are plenty of juicy truths to divulge about ancient civilizations without the assistance of goddamn extraterrestrials.

*I asked my fellow LWONers what to make of this land mass idea. Richard took out an actual globe (!) and, with the help of this website, determined that yes, 30N and 31E probably pass through more land than do any other lines of latitude and longitude. He also offered his own theory, based on reckless speculation: the Egyptians built the pyramids at 30N, 31E because that’s where they lived.

Images from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

I can’t find an online version of Bernstein’s essay, called “Can TV Really Teach Science?” It’s chapter 12 of his book Science Observed.

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing