The View From Here

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The Independent Online
Are you sure that little grey aliens aren't visiting Earth and abducting the occasional unsuspecting victim? Of course, you may be one of the 27 per cent who believe in extraterrestial visitors, but let's suppose, like me, you think it pretty unlikely. I mean, if these aliens are so clever that they can solve the problems of space travel and actually get here, why do they need to penetrate human bodies to steal eggs for their breeding programme? And if they can pop through ceilings without disturbing the paint, how come their memory suppression breaks down under hypnosis?

Ridicule is easy, but it doesn't actually answer the question. However daft the whole idea of alien abductions seems, it just might be true - and no scientist ought to proclaim with absolute certainty that it cannot be. But should we spend time and effort finding out?

The other day a young man stood in front of me holding in his hand a tiny object that he said had been implanted in the roof of his mouth by aliens who had been abducting him regularly for many years. Did I want to see it? Would I test it for him? Well, would I?

Since presenting a television programme on the subject of alien abduction in the BBC Horizon series, I have met many "abductees". I have become convinced that the vast majority of them have experienced sleep paralysis, which leaves limbs quite normally paralysed during dreaming still paralysed on waking. This, coupled with other sensations created by sleep paralysis - seeing a bright light, hearing a buzzing sound, sensing someone near, and sexual arousal, which is common during dreaming - is interpreted as abduction, much as people used to interpret it as visitations by incubi or succubi.

The almost total lack of physical evidence is one of the many reasons for doubting their stories are literally true. I have to admit I have seen a pair of alien-stained underpants and have felt a number of bumps under the skin claimed to be "implants". But most implants are either sneezed out of the nose and lost, or simply disappear without trace when a scanner comes in sight. But here was one - of course I wanted to see it.

It was about 3mm long and a dull metallic grey. One end was flat; the other rounded, and one side was marked with stripes or indentations - but you couldn't see much with the naked eye. I needed help.

I was, to be frank, a bit embarrassed. I knew we must have microscopes, and whatever else we might need, in the university - but what would the real lab scientists think if I asked for help with an "alien implant"? I plucked up courage and put out a request for help on the internal e- mail. They might laugh - or pompously explain that expensive equipment shouldn't be used for frivolous pursuits. But that's the whole point. What if it weren't frivolous but true?

I needn't have worried. Within an hour I had three offers of help, and by the next day twice that many. The consensus was that the scanning electron microscope would reveal the surface structure and an X-ray microanalyser could determine the constituent elements. The "abductee" and I set off.

First step, a stereo microscope. I have never used one, and loved it, but that was nothing to the scanning electron microscope. The technician fixed the little metallic object into the machine and showed us how to change the magnification and explore the surface. There were bumps and lumps, and little craters. There were curly fibres and little globs and blobs. I wondered how big a skin cell would be in comparison, and realised that this was a world some people might be able to interpret and I simply could not.

My companion was thrilled - the fibre looked like one on a famous American implant. The texture looked like one he had seen in a UFO magazine.

The technician explained that he couldn't be sure what we were seeing, but in his personal opinion it could be dried-down organic material - as you might expect on an object that had spent time inside a mouth. It certainly didn't look like a tiny machine, or electronic gadget ... but would I recognise the signs of super-advanced alien technology?

I was suddenly longing for the final stage - to get it into the microanalyser. As the X-rays were turned on I felt a genuine thrill of curiosity, overcoming my suspicion of the mundane answer that might be in store. What if it were made of obscure elements rarely seen in the lab? What if it showed a weird mixture seen in no ordinary earthly object?

We watched the waveforms appear on the machine; we could see the answer unfolding before our eyes. This wasn't guesswork, this was a machine that could actually tell us what the thing was made of. And we had it. It was 40 per cent mercury, 30 per cent tin and 16 per cent silver - about the same as a dental filling.

Are you disappointed or relieved? I'm just glad we found outn

The author is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England.