Exploring The History Of How We Imagine Aliens

Assuming the universe has expanded at a constant rate, we can say with a fair amount of accuracy that the diameter of the observable universe is approximately 92 billion light-years in size. That’s enough space for at least 100 billion billion planets, conservatively. So, mathematically speaking, it’s a safe bet that at least one of those billions upon billions of planets is home to intelligent life.

That means that aliens exist — even if only on a distant planet, in a galaxy far, far away.

This isn’t new information. Before science had ever developed the means to measure the enormity of the universe, we humans looked to the stars with great wonder. “What’s out there?” is truly an age old question. No one knows the answer. So it goes in the realm of the mysterious. But without any confirmed — ahem, at least publicly — contact with legitimate extraterrestrials, we’re left to wonder: Where does our vision of aliens in pop culture come from?

“Entertainment and literature,” explains Josh Gates, host of Expedition Unknown: Hunt for Extraterrestrials (premieres Wednesday at 9/8c on Travel Channel). “We take our cues from brilliant minds like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury…Scientists tell us that if extraterrestrial life is out there, it’s most likely in the form of microscopic bacteria. There may even be fossilized evidence of that in meteorites and long extinguished Martian geysers. But what do we picture? Facehuggers, Rastafarian Predators, and Jar Jar Binks.”

Don’t worry, there’s very little scientific evidence that suggests a creature like Jar Jar Binks actually exists (thank Q). While Gates is right about alien life most likely existing at a microscopic scale, popular culture has a long-standing tradition of envisioning aliens as something else entirely. That’s why he’s set out on a quest to search for the answer to the question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

“When we think of a stereotypical alien, we tend to picture a small, green or gray humanoid with big eyes and an oversized noggin,” Gates says of our long-held notions about intergalactic life. “Green has been associated with aliens since at least the 1940s. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits the first usage to a story called “Mayaya’s Little Green Men” which appeared in Weird Tales in 1946.”

Host Josh Gates on the set of Expedition Unknown: Hunt for Extraterrestrials (Wednesdays at 9/8c on Travel Channel)

Of course, “little green men” aren’t the only alien archetypes in culture. Their gray cousins are popular guest stars in a myriad of TV shows — ranging from The X-Files to South Park.