On September 12, ufologist and journalist Jaime Maussan presented what he claimed to be evidence of alien life to the Congress of Mexico. On September 19, Mexico’s scientific community gathered for a conference to ask a simple question in return: “Extraterrestrials or Llama Skeletons?”
The answer was right there in the subtitle of the conference itself: “Science responds to the charlatans and the gullible.” If Maussan had shocked Mexico and the world with his outlandish claims, this was Mexico’s scientific community fighting back. Toward the end of the conference, Alejandro Frank, a professor of mathematical physics at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the host of the event, summed things up: “Faced with the serious problems we are experiencing in Mexico and the entire planet, starting with climate change, war, and pandemics, it is sad to gather to talk about the misdeeds of a professional charlatan.”
Frank said the scientists had not gathered to discuss Maussan’s “decades of ridiculous conspiracy claims,” but rather because of where Maussan had delivered his latest outlandish claims. Maussan’s appearance in Mexico’s Congress had, Frank argued, “turned the world upside down” and made scientific rationality in Mexico the subject of ridicule. “What is at stake here is whether our country will follow science or superstitions and quackery.”
While Maussan’s extraterrestrial claims are laughable, the damage they risk doing to science in Mexico, and worldwide, is a serious matter. Frank pointed to the polarization of Mexican politics, especially around urgent issues like the climate crisis, as an especially alarming example of how the country’s scientific reputation was already suffering. Following the alien debacle, Frank had called on Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, or National Council on Science and Technology, to speak up and take action. “The agency has been silent about the facts surrounding the Nazca mummies, which are increasingly becoming famous as the ‘Mexican mummies.’”
José Franco, a researcher at UNAM’s Astronomy Institute, started the conference with a presentation entitled “Life in the Universe,” where he spoke about DNA and RNA, interstellar chemistry, the radio spectra of Orion’s KL nebula, and cloverleaf quasars.
He spoke of exobiology, the area that studies the possibility of life outside Earth; the direct search for microbial life in celestial bodies; meteorites, the moon, Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and Venus. He also spoke about humanity’s indirect search for alien life—about the messages sent from the Arecibo telescope; the Pioneer plaques; the Voyager 1 and 2 Golden records; the message sent from Ukraine to Gliese 581c, a planet with some conditions similar to Earth’s, in 2008; and another transmission, also in 2008, of the Beatles song “Across the Universe,” directed toward the star Polaris.
“Hayabusa2 was sent to the Ryugu Asteroid, returned to Earth, and is already in the hands of scientists in Japan, and NASA,” Franco said. He mentioned the Osiris-Rex sample collection mission, which collected around 250 grams of rubble from an asteroid. He also touched on the nine probes sent to Mars, among them the celebrated Perseverance. “No life has been found anywhere, and neither has intelligence been found in Congress,” Franco joked.
Gabriela Frías, a philosophy of science researcher, described recent events in Mexico’s Congress as “a pseudoscientific event, which appeals to our fantasies, desires, and fears.” During his presentation, Maussan pointed to a “carbon-14 analysis” conducted on the Nazca mummies by scientists at UNAM. Maussan had claimed this, in part, as proof that he was presenting “nonhuman beings.” UNAM has since distanced itself from “any subsequent use, interpretation, or misrepresentation of the results.”
In a statement, UNAM said it was essential that the search for alien life be approached “with the support of scientific research institutions, and following the rigorous ethical standards inherent to research.” Maussan’s appearance in Congress was the opposite of that.
This article was originally published by WIRED en Español.