Stephen Marshall, a former resident of Tsukuba, has been writing Alien Scientist articles for the Alien Times since 2001. Even though he no longer lives in Tsukuba, he is still a regular contributor to the magazine. Here is his latest intergalactic report.
It would take a bold science fiction writer to invent the X-ray: an invisible ray that can ‘see through’ solid substance, making the normally invisible visible by making the normally visible invisible.
When Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered these mysterious rays in 1895, he didn’t know what they were or even what to call them – he named them ‘X’ rays after the algebraic tradition of ‘X’ representing the unknown. (Had this tradition been further extrapolated, how many more X-phenomena would we have – all sorts of X-particles, X-species, X-planets, X-matter, X-energy…?)
Basically, an X-ray is a kind of electromagnetic radiation that can pass through more materials than light can. This means it can be used to form images of things we can’t normally see. Röntgen discovered that the X-rays could be used to create mysterious ‘shadow-pictures’, most significant, perhaps, being X-ray images of the human body.
While we may now consider X-ray imagery as routine medical technology – along with thermometers and stethoscopes – the phenomenon when first discovered appeared remarkable, even uncomfortable or otherworldly. The X-ray could reveal both the foetus – a human form not normally seen before birth – and the skeleton, a human form not normally seen except after death. (It is reported that one scientist was so spooked by the sight of his own skull that he couldn’t sleep at night). One X-ray pioneer even claimed to have detected the soul.
By allowing others to see inside ourselves, X-rays could also be regarded as an unnerving invasion of privacy. At the very least, they challenged the boundaries and even meaning of privacy, when you could see right through external organs considered private, while revealing internal organs to public view.
Armed with this fantastic X-ray capability, science fiction writers could imagine the invention of ‘X-ray specs’, where people could wear spectacles that ‘see’ everything with X-ray vision – from shimmering skeleton-people to see-through books and less-than-opaque black boxes.
Of course, X-ray specs remain as science fiction, because in order to ‘see’ with X-ray vision, one needs a source of X-rays. We tend to forget that spectacles – and telesopes and other such optical devices – serve us by intervening between our eyes and the object of our attention, but they do not themselves supply the light that is essential for us to see anything in the first place.
Instead of X-ray specs, it might be more plausible to imagine alien creatures with X-ray vision – that is, with eyes that are sensitive to X-rays. We could imagine an X-ray alien evolving in some part of the cosmos where there is a plentiful supply of X-rays – perhaps a world with a local ‘X-ray star’ rather than a light-radiating sun. The alien would have evolved to capture and interpret those X-rays, and in doing so would see everything with X-ray vision.
If we met such a creature, we might be spooked by the idea of an alien being mysteriously able to peer into our insides. But to the alien, there would be nothing particularly mysterious about it. It would regard us with no more sense of mystery than we might regard a semi-transparent jellyfish – discerning a patterned core surrounded by more or less see-through flesh – or for that matter, some simple solid structure like a wire encased in clear plastic, or a model ship in a bottle.
In seeing us as walking talking skeletons, the alien would not think of us as animated cadavers, though it would have an effortless insight into our evolutionary past, as it could discern the family resemblances between the skeletons of ourselves, our pet dogs, birds and goldfish. Meanwhile our skulls, not our faces, would be our primary visual signature.
Thinking of our skulls as our public ‘face’ should not be thought of as unreal or surreal in any way. After all, the X-ray image of the skull is not an indirect reflection or distortion of reality, but is reality as directly detected by someone else – someone who happens to sense radiation from a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum from ourselves.
And, if coming face to face with an X-ray-eyed alien would be spooky to us – who are used to being comfortably opaque – the feeling could be mutual. We could imagine encountering X-ray-eyed alien semi-transparent jellyfish who were comfortably invisible to each other, but spooked by our ability to see their insides with our own exotic ‘light-ray’ eyes.