Scientists using x-ray telescopy and observations from the Hubble satellite have identified a planet that they say is 99.9% likely to be inhabited by intelligent life forms, but Congress recently retracted all funding for the project, putting it on the shelf indefinitely. The harsh reaction came after Gil Whately, an astronomer at Gulf Isthmus University, suggested during Congressional testimony that “we might be able to learn something” from this newly discovered civilization.
Rex Chin, a Republican representing western Missouri in the House and chair of the Science and Technology subcommittee, released a statement to explain the restriction on funding. He said, “We’ve long known that America is the greatest country in the world. As science expands our understanding of the universe, it’s important that we remember that America is also the greatest country in the universe. As his testimony demonstrated, Prof. Whately doesn’t understand this simple fact, and so we had to act decisively. We are in no way opposed to science, but it’s our duty to be sure scientists are proceeding in a responsible manner.”
In a recent interview, Whately described what he’d glimpsed on the planet, known as Herix III, before the feds repossessed his lab computers and optical devices. Herix III is a so-called blue planet, meaning it has water and an atmosphere similar to Earth’s. “We knew that all the conditions to support life exist there. You could step out on the surface of Herix III and be just fine,” says Whately.
His research team developed software algorithms that could better analyze images of distant planets. “What we’ve seen in our latest studies are signs that the environment of the planet has been manipulated by an intelligent species. In fact, based on the relatively uniform distribution of development and the great consistency over time that we can detect, we think there’s reason to believe that this other intelligent species has found a way to live without conflict. And while they obviously have advanced technology, we have some evidence suggestive that they’ve structured their economy so that technology supports the well–being of the living population. In addition, we see pollution levels similar to Earth before the Industrial Revolution, so they’ve kept their environment pristine.”
Whately says his work was cut off before he could complete his analysis. “We can’t be certain of any conclusions yet, but these are tantalizing clues about a form of society that has overcome some of our direst problems.”
Anita Waxx, a House Republican representing the third district of Oklahoma, has been vocal in attacking the findings of Whately and his team. “Once again scientists are trying to tear down America,” she says. “I’m getting to where I feel for my gun whenever I hear the word ‘scientist.'” Waxx has questioned how Whately could claim to see something so far away and pointed out that the Bible has no mention of Herix III. “My constituents know that they’re part of the greatest nation. Not just a great nation—the greatest. They don’t need to know anything more than that. I won’t let some perfesser come along and try to educate them.“
While Republicans in Congress provoked the controversy over Whately’s research, the Obama administration had to agree to the revocation of funding through the National Science Foundation. A high-ranking administration official who asked not to be named told us: “We oppose any effort to muzzle scientists. This will do great harm to American innovation in decades to come. But it’s really hard to explain issues like this to people. We couldn’t fight it once the Republicans started using patriotism against us, however disingenuous it might have been, so we made a tactical decision to focus on expanding defense-related research instead. Everyone likes that.”
As the political storm rages on, Gil Whately has continued his teaching duties, reconstructing lecture notes using a borrowed laptop. But his once-busy lab is now bare and his graduate students and other collaborators have started looking for other projects to work on. He hopes to one day re-start his investigation, but all the data is on confiscated hard drives. Whately is also under attack by conservative alumni of GIU, who have started a petition to have him fired, despite his tenure. Whately waves away concern about his own career and says he only regrets that knowledge could be lost. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” he says. “I’ve always thought that was part of the beauty of science: that we could discover something new that will improve human life. I guess politics is different.”
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