How Science Saved a Dream That 'War of the Worlds' Ruined

War of the Worlds deserved the splash it made when it first came out, from both a dramatic and scientific point of view. It did, however, wreck my youthful ideas of space travel. Fortunately, science has recuperated them.

I learned about the legend of War of the Worlds well before I ever heard the plot. The idea that a well-produced but ill-advised radio play caused a good portion of America to completely flip out amused me. When I heard the first excerpts of the radio play, I was puzzled. It seemed weird that anyone would believe that this could have happened in so short a time and that everyone involved was fitted with a microphone. It was later that I learned that the mass hysteria supposedly produced by the play was the real dramatic fiction. A few people were frightened, but the play didn't provoke the panic that newspapers at the time, eager for headlines, reported. It was even later than that when I got to the end of the broadcast and realized what had killed the aliens.

My young mind was stunned, and disappointed. Suddenly all the dreams I had of space travel in the future, when humans could go to other worlds, were literally shrink-wrapped. Instead of boldly going where no one had gone before, humans would have to monitor alien planets from a safe distance, or go about eternally in space suits, to our various worlds didn't kill each other. I had thought science wrecked everything.

As it turns out, though, it doesn't. Some worry about alien viruses, but most scientist agree that we're about as likely to catch a virus from an alien as we are from a grasshopper. Viruses use the host's DNA, and have to be adapted to it. They've been with us throughout our evolution, and so have adapted to us as we have to them. That's not the case with aliens. There's no practical chance that a virus could hop worlds.

Bacteria, with their habit of living in extremely diverse conditions, might have a better shot at killing an alien. It wouldn't have to sync up DNA with an alien, just happen to blunder into perfect living conditions. And there are a lot of bacteria out there. One of them has a good chance of being deadly to aliens. Then again, many of them have been shown to be deadly to us, and we're still kicking around the planet. We share a space with all kinds of bacteria that could kill us, and have developed plenty of methods with which to defend ourselves, heal ourselves, or just prevent specific exposure. Yes, there's a chance that aliens might stumble on the perfect bacteria on our world - the one that they're utterly unprepared for biologically or sociologically. But there's no chance that they haven't been dealing with bacteria on their own world. Whenever we talk about finding life on Mars, the Moon, Enceladus, or nearly any other planet, we talk about finding microbial life with bacteria topping the list of likely microbes. If anything, bacterial life is something our worlds are likely to have in common. Obviously, we'd want to take safety precautions, but future space travel doesn't have to be the anodyne travel that I imagined it to be.

And so science saved, for me, a dream that fiction ruined. In our last show, we took a look at the reverse, figuring things that science ruined for us. We talk ray guns, debunked UFO footage, and magic tricks involving toxic sludge. And just to make it perfect, I take some of that sludge and rub it on my fingers until they smoke. Really.

Via The Straight Dope and Bad Astronomy.