“This is nothing short of a New Year’s present from outer space.”
If you’re a UFO denier and scoff at ancient astronaut theorists who suggest human history has been shaped by alien visitors; prepare to be converted! Prominently featured on the Mutual UFO Network’s website is an article announcing the discovery of life forms travelling through space. This is the real deal. MUFON was reporting on a paper that appeared in the Journal of Cosmology authored by Prof. Milton Wainwright of the University of Sheffield. Wainwright and his team launched a balloon 27 km into the stratosphere and then brought it back to earth for analysis. They discovered the balloon was peppered with bimorphs they described as ghost particles. Wainwright identifies these ghost particles as “living balloons” containing microscopic biological organisms. He doesn’t claim to know their point of origin, but believes life on earth might well have sprung from these aliens. If Wainwright is correct, we’ll have to seriously rethink our understanding of biology and evolution. Far more exciting, though, is the chance to crack an even bigger mystery—why we’re all so crazy about balloons.
You’ve probably noticed that balloons have become a universal marker of human life. There are balloons when you’re born and balloons on every birthday. There are balloons when you graduate when you get a job and when you retire. There are balloons when you’re dating, when you get married and when you have kids of your own. There are balloons for holidays, sporting events, store openings and just about any other event you can name. There are even balloons—in tasteful shades of white, grey and black—at funerals. One might imagine that as the departed is lowered into terra firma their spirit floats like a helium-filled balloon into the stratosphere where—if Wainwright is correct—it will meet its ancestral cousins meandering through space.
As if balloons weren’t pervasive enough in daily life, Pope Francis broadened their presence further by incorporating them in church ritual. Traditionally, the reigning pontiff has released two doves on the last Sunday in January as a symbol of peace. In recent years this has proven problematic as hostile crows and seagulls have made a tasty treat of the doves before the horrified gaze of onlookers. This has drawn criticism from animal rights activists and so his Holiness, this year, decided to release balloons instead. While the release of festive pink, purple, white and green balloons appeased one set of activists, he was criticized by others for failing to follow “smart balloon practices” and for wasting helium. (Sometimes you just can’t win.) None-the-less, the balloon has now achieved status as an international symbol of peace with the Pope’s imprimatur.
For earthlings, balloons represent both the mundane and the sublime. Who would have guessed that these colorful bits of latex actually express a primal yearning and a tangible connection with our intergalactic forefathers. At the width of a human hair and resembling not much more than a wisp of chiffon, they seem hardly the stuff of greatness. But ghost particles are intrepid explorers, riding solar winds to unknown destinations. They’ve buried this same instinct deep within our DNA. It’s part of our nature—our biological inheritance—to seek out the new and wonderful. We’ll leave it to Wainwright to sort out the details on all this, but while he does, we’ll keep on searching—and buying balloons. —Ebert