An overview of the Chandra mission and goals, Chandra's namesake, top 10 facts.
Classroom activities, printable materials, interactive games & more.
Overview of X-ray Astronomy and X-ray sources: black holes to galaxy clusters.
All Chandra images released to the public listed by date & by category
Current Chandra press releases, status reports, interviews & biographies.
A collection of multimedia, illustrations & animations, a glossary, FAQ & more.
A collection of illustrations, animations and video.
Chandra discoveries in an audio/video format.
Return to Main Site

Sirius Matters: Alien Contact

November 28, 2000 ::

Sirius A B
Dogon villages are located along the Bandiagara cliff in the Sangha region of Mali
Photo: Galen R. Frysinger
In 1976, Robert Temple made news with a Sirius B mystery of another sort. In his book, The Sirius Mystery, he speculated that Earth had been visited a few thousand years ago by amphibious beings from a planet around Sirius. His evidence for this incredible assertion came from a report by French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germain Dieterlen, who in the 1930s and 1940s had studied the traditions and mythology of the Dogon, a remote West African tribe located about 300 kilometers south of Timbuktu in Republic of Mali.

Some elements of the Dogon mythology are reminiscent of ancient Egypt, including the prominence of Sirius in their traditions. Other aspects reveal an impressive knowledge of bits and pieces of modern astronomy.

For example, according to Griaule and Dieterlen, the Dogon believed that the Earth and other planets rotate on their axes and orbit the Sun, that Jupiter has four moons, and that Saturn has a ring around it.


Sirius A B
Dogon dancers
Photo: Galen R. Frysinger
As Carl Sagan commented in his book, Broca's Brain, the conclusion about planetary orbits, though a rare insight, is one that can be achieved without high technology, as demonstrated by some Greeks and Copernicus. As for the moons of Jupiter, and Saturn's ring, with a combination of extraordinary eyesight and perfectly clear skies, it just might be possible to see them without a telescope.

If the Dogon astronomical/mythological story had stopped there, it would have been remarkable, but it probably would not have warranted a detailed critique by a media superstar such as Sagan.

The cause of all the commotion was the claim that the Dogon believed that Sirius has a dark, invisible companion with a 50-year orbit. The companion is very heavy and made of a special metal which is not found on Earth!

This is an accurate description of our knowledge of Sirius B, after it was observed with powerful telescopes, and described by scientists using the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity.

How did the Dogon come by this knowledge?


Temple's book says that long ago an ark descended to the ground amid a great wind and brought amphibious beings, known as the Nommo, who gave the Dogon the scoop on Sirius B. But then why did they not mention the rest of Jupiter and Saturn's moons, the planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, and other fascinating objects such as neutron stars and black holes?

Sirius A B
Sirius, Canis Major's Alpha star, is one of the brightest stars in night sky; only the Moon, Venus, Jupiter and Mars are brighter.
Another explanation for the Dogon's knowledge is that they did indeed have extraordinary eyesight. According to Robert Burnham, author of the classic Burnham's Celestial Handbook, Sirius B can be observed with a 10-inch reflecting telescope on a very clear night. With such capabilities, it would also be fairly easy to observe Uranus and Neptune, and many other fascinating cosmic sights not mentioned by the Dogon.

Or, could Sirius B have been brighter in the past? A number of ancient writers (Cicero, Horace, Seneca, and Ptolemy) described Sirius as "ruddy," raising the possibility that Sirius B might have been in red giant stage 2000 or so years ago, on its way to becoming a white dwarf. This is unlikely, given our knowledge of stellar evolution, which estimates the time for such a transition to be more like 100,000 years, but as Chandra, Hubble and other modern telescopes have shown, nature still has plenty of surprises in store for us. A more prosaic explanation favored by Burnham is that the ancients used terms for color differently, (e.g. the yellow stars Capella, Arcturus and Pollux were all described as red.)

Even if Sirius B was a red giant, it leaves the question as to how the Dogon knew that it was going to turn into a white dwarf.


Betelgeuse - HST
Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star about 600 light years distant in the constellation of Orion, is easily recognized by its brightness and reddish color. Betelgeuse will become a supernova in a perhaps 30 million years.
(Photo: HST)
The explanation favored by Sagan is that the Dogon were visited by a technological civilization, but not an extraterrestrial one. The nature of the knowledge imparted is consistent with a visit by a science attentive person in the 1930s or 1940s when the discovery of the nature of Sirius B was being widely discussed in popular science books. This information could then have been woven into the Dogon's existing mythology in time to give Griaule and Dieterlen something very interesting to write home about.

A variation on this theme is that the knowledgeable visitor and the source of the information might have been Griaule himself. Though an anthropologist, Griaule had studied astronomy in Paris. He was aware of the discovery of Sirius B and may have over interpreted the Dogon responses to his questions.

In 1991 Walter van Beek, a Belgian anthropologist, led a team of anthropologists to study the Dogon tribe. Although he hoped to find evidence for their astounding astronomical knowledge, the team found no trace of the detailed Sirius lore reported by Griaule.

What do you think?

References:


  • Allen, R. H. 1963, Star Names, (Dover, New York).
  • Burnham, Robert Jr, 1978, Burnham's Celestial Handbook (Dover, New York).
  • Griaule, Marcel. 1948, reprint 1997, Conversations With Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (Oxford University Press).
  • Ridpath, Ian 1978, Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1978, p. 56.
  • Sagan, Carl 1979, Broca's Brain (New York, Random House).
  • Temple, Robert 1976, The Sirius Mystery (London, Century).
  • van Beek, Walter, 1992, Current Anthropology 32, 139.

  • http://skepdic.com


Subscribe to the Chandra Chronicles
Receive updates by email GO
Info & Privacy Policy.
Chronicles Archives
Articles from:
['13 | '12 | '11 | '10 | '09 | '08 | '07 | '06 |
'05 | '04 | '03 | '02 | '01 | '00 | '99]
Recent Articles
Chandra Twitter Updates
    Follow Chandra on Twitter

    Return to Main Site

    Subscribe




    Thanks!

    Thanks for your request. You will be hearing from us soon!

    The Chandra X-ray Center emails the Chandra Digest approximately every two weeks and includes the latest press release or image from Chandra, as well as any new science features, additions to the Chandra site and more. We do not use your email for any other purpose. Please see our privacy policy for details.

    Close this window