In the final episode of our series about myths and legends, we’re launching our imaginations into outer space!

Monster expert Emily Zarka tells us about her favorite alien and why aliens fascinate so many people. In the Hoax Hunters season finale, Marc and Sanden bring us a UFO spoof. Plus, scientists give us the lowdown on the real quest for extraterrestrial life — we haven’t found any... yet. And, planets and moons compete for the title of ‘most likely to have life’.

A new moment of um keeps us outside the atmosphere: why does space look so dark if the sun is so bright?

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MOLLY BLOOM: A quick note before we start the show. In this series, we're taking a look at myths from modern day legends to stories that are thousands of years old. Some of them might seem a bit scary, but we're talking about them because we want to understand the important role they play in our lives and dig into the history and facts behind them. And of course, there's all the usual Brains On fun too. OK, on with the show.

MALOU: You're listening to Brains On where we're serious about being curious.

CHILD: Brains On is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

MALOU: It all started on a November night.

WOMAN: We looked up, and we saw something like a big triangle.

MALOU: Two police officers in Belgium saw something strange in the sky.

OFFICER 1: It had a white light in each corner and a red one in the middle.

OFFICER 2: That thing was following us.

MALOU: And they weren't the only ones.

WOMAN: I saw it too.

MAN: Me too.

WOMAN: Me three.

MAN: A flying triangle.

MAN: An alien spaceship. No way is that thing from this planet.

WOMAN: The government doesn't even know what it is.

MALOU: The Belgium Air Force even sent some planes to investigate.


PILOT 1: We've got a radar lock on this thing. We're moving in.

PILOT 2: It's gone. There's nothing there.


MALOU: But they couldn't solve the mystery either. More than 13,000 people say that they spotted this triangle in the sky. These sightings were named the Belgian UFO wave. Skeptics say there was nothing to see at all, that it was just a mass delusion. But others are convinced they saw something too strange to ignore, something completely out of this world.



MOLLY BLOOM: You are listening to Brains On from American Public Media. I'm Molly Bloom, and I'm here with Malou from Seattle. Hi, Malou.

MALOU: Hi, Molly. This is the last episode in our four-part series on myths.


(SINGING) From the depths of time up through today, myths and legends whine their way into culture and into lore. But is there truth? Well, let's explore.

Scanning the clues of history for creatures on land and in the sea. Lost worlds hidden under your toes. Hey, over there! Is that a UFO?

Armed with knowledge and with proof. Help us to uncover what is real and what's a spoof. Myths and legends, we'll discover.


MALOU: If you want to know more about mythical creatures and legends of lost worlds, please check out the first three episodes of this series.

MOLLY BLOOM: The stories in today's episode are a little different from the myths and legends we've been talking about.

MALOU: We're launching our imaginations--


--outside of Earth's atmosphere.

MOLLY BLOOM: And out here beyond Earth, things are different.

MALOU: Yeah. There's no atmosphere, no gravity. And definitely, no Wi-Fi.

MOLLY BLOOM: Right. Humans have only explored a teeny tiny bit of outer space and most of that was with machines, not with our own eyes and ears.

MALOU: But the vast unknown expanse is perfect fuel for our imaginations. After all, you don't need a rocket to dream.

MOLLY BLOOM: So it makes perfect sense we've come up with so many theories, stories, and myths about what might be out there, like extraterrestrial life or life beyond Earth.

MALOU: Also known as aliens.

MOLLY BLOOM: We don't know exactly what alien life would be like if it exists. Scientists are trying to figure that out, starting here in our own solar system. All these unknowns are what make stories about aliens unique. We can imagine them as anything. They could be like us or different from us, nicer than us, or smarter than us, or meaner than us, or slimier than us.

MALOU: The possibilities are as endless as space itself.

MOLLY BLOOM: Brains On listeners have a bunch of questions about aliens too.


GAVINO: Hello. My name is Gavino, and I live in Winter Haven, Florida. This is my cousin, Max.

MAX: Hi. My name is Max, and I live in Singapore. Our question is--

GAVINO: Why do people believe aliens exist?

OWEN: My name is Owen, and I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My question is, what kind of aliens do you think are out there?

MILES: Hello, my name is Miles. And my question is, would aliens most likely be good or bad?

OFELIA: My name is Ofelia, and I live in Los Angeles. My question is, if we met aliens, what would they look like?


MOLLY BLOOM: So when you imagine an alien, Malou, what does it look like?

MALOU: It looks green, and it has pure black eyes.

MOLLY BLOOM: And do they have arms and legs and bodies kind of like ours?

MALOU: Yeah. They have arms, legs, and bodies. And you could sometimes see their rib cage.

MOLLY BLOOM: Ooh. So when you think about these aliens, do you think they're evil or good or neither?

MALOU: Neither. Some of them could be evil. Some of them could be nice.

MOLLY BLOOM: So they're like humans? They have all different kinds of personalities.

MALOU: Yeah.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, we asked Emily Zarka about her favorite kind of alien to imagine too. She's a monster expert, and she joined us to talk about our collective fascination with aliens. Her favorite extraterrestrial beings are the Martians in a book called The War of the Worlds by HG Wells.


EMILY ZARKA: They're all head with a beak and lots of tentacles as their appendages.

MOLLY BLOOM: War of the Worlds came out in 1898. Lots of people were getting excited about the idea of life on other planets around that time. About 20 years earlier, in the late 1870s, an astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli had noticed something on the surface of the planet Mars.

EMILY ZARKA: He viewed the linear lines on the surface of Mars. And he's the one who wrote those down as canali.

MOLLY BLOOM: Canali can mean channels or canals in Italian. When a different astronomer, Percival Lowell, read about the canali on Mars, his mind went straight to aliens.

EMILY ZARKA: Percival Lowell, in 1895, wrote a book called Mars. And he speculates about how life could exist there and how he thinks the canali were actually formed by some sort of alien life form.

MOLLY BLOOM: Percival Lowell was wrong. We haven't found any canal-making creatures on Mars. But his ideas got a lot of people thinking about aliens.

ANNOUNCER: I'm speaking from the roof of Broadcasting Building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours, three million people have moved out along the roads to the north.

MALOU: War of the Worlds became a really popular radio play. And many other writers imagined worlds beyond Earth after that.

MOLLY BLOOM: Madeleine L'Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time and Orson Scott Card wrote Ender's Game. In the movies, a being called E.T. phoned home--

E.T.: E.T. home, phone.

MOLLY BLOOM: And the Star Wars saga sent people to galaxies far, far away.


MALOU: And there are some people who swear they've seen actual alien ships, not in movies but right here above Earth. But so far, there's no credible proof.

MOLLY BLOOM: Malou, what do you think we can learn from all these stories about aliens?

MALOU: We can think about aliens and how they might look like or act.

MOLLY BLOOM: Mhm. What do you think these alien stories say about us, like about humans?

MALOU: They show how people can have very big imaginations and how it can go from a little, unidentified flying object to a whole new world.

MOLLY BLOOM: Mhm, yes. They can take a one little tiny thing and make a really big idea out of it. That's really cool. Emily thinks that all of these stories feed into each other.

EMILY ZARKA: So the more we see it, the more we want to talk about it. And I think that means, in some cases, the more we want to believe that thing is real, that we want these things to be true because it gives us hope that something new is out there. And it allows our imaginations to fill in the blanks.


MOLLY BLOOM: And now we have a blank for you to fill in, Malou. It's the--




MOLLY BLOOM: Are you ready?

MALOU: Yeah.

MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is.






CHILD: Hello from the children of planet Earth.

MOLLY BLOOM: So Malou, what do you hear there?

MALOU: I heard something in French because I'm taking French. It said, hello, everyone, to the whole world.


MALOU: So it's probably saying, hello to the world in different languages.

MOLLY BLOOM: Very good guess. And why do you think we would have a recording like that of all these different languages saying something like that?

MALOU: Because if you were to think about aliens, if there was one in front of your house, you would at least try to speak to them and say, hello, we bring peace.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, that is a very, very good guess. We're going to be back with the answer and give you another chance to guess in just a little bit.


CHILDREN: (In unison) Laser!


MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, what are you doing with those cymbals, Marc?

MARC SANCHEZ: It's the season finale of Hoax Hunters. You ready to go hunting, Sanden?

SANDEN TOTTEN: Born ready, Marc.


MARC SANCHEZ: 1, 2, 3!


(SINGING) We like myths, but we hate getting tricked. Yeah! We like myths, but we hate getting tricked. All right! We like myths, but we hate getting tricked.

MARC SANCHEZ: (SINGING) We hate getting tricked. No, we don't like it. All right!

SANDEN TOTTEN: A hoax is when somebody tricks people into believing something that isn't true.

MARC SANCHEZ: Today we're paying a visit to Morristown, New Jersey, where people started seeing strange things at night back in 2009.


SANDEN TOTTEN: An 11-year-old named Kristen was the first in her family to spot them. Red lights hovering just above the horizon. Her dad was a pilot, and he said, no way those things are planes.

MARC SANCHEZ: The local police started getting calls from other concerned citizens. And the lights were spotted on four more nights over the next month.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Some people swore the lights were floating in formation. It looked like they were communicating with each other.


MARC SANCHEZ: Now, let's just say what we're all thinking.


Were these tiny red lights controlled by even tinier green aliens?

SANDEN TOTTEN: And what do they want from us? Do they come in peace? Or do these tiny spaceships spell doom for the entire human race?

MARC SANCHEZ: Whoa. OK. Well, there weren't any tiny spaceships, Sanden.


SANDEN TOTTEN: Oh, yeah. [CHUCKLES] I already knew that, and I still freaked myself out.

MARC SANCHEZ: Yeah. It turns out these mysterious lights were an elaborate prank.

MAN: You got hoaxed.

ALL: Aw.

MARC SANCHEZ: That's right. Two men came forward to say the whole thing was a hoax.


The explanation was simple. They blew up a bunch of balloons with helium and then tied flares to them.

SANDEN TOTTEN: OK. Flares? They're like these very bright candles that don't get blown up by the wind.

MARC SANCHEZ: Our two hoaxers let the balloons and flares float into the sky and waited for people to spot them.

SANDEN TOTTEN: But they didn't get off scot-free.


They had to pay a fine of $250 and complete 50 hours of community service for wasting police resources and creating a fire hazard.

MARC SANCHEZ: [WHISTLING] It's like my grandpappy always said, don't do the hoax if you're not prepared to do the time.

SANDEN TOTTEN: What a wise old dude. And remember, if you see strange things in the sky, always check for balloons first.


MOLLY BLOOM: When we say UFO, you might automatically think, alien spaceship. But UFO is an acronym for unidentified flying object, UFO for short. And lots of UFOs do end up getting identified.

MALOU: Like when a rancher and his son found an unidentified object that had crash landed near Roswell, New Mexico.

MOLLY BLOOM: That turned out to be a weather balloon that the United States government was using to take measurements.

MALOU: Other UFOs stay unidentified for a while.

MOLLY BLOOM: We might not know what a bright streak in the sky is immediately. But we might figure out later that a rocket got launched far away.

MALOU: Other times we truly don't know what a flying object is.

MOLLY BLOOM: Those objects stay unidentified. That doesn't necessarily mean they're aliens. It just means we don't have a clear explanation yet.


Have you got questions bubbling in your brain? Mystery sounds tickling your ears? Pictures you're itching to draw?

MALOU: Send some of that our way at

MOLLY BLOOM: We love hearing your questions and mystery sounds. Every time you send us a drawing, Sanden jumps for joy.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Yahoo! Yeah, I do.


MALOU: That's where this question came from.

RAMSEY: Hi. My name is Ramsey from Oklahoma City. My question is, why does everything seem black around the sun whenever it is so bright?

MOLLY BLOOM: We'll answer that question in our Moment of Um at the end of the show. And I'll read the most recent group of listeners to be added to the Brain's honor roll.

MALOU: Keep listening.


MOLLY BLOOM: You are listening to Brains On from American Public Media. I'm Molly.

MALOU: And I'm Malou.

MOLLY BLOOM: Are you ready to get back to that mystery sound again?


MOLLY BLOOM: All right. Here it is.






CHILD: Hello from the children of planet Earth.

MOLLY BLOOM: So you have any new thoughts after hearing that again? You're going to stick with your original guess?

MALOU: So they're trying to say hi and peace be with you to the aliens.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, that is a really good guess.

DAVID PASKOWITZ: The sounds that you just heard came from The Voyager Golden Record. The Record is meant to be a message for any extraterrestrial civilization over the next, say, a few billion years.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's David Paskowitz. He co-produced a 40th anniversary edition of The Voyager Golden Record with Ozma Records.

The original Golden Record came out in 1977. Today, people listen to music on their phones or computers. But back then, they mainly listened to music on records, flat, plastic disks that were about 12 inches across. NASA made two copies of this record.

DAVID PASKOWITZ: They're attached to the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. And right now, those two space probes are in interstellar space, the space beyond our solar system. And they will continue traveling through interstellar space for the next several billion years.

MOLLY BLOOM: The Golden Record contains messages, music, and sounds from Earth so that if aliens ever find it, they can learn something about us and our planet.


DAVID PASKOWITZ: There is music on there representing many time periods and many regions and many cultures on Earth, from Solomon Island pan pipe music to Bach to Chuck Berry, and rock and roll to the blues.





DAVID PASKOWITZ: But in addition to the music, it has greetings from people in 55 languages and also one whale language.


CHILD: Hello from the children of planet Earth.

DAVID PASKOWITZ: There's trains and storms and insects and frogs and a mother's kiss--


--and a baby's cry.


When I listen to that and close my eyes, I can imagine--


--the lonely Voyager probes flying through deep space with this record on. They are just sort of waiting to be found.



As much as the Voyager record is a gift from humanity to the cosmos, it's really a gift to humanity. I think it's a reminder of what we can achieve when we're at our best. And it's a hopeful message. It's a message that says the future is up to all of us.


(SINGING) Brains, Brains, Brains On.

MOLLY BLOOM: A lot of alien stories are made up. But real scientists are trying to figure out if life exists on other planets or even moons. And it turns out, there's a competition show where worlds try to prove that they're the best place to search for life. Sounds kind of bonkers, but here. Take a listen.


HOST: Welcome back to Show Me the Life, where worlds bring their best life-harboring skills to a variety of challenges. But so far, no one has ever won because scientists haven't ever found any life beyond Earth.

We've got three worlds and three action-packed rounds today. Let's meet our competitors.


MARS: Mars here. What planet are humans obsessed with, writing stories about, and exploring? Uh, me. Check out my YouTube channel. I just hit a billion likes.


EUROPA: I'm Europa. Scientists have found 79 moons circling Jupiter, and I'm one of them. I might have way more water than your ocean here on Earth.

ENCELADUS: Can we adjust this microphone? I'm only 314 miles across, a little small for this stand. OK. . Great much better.


I'm Enceladus. A moon that orbits Saturn. Interesting fact. Mhm. I have an incredibly smooth reflective surface. Ask me about my skincare routine.


HOST: A scientist judge will join us in each round. Let's get started with challenge number one, a bake off!


Use the ingredients for life on your world to make a tasty treat. While you get baking, let's meet our expert, all the way from NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, let's give her a warm welcome.


JESSICA WEBER: Hi. My name is Jessica Weber, and I study origins of life at JPL.

HOST: Jessica, based on what we know from Earth, scientists think a planet or moon only needs three things for life to form; chemicals--


--with element carbon because carbon is important to the reactions that keep things alive; water--


--because chemical reactions work well in water.

JESSICA WEBER: And lastly, you need a source of energy to kind of jumpstart the whole process.


HOST: Right you are, Jessica. Some kinds of that energy would be, like, from the sun or heat or energy coming from another planet.


OK. Time's up. Worlds, let's see what you've made.

JESSICA WEBER: Mars, you go first.


MARS: OK. I don't know a lot about baking. But I know cookies are delicious. So I made these chocolate-tastic, rocky road, frozen ginger snaps. These contain lots of cool chemicals and some ice because, brrr, it's cold in here. Must be some water vapor in the atmosphere.

HOST: OK then. Europa, what have you got there?


EUROPA: I made a salted caramel tart. Scientists think there's a big old salty ocean underneath my icy surface, perfect for life. And a delicious ingredient in desserts.

HOST: Mhm. Wow. That's extremely salty. And Enceladus?


ENCELADUS: I made a baked Alaska ice-cream volcano. Check it out. See? Kind of like the plume of ice and gas shooting out of my south pole. It's got water, carbon.

And how would you make a plume of these things without energy? Mic drop!


HOST: Wow! All three worlds might have all the ingredients for life to come together.

JESSICA WEBER: But that's not a sure-fire indication that life is on that world.


HOST: Ahem. Right, right. Yes. The ingredients are only one step. Ingredients probably have to come together at the right time and in the right ways for life to form and continue. And what kind of life?


We can't say.


So that brings us to challenge number two, the singer!


Sing an ode to the life that might be on you right now. While our contestants warm up--


--let's meet our next expert judge.


LAURA RODRIGUEZ: Hi. My name is Laura Rodriguez, and I also study the origins of life at JPL.

HOST: So Laura, building blocks of life are one thing. Life actually arising is another thing.

LAURA RODRIGUEZ: The analogy I think of is you buy a LEGO set to build a city. And you open the box. And you spill out all the LEGOs all over the floor.

You have the building blocks for the city, but you don't have the city built yet. So how do you go from those building blocks to organized structures? And in that sense, environment is very important.

HOST: Well, worlds, what kind of life would you love to see in your environment?


EUROPA: (SINGING) I like small life and I cannot lie. Too much radiation do get by. But there could be life that's itty-bitty too and the ability to swim in the sea that's blue. Mic drop!


ENCELADUS: Hey! That's my thing.


(SINGING) Way down by my vents, way under the sea could be life that likes to eat hydrogen. It's hot down there like a giant hot tub. And who doesn't like to hang out in hot tubs? Mic drop!


MARS: All right. Saving the best for last. Here we go.


(SINGING) Lots of UV rays and radiation. Air is made of CO2. So you live underground digging tunnels like the cool boss in my cubbyama.

Da, da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. Da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da, da-da, da-da--


MARS: Oh, sorry. OK. I'll stop that.

HOST: Rousing performances, one and all. Laura, if there could be life on any one of these worlds, what do you think it would be? Small, big, square, round?

LAURA RODRIGUEZ: So I think that the possibility for microbial life is much greater than the possibility of intelligent life.

HOST: Ah, microbial life. Wait, what do you mean exactly?

LAURA RODRIGUEZ: I mean, like, singular cells so one cell. Like algae, for instance, or cyanobacteria.

HOST: Totally knew that! OK. Now, our final challenge relates to actually exploring these worlds for life. So worlds, challenge three--


--it's a vehicle challenge. We've brought some old vehicles into the studio for you, mountain bikes, skates, scooters. Your challenge is to build a quick prototype of the kind of vehicles that could one day explore you.

Here's our final expert to chat while you all work.



WILLIAM REID: My name is William Reid, and I'm a robotics technologist. And what we do is we investigate different ways to get around the surface of other planets.

HOST: So Will, it's hard for humans to head out to the far depths of space. But robots have some potential, don't they?

WILLIAM REID: They do. They can be designed to operate very well in harsh environments. So humans don't do so well when it gets really cold or really hot, or there's lots of radiation, or there's no pressure, like in the vacuum of space.

HOST: Well, let's hope our worldly contestants are up for the challenge. How are they doing?



MARS: This one is easy. Robots are already actively exploring my surface, and that's how you know lots of things about me. Also, I've gotten pretty much everything. So I'm modeling my design after the Mars Curiosity rover. We're talking six wheels, big and wide and sturdy for rolling over sharp, pointy rocks on my face.

HOST: Europa?



EUROPA: Well, given my icy surface that's also sharp and craggy, I thought I would add ice skating capabilities to one of those lawnmowers you can ride on.


I'm still working out some kinks.


INTERVIEWER: And finally--





I love those Vespa scooters. My dream is like a scooter that could ride through the super fine sand scientists think they might find on my surface. So I've been testing with powdered sugar, and--


--I'm getting a lot of sugar dust up my nose. But yum! And mic drop.


HOST: Well, I'm glad it's engineers building these vehicles rather than you three. All right. I'm collecting the votes from my judges here. And it looks like the winner is--


--no one!


You three may have life, but we haven't found it yet.

MARS: Keep your eye on me.

EUROPA: And me!

ENCELADUS: And mic drop.



HOST: Well, worlds, thank you so much for playing. Join us next time when Saturn's other moon, Titan, joins us for the showdown.



MOLLY BLOOM: Humans have wondered about life on other planets a lot.

MALOU: But if you see something strange in the sky, it's not necessarily an alien spaceship.

MOLLY BLOOM: We don't know of any life beyond Earth.

MALOU: But lots of people think there might be some form of life out there.

MOLLY BLOOM: So just in case, people created The Golden Record to greet any aliens that might exist and also have record players.

MALOU: Scientists are also sending new machines to faraway places to search for signs of life.

MOLLY BLOOM: But if there is life out there, we don't know what it would be like. That's it for this episode of Brains On.

MALOU: Brains On is made by Menaka Wilhelm, Sanden Totten, Marc Sanchez, and Molly Bloom.

MOLLY BLOOM: Elyssa Dudley and Ruby Guthrie are the undeniably fantastic objects of this series. We had production support from Kristina Lopez and Rosie Dupont, engineering help from Veronica Rodriguez, Eric Romani, and Frank Roberto. Special thanks to Andy Orozco, Matt Tinoco, Micah Kilbon, Chris Greenspun, Louis Frankovich, Taka Zen, and Anna Weggel.

Just a quick show note, we will not be posting new episodes in January. But we'll be back in February.

MALOU: Before we go, it's time for our Moment of Um.




MAN: Um.

MAN: Um.



MAN: Um.



SPEAKER: Why does everything seem black around the sun whenever it is so bright?

BRITTANY KAMAI: This is the same way that if you turn on a lamp and you are really, really close to it, then it would feel really bright. But the further you walk away from it, then it becomes dimmer and dimmer. But it's not because the light bulb is dimming. It's because you're just further away from it.


I'm Brittany Kamai. I'm a scientist who studies the universe. And I work on building detectors to be able to see out in the universe. There are so many stars so many different distances away from us. The closest star to us is our very own sun.


The stars that exist in the universe are always shining. But we can't see them during the day with our eyes because the light from the sun is so bright. And so when we rotate away, then we're able to turn off that bright lamp and look out into the darkness. And that's how we're able to start seeing the dim light coming from all these other stars that exist in the universe.



WOMAN: Um. Um.

MOLLY BLOOM: I am simply beaming to read this list of names. It's the Brain's honor roll. These are the amazing listeners who send us their questions, ideas, mystery sounds, drawings, and high fives.




We'll be back soon with more answers to your questions.

MALOU: Thank you for listening.

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