Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Humankind’s Greatest Hits

The Wednesday Afternoon Inquisition is brought to you by the most recent winner of Comment o’ the Week! This week’s question was created by Mark Hall, who writes:


Aliens, visitors from another planet, come to Earth and ask you to introduce them to human culture . . . to give them a summation and a reading list. What do you chose as their “must read/see/hear” for humankind?


The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. I think aliens would be more interested in my biology and geology textbooks. They’ll need to learn a lot of basics before they even care about something like culture, assuming they find humans to be the most interesting species anyway.

  2. Book: Slaughterhouse 5 (After all, they might be Tralfamadorians themselves)
    Music: Hmmm, I’ll just give them my iPod and tell them I’m a music expert (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur jr, Punk and Post-punk, etc.)
    Place: I’ll take them to the Lower East Side on a Saturday night. I’ve always wanted to make fun of hipsters with an alien.

  3. I really like the way some of you would take the opportunity to mess with the aliens. After all, one thing they would need to come to grips with quickly is our sense of humor.

    In that vein:
    To Read – “The War of the Worlds” (hope you fellows brought your hazmat suits)
    To See – John Water’s “Pink Flamingos”
    To Hear – “Joe’s Garage” by Frank Zappa

  4. Will Durant’s 11 volume Story of Civilization – it covers basic world history and religion without bias.

    The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – (Mostly so we can ask about that towel thing later)

    Rats, Lice and History by Zinsser. Human history makes a lot more sense when you understand the part that disease has played in world events. There are other books on this topic, but none as entertaining.

  5. Boobies. They are very important to a proper understanding of human culture. Many heroic and amazing deeds have been performed because of boobies. Terrible wars have been fought over boobies. Napoleon invaded Russia in the winter because he wanted to see all of the erect nipples on the Russian boobies. Cook explored the Sandwich Islands so he could see naked native boobies. Columbus attempted to find a quick route to the Indies because Isabella promised him a quick peek at her boobies in return for cinamon. Mick Jagger created the Rolling Stones because of boobies. Tegan and Sara sing because of boobies. Armstrong walked on the moon in the hope that women would show him their boobies. Why do we go to work? Boobies! What makes us fall in love? Boobies! What feeds the newborns? Boobies! Why does the sun shine? Boobies!

  6. I’d have them see “Synechdoche: New York” which is as true a movie to the human condition as I’ve seen in a long time (followed by Eternal Sunshine, if the Aliens are up for a double show).

    I’d have them read “The Dark Side of Love” by Rafik Schami, as it deals both with what bridges we can build and how we tear them down again (and afterwards maybe “Maus” by Spiegelman?)

    All the while they will listen to the Symphony from the New World by Dvorak.

  7. The Durants’ book (Bookittty @8) is an excellent choice. I recommend Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” or anything by Barbara Tuchman, along with the observation that this sort of thing goes on over and over everywhere because we never learn from our collective experience.

    All our glories pass sooner or later, but foolishness is our most salient characteristic, and we’ll probably do something foolish to, with, or against the aliens. It’s only fair to warn them.

  8. Read:
    Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond
    As much Shakespear as possible (seconding Gammidgy’s suggestion)

    Architectural/language/music tour of at least three major cities on all populated continents

  9. I think I’ll go with the writings of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, and then let them read Shakespeare. I wouldn’t want them getting irritated half way through Titus Andronicus and vaporize everyone.

  10. I would direct them to the internet. Google, Wikipedia and Youtube would give them a pretty good idea of ‘human culture’.

    But in the end, there is no ‘human culture’, is there? If you want to understand and get a feel for the glorious web of stuff that we humans call culture, then I’m sorry, aliens, but you’re going to have to travel.

  11. My two must reads are “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller and “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. The aliens need to see our dark side as well as our light side if they are to ever truly understand us.

  12. @Gabrielbrawley: I was thinking, in line with boobies, that the aliens should watch some porn. This is not so much to get any realistic view of human sexuality but to get an idea of common fantasies about sexuality. OTOH, it may give them new ideas about anal probing.

  13. Must read: The plays of Sophocles, The Georgics by Virgil, Middlemarch by George Eliot and Journey to the West. And yes, I’d also suggest the sacred texts of the top dozen or so major world religions on principle. (It helps to understand the allusions in many of the other works of literature.)

    Must see: Battleship Potempkin, Citizen Kane, The Usual Suspects and a choice selection of Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones films.

    Must hear: The Art of Fugue by Bach, Tosca by Puccini and Harlem Suite by Duke Ellington.

  14. @Maplethorpe:
    But in the end, there is no ‘human culture’, is there? If you want to understand and get a feel for the glorious web of stuff that we humans call culture, then I’m sorry, aliens, but you’re going to have to travel.

    Err … I think if they show up on our doorstep, it’s pretty safe to assume they already did a little bit of travelling already, and it would only be nice of us to not send them off like that but let them put their feet up while we make a selection of what our planet and our species has to offer.

  15. @Gabrielbrawley: GET OUT OF MY HEAD!! Srsly, it’s like you say what I think and somehow make it come across as not creepy – I’m still working on that last part.

    I echo what a few others have said for reading material: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, also Collapse by Jared Diamond, and of course The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! I would have them watch Contact and listen to a sampling of music from across the ages, with a brief explanation of each to set the stage.

    Aside from that they would just have to listen to me, and I would talk their antennae off.

  16. Study biology, learn the organization of life-


    Listen to Point of Inquiry, SGU, 5×5, Skepchick poscast (if they happen to make more)

    I agree with P&T-read your bible.

  17. boobies, tits, breastices, rack, ta-tas, tammies, knockers, bangers, funbags, bumpers, snugglepups, bongos, sweater kittens, jublies, chesticles, melons…

    I can imagine an alien biologist observing our mammalian ways and saying: “No. Fracking. Way. Your young suck fluid out of your body? But then what is she doing? She clearly isn’t an infant! Is this some sort of ritual? Why is that one watching? What is he doing? He puts what where? Is that sanitary? Didn’t you just tell me that the babies come out of there? Fecal Matter? Are you serious?”

  18. @Gabrielbrawley: As I read this, I thought…we’re not worthy of the master…then I read @sethmanapio: No words…just…wow.

    “He puts what where? Is that sanitary?”

    Oh, and a second on the complete works of Wile E. Coyote, and Bela Flek. Who doesn’t love some Jazz/Classical banjo. I mean, come on!

    Chuck Jones rules!!!

  19. Hi there!

    As far as what I feel aliens should LISTEN to? I just blipped it:

    Seemed like kind of a no-brainer to me. Just make them listen to the pinnacle of human musical expression and creativity.

    As for reading, there was a book that I read for college called: “Philosophy: An Introduction to the Fine Art of Wondering” by James L. Christian. It was an unconventional textbook on all facets of psychology, including marginal quotes by people like Freud, Einstein, and Mr. Spock. :) Excellent textbook!

  20. I would tell them:

    “My deeply held personal beliefs tell me not to intensionally harm another, so the best recommendation I can give you is to get back in your ship and leave here as soon as possible… and take me with you.”

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