UFOs: Threat, Or Menace?

Poking around in the news this evening, I saw that UFOlogist Robert Hastings had held a news conference today with a number of retired Air Force servicemen. The panel claimed, in no uncertain terms, that they had had first-hand close encounters with strange flying machines at various nuclear-weapons sites, that they had been ordered to keep mum about it, and that in their minds there was simply no question that these vessels were of otherworldly origin.

I’m generally very skeptical indeed about the entire spectrum of paranormal claims, from spoon-bending to reincarnation to Supreme Beings, but I have always felt that out of the whole lot, the possibility that there are indeed ETs buzzing around seems easily the least far-fetched. That there is other life “out there” somewhere is, I’d say, almost a statistical certainty, and the only solid argument I know of for thinking that UFO claims are all balderdash is the technical challenge of navigating astronomical distances in a commuter-friendly fashion.

I realize, of course, that there are very substantial Einsteinian objections to the idea of faster-than-light travel, and I understand them well enough to admit that I haven’t the slightest notion of what a possible usable loophole might be — but given that much that was once “obviously impossible” is mundane today, I’m reluctant to declare extraterrestrial visitation an obvious impossibility solely on the basis of this technical limitation, however insurmountable it may seem at our current level of scientific and technological advancement. (After all, the Droid smartphone I just bought works on principles that were utterly undreamt-of until very recently, and not so long ago it would have seemed like sorcerer’s magic.)

Moreover, although I’ve never had any convincing experiences of my own along these lines, I do know people who have — and they are people I know well, whose veracity I have no reason to doubt; they were ordinary visual experiences, made extraordinary only by their content. And recently, though I won’t go into any details about this, I’ve also been introduced to certain parties who had what one might call a “special connection” to some of the hush-hush government research that took place in the years after WWII.

So all in all, I really don’t know quite what to say about all this; it’s nagged at me all my life. I’m well aware that this is a topic that is catnip to kooks and oddballs (indeed, as Woody Allen has pointed out, some UFO “witnesses”, when pressed, will admit to being members of both groups). I realize also that there never was more fertile soil for attention-grabbing hoaxes and paranoid (or wishful) self-delusion. And maybe I’ve just been reading too much Charles Fort. But at this point I have to say that if I had to place a bet, I’d wager that at least some of these sightings are genuine. (There, I said it.)

Anyway, here’s a CNN clip of today’s press conference. We report, you decide.

I’m curious, though: there are a lot of smart, thoughtful people who visit this blog. What do you think?

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    I’d be skeptical of any reports about flying craft (or beings), especially if their descriptions didn’t stretch my imagination. Most such claims never sound otherworldly enough; they generally represent a failure of the human imagination: “It was a cylinder!” “A disk!” “A glowing sphere!”

    I think, like you, that life “out there,” somewhere, is a virtual certainty, but I also think that the odds against any sort of parallel evolution are so incredibly slim that, if we are indeed visited by something from another world or star system, it’ll be in a form that none of us could have imagined.

    Perhaps for that reason, I’m more partial to SF films in which the aliens look more like tentacled sea creatures than land-bound beasts: our terrestrial waters are brimming with all manner of bizarre life forms, and Hollywood routinely fails to provide us with aliens that transcend even the strangeness of those creatures. A new film called “Monsters” has my attention for that reason: it takes the tentacular approach. I never saw “Avatar,” but when I saw the trailers and realized that all the aliens were unimaginatively realized beasties with obvious earthly analogues, I was pretty disappointed.

    Not having made a study of ETs, and being basically in agreement with Carl Sagan’s chapter on alien abductions in his The Demon-haunted World, I’d say that we Terrans haven’t been visited yet, but when the visitation happens, it’ll blow our minds.

    …or maybe the scientists are right and it’ll just be microbes mailed to us via meteoric speedpost.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 2:34 am | Permalink
  2. Dom says

    The interesting question is not “Does life exist elsewhere?”, but “What is life?”. I guess KK touches on this. Anything that doesn’t exhibit the following could not be life. It must be born, seek nutrition, age, reproduce, and die. As a corrolary, it must be subject to laws of evolution. Consciousness and speech are not necessary. So there may be life elsewhere, but we might not recognize it.

    As far as visitors, I don’t see anything convincing. When they start to visit people like James Randi or Martin Gardner I’ll be more convinced.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink
  3. If there has to be life out there, where is everybody?


    Nope. We’re it.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    The editors at the National Lampoon were right. Like pornography, UFO’s are both a threat and a menace.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  5. Dom says

    The Fermi Paradox doesn’t cut it for me. The lack of evidence is due to, as MP pointed out, “…the technical challenge of navigating astronomical distances in a commuter-friendly fashion.” How many light years is earth away from the nearest planet outside our solar system?

    Also, even the link you presented is lilmited to “technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations”. It says nothing about “life” as defined in more general forms.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Kevin, the points you make raise the question that always dogs this subject: how unusual is our situation? Assuming that life itself is common, what are the constraints on its physical (or, for that matter, mental) form? Likewise, what constraints are likely to apply to the vehicles it might use?

    If you assume, as I do, that complex life must arise by an evolutionary process beginning with chemical reactions, then you need a few things up front, most likely: a good solvent and a suitable range of temperatures, for starters. The unique chemical and physical properties of water, and the abundance of its constituent atoms, make it probably the best candidate.

    It’s hard to see why certain basic requirements of life wouldn’t exert a shaping influence on complex organisms, too (at least those complex organisms that are going to have a shot at controlling their environments well enough to develop advanced technology): predation, sensation, locomotion, defense, etc. Having sensory organs mounted on the part of the body that faces forward during locomotion seems generally a sensible idea, as does having the mouth close to the sensory organs. Most of Earth’s complex animals implement this design.

    Appendages of some sort are also awfully useful things, and again, most complex animals have them.

    The abundance of “convergently” designed parts among widely divergent lineages shows that there are some design moves that are just generally good ideas. Eyes, legs, wings, venomous spines, etc, have all appeared independently across wide taxonomic gaps. Stereoscopic vision, detection of sound, and olfaction are sensory modalites on which independent linages have converged over and over.

    Of course there is plenty of wiggle room: exoskeletons vs. endoskeletons, bilateral symmetry vs. asymmetry, jointed limbs vs. tentacles, hair, scales, etc. But I shouldn’t be surprised if the same basic pressures and opportunities that have shaped the morphology of complex organisms here on Earth tend to apply eslewhere as well.

    As for vehicles, if we assume that our ETs evolved, as we did, on a planetary surface, either in a liquid or gaseous environment, then of course it is reasonable to imagine that they need to encapsulate a piece of that environment in their vessels. So the idea of them being some sort of container certainly makes sense. And why not the usual disks, cylinders, etc.? They are obvious natural forms.

    What I find most interesting of all is the question of what an alien mind might be like. To what extent is the evolution of cognition likely to be “convergent” in the same way physical morphology seems to be? I am inclined to think that many of the same shaping principles will be at work, with the need for an intuitive physics at the top of the list. For an alien race to cooperate well enough to achieve an advanced technology, many of the other evolved features of our own minds may have been converged upon as well: some sort of mathematics, language, and social and moral architecture.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Dom, if, as you suggest, the lack of evidence is due to the difficulty of travelling interstellar distances, then if I understand you correctly you are saying that accounts of UFOs are false, and that the question here is simply the more abstract one of whether life might exist elsewhere.

    But the lack of evidence may be due to other causes — and I wouldn’t say that it is completely lacking in the first place. If nothing else, first-hand testimony by sober eyewitnesses is good enough to be used in court, and there is no lack of it here. But I am far from convinced that other evidence has been completely lacking.

    But I’ll say this: if those ETs are going to be visiting Martin Gardner, they’ll need some very advanced technology indeed.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  8. JK says

    Well Malcolm, if there’s one thing certain about the majority of your readership, very few spend quality time observing the lifeforms that lurk about the vitamin and supplement aisles of Wal-Mart.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  9. Dom says

    “…people LIKE James Randi or Martin Gardner”

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Dom, duly noted. And forgive me for modifying that comment after posting it.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Dennis, do you really think we’re it? Just us, all alone in this vast universe? A staggering thought.

    Or maybe we’re the first to sit up and look around. Somebody has to be, I guess…

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Ah, yes, JK, the exotic life-forms of Wal-Mart

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  13. While life as such may be quite common, there’s zero evidence for intelligent life anywhere but here. (Although the evidence for intelligence here is weak.) The difficulty of traversing interstellar distances is the least of it: given the vastness of the universe and the immense time it’s existed, if intelligent life were at all common, there ought to be millions of civilizations so far in advance of us that we could barely understand them. Surely, we would have noticed; surely, there would be some signs, like stellar engineering.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Well, Dennis, I agree that’s a fair point. But maybe the signs aren’t so obvious. (A Dyson sphere, for example, wouldn’t be visible at all.)

    And perhaps highly advanced lifeforms are rare; as you point out, they certainly are pretty thin on the ground around these parts. But if there really were zero evidence, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The question is whether such evidence as we have is persuasive. I’ll say at least that it’s enough — in its sheer volume, and occasionally in its quality — to raise nagging and persistent doubts, even in a skeptical sort like me.

    I admit that I do hear the voice of David Hume, however, somewhere off in the distance.

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  15. Well, I suppose that I ought to ‘fess up.

    I’m from around the area of Betelgeuse, so I can attest that there is life, sentient life, elsewhere in the universe, and that we are here.

    We’re not especially intelligent, however, or we wouldn’t be trying to disguise ourselves as human beings to pursue worthless careers in academia when there are better jobs out there.

    But we’re here, despite Mr. Mangan’s contrary certainties.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  16. bob koepp says

    FWIW, I think Jimi was a misidentified flying object. At least he said he hailed from an asteroid off the coast of Mars…

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  17. Dom says

    “…do you really think we’re it? Just us, all alone in this vast universe? A staggering thought.”

    Do you know what is even more staggering? That we are not all alone.

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 7:31 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    I’ll call ’em even, Dom.

    Arthur C. Clarke got there first:

    “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Two further thoughts, Dennis:

    I can easily imagine a race not so terribly advanced compared to us, other than having made some sort of essential faster-than-light breakthrough; we wouldn’t see evidence of their domestic activities because the light from their home system isn’t here yet, though they themselves might already be.

    And of course, there is no reason to consider it necessary that there be millions of advanced races, lighting up the Cosmos like Times Square; there might be just one or two, and they might be discreet about it, and hard to spot in the vastness of space.

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  20. Dom says

    “…other than having made some sort of essential faster-than-light breakthrough…”

    Is that possible? I thought its not “light is so fast that we can’t go faster”. Its more “time is a function of the speed of light, and we can’t go faster because our clocks slow down.”

    In Futurama (that’s where I get all my physics lessons) the professor says, “I’d go faster but that would take too long.”

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    Dom, you are quite right to object. According to special relativity, no object with rest mass > 0 can travel at or above lightspeed (c) relative to any reference frame.

    (We can, in principle, travel faster than light ourselves — in the sense that we could travel, for example, the 4 LY to alpha Centauri in less than four years of ship’s time. But that’s because the distance would seem foreshortened to us as we approached c. To an outside observer, it would look as if it took us more than four years, but that our ship’s clock was running slowly.)

    Is this the final word on the subject? As I said in the post, I can’t imagine what the loophole would be, and this is in my opinion the strongest argument against believing that we are being visited by ETs.

    But the history of technology is full of notions that were demonstrably impossible one day and commonplace a short time later — so I wonder if FTL travel is truly impossible, or is just waiting for some new insight.

    But for now, yes, it certainly seems that it can’t be done.

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  22. Kevin Kim says

    Stable wormholes. That’s the ticket. Whether it’s “Deep Space Nine” or Sagan’s Contact, stable wormholes seem to be the SF-approved way to cheat when you need to rush to a faraway somewhere.

    Posted September 30, 2010 at 2:53 am | Permalink
  23. Malcolm says

    Well, I dunno. I have a book on the shelf here called Faster Than Light: Superluminal Loopholes in Physics, by physicist Nick Herbert (who also wrote the outstanding Quantum Reality, a look at the various “interpretations” of QM’s “measurement problem”).

    In it he talks about the various objects wormholes can be built on: Schwarzschild black holes (the ordinary kind), Reissner-Nordstrom black holes (highly charged), Kerr black holes (rotating), Kerr-Newman black holes (charged and rotating), and SEKOs (super-extreme Kerr objects, or black holes that rotate so fast that their angular momentum is great enough to exceed the object’s mass, stripping away the one-way membrane at the Schwarschild radius, and exposing the “naked singularity” beneath).

    It’s been a while since I read the book, but to make a long story short, let’s just say they all have problems.

    Posted September 30, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink