As noted recently at Scientific American, thinking about UFOs is no longer presumptive evidence of membership in the lunatic fringe:
On June 9, with only a few hours’ notice, NASA held a press conference to announce a study it was commissioning on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs). The acronym is a rebranding of what are more popularly known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, a topic usually associated with purported extraterrestrial visitations and government conspiracy theories. The question on the public’s mind was why one of the U.S.’s premier scientific agencies was getting involved in something often considered to be at the farthest fringes of respectability.
Adam Mann, “With New Study, NASA Seeks the Science behind UFOs” at Scientific American (August 3, 2022)
The Pentagon’s UAP (UFO) report also signaled a similar sharp attitude change last year, pledging to go “wherever the data takes us.”
A number of factors underlie this change. First, the 1992 discovery of the first confirmed exoplanets — orbiting a star other than the Sun — made the question of whether there is life out there practical, rather than theoretical: If there are billions of exoplanets, how many can we explore and what should we look for?
Questions about the nature of that life have become practical too: Do the same laws of physics mean similar life forms across the universe? Can a law of evolution predict what those life forms will be like? Will we routinely find life forms like crabs? Are we most likely to find life on Kepler 442-B, as former astronaut Chris Hadfield predicts?
Second, focused research refines claims, sifting out the ones that are researchable: We sometimes hear people say, among 100 billion planets, there are bound to be thousands that support life. That sounds plausible. But let’s analyze it in terms of things we know: Among the estimated 9 million species of life forms on Earth, there must be at least one that eats radiation — and yes, there is! It’s a fungus.
But consider another claim: Among the estimated 9 million species, there must be one that exists only as a gas. Well, we haven’t found one and maybe we never will. Gaseous-ness may be incompatible with life (although astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) played creatively with the idea of gaseous life in The Black Cloud (1957)) Numbers alone won’t help us here.
The more we know, the easier it is to attach probabilities to our further guesses — provided we are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. As the James Webb Space Telescope, among others, sends back wondrous images of ever further reaches into the universe, thoughtful observers are helping refine our expectations of what to look for. We are looking for life on exoplanets where it is reasonable to expect it.
Third, there’s a practical issue as well. Unknown unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) may be advanced alien technology but they could also be the technology of a hostile earthly power. Those powers aren’t about to send us the plans. And we can’t study any technology if we are too busy sniggering about Little Green Men. The new outlook is probably long overdue.
And extraterrestrial intelligences? Well, put it like this: At one time, invisibility was science fiction; now it’s not. One could say the same about “seeing” through walls and enabling deaf people to see conversations. If a problem is technical, we may be able to solve it. But maybe it isn’t a technical problem.
Think back to “a life form could eat radiation” vs. “a life form could be a gas.” Similarly, extraterrestrial intelligences may or may not exist. Research is the only way we will likely find out.
You may also wish to read:
NASA cuts out the yuk-yuks, gets serious about UFO research. This fall the space agency is hiring top scientists to tackle “some of the most perplexing mysteries.” Once just a joke, the field is heating up: If the UFOs are strange tech, they could be ET — or a hostile foreign power here on Earth. Best find out soon.
The Pentagon’s UAP (UFO) report signals a sharp attitude change. The brass have committed themselves to going “wherever the data takes us.” No, they didn’t report UFOs. But they reported enough mysteries to stop merely debunking and discrediting… and follow the evidence.