Twice in the last week I have gotten The Question. Anyone who works around the public and telescopes will get this one, and you need to be ready to answer it. There is so much history and myth around the subject that the answer can be challenging. For this one, a simple, short answer will not suffice, you need a good, concise and clear response. This is made no easier by the problem that the answer I give is not the one they want to hear.
“Have you ever seen a UFO?”
Scene from Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Of course by UFO they mean some sort of alien spacecraft, visitors from another star or dimension. I have seen things in the sky I didn’t know what they were, unidentified objects. But I have always been able to figure out what they were with a little checking. While the answers are usually interesting they have always been natural or human phenomena.
Note: This article originally posted Dec 13, 2008 on the old Darker View blog.
Take a breath, look the person straight in the eyes, and say it…
I have never seen any evidence of an alien visitor, nor has any of the many, many other astronomers, amateur or professional I know ever mentioned anything to me. We have all seen odd things, but no good evidence for alien visitors.
I am pretty certain there is life out there. Given the sheer odds of hundreds of billions of stars in each major galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies, there are simply too many chances. We now know that there are planets around just about every star, we have discovered over three hundred, and that is just around nearby stars within the reach of our instruments. There is life out there, but complex, intelligent life? That is another level of question.
They are not visiting us.
Most people who ask The Question have no concept of just how big space is, or how difficult travel among the stars would be. We have seen too many episodes of Star Trek, where the next planet is reached after the ad break and warp speed solves all of the problems. If it exists, interstellar travel will be rare and difficult, involving titanic amounts of energy. An alien ship coming into our solar system will not only been seen by every instrument we have, and there are a lot these days, but everyone with a backyard telescope. The sort of energy needed to decelerate would be more than obvious.
I have more than a little trouble with many of the eyewitness accounts, they describe a wild array of craft, all different, yet the same, as if they are just elaborating on previous stories. UFO’s with lots of lights that fly in strange ways, suddenly changing directions like the pilot has just left the bar after a heavy night. Advanced technologies will still obey the laws of physics, intelligent beings will act with purpose, what is so often described does not make any sense at all. Descriptions of little grey men are far too familiar, a head, two eyes, two arms, and two legs… far too much like us. If we ever do meet aliens they will look nothing like us, they will be truly alien.
I don’t base this answer on just circumstantial evidence, but on the lack of any reliable evidence that anything has visited. The concept of alien visitation is too extraordinary, the level of proof required is similarly extraordinary. The burden of proof lies on those that say there are aliens, and so far they have failed in that respect. I have a lot of trouble with the concept of aliens that haunt the boondocks and abduct hapless farmhands. Sorry, just not believable.
Who would I believe?
Not certain about that, but I am not sure I would trust any eyewitness. As any police detective will tell you, the human mind is simply too easy to fool, we are horrible witnesses. I would expect the best possible witness would be those who watch the sky regularly, astronomers and the far more numerous amateur astronomers, a community to which I belong.
Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, put it very well indeed, his point is one I know well and bears repeating. The amateur astronomy community spends more time under the stars than almost any other group. We keep good optics and cameras handy, if there is anything to be seen, this large group of people would see it.
On any clear night, particularly weekends, there are thousands of amateur astronomers sitting with telescopes under dark skies. We see lots of things, but we know what they are. This community is educated in the many beautiful and arcane phenomena that sky can produce. We make a point to see these things and recognize them for what they are. Flickering planets low on the horizon, aircraft flares, high altitude balloons, the bright flash of a bursting meteor, satellite flares and many more. Those of us who have spent time around civilian aviation, or the military have seen even more.
If you are sure I am wrong… Show me the evidence!
Sorry, bad photos, odd Mayan carvings or unreliable eyewitness accounts don’t do it. Been there, read and seen it. When an alien ship lands on the Ellipse in front of the White House, or some other solid proof is produced I will re-examine my conclusion. But until then…