• Varun Rao

All dressed up and nowhere to go: man’s search for a cosmic date

by Varun Rao, Rahul Rao and Yasir Aheer


Summary:

  • On April 27, 2020 the US Department of Defence released three videos of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs).

  • The objects in question do not appear to behave like any man-made aircraft, but it would be rash to conclude that this is evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

  • Most scientists are open to the possibility that alien life could exist elsewhere in the Universe.

  • The sheer size of space is one explanation for why no cosmic visitors have come knocking.

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

Arthur C. Clarke


We truly are living in strange times. In virtually any other period of recent history, news that a high level US government agency had released authentic footage of unidentified flying objects would have caused a flurry of excitement. However, such is our mankind’s preoccupation with the COVID crisis that this momentous news passed through our collective consciousness with nary a raised eyebrow.


First, the facts. On April 27, 2020 the US Department of Defence released three videos of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) taken by US Navy pilots, two dating back to 2004 and one to 2015. Although these videos had already been leaked online previously, the imprimatur of officialdom conferred upon them by the DoD’s public statement suggests that it is no longer business as usual.


The objects in question do not appear to behave like any man-made aircraft. Fighter pilot Commander David Fravor, presumably a man not given to hyperbole, said  “it accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen”. Another object was described by a fighter pilot as “rotating”. Despite the absence of visible plumes, wings or rotors, the objects outran the US Navy’s F-18 fighter jets, and displayed extraordinary feats of agility and manoeuvrability. The DoD’s official statement reads, “The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as 'unidentified'.”


Discussions of UFOs have long been the preserve of crackpot conspiracy theorists, and research into them has been viewed as slightly unsavoury, certainly not the domain of any reputable scientist. Previous high-level sources have described a “cultural stigma” attached to UFO research within the Pentagon. Further muddying the waters is the admission of a secret multi-million-dollar Pentagon UFO research program, which ran from 2007 to 2012. 


While tempting, it would be rash to jump to the conclusion that these videos are incontrovertible proof of alien life, despite Cmdr. Fravor’s startling opinion: "I can tell you, I think it was not from this world".  Several more mundane possibilities exist, including rare weather phenomena and optical illusions.


Leaving aside the question of whether these videos show aliens visiting our planet, what of alien life in general? Ref. Mr. Clarke’s quotation at the beginning of this article, both possibilities – either we are alone in the universe, or we are not – are equally terrifying. Ever since Galileo’s findings discredited the anthropocentric view of the Universe, most scientists have been open to the possibility that alien life could exist elsewhere. The Universe is a big place, and the idea that Earth is the only inhabited world in the Universe seems preposterous. It has been estimated that humans are likely to be alone in the Universe only if the odds of a civilization developing on a habitable planet are less than about 10 billion trillion. 


In our cosmic neighbourhood alone, scientists theorise that some moons of the gas giants – Jupiter’s Europa, and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus – might have liquid water, carbon compounds and hydrothermal vents, which provide all the ingredients believed to be necessary for life. Fan of Arthur C. Clarke will no doubt remember that the sci-fi masterpiece 2010: Odyssey Two ends with a chilling message from aliens - “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there”. Beyond our immediate backyard, roughly one-fifth of stars have planets in habitable zones. Using a refinement of the famous Drake equation, a recent study estimated the number of intelligent civilisations in the Milky Way to be between 4 and 211, with 36 being the most likely number. 


So why haven’t our neighbours come knocking? The legendary Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, pondered the same question through his famous Paradox. Briefly, the argument runs thus: the Milky Way contains a very large number of stars, and it is likely that some of those stars will have Earth-like planets, some fraction of which should have intelligent life.  Yet there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that life exists elsewhere in the Universe. Australia’s infamous “Where the bloody hell are you?” tourism campaign could well be applied to the search for extraterrestrial life. 


There are a few possible explanations, the most important of which is the sheer enormousness of space. The nearest star to our Sun is Proxima Centauri, which would take our fastest spaceship over 70,000 years to reach. Schoolkids are often taught about space with pretty, aesthetically satisfying visualisations showing the Sun and orbiting planets stacked into a cosy queue. Unfortunately, to be useful, any map of the Solar System must also be hilariously inaccurate; if presented on a piece of paper at its true scale, the planets would be so microscopic one could not see them. 

The mindboggling distances of space are sometimes best explained by analogy. Imagine the sun shrunk to the size of an orange – on this scale, Jupiter would be 260 feet away, Pluto’s orbit would be over 1000 feet distant, and Proxima Centauri would be over 2 km away. For another illuminating, if tedious, illustration of the vastness of the Solar System, see this plot using the Moon as 1 pixel.


The search for ET could be best summed up as a sea of monotony livened by a few anomalies that gave rise to short-lived hopes of a breakthrough. Among the earliest of these is the famous Wow! signal - an intense, narrow-bandwidth radio signal that lasted 72 seconds – detected in August 1977. Although this unusual signal initially generated a flurry of interest, it is now believed to have been generated by a comet


More recently, astronomers have detected unusual behaviour around Boyajian’s Star, more than 1000 light-years distant, that cannot be explained by known natural phenomena. Among the most speculative possibilities is that an alien megastructure orbiting the star would cause the unexplained behaviour. Astronomers continue to monitor the electromagnetic emissions of this star in the hope of developing new hypotheses. 


Given that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the search for alien life will likely continue until it succeeds, if we are not alone, or indefinitely, if we are. Both possibilities have deep ramifications for how we view mankind’s place in the Universe.

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Disclaimer: This article is based on our personal opinion and does not reflect or represent any organisation that we might be associated with.