Wednesday, September 13, 2006


UFO videos are awesome, but . . .

The sudden prominence of internet downloaded video sites is a new window on the world. We can not only spy on fights, police abuse and bravery, and athletic events, but also all types of authentic looking UFO flying around by themselves, or in formation, doing all kinds of nifty things. These videos are either real or very well crafted. Pictures and films have always been suspect, because they can be altered, but with the advent of relatively easy to use digital and other editing tricks, you can’t have a lot of faith in them to prove things that are "out of this world".

The abilities of these vessels (if they are not digital imaging or balloons) to turn on a dime or shoot off in another direction at astonishing speeds, makes it difficult to believe it is a new terrestrial military weapon. Give that possibility a low probability, just based upon what we know of today’s military capabilities, even if the really good stuff is hidden away at Area 51.

But don’t yet believe that we have “strange visitor[s] from another planet” to steal a line from the 50s Superman television show.

We can easily make a strong argument for intelligent life on other planets. We do not have an understanding of what makes life, what makes consciousness, or the type of consciousness we call reason and intelligence, or what planetary conditions would be required for those qualities.

The great physicist Erwin Schrodinger (of “Schrodinger’s Cat” thought experiment fame) suggested that the gene or chromosome fibre was an “aperiodic chrystal” or solid in his essay What is Life, which was an attempt to make biology accountable to physics and chemistry.

Don’t fret over what aperiodic crystal means. It has to do with growth that is not regular as opposed to a crystal's regular or “periodic” growth. Although the book is fairly short and readable, you might want to wait for a vacation on Mars to read it unless you have a deep interest in science. The point here is that it seems reasonable to believe, if he’s correct, that aperiodic crystallization could occur on other planets, although not likely in forms easily recognizable to us, or which are intelligent by our lights.

Still given the gazillions of stars and (likely) planets out there, the odds don’t need to be very great in order for life to appear on some millions of planets and intelligent life on many of these. Some books, like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos crunch the numbers and come up with a probability for these events, but obviously, they are subject to an awful lot of assuming and guessing.

Still, lets say the above argument is enough to convince reasonable people (as opposed to people who want to believe everything found on the paranormal shelf at Borders) that there is a fair to good probability of intelligent life out there – maybe a lot of it, and at least the small possibility that some beings somewhere in the universe have advanced to the degree that they can fly at or near the speed of light.

One factor greatly lessens the possibility of those intelligent beings finding us -- the inarticuable vast distances. First, even if telescopes are zeroing in on big bang country as some scientists claim, space is really, really, really big (say the words “really, really, really big” a trillion time to get an idea how big). We know that at the speed of light, a capability we cannot even begin to hope for yet (sorry trekkies), a vessel traveling to the the most likely life hospitable star in nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would take a 4.3 years to reach. That means with current technology, we could hope for a trip of many tens of thousands of years. It is unknown any of the three suns in that system have planets at all.

Finding a needle in a haystack would be nothing compared to finding us. Even if we improve the odds of finding us for our mythical fast-as-light aliens by saying that they have received our radio transmissions (however unlikely), that technology is little over a hundred years old. The odds of life, plus consciousness, plus intelligence, plus faster than light travel having occurred within say, a hundred light years of us in any direction, is also astronomically small. More likely you will win the lottery tomorrow.

Distance is relative to speed. If we can go fast enough, it won’t matter how far away another planet is. Read any book (by a real scientist) on this subject to understand the problems involved, both in terms of time relativity (yes, everyone you know on earth would be dead by the time you got back at the speed of light from a habitable planet, maybe for thousands of years) and in the energy resources necessary to accomplish it. NASA’s website considers the possibility of interstellar travel, but really raises nothing but presently insurmountable problems. The Physics of Star Trek is better.

Nothing in this essay is claimed to be original so far. You can read similar arguments in many good books about the possibility of life in space and the search for extraterrestrials. The argument raised here, one that at least I have never seen anywhere before, is no more speculative than any of these other arguments, and a lot less than some of them.

If there are intelligent beings on other planets that have the ability, and taken the time and trouble to travel here, however infinitesimal that possibility seems, then they have a curiosity and sense of adventure that must be a lot like ours.

If that is so, it is reasonable to infer that they would very likely do the same types of things, in a broad sense, that we have done when our adventurers and travelers encountered new beings, in our case, other people. They would trade with us (if we have anything they need), kill us, eat us or conquer us. Something. Even if it's an impossibly weird alien interaction like turning everyone over 5' 2" into a pancake. As UFO advocates, many who are extremely intelligent (and who could be right), claim that UFOs have been visiting Earth for a long time, it seems psychologically unrealistic to believe that they would not have had some contact, for better or worse, with the other beings who have managed to leave their planet’s atmosphere in a craft.

That hasn’t happened. If you believe enthusiasts, aliens do monitor us, stick needles in us, eat our cows, draw power from our electric lines, etc. It just seems unlikely that would be the extent of the interaction. Of course, in the finale to X-Files the invasion is scheduled for 2012, which isn't that far away.

Arguably, these are all culture bound concerns. Maybe we don’t know just how superior alien technology is, or if they can be understood in terms of our own psychology. Maybe they can go many times the speed of light (“Warp 3, Mr. Sulu”) and are so far above us that we are like insects to them. OK, its possible. But if so, wouldn’t you think that beings that have the technology and enormous energy reserves to travels billions or trillions of miles in a craft do not need to watch us from our atmosphere. They could park their craft in deep orbit, or even easily and more safely watch us from the other side of the moon. If they came closer, it would only be to contact us, kill or eat us.

First hand reports of sightings, even from people who are generally honest, are just not credible. Experience tells us that when someone wants you to believe in something that is considered "over the top" or supernatural, they will go to great lengths to do so, including simply making up stories. Moreover, their desire to believe, like Muldar, leaves them susceptible to seeing what they want. Their versions often begin with “I used to be a skeptic, but . . .”. Second or third hand accounts are even less credible ("This really happened to my friend's aunt, and she would not lie.")

You can believe whatever you like, and in our country at least, say it out loud. There are millions of intelligent people who also believe that psychics can foretell the future, that ghosts haunt the world and that Uri Gellar could bend spoons with his mind. As James Randi (“The Amazing Randi”), a magician who debunks mysticism (including in his wonderful and too little read book, The Mask of Nostradamus, from which I quote) wrote, after demolishing the prophetic myth:

“The legend of Nostradamus, faulty as it is, will survive it all. Not because of its worth, but because of its seductive attraction, the idea that the Prophet of Salon could see into the future will persist. An ever-abundant number of interpreters will pop up to renew the shabby exterior of his image, and that gloss will serve to entice more unwary fans into acceptance of the false predictions that have enthralled millions in the centuries since his death. Shameless rationalizations will be made, ugly facts will be ignored and common sense will continue to be submerged in enthusiasm.”

He knows what he is talking about. When I went to the library to get the exact quote I noticed that this rational study of what Nostradamus actually said and how it has been fiddled with over time to make him look prescient, was surrounded by dozens of other books on Nostradamus or prophecy which took the more entertaining, and I am sure, the more lucrative path

The belief in creatures from other planets careering around our skies cannot be put in the same league with Nostradamus prophecies and other supernatural beliefs. The number of scientists and military men who have courageously come forward to share their experiences (can they all be nuts or liars?) gives me the small indistinguishable hope that "the truth is out there" despite all I have written above and presuming that the visitors are more ET than Klingon like. That’s the little Muldar inside me talking.

The James Randi quote is included because people will continue to believe in alien visitors for the same reason they believe in supernatural beings. Not because of evidence but because of its attraction. Videos or photographs which can be faked and testimony about shapes on radar screen are one thing, a Venusian Battle Class Lasercraft 3000 landing on Pennsylvania Avenue with peace signs or ray guns on its dome is better.

We could argue about it literally forever, because really, hopes aside, no one is coming.

1 comment:

  1. The Amazing Randi and space aliens???? You have wayyyy too much time on your hands.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .