Do I Believe in UFOs?

Published: 18 Apr , 2017
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Whenever I do a new livestream on Instagram (hint hint, @universetoday on Instagram), it’s generally with an audience that doesn’t have a lot of experience with my work here on Universe Today or YouTube.

They’re enthusiastic about space, but they haven’t been exposed to a lot of the modern ideas about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrials. They have, however, seen a lot of TV and movies.

And so, the most common question I get, by a long shot is, “do you believe in aliens?”

That’s actually a more complicated question. On the one hand, the question could be: do I believe that aliens are visiting Earth, creating crop circles, infiltrating our government, and experimenting on human/alien hybrids for the eventual overthrow of human civilization?

The answer to that question, is no.

Capturing a Bright Fireball, breaking up with debris. Yellow Springs, Ohio. Photo credit: John Chumack

I believe in UFOs, in that, I believe there are unidentified objects flying in the air, which haven’t gotten a definitive categorization. And when they do get an explanation, it’s weather balloons, or Venus, or airplanes, or fireworks, or drones, or a hoax.

It’s never aliens.

Because if it was aliens, we would have some kind of evidence. There would be something, anything, that gave definitive proof that aliens were here.

What I’m talking about is some kind of monument, or machine, or vehicle, or factory. Something that’s been around here on Earth for as long as human history, and has no explanation for how it could have been created.

UFO researchers point to things like the pyramids, or the statues on Easter Island, or the Nazca lines, when there’s plenty of evidence these things could be created by humans and their tools of the age. Even when the hoaxers who created crop circles with a plank on a rope and a little planning tried to explain how they did it, people didn’t really believe them.

I want to show you a series of amazing visualizations created by Sam Monfort, a data researcher in the Human Factors and Applied Cognition program at George Mason University. Sam pulled in data from the National UFO Reporting Center or NUFORC which has been collecting reports all the way back to 1905.

Since its inception, NUFORC has received almost 105,000 UFO reports. And sighting are at an all time high.

Reported UFO sightings per decade. Credit: Sam Monfort

But what’s really fascinating is how the trends of what people see have changed over time. A century ago, the vast majority of UFOs were spheres or cigar shaped. But then saucers showed up in the 20s, and that’s all anyone saw.

Types of UFOs reported per decade. Credit: Sam Monfort

Cigars have dropped down to almost nothing, while lights in the sky have grown in prominence to become almost 50% of the UFOs that people see these days.

Clearly spaceship design took a turn away from cigars, to saucers to glowing lights. Oh, fickle aliens spacecraft designers, following the latest fashions.

The timing is interesting too. There’s a rise in sightings around July 4th in the US every year. Fireworks maybe?

Reported UFO sightings in July peak on the 4th. Credit: Sam Monfort

The other piece of data that’s pretty interesting is that people in the US are 300 times more likely to report a UFO sighting than any other country in the world. My own Canada is number 2.

The distribution by country of reported UFO sightings. Credit: Sam Monfort

Here’s the thing. A huge percentage of the population is now carrying around their own personal tricorder, which will record audio, video and take amazing pictures, even in a dimly lit alien spaceship. And yet, there still hasn’t been any definitive, scientifically proven evidence for aliens.

Google is watching everywhere I go, and reminds me that I visited Home Depot last week, but you think the occasional trip to an orbital research facility would get picked up.

I feel pretty confident when I say, there’s no evidence that aliens are visiting Earth.

But the deeper question is a little more unsettling. Do I believe there are aliens in the Universe?

The observable – or inferrable universe. This may just be a small component of the whole ball game.

The Universe is huge. The very edge of the Universe we can see is known as the observable Universe. The first light in the Universe has been traveling through space for 13.8 billion years to reach our eyes. And because of the expansion of the Universe, those regions are now more than 46 billion light years away from us.

That’s just the observable Universe. The actual physical Universe is much larger. Hundreds of billions, trillions, quadrillions or more light years across. Maybe it’s even infinite.

Forever is a long way.

And we know that the Universe is old. It’s been around for 13.8 billion years. Our Milky Way has been around for almost that entire period. The Solar System showed up a relatively recent 4.5 billion years ago. We’re late to a party that’s been raging for almost 10 billion years already.

Fossil evidence tells us that life formed here on Earth pretty much as quickly as it was possible to do so. Just a few hundred million years after the Earth formed, and it wasn’t entirely a ball of molten rock, life popped up and started evolving.

Hematite tubes from the hydrothermal vent deposits that represent the oldest microfossils and evidence for life on Earth. The remains are at least 3.7 billion years old. Credit: Matthew Dodd/UCL

Multiply the Universe’s age by its size and you get a place that really should be teeming with life, and yet we don’t see any evidence of aliens. Not in cigars nor saucers.

This is of course, the Fermi Paradox, and we’ve talked about this several times in the past. We can’t seem to find evidence of aliens, or their robotic spacecraft which should be busily colonizing the Milky Way turning every planet they reach into more robots.

The Fermi Paradox has been the source of arguments and existential terror for many.

In fact, if the Fermi Paradox doesn’t bother you in an existential way, then I don’t think you’ve thought about the Fermi Paradox enough.

Are there aliens? There might be single-celled, simple organisms across the Universe. But more complex animals like we have here on Earth might be incredibly uncommon.

Earth, seen from space, above the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

This is the idea of the Rare Earth hypothesis, which was put forward in the year 2000 in a book by paleontologist Peter Ward and astrobiologist Donald Brownlee. If you have any interest in this subject, I highly recommend you give it a read.

In Rare Earth, Ward and Brownlee argue that Earth was lucky in many factors that we never really thought about before.

The Earth is the right distance from the center of the Milky Way so we’re not bombarded by radiation, but not too far so that we’re in the outskirts, with no heavy elements.

We orbit the right kind of star, and the right configuration of other planets in the Solar System. No big bully super-Jupiters that caused havoc with our planet or kicked us out of the Solar System entirely.

The orbit of the Earth has been stable for a long time, following a roughly circular orbit around the Sun. Our planet is the right size and density for life to survive and thrive. With plate tectonics, which help recycle our rocks and atmospheric gasses, so we don’t become a hellworld like Venus.

With a single large Moon that helped regulate our tides and provided an environment where some lifeforms could have been forced to find a better way.

And then some kind of secret sauce that helped give Earth life the kick it needed to go from simple to complex lifeforms.

Maybe there’s life everywhere, but we’ll never find anything more complex than bacteria. Or maybe we’ll never find anything anywhere. Ever.

A bright Taurid meteor falls over Deadfall Basin, near the base of Mount Eddy in California. Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint.

I understand why the search for UFOs is so fascinating for people, and why many think that’s a reasonable default answer for seeing glowing lights in the sky. But for me, I want to know for sure that we’re not alone, that there are other aliens lifeforms and maybe even civilizations out there among the stars.

I don’t believe UFOs are aliens, and I’m not entirely convinced there’s anyone else in the entire Universe.

And that’s why I think we should dedicate ourselves to finding out the answer. Listen to stars for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, search planets for the chemical signatures of alien life. Scour our own Solar System for anything. Under the rocks on Mars or under the oceans of Europa.

If it does turn out that we’re alone? What then? Do we have a greater responsibility to take care of ourselves and our planet, to make sure the candlelight of life and intelligence doesn’t flicker out?

Now you know how I feel about aliens, what about you? Do you think we’re being visited on a regular basis? Do you think there are aliens out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered? Or do you think we’re all alone in the Universe. I’d like to know your thoughts.

In our next episode, we’re going to talk about one of the biggest current mysteries in astronomy: Fast Radio Bursts. They were only recently discovered, and they’re a total mystery. No answers next time, only questions.

What would we do if aliens actually visited us here on Earth? How prepared are our governments to deal with them? It turns out, there are some specific plans and preparations, and I detail them in this video.

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10 Responses

  1. laurele says:

    The universe could very well be teeming with life even though we aren’t seeing it. First, most of that life could be simple, microbial life, which may even be abundant in our solar system though we won’t know until we go to these worlds and look for it (that can be done with robotic missions). There are generally more of the simpler, smaller things, whether life forms or stars, than of the larger, more complex ones.

    In terms of intelligent life, the fact that they never tried to contact us does not mean they don’t exist and essentially overestimates our importance. Worlds capable of supporting intelligent life could be scattered at such great distances that inhabitants of any individual world will never know of any other such civilizations. Any intelligent aliens at our technological level or below it would likely be incapable of contacting us, much less visiting us. A much more advanced civilization may may have no interest in doing either even if they do know of our existence. Why would aliens capable of interstellar travel want anything to do with the Earth when they could find all the resources they need on uninhabited asteroids? And given humans’ destructive proclivities, including the fact that we are environmentally destroying the habitability of our own planet, why would they want any contact with us? The assumption that alien civilizations would seek to conquer Earth is largely a projection of our own aggressive nature.

    Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.

  2. cliffh says:

    I think that given the immense size of the Universe and the proliferation of the basic building blocks of life across it’s span that their probably is intelligent life somewhere besides earth. The problem is that of immense distances between solar systems and Galaxies. Even if their was some stroke of luck that a planet revolving around Proxima Centauri, it would be over 4 light years away. If they are equal to our level of technology it would take many years for a craft from their civilization to reach us. If you accept Einstein’s theories that you can’t travel faster than the speed of light. It would take a minimum of 4 to 5 years to reach us. That is taking for granted that they have found a way to travel at immense speed near the speed of light and have overcome all the problems with the effects of long exposure to radiation and other downsides to travelling at those speeds. Not to mention the problem of having enough fuel, food , water and supplies to last over a 4 to 5 year journey. If a civilization had progressed to the point where they could overcome those problems, doesn’t it seem likely that after a journey of 5 years or so that they would try to strike up a relationship with us and stay for a while?

  3. Mike Egan says:

    UFO’s or wot?
    While it is reasonable to expect that other life forms exist in other parts of the universe, is it not just possible that what people have reported seeing here and call UFO’s are in fact visitors from our future.
    They would appear in many types of craft, all of which are designed to operate in an atmosphere, because they would come from a wide range of future times.
    The occupants could also come in many different forms because they are the result of genetic engineering to produce variants on the basic human form over a long period of time.
    This idea is of course far fetched, but no more so than the idea that little green men come across vast distances in tiny little aircraft just to pay fleeting visits and not establish any formal contact.
    Just think about it.

  4. Mike Egan says:

    The chances that other planets with the ideal for life conditions we have on earth are very slim. However as we have found even here on earth life is pernicious. Given half a chance it will thrive and evolution appears to at least permit if not favor more complex life forms to develop. If this is so then given to breath of space and the age of the universe they it is certain that complex life will have developed elsewhere but the universe is vast and the limitations imposed by not being able to travel at any significant percentage of light speed most likely means that although many intelligent life forms will have developed they are so dispersed in space and time we will never encounter them. It seems a shame, think of the fun we could have comparing stories.

  5. Jim Krug says:

    Overall, the first half of this article was poorly written, with many assumptions indicative of someone that has not taken the time to read quality UFO literature from credible sources like pilots, former military, and dedicated researchers.

    I should’ve known it was going to be like that, but I allowed my hopes to rise anyway. Drat.

    • mikefid says:

      I’m afraid that has been the case for a very long time, the astronomy community is the last place you will find a good answer to the question of UFOs. Any creatiable case is either overlooked or torn to shreds, the proveriable swamp gas, they especily do not want to make a stink since there grants and reputation may be at stake! It is the classic 3 body problem as in Close encounters of the third kind – the air farce says its just a hub cap thrown in the air – the nuts talk about the big foot they saw – and the people that have seen them crenge in fear of being made a fool of! I’m one of the one’s in the latter catagory for the last fifty years, so go figure!!! So don’t get your hopes up, it will never change, just keep looking up because you will understand me after you have seen the real thing!

  6. cydonia says:

    If there is other life forms out there, then there’s a lot of them. If there isn’t, then it puts us into very special position.

  7. Dan says:

    I have Ward & Brownlee’s book Rare Earth and I do find it somewhat convincing. I have read the best arguments from ETI proponents, and I still find the Rare Earth Hypothesis to be the best way to look into the probability of intelligent life out there in our galaxy.

    As for UFOs, I find it as convincing as crop circles and alien abductions.

  8. Mike Egan says:

    Note to self: Remember to proof read and spell check

  9. Jim Krug says:

    For those that have actually read literature on crop circles, they are a truly unexplained phenomena far, FAR beyond a bunch of old British guys in a field with 2×4’s and rope.

    1. Crop circles often happen right in the middle of the day, often in a number of minutes.

    2. The circles show increasing complexity, including “fractal” patterns containing hundreds of individual circles. Some are created like pixels on a computer monitor, or lines on a television screen. So they are actually dozens-hundreds of individual lines together making a larger image.

    3. The symmetry and design of crop circles is so exact that it could not be duplicated by hoaxers, and would require coordination with satellites. Some circles showed mathematical theorems that had yet to be discovered.

    4. Grains within a “real” circle are often magnetized. The stocks of grain are never broken, but puff up at their nodal points, lose rigidity, and then flop over. In some circles, they are woven together like a bushel basket. Researchers have attempted to re-create this phenomena, and cannot. Mythbusters tried to shoot off a bomb spreading iron filings through a home-made circle, but it did not magnetize the grains. British scientists tried to replicate the grains being puffed up at their nodal points, and could only do so with microwave radiation (boiling the small amount of water in the grain’s stock). How could pranksters do that over a large area?

    5. Animals react wildly both before- and after- a crop circle is made. Why would hoax circles cause these reactions?

    6. Electronic equipment- cameras, cell phones, etc.- will malfunction inside of a “real” crop circle. Many get fried, and are no longer operable.

    7. Circles appearing in England seem to show an “answer” to the message Carl Sagan and Frank Drake beamed at the M13 globular cluster in 1974. A separate message shows ASCII computer code. These are incredibly advanced images, often spanning multiple football fields.

    There is a lot of fascinating information about crop circles, but it does require an author taking the time to educate themselves about them.

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