Do I Believe in UFOs?

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.

No, There Won’t Be 15 Days of Darkness in November. It’s Another Stupid Hoax.

The internet is great, isn’t it?

You can post anything you want on the internet, and if people like the sound of it, they spread it. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s true or not. We’re not born fact checkers and skeptics, are we?

Pretty soon, before you know it, it’s gone viral. Then it becomes its own sensation, and people who don’t even believe it start reporting it. Never is this more true than with hoaxes.

The latest hoax is the “15 Days of Darkness in November” thing that’s going around. Everyone’s on the bandwagon.

The 15 days hoax is not new. It made an appearance last year, and was thoroughly debunked. And of course, there wasn’t 15 day of darkness last year, was there? (Unless NASA covered it up!)

It’s here again this year, and will be debunked again, and will probably be here next year, too.

The whole thing started at a site that will remain linkless, and caught on from there. This is what the site reported:

“NASA has confirmed that the Earth will experience 15 days of total darkness between November 15 and November 29, 2015. The event, according to NASA, hasn’t occurred in over 1 Million years.”

Of course, NASA never said any such thing.

Here is supposedly what will happen to cause this calamity. Try and follow along with the nonsensical foolishness.

During the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter on October 26, light from Venus would cause gases in Jupiter to heat up. The heated gasses will cause a large amount of hydrogen to be released into space. The gases will reach the Sun and trigger a massive explosion on the surface of the star, heating it to 9,000 degrees Kelvin. The heat of the explosion would then cause the Sun to emit a blue color.
The dull blue color will last for 15 days during which the Earth will be thrown into darkness.

Where to begin? Let’s start with conjunctions.

Conjunctions are mostly just visual phenomena. The fact that two things in the sky look closer together from our point of view on Earth doesn’t mean that they’re that close together. In fact, even when Jupiter and Venus are in conjunction, they can still be over 800 million km apart. For perspective, the Sun and the Earth are about 150 million km apart.

So, as the hoax goes, at that great distance, light from Venus will cause gases on Jupiter to heat up. News Flash: the light from the Sun is far more intense than light from Venus could ever be, and it doesn’t heat up the gases on Jupiter. In fact, any light from Venus that makes it to Jupiter is just reflected sunlight anyway.

The Moon and this dead tree are in conjunction. This will cause the Martian Pyramids to vibrate harmonically. These vibrations will shake the walls of the movie studio where the Moon landing was faked, causing it to collapse. Image: Evan Gough
The Moon and this dead tree are in conjunction. This will cause the Martian Pyramids to vibrate harmonically. These vibrations will shake the walls of the movie studio where the Moon landing was faked, causing it to collapse. Image: Evan Gough

The hoax gets more outrageous as it goes along. These supposed heated gases then escape from Jupiter into space, and head for the Sun. But Jupiter is enormous and has enormous gravitational pull. How are any gases going to escape Jupiter’s overpowering gravity? Answer: they can’t and they won’t.

Then, these gases supposedly strike the Sun, and trigger a massive explosion on the Sun’s surface, which turn the Sun blue and plunges the Earth into darkness. Not blueness, which I could understand, but darkness.

This is absurd, of course. The Sun dominates the planets in a one-way relationship, and nothing the planets ever do could change that. No escaped gases from Jupiter would ever strike the Sun.

Jupiter is puny and insignificant compared to the Sun. And it's also hundreds of millions of kilometers away. How is a puny puff of hydrogen from Jupiter supposed to darken the Sun? Image: NASA/SDO
Jupiter is puny and insignificant compared to the Sun. And it’s also hundreds of millions of kilometers away. How is a puny puff of hydrogen from Jupiter supposed to darken the Sun? Image: NASA/SDO

Nothing Jupiter does can affect the Sun. Jupiter is, on average, 778 million km from the Sun. Jupiter could change places with Venus, and the Sun would keep shining normally. Jupiter could explode completely and the Sun would go on shining normally. Jupiter could put on a big red nose and some clown shoes, and the Sun would remain unaffected.

The Sun is a giant atom-crushing machine 1000 times more massive than Jupiter. The massive wall of energy and solar wind that comes from the Sun slams into Jupiter, and completely overwhelms anything Jupiter can do to the Sun. It’s just the way it is. It’s just the way it will always be.

Like the faked Moon landing hoax, and the Nibiru/Planet X hoax, this 15 days of darkness meme just keeps coming around. There may be no end to it.

It’s annoying, for sure, but maybe there’s a silver lining. Maybe some people reading about this supposed calamity will enter the word “conjunction” into a search engine, and begin their own personal journey of learning how the universe works.

We can hope so, can’t we?

Will You Float Away on Jan. 4th? Nope!

When I first heard we were all going to float in the air at 9:47 a.m. PST on January 4th, 2015 I laughed, figuring this latest Internet rumor would prove too silly to spread very far. Boy, was I wrong.  This week the bogus claim has already been shared over a million times on Facebook. Now I’m being asked if it’s true.  It all started on December 15th when the Daily Buzz Live, famous for fake news, published this tweet purportedly from NASA:

Well-crafted but fake tweet created by Daily Buzz Live. Credit: Daily Buzz Live
Well-crafted but fake tweet created by Daily Buzz Live. Credit: Daily Buzz Live

Sure looks real. Even has a cool, doomsday-flavored hashtag #beready. The story attributes the prediction to British astronomy popularizer Patrick Moore, who must be chuckling in his grave because he passed away in 2012. The story goes on.  A rare planetary alignment of Jupiter and Pluto “will mean that the combined gravitational force of the two planets would exert a stronger tidal pull, temporarily counteracting the Earth’s own gravity and making people virtually weightless.”

But when it comes down to it, Zero Gravity Day is just a lot of warmed-over hoo-ha. Let’s sort out what’s fact and what’s fancy in this claim.

Sir Patrick Moore, one of the world's greatest astronomy popularizers. He wrote more than 70 books and was the host of the long-running BBC TV series "The Sky at Night".
Sir Patrick Moore, one of the world’s greatest astronomy popularizers. He wrote more than 70 books and was the host of the long-running BBC TV series “The Sky at Night”.

True: Patrick Moore did make this claim in a BBC radio program on April 1, 1976 … as an April Fools Day joke! The article doesn’t bother to mention this significant detail. Ever so sly, Moore fibbed about the details of the purported alignment. Pluto was in Virgo and Jupiter in Pisces on that date, exactly opposite one another in the sky and as far out of alignment as possible. Gullible to suggestion, hundreds of listeners phoned in to the BBC  saying they’d experienced the decrease in gravity. One woman said she and 11 friends had been “wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room”.

Martin Wainwright, who edited the book The Guardian Book of April Fool’s Day (published by the British newspaper The Guardian), described Moore as the ideal presenter with his “weight delivery” lending an added “air of batty enthusiasm that only added to his credibility”. The Daily Buzz updated the joke and gave it even more credibility by wrapping it up in “bacon” — a fake NASA tweet.

False: Jupiter and Pluto will not be in alignment on January 4th. Pluto is hidden the solar glare in Sagittarius at the moment, while Jupiter shines nearly halfway across the zodiac in Leo. Far, far apart.

False: Planetary alignments will not make you weightless. Not even if all the planets and Sun aligned simultaneously. While the gravity of a place is Jupiter is HUGE and will crush you if you could find a surface to stand on, the distance between Earth and Jupiter (and all the other planets for that matter) is enormous. This waters down gravity in a big way. Jupiter tugs on you personally with the same gravitational force as a compact car three feet (1-meter) away. As for Pluto, it’s almost 60 times smaller than Jupiter with a gravitational reach that can only be described as virtually ZERO.

The Moon is by far the dominant extraterrestrial gravity tractor among the planets and moons of the Solar System because it’s relatively close to Earth. According to Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomer blog: “Even if you add all of the planets together, they pull on you with a force less than 2% of that of the Moon.”

Total solar eclipse in 1999. The alignment of the nearby Moon and massive Sun, the weightiest body in the Solar System by far, didn't cause anyone to float off the ground. To my knowledge. Credit: Luc  Viatour
Total solar eclipse in 1999. The alignment of the nearby Moon and massive Sun, the weightiest body in the Solar System by far, didn’t cause anyone to float off the ground. To my knowledge. Credit: Luc Viatour

The Sun also has a significant gravitational effect on Earth, but when was the last time you heard of people floating in the air during a total solar eclipse? If our strongest gravitational neighbors can’t loft you off your feet then don’t look to Jupiter and Pluto. Not that I wish this wouldn’t happen as it would provide a fitting physical aspect to what for many is a spiritual phenomenon.

There are countless claims on the Internet that alignments of comets, planets and fill-in-the-blanks produce earthquakes, deadly meteor storms, bad juju and even endless hiccups. It’s all pseudoscientific hogwash. Either deliberately made up by to lead you astray or because someone hasn’t checked the facts and simply passes on what they’ve heard. The stuff spreads like a virus, wasting our time and bandwidth and distracting our attention from the real beauty and bizarreness of the cosmos.

How to stop it? Critical thinking. If this skill were at the top of the list of subjects taught in high school, we’d live on a very different planet. Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe we’ll always be gullible to snake-oil claims. But I’d like to believe that a basic knowledge of science coupled with the ability to analyze a claim with a critical eye will go a long way toward extinguishing bogus scientific claims before they spread like wildfire.

Come this Sunday at 9:47 a.m. PST allow me to suggest that instead of waiting to float off the ground, tell your family and friends about the amazing Full Wolf Moon that will shine down that evening from the constellation Gemini. If it’s magic you’re looking for, a a walk in winter moonlight might do the trick.