Friday, 2 September 2011

UFOs and Alien Life

(Earth vs The Flying Saucers - 1956 movie)

Anyone who claims that Unidentified Flying Objects do not exist is making an observational claim of which no-one is capable. Do they really know what everything is in the sky? I suspect not. Unfortunately, people who claim UFOs are alien space crafts are making a statement that is equally dishonest.

Many people seem to ignore the U in Unidentified Flying Object, the moment someone makes a claim that a UFO is an alien space craft, they appear to have identified the flying object, it’s no longer a UFO, but intelligent alien life forms in a machine.

A UFO does not equal alien life, it just means we don’t know what it is. We can all look at blurry photos and videos all we like, the “evidence” so far is at best inconclusive, at worst contemptible. Eye witness testimony is just about all we have in terms of evidence that alien space craft have visited our solar system, the problem is that humans are very bad eye witnesses (despite eye-witness testimony being king of the courts, it means nothing to science and actual evidence).

We have to be intellectually honest enough to say that sometimes we just don’t know what something is, particularly as individuals who quite often don’t understand that what they have just identified as a UFO is nothing of the sort. Acting in haste like this often leads to embarrassing blunders such as a police officer chasing a UFO that actually turned out to be the planet Venus, which is frequently mistaken for UFOs. Until we have some actual physical evidence of an alien race visiting us, we must have the dignity to admit ignorance (or at least admit to simply guessing).

By way of comparison, think of the amount Elvis sightings or perhaps even more deluded, apparitions of the Virgin Mary or Jesus. Sometimes we just see what we would like to see, of course it would be a life-changing and amazing experience to witness an alien space craft, but no amount of wishful thinking can change reality unless some tangible evidence is thrust into our discourse.

MUFON claims that there are over 70,000 reported UFO sightings annually across the globe, and this is rising each year. That’s close to 200 sightings per day worldwide and yet what do we have to show for it? What are the chances of alien life being discovered by some passer by rather than SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), the United States Space Surveillance Network,
the myriad of observatories, and even amateur astronomers? These people know what they’re looking at most of the time.

It’s a bit baffling to concede that while an alien race has mastered interstellar travel across distances we can scarcely articulate (perhaps they are so advanced as to be able to bend space-time), and evade detection by the thousands of satellites orbiting the earth and the vast number of instruments observing space, these superbeings are detected time and time again by mere individuals (sometimes armed with cameras, most often armed with photoshop). This clash of logic and reason should lead us beyond mere skepticism at this present time in our history that we have ever been visited.

Michael Shermer has written a blog pointing out that members of SETI have derived a formula to calculate the likelihood that a UFO sighting was actually an alien encounter, it makes for a brief and interesting read

Another interesting Shermer video explains how to fake UFO photographs so that even professionals cannot claim the images are faked. 

Now, the question of whether or not alien life itself exists in the universe is a much more realistic conversation. Given the size of the universe, rare things must happen all the time, it’s a matter of probability. But we can’t realistically make a truth claim at this stage that there is life elsewhere in the universe, for there is no evidence for it, despite its incredible likelihood. 

Life on other planets could arise in many forms of course, and in my opinion it’s a bit of a shortcoming that we seem to largely obsess with looking for conditions in the universe that are similar to Earth. Of course we only have a sample of one when it comes to life (Earth) so it’s reasonable to look for the things we know that cause life, proximity to a star, water, etc. But who is to say that life cannot emerge under many other conditions? I think here we can have a reasonable discussion on what may be important/crucial for life to exist.

It’s certainly reasonable to suggest that Darwinian natural selection will drive any diversity of species on another planet, you would expect all life to need energy/food, any life converted something into energy will be involved in a selection race - which is best at converting the food into energy, which can reproduce most effectively (for you would again, expect some kind of method of reproduction), etc.

Given all that we currently know about evolution (despite what some crackpots argue against) it makes sense that life needs to start from something very simple and build up to more complex systems (of course, even finding very simple life elsewhere in the universe would be a monumental discovery) and so some form of replicating biology needs to be possible. This doesn’t need to be DNA, indeed it would probably be somewhat surprising if DNA were to evolve here and on other planets, but some form of replication would be necessary (and it’s worth pointing out that DNA replication is really the combination of DNA itself (which is a very good replicator, but a poor enzyme) and proteins (which are great enzymes but poor replicators). Perhaps there is some other kind of arrangement of biochemistry that would do the job just fine (or better!), undoubtedly there are uncountable combinations of elements and conditions for them to be arranged.

PZ Myers has said recently that all life will most probably be carbon based (some people seem obsessed with silicon will be an alternative), because it makes chains/branches, etc and does so at rapid rates. Carbon is so abundant in the universe that this seems like a reasonable hypothesis. Again, perhaps there's a chance that life can evolve elsewhere based on other elements, but we possibly don't need to think that outside of the box.

The idea of little green (or grey) men is nothing short of unimaginative arrogance in my opinion, why should aliens be humanoid at all? With all our powers of imagination, the best people tend to come up with is just another tetrapod? Really? This isn’t to say that tetrapods wouldn’t be possible (clearly they are!), there may be evolutionary reasons/incentives for tetrapods to form on other planets and environments but I think it’s just various degrees of laziness and arrogance to tap into the little green man model - which not only takes tetrapods as the starting block, but goes one step further to humanoids by going bipedal. Evolution is simply going to find solutions to whatever problem an environment throws up, so having some kind of standard model for species isn’t necessary. Though it's reasonable to expect certain senses, if there is a light source on another planet one would expect some form of eye to evolve, for example. Given the diversity of life on this planet alone, one would expect great diversity in the rest of the universe.

There are of course, plausible theories that bacteria stowed away on meteorites from other planets seeded life on this Earth, so we could all be “alien” anyway! (For anyone unaware of the difference between a meteor, a meteorite and an asteroid, please allow me to enlighten you: An asteroid is basically a rock in space (of varying sizes), they have no atmosphere though some even have their own moons. A meteor is basically a rock that has entered into a planets atmosphere (seen as shooting stars), a meteorite is an object that has entered a planets atmosphere and managed to hit the surface (as opposed to simply burning up en route))

Of course, all this is pure speculation and to a certain extent I do think the gloves are off somewhat in terms of allowing your imagination to run a bit wild until we have evidence otherwise. Is there really anything stopping gaseous life forms for example? Personally I don’t see why there can’t be life on every single planet even in our own solar system, when I say life it could be something as simple as single-cell organisms, but life nonetheless. We only need to look at our own planet to know that life can thrive in adverse circumstances, is it really too unreasonable to consider this possibility? 

Ultimately, the sad likelihood is that the universe is so large it's probably unlikely that we'll ever get to communicate with a species from another planet. But that shouldn't stop us trying :) 


  1. Nicely written C.

    The angle that always makes me wonder is the possibility of other life forms already being around us, but not detectable by any of our 5 senses. We tend to have this arrogant/lazy way of thinking that says that if we can't detect something, it fails to exist.

    Wouldn't it be wonderful if we found that the reason that the dog is barking at thin air is because, well, it's not that thin after all!?!?

  2. I don't know if it's completely true to say that we think that if we can't detect something it doesn't exist (sometimes this is a perfectly plausible conclusion, however). Take the Higgs boson for example, the whole "standard model" of physics relies on something that we've never observed!

    It's certainly an interesting idea, you don't even have to go that far back in history to see that our means of observation have been rather limited. There are waves of energy that we have extreme difficulty observing, who knows what methods we'll have in the future. I think we can keep the door open to that possibility but we can't take it too seriously just at the moment - have to stick with the Christopher Hitchens saying "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence".

    If something is there to be observed (even if we currently have no idea about it) then we can hope that it will one day be observed through science.