UFOlogy is the mythology of the space age. Rather than angels … we now have … extraterrestrials. It is the product of the creative imagination. It serves a poetic and existential function. It seeks to give man deeper roots and bearings in the universe. It is an expression of our hunger for mystery…our hope for transcendental meaning. The gods of Mt. Olympus have been transformed into space voyagers, transporting us by our dreams to other realms. Paul Kurtz, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and a prominent U.S. sceptic
People are bringing shotguns to UFO sightings in Fife, Alabama. I asked a guy, “Why do you bring a gun to a UFO sighting?” Guy said, “Way-ul, we didn’t wanna be ab-duc-ted.” If I lived in Fife, Alabama, I would be on my hands and knees every night praying for abduction. Bill Hicks, American comedian
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space
Because there’s bugger all down here on Earth
The Galaxy Song, Monty Python
The idea of alien life has long attracted interest. In its most extreme form we have David Icke who in The Biggest Secret popularised the “Reptoid Hypothesis”, the idea that the world is controlled by reptilians from the constellation Draco, who walk on two legs, appear human and who live in tunnels and caverns inside the earth.* The UFO movement has enjoyed considerable success over the years with more than 30% of the American public believing in such phenomena; the figures for Europe are apparently similar.
I realise many people genuinely believe these stories but it is very difficult to take them seriously. The evidence is usually a blurred photograph. In fact, although there are many camcorders the actual number of sightings has gone down. Then we have alien abductions, the first of which appears to have been experienced by Betty and Barney Hill, who claimed they were abducted by aliens on September 19, 1961. These aliens of course took a sample of Barney’s sperm. The curious thing is that in this and all of the subsequent abductions, none of the abductees have brought back an alien artefact, which would resolve, once and for all, the UFO mystery.
The best analogy I have heard is with Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492. The native population certainly had no doubt that the Europeans had arrived. Can you imagine if the Spaniards had spent the next sixty years taking the piss out of the local populations with occasional sightings and the odd abduction for reproductive experiments? It took Columbus three months to cross the Atlantic; any interstellar voyage would surely be a massive endeavour. I don’t think they’ would be playing silly buggers..
So far I have only been looking at the wacky part of this enterprise but there is a more serious side. I am referring of course to the scientific search for extraterrestrial life. In particular I am thinking of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). This encompasses different scientific activities which are involved in the search for electromagnetic transmissions from civilizations on distant planets. The famous Drake equation has its origins in SETI. This equation, which was developed by Dr. Frank Drake in 1961, is designed to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy with which we could potentially come into contact. To calculate the answer it is necessary to multiply estimates of the following terms:
The rate of formation of suitable stars.
The fraction of those stars which are orbited by planets.
The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system.
The fraction of planets where intelligent life develops.
The fraction of possible communicative planets.
The “lifetime” of possible communicative civilizations.
From this Drake controversially estimated that in our Milky Way there could be around 10,000 planets containing intelligent life with the potential to communicate with us.
I don’t know about the ins and outs of this scientific debate. The size of space makes me think that the possibility of intelligent life is not inconceivable but the distances are also daunting. My concern is of a different nature – is it really a good idea? I am in favour of the quest for knowledge and I normally oppose the precautionary principle but in this case I do get a bit nervous. Going back to the Columbus example, we all know what happened when Europeans set foot in the New World. If aliens did ever arrive here, it would mean that they had superior technology and the results could be catastrophic. I know that it’s mindless nonsense but I did enjoy the film Independence Day. In particular I like the scene when all these peaceniks who have formed a welcoming committee on top of a skyscraper get zapped by the aliens. You will accuse me of viewing the world from a very cynical viewpoint but that is what human history has taught us. The disastrous may not necessarily be intentional. Remember, most of the native populations were killed by diseases that they had no immunity for. So I think we shouldn’t be blurting out our existence to the rest of the universe or sending out Bach’s Brandenburg concerto for them to listen to. Because when they do get here, they sure are going to be disappointed and they may well decide to take it out on us.