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30 June 2021

Aliens in the age of anxiety

A new US military report into UFO sightings presents compelling evidence. But of what kind of life form, if any?   

By Bryan Appleyard

The release last week (25 June) of a ­Pentagon report will make millions of ­people very happy. Those who have been mocked for decades as fantasists, inadequates or swivel-eyed loons can now say they were right all along – the Earth is being buzzed by ­Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs).

Fastidiously renamed as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs), their existence was confirmed by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in a report to Congress. Yes, American sailors and pilots have seen things whizzing about the skies, manoeuvring at speeds and with agility unattainable by any human-made craft. Sadly, the report is sceptical of the alien hypothesis. But the alienologists will not care – after decades of denying the existence of UFOs or of coming up with dubious explanations, the DoD has finally come clean.

“What is true,” teased Barack Obama in a recent television interview, “is that there’s footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory… they did not have an easily explainable pattern.”

Previously, a video taken by navy personnel had been released showing a UAP buzzing a ship near San Diego in 2019. Then there were the extraordinary Tic Tac videos, published in 2017. Very fast-moving objects – shaped like Tic Tac breath mints – were filmed from two US carrier groups off southern California. When approached by aircraft they shot upwards, downwards or plunged into the sea. This year, the DoD confirmed further sightings from navy ships in 2019.

If there were aliens on board they have clearly mastered the problem of G-force – the pressure created by rapid acceleration or deceleration. The highest G-forces the human body can withstand for anything more than a fraction of a second is about nine. The manoeuvrings of the Tic Tacs would cause G-forces of several thousand. At that level the human body would be reduced to a strawberry jam-like smear.

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One theory was that pilots were not involved and these were hypersonic weapon systems being tested by China or Russia. This is extremely improbable. The behaviour of the UAPs, one naval officer has said, suggests technology up to 1,000 years ahead of anything any country possesses.

The UFO-ists won’t accept any such explanations. On principle they don’t believe anything the DoD says. Trust evaporated in 1947 when the US Air Force (USAF) lied about the Roswell incident – an alien craft was said to have crashed, killing its crew. The USAF said the wreckage was that of a weather balloon; it was, in fact, a nuclear test surveillance balloon. Later attempts by the US government to dismiss multiple sightings as “swamp gas” failed. And, anyway, two weeks before Roswell, nine alien craft had been spotted flying at 1,200mph near Mount Rainier in Washington State. Who now can scoff at that or at any of the tens of thousands of other sightings?

This postwar wave of alien spotting came to a climax with Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was a remarkably accurate portrait of the alien mythology of the time – abducted humans, small, large-headed creatures, government cover-ups – and it had François Truffaut as the prominent real-world ufologist Jacques Vallée (renamed Claude Lacombe).

But it’s unlikely Close Encounters and later films such as Contact (1997) and Arrival (2016) won any conversions to the UFO cause. These were human dramas in which the moral of the story seems to be: we went in search of aliens and found ourselves or, alternatively, found we are the aliens.

***

Plausibly, the postwar UFO mania can be understood as a reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atom bombings suggested human technology was out of control; now we could destroy the entire world with our ingenuity. We were a fallen species and fictional aliens appeared to tell us we were unacceptable inhabitants of the cosmos.

“If you threaten to extend your violence,” announces the alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), “this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

Jacques Vallée thought the acceleration of science was the cause of alien sightings. Accounts of sightings and abductions, he wrote, “appear to be a way for certain souls to release their anguish in the face of modern scientific changes, their fear of war and atomic cataclysm and their inability to adapt to the present rhythm of life”.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, in his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (1959), agreed. “In the threatening situation of the world today,” he wrote, “when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organisations and powers.”

The supposed existence of UFOs and aliens created a contemporary mythology to explain the world – in other words, a religion. I have experience of this alien faith. Working on a book on the subject, Aliens: Why They Are Here, I encountered the true believers. The UFO spotters and the extraterrestrial visionaries I spoke to shared a desperate yearning for it all to be true. An alien revelation would explain or heal the undefined unease they felt about the human condition.

So these creatures, whatever they are, and their bewildering technologies offered salvation or damnation. They were coming to judge a fallen world.

***

Now, a new wave of alienology has arrived of which the DoD report and hypersonic breath mints are one small part. This time it’s different. The religiosity persists but, as the report shows, there is more solid evidence. But of what?

The first discovery of possible alien life was in 2017, when a telescope in Hawaii spotted an interstellar object inside our solar system. It was the first ever such sighting. The object was given a Hawaiian name, ‘Oumuamua, meaning “scout”. Images of a long, rocky, cigar-shaped object appeared. This was guesswork, since ‘Oumuamua was 21 million miles from Earth – too far for such detail to be detected.

A series of ingenious non-alien explanations were offered by scientists for its shape and bizarre trajectory. But amid this chorus there was one outlier, Avi Loeb, a distinguished physicist and cosmologist at Harvard. He suggested the object could be an alien craft, possibly powered by a solar sail, which would explain its trajectory. So what does Loeb think of the DoD report? He thinks we  should look more closely.

[see also: Harvard’s top astronomer says our solar system may be teeming with alien technology]

“It is possible, and likely, that most of the past reports on UFOs from the general public can be explained by human-made or natural phenomena or as illusions, but we need to pay special attention to the small number of reports where the evidence is strong and undisputable… It would be prudent to progress forward with our finest instruments, rather than examine past reports.”

The second recent development is a series of unexpected discoveries elsewhere in our own solar system. Nasa’s Cassini mission, launched in 1997, conducted several fly-bys of Saturn’s ice covered moon Enceladus, which showed plumes of water rising from its surface. Beneath the ice must be oceans warm and nutritious enough – thanks to hydrogen and carbon dioxide – to support microbial life.

The Hubble Space Telescope has also detected plumes rising from the Jovian moon Europa. But such environments are presumably only suited for microscopic bugs, not hyper-advanced technologists. Nobody seriously expects to find intelligent life in our solar system. But, tantalisingly, if we did find a single alien creature on Europa or Enceladus, then we could be pretty sure that the  universe is teeming with life, some of which will be more intelligent and technologically advanced than us. The simple fact that life had appeared twice in one small corner of our galaxy would show that evolution must have happened countless times in the two trillion galaxies that form the cosmos.

Then there is the Red Edge. Since 1995, exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – have been one of the hottest subjects in astronomy. It was always certain they existed, but they were undetectable because of the great distances involved and the blinding light of the stars they orbited. Now we have found thousands of them. We can still only detect them, not actually see them – but soon we shall be able to do so.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, will be launched this year from Guyana. In addition, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the literally named European project under construction in Chile, is due to go online in 2027. Both are vastly more powerful than Hubble, and the ELT will examine exoplanets specifically.

Among other things, these telescopes will be looking for the Red Edge. We know that, at certain wavelengths, Earth vegetation is highly reflective in the near-infrared range of the spectrum – hence the “red” edge. This is a biosignature that we may be able to detect on distant planets. Of course, it may just be vegetation, but finding it would be a huge step forward because it would confirm that extraterrestrial life is possible. Ideally, this would be followed by the detection of technosignatures – signs of technological sophistication of the kind that must now be making the Earth ever more conspicuous to any alien seekers. But that could be decades away.

***

But what are we actually looking for? Fellowship in what the 17th-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal called “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces”? We may not find it; there is no reason to think that aliens would be anything like us. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, suspects that organically based intelligence may be a “brief interlude before the machines take over”. So, on a planet orbiting a star much older than our own, we may only find non-biological entities. Or we may not find them there at all; they may have emigrated to space to escape the kind of planetary crises we are now confronting. Rees argues that we would be staggeringly lucky to “catch intelligence” in the brief moment in which it was embodied in flesh and blood.

Rees lists three aspects of the alien entities we are likely to encounter: they will not be “organic or biological”. They will not remain on the “surface of the planet where [their] biological precursors lived”. We will “not be able to fathom their intentions”. That last point is a killer. As Wittgenstein wrote, “If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him.” Aliens are likely to be even more incomprehensible than lions.

This may not be an absolute disappointment. We would at least know we shared these infinite spaces with intelligent, technologically adept creatures, even though their intentions would be unfathomable.

So, for the moment, aliens are still nothing more than expressions of human longings and anxieties. Jung was right in 1958: and thanks not just to nuclear weapons but also to global warming, increasingly brutal geopolitics and pandemics, even more seems to be at stake now than back then. If we perish and there are no aliens, then the cosmos lapses into unconsciousness, we are the one bright spark that must endure. Nothing will quench our thirst to find them; the burden of being alone, once borne by religions, is just too great.