Aliens have been having a moment in recent years.
For decades the notion of unidentified flying objects—UFOs—and little green men running around Roswell, New Mexico, remained comfortably confined along the fringes of societal discourse. But no longer. Serious people in the government are taking a serious look at the phenomenon.
The story of why this posture began to change begins about 15 years ago and is long and complex. (This New Yorker article is a good place to start). But the basic gist is that then-Nevada politician Harry Reid, a powerful political figure who at times led the US Senate, began to take it seriously. So he started shoveling money at the Pentagon to study the issue.
Along the way, perhaps because of the stigma attached, the government stopped calling sightings of unidentified objects UFOs and began referring to them as unidentified anomalous phenomenon (UAP). The release of three videos in 2020 by the US Navy heightened public attention. Then, in 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated assessment of the government’s files on UAP.
This report, alas, held an unsatisfying conclusion for those who want to believe. “The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP,” this report stated. In its nine pages, the report did not mention “aliens” a single time.
But the cat was out of the bag, and the government moved onward. Last December, the nation’s buttoned-down space agency, NASA, named the members of a “study team” to determine how the space agency should analyze UAP. Knowing and respecting some of the members of this study team, I have no doubt that they will do good work, and we can rely on their conclusions.
All of this brings us to the recent spy balloon mania, during which US F-22 jets downed a Chinese balloon nine days ago and, subsequently, three unidentified objects over Canada and the United States. Given the lack of government transparency about what, exactly, these latter three objects were, conspiracy theories have multiplied. Misinformation, after all, loves nothing more than a vacuum.
The extent of the howls of “It must be aliens” was underlined on Monday when White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre felt compelled to address the issue during a press briefing. “There is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” she said. “I wanted to be sure the American people knew that and it is important for us to say that from here.”
So yeah, it’s not aliens. Unless you believe the government is covering things up, of course.
Look, the universe is vast. It is so mind-bendingly vast that we cannot comprehend its immensity. There are billions of galaxies, and in each galaxy, there are billions of stars. One of the greatest scientific discoveries during the last two decades, thanks to the Kepler space telescope and other instruments, has confirmed that many, if not most, stars have planetary systems. So there are almost certainly billions and billions and billions of worlds out there upon which life like ours could arise.
But, in all probability, we haven’t found it yet. Or rather, it hasn’t found us yet, or revealed itself to us meager, carbon-based, Earth-confined wretches. Just why we haven’t found it yet, by the way, is a fantastic philosophical question.
I will close this article by referencing an astronomer and a physicist. The astronomer is Carl Sagan, perhaps the most gifted science communicator of the 20th century. He once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Certainly, the existence of an intelligent species capable of traveling between stars would be an extraordinary thing. And while there is plenty of “evidence” of unidentified flying objects in our skies, there is no “extraordinary” evidence that proves the case. I’m sorry, there just is not. The truth is, almost every hyped alien sighting can eventually be explained by a rather pedestrian phenomenon.
The second quote is simply a tweet from an English physicist, Brian Cox, today: “I’ve always suspected that an advanced alien civilization with the technology to travel at close to light speed across interstellar distances would arrive in Earth orbit unobserved and proceed to dispatch a fleet of small, easily detectable balloons into our atmosphere.”
Pretty much, Brian. Pretty much.