Are we alone in the universe? Do alien life forms exist and are UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) real? These questions, often a theme in Hollywood films and for science fiction writers, may not seem as implausible now as they used to.
“I’m not saying that it’s aliens. But it’s aliens.”
That’s the tagline of a famous internet meme based on Giorgio Tsoukalos’ History channel show, “Ancient Aliens.” But now it seems to be the official United States government line, too.
Just this past week came the latest slow-roll disclosure about UFOs and aliens in The New York Times, which, in the words of tech blog Gizmodo, "casually drops another story about how aliens are probably real.”
There are even reports that the Pentagon has obtained vehicles or parts of vehicles "not made on this Earth," though former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was either misquoted confirming the story or walked back his comments to that effect later.
I’m old enough to remember when speculation about UFOs was limited to the fringe and when respectable figures and publications wouldn’t touch it. But a few months ago, the Navy released UFO videos, and since then more stories keep appearing, suggesting at the very least that the U.S. government is taking the possibility of aliens visiting Earth a lot more seriously than has been the case in the past.
Life, on other planets? A great possibility
Well, maybe there’s something here and maybe there’s not. It wouldn’t shock me to find that our vast universe harbors other intelligent life, nor would it surprise me to find that just because we don’t know how to travel between the stars yet, others have figured it out.
But what would aliens look like if we met them? Well, there might be some sorts of intelligent life that we’d never contact: Electromagnetic creatures that live on neutron stars, for example, would be extraordinarily difficult to discover or communicate with. But, basically, the more alien species have in common with us, the more likely they are to visit Earth if they’re able to. Carbon-based life forms would be more likely to be interested in planets suitable for carbon-based life; oxygen breathers would be more likely to visit a planet with an oxygen atmosphere, etc.
We’re conspicuous enough to anyone who’s looking: Commercial broadcasting has been going on for a hundred years now, meaning that anyone within a volume 200 light years across could find us if they looked. (We haven’t found radio signals from anyone else, but while that might mean there’s no one out there, it might also mean that they’ve advanced beyond the use of radio waves.)
Not even aliens would surprise us
If aliens do come to see us, what are they likely to be like? Well, to get here they have to be at least as intelligent as us. And as Gregg Easterbrook noted in The Atlantic awhile back in 1988, that’s troubling: “The most disquieting aspect of natural selection as observed on Earth is that it channels intellect to predators. Most bright animals are carnivores: Stalking requires tactics, pattern recognition and, for social animals, coordinated action, all incubators of brainpower.”
And violence. We can hope, of course, that a sufficiently advanced alien civilization might have evolved past violence, though the evidence that our civilization is doing so is not entirely compelling.
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Probably the best we can hope for, if aliens are visiting Earth, is that they’re studying us. And a lot of the encounters may be explained by what some of my science-fiction writer friends call the “graduate student hypothesis”: We’re being studied, but, as on Earth, the big shot scientists leave most of the grubby fieldwork to grad students, who occasionally get bored, or drunk, and decide to have a little fun spooking the natives.
One thing that may have been true when Easterbrook wrote, but that I think is much less so now, is the notion that encountering aliens would be a huge culture shock. There was a time when we took it for granted that humans were alone in the universe at the top of the evolutionary heap — above us were only the angels. But decades of science fiction have surely undermined that. Given the number of alien contact movies in the past few decades, it is more likely that angels visiting Earth would be greeted as aliens than that aliens visiting Earth would be greeted as angels.
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Certainly, the surprisingly low-key response to what in the past would have been earthshaking UFO revelations suggests that we’re psychologically ready to handle alien contact without the kind of trauma that might have marked an earlier time. And let’s face it, if they’re coming, 2020 is the perfect year for them to arrive, since it has piled one unlikely event on top of another. From murder hornets to a global pandemic to alien invasion ... it just feels right, somehow.