June 18, 2021

Science and technology

Alien renaissance

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Alien renaissance
A revived interest in alien visitation only underscores how little we know about the universe

This week, the Pentagon briefed the House Intelligence Committee on UFOs – or unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) in the newly revised jargon. An unclassified report will be made public soon, possibly next week, and it will crown a sort of renaissance of public interest in alien visitation.

This renaissance is attributable, in part, to preemptive leaks of the report, and an influential New York Times story, splashed on its front page in December 2017, about a “shadowy” military inquiry into what two of its navy pilots had described in 2004 as an inexplicable encounter with a physics-defying object. Footage was published on the Times’ site, and later broadcast on major networks.

Since then, former US president Barack Obama has spoken on the issue, and last month the New Yorker published a 13,000-word history of US ufology and the federal government’s own investigations.

In following all this, I’ve renewed an old, idiosyncratic gripe. For a long time, “UFO” was popularly interchangeable with “flying saucer”. It’s an obvious category error: one thing is defined by its being “unidentified”, and the other is defined by our certainty of its alien provenance. It’s a fallacious conflation.

Before you dismiss this as a petty semantic grievance, note the recent reporting and revived public interest. This conflation abounds. If governments admit confusion or uncertainty about “aerial phenomena” it does not, ipso facto, mean they’re alien spacecraft. Governments are inclined towards secrecy, sure, but they are not omniscient. Sometimes, they might not know what something is. (And sometimes they know when to exploit public credulity to conceal their own, very terrestrial, military experiments. The story of Paul Bennewitz is an incredible example.)

The New York Times article should be taken with a grain of salt, and one thing that struck me about that New Yorker story – though thoughtful and respectfully credulous – was the near-absence of reference to the scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) community, which is comprised of dazzlingly talented astrophysicists, astrobiologists, philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, linguists and others.

It’s a striking omission, because the most curious thing about SETI is not the classified reports, the grainy videos or the testimonies from fighter pilots. It’s the opposite. It’s the absence of proof – definitive proof – of extraterrestrial intelligence. They have none. We have none. And depending upon who you speak to, this is more incredible than the speculative theories of alien visitation.

Among those who’ve dedicated their lives to this search, there is an almost foundational dilemma. It’s known as the Great Silence, or the Fermi Paradox. Quickly explained: Where the hell is everyone?

For a less quick explanation, here’s Serbian physicist and philosopher Milan Ćirković: “Both time and space are large in our astronomical environment, but there is an important sense in which the temporal scale is larger,” he writes in his often intimidating, ultra-theoretical but wildly fascinating book The Great Silence. “The Galaxy is about 100,000 light years from edge to edge, which means that a star-faring species would need about 10 million years to traverse it if moving at a very modest velocity of just 1 per cent of the speed of light. Since the Galaxy is about a thousand times older than this, any technological civilization will have much more available time for such expansion and colonization of all planetary systems that exist in the Milky Way. If one species fails in this endeavour, another won’t. Consequently, if intelligent species were out there in any appreciable numbers, they would have been here already. And yet, we do not see them on Earth or in the Solar System. For Fermi and many thinkers since, this constituted a paradox.”

Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist, working at the US atomic testing site in Los Alamos in 1950 when, at lunch, he casually asked his now famous question: Where is everybody? Since then, the paradox named for him has only deepened with advances on spectrometry: that is, since Fermi’s death almost 70 years ago, we now know the Earth to be much younger, relatively speaking, than we previously thought. In the Milky Way, we’re a pup. A toddler. Our relative youth has only intensified Fermi’s paradox.

But despite this, the search for alien intelligence is cast in mystery and uncertainty, no matter the ardency of those who insist that extraterrestrial intelligence not only exists, but that it has frequently visited and engaged with us.

Setting aside the idea that the repeated tours of an unfathomably superior intelligence with unthinkably superior technology could be so easily suppressed by humble old state propaganda, what’s strange about this new UFO narrative is how blithely it has ignored the actual, fascinating work of those professionally searching for extraterrestrial life.

Milan Ćirković’s book is deeply theoretical because it has to be: the Fermi Paradox is not concerned with an observable phenomenon, but with its surprising absence. The Great Silence “is Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark,” he writes. “Something is amiss.”

The speculative implications are stunning: is there a “Great Filter” – a universally systemic ceiling to the development of civilisations before their self-annihilation? (And, if it exists, is it behind or ahead of us?) If there is intelligence in our cosmic neighborhood, is it so advanced that it can conceal its own existence? Are we sufficiently advanced to detect that life, anyway? And if we’ve assumed the existence of a superior intelligence, is it wise to broadcast our own? Stephen Hawking didn’t think so. He said that all ecosystems inherently feature predation, and that our promiscuous emission of exploratory radio waves was recklessly inviting invasion. Then again, maybe the conditions for developing intelligent life are exquisitely rare, and Hawking shouldn’t have worried.

We don’t know. But if we are truly alone, in this universe of unthinkable vastness and age – an old canvas populated with billions upon billions of suns similar to our own, many with exoplanets orbiting them from an ideal distance for the flourishing of life – then surely this lends credibility to the existence of God?

If the Great Silence continues, we’ll never know. The vastness of the universe means we’ll never be able to prove our uniqueness because the possibility of life existing beyond our reach or comprehension will always, unconquerably and tantalisingly, exist. And we will remain suspended in uncertainty: seemingly alone, but unable to prove it.  

Personally, I think it’s implausible that we’re alone, just as I think it’s implausible that extraterrestrial intelligence has engaged us. And, sure: I’ve loved the footage of flying cigars, and the solemn military men describing weird lights. I’ve loved that the Pentagon has prepared a flying saucer report, and that the stigma of the whole alien thing has, happily, diminished.  

But still: we know nothing. And there’s significance to nothing, because nothing might be all we have. And of everything I’ve read about the search of alien life, little has resonated more with me than this bit of wisdom from Douglas Vakoch, the director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute. “One of the greatest misconceptions about SETI is that we know in our hearts that there is life out there, and the question is whether we’re going to be the generation that finds it,” he told Wired in 2008. “That’s false.  

“SETI requires an acceptance of ambiguity. If there’s a virtue to SETI, it’s that it’s making ambiguity acceptable at a time when people are focused on the concrete and short-term. It is very often uncomfortable not having the answers, but we need to accept that.”

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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