There has been a rash of new sightings of articles and opinion pieces on Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), which for some reason have been renamed Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) in some recent reports. I can’t say I see a big distinction between the terms. Perhaps, somebody felt we needed a new term because the term UFO, which really just means something flying and we don’t know what it is, had become overly contaminated with in implicit acceptance of extraterrestrials. At any rate, let me try to make sense of some of it and offer a new term that might explain some of the more weird sightings.
The latest round of articles got kicked off with reports that the Pentagon was going to release a report about unexplained sightings of aerial phenomena. The actual report recently released deals with 144 sightings between 2004 and 2021 but actually doesn’t say a lot about them. One of the sightings was explained as deflating balloon. Some of the others exhibited unusual characteristics but there was nothing in the sightings that definitively suggested extraterrestrials were involved. In fact, a a wide range of phenomena could explain the sightings, With this report in the background, there were a series of interviews and articles in various media with people involved in some of the sightings. One of the more watched segments was an 60 Minutes interview with two Navy pilots.
One of the more insightful commentaries on the report was actually in what is primarily a political blog Daily Kos. Although the blog is overwhelming political and left-oriented in its subject matter, it occasionally has some good science writing. I think this article falls into that category. The article There are only two good answers for the upcoming UFO report, and you’re going to hate them both by Mark Sumner makes a two really critical points.
His first point is that, if these videos really accurately reflect some level of technology, we’re in big trouble. Either the Chinese, Russians, or somebody else here on Earth have technology far exceeding our own. Or, we really are being visited by extraterrestrials. In either case, the outlook isn’t good. He writes: “Being on the low-tech side of those contacts doesn’t work out, even under the best of circumstances. Visitation from ‘friendly’ high-tech neighbors isn’t much better than a visit from the ‘unfriendly’ variety when it comes to the odds of survival.”
Before you reach for the cyanide capsule, consider his second point. “The one thing that these videos have in common is that they are videos. And what videos all have in common are video artifacts.” We want to think photographs, video, and radar are the best possible evidence but, in fact, all of this are subject to all sorts of anomalies from dust speaks, reflections, mirages, software glitches with modern technology, to say nothing of deliberate manipulation. Many of the classic photographs of UFOs have since been revealed to be fakes. Many of the so-called “flying rods” most likely are simply insects that take on a distorted shape during filming. Well-intentioned and honest people can be fooled. He links to a video that demonstrates the phenomena.
A more unusual take on the Nimitz sighting was done by David Halperin, the author of Intimate Alien. Halperin’s approach is psychological and I would highly recommend his book, which goes in depth with some of more famous sightings, to anyone interested in exploring the psychology behind the phenomena. I may be overly simplifying but his approach is to accept the phenomena as real on some level, but not at all what we think they are. They are projections of our own psyche generated from beliefs, confused memories, and sensory illusions. Halperin on the Nimitz sighting tries to be fairly balanced. He not only links to some of the debunking web sites but also calls into question the account of one of the pilots who was outed as faking UFO encounters years earlier. Still there were two pilots involved in the sighting and Halperin accepts the other pilot at face value. He thinks she saw something that oddly mirrored or mimicked the pilot’s behavior. This mirroring or mimicking phenomena has been a characteristic of other sightings. He concludes: “And the tic-tac over the waters off the California coast, on November 14, 2004? Did it mirror something that was within Fravor and Dietrich, and was therefore truly seen by them–even though it wasn’t truly there?”
For some reason, Scientific American has gotten invested in UFOs or UAPs too. They’ve published a number of articles. (Note: Some of these may require a subscription to access but I’ll try to summarize.) Avi Loeb has two articles. One seems oblivious to Mark Sumner’s astute observation about low and high tech encounters and hopes for benevolent aliens. The other draws a possible link between Oumuamua and UAPs with a suggestion that aliens are dropping off and retrieving probes. I guess a former chair of the Harvard astronomy department can get away with writing article likes these. If I wrote and submitted them (and anybody bothered to look at them), the reject notice would arrive back in my inbox faster than I could press the get mail button. Another article by John Gertz argues that, if the aliens really are here, they are probably only here as robotic probes. That might be a good argument for some of the more unusual UAPs if the aliens were unintelligent enough to allow us to spot them. That I doubt. I will return to this in a little while. Finally, there is another article by Leonard David which is a summation and concludes there still isn’t any evidence of alien visitation. What I want to call out in this article is a quote from William Hartman, who worked on the Condon Report, that he cannot escape “the feeling that there may be electromagnetic phenomena in the atmosphere that we still don’t understand.”
With this last in mind, let’s think for a moment about Unexplained Electromagnetic Phenomena (UEP) and consider the Hessdalen lights. Here we find strange lights that have been observed on and off since at least the 1930’s. They have been the subject of extensive scientific observation. To quote Wikipedia: “The Hessdalen lights are of unknown origin. They appear both by day and by night, and seem to float through and above the valley. They are usually bright white, yellow or red and can appear above and below the horizon. The duration of the phenomenon may be a few seconds to well over an hour. Sometimes the lights move with enormous speed; at other times they seem to sway slowly back and forth. On yet other occasions, they hover in mid‑air.” The monitoring station has video and photographs for every year from 1998. These are still unexplained, although there are theories. Most theories revolve around electromagnetism and/or ionized particles. Ball lightning, a similar if not identical phenomena, still isn’t completely understood and observations of it have been occurring for at least a hundred years. Scientific data on it is still sparse and some even doubt its existence. Ball lightning, in fact, was one common explanation that has used over to years to explain, otherwise unexplainable, UFO sightings.
So are UAPs explained? I think mostly they are one of the following:
- Human technology misidentified
- Artifacts of recording media
- Optical illusions
- Natural atmospheric or astronomic phenomena that are understood but misidentified
- Electromagnetic phenomena that are not yet completely understood
Is there room for aliens? Not much.
An op-ed in the Washington Post by Mark Buchanan may say it all: Contacting aliens could end all life on earth. Let’s stop trying. The argument is simple. Let’s be careful about trying to contact extraterrestrial life. “That’s because any aliens we ultimately encounter will likely be far more technologically advanced than we are, for a simple reason: Most stars in our galaxy are much older than the sun. If civilizations arise fairly frequently on some planets, then there ought to be many civilizations in our galaxy millions of years more advanced than our own. Many of these would likely have taken significant steps to begin exploring and possibly colonizing the galaxy.”
I think extraterrestrial life would make the same calculation. No civilization could assume that it would be superior to any civilization it might contact. None could assume any contact would be beneficial. Even a superior civilization that was bent on expanding and colonizing the galaxy could not assume a civilization it might contact might not be dangerous to it in some unforeseen way. A strategy of stealth would be beneficial in almost all cases. This would be especially the case if the civilization was advanced and benign. It would follow the Prime Directive of non-interference. So, if the aliens are here, we are not likely observing them.