This month, the television news program “60 Minutes” aired a segment on recent sightings by Navy pilots of unidentified flying objects. The pilots’ accounts were reinforced by videos recorded by cameras on board their planes which captured what the government now calls “unidentified aerial phenomena.”
As a result of these enigmatic encounters, people ask me what I think about UFOs and aliens. They ask because I am an astrophysicist involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. My colleagues and I recently received one of the first grants from NASA to research signs of advanced technology on planets outside of our solar system. (I have argued in these pages that the 10 billion billion habitable planets that we now believe exist in the universe make extraterrestrial civilizations much more likely.)
I understand that UFO sightings, which date back to at least 1947, are synonymous in the popular imagination with evidence from extraterrestrials. But scientifically speaking, there isn’t much to justify this link. There are great reasons to search for extraterrestrial life, but there are also great reasons not to conclude that we have found evidence for it with UFO sightings.
Let’s start with the Navy business. Some of the pilots reported seeing flying objects in the shape of Tic Tac or other unusual shapes. Recordings from aircraft cameras show amorphous shapes moving in surprising ways, including appearing to graze the surface of the ocean and then disappear below. It may sound like evidence of alien technology that can defy the laws of physics as we understand them – but in reality, it doesn’t mean much.
On the one hand, first-person accounts, which are initially notoriously inaccurate, do not provide enough information for empirical investigation. Scientists cannot accurately estimate distances or speed from a pilot’s testimony: “He seemed close” or “He was moving very fast” is too vague. What a scientist needs are precise measurements from multiple viewpoints provided by devices that record different wavelengths (visual, infrared, radar). This kind of data could tell us whether the movement of an object required motors or materials that we Earthlings do not have.
Maybe the videos offer this kind of data? Unfortunately no. While some researchers have used the images to make simple estimates of UFO accelerations and other flight characteristics, the results have been mixed at best. Skeptics have already shown that some of the movements seen in the videos (like skimming the ocean) may be artifacts of the optical and tracking systems of the cameras.
There are also common sense objections. If we’re frequently visited by aliens, why don’t they just land on the White House lawn and announce themselves? There is a recurring account, perhaps best illustrated by “The X-Files” TV show, that these creatures have a mysterious reason for staying hidden from us. But if these aliens’ mission calls for stealth, they seem surprisingly incompetent. One would think that creatures technologically capable of traversing the bewildering distances between stars would also know how to turn off their high beams at night and evade our primitive infrared cameras.
Make no mistake: I will read with great interest the US UFO intelligence report due to Congress in June; I believe that UFO phenomena should be studied using the best tools in science and in full transparency.
But there may be more prosaic explanations. For example, it is possible that UFOs are drones deployed by rivals like Russia and China to examine our defenses, prompting our pilots to turn on their radar and other detectors, thus revealing our electronic intelligence capabilities. (The United States has used a similar strategy in the past to test the sensitivities of Soviet radar systems.) This assumption may seem far-fetched, but it is less extreme than postulating an alien visit.
What is most frustrating about the history of UFOs is that it masks the fact that scientists like me and my colleagues are about to collect data that could be relevant to the existence of a lifetime. intelligent alien. But this evidence involves subtle discoveries about phenomena far away in the galaxy – not sensational discoveries a few miles away in our own atmosphere.
Powerful telescopes soon to be operational might be able to detect city lights on the night side of planets orbiting distant stars or the telltale mark of reflected light from planetary solar panels or the hallmark of industrial chemicals in the atmosphere of a planet. All these “technosignatures”, if we can find any proof of it, will be small effects. If we detect such things, you had better believe that my colleagues and I will make extraordinary efforts to eliminate all possible sources of error and all other possible explanations. It will take time and careful effort.
The work of science, while ultimately fascinating, is mostly painstakingly methodical and boring. But that’s the price we pay because we don’t just want to believe. We want to know.
Adam Frank (@ AdamFrank4) is professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and most recently author of “Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth”.
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