Life Out There, Maybe: The Search for ET in Myth & Legend

astronaut

By Andrew Fain

The odds of most of us ever being attacked by a shark in our lifetime are about one in 11.5 million. However, if you were to go swimming every day in the ocean for three hours, your chances of a shark encounter might significantly improve; enough to where, eventually, you might indeed raise your chances of getting bitten.

Casinos, in theory, use a similar principle applied to the odds of gambling. Let’s say you have a big night at the table, and based on your winnings (or spendings, depending on how you look at it), the dealers comp you, so you’ll spend a lot more time gambling. But in the long run, they know they’ll eventually get it all back.

This principle we’re illustrating is called the law of large numbers, and it says that if you have enough opportunities at achieving something, even the most improbable of events becomes more likely to occur. It is a mathematical concept that can be applied universally to all things.

In our galaxy, all stars are made the same way; planets and moons as well. The elements that made life possible on our world are found throughout the Milky Way. Even meteors contain amino acids that were once the precursors of life here on Earth.

The sun sends deadly radiation our way, while still supplying the right amount of energy we need to survive.  It is the source of storms violent enough to kill millions as well as producing sunsets and polar  light shows that can be dazzling. Linked to myths and legends through the ages, it has even had gods named after it.

But in reality it is just another star, one of a collection of nearly 200 billion that exist.

Thanks to Kepler, we can now estimate that most of those stars have their own planetary systems. With that much orbiting real estate,  scientists think there could be as many as 50 billion  habitable worlds in our galaxy alone.

The law of large numbers suggests that with all things being the same, that’s just too many throws of the cosmic dice for us to be the only game in town. Life, and even intelligent life, is virtually assured.

So, where are they?

Scientists think the best place to look is around stars older than our own and rich in metal content.  But we have been searching for over 50 years with nothing to show for it except an intriguing,  brief bit of excitement in 1977 known as the Wow signal.  SETI said it didn’t count because it never repeated itself, so the search goes on.

Many people believe extraterrestrial craft are flying in our skies now.  There have been hundreds of thousands of UFO reports throughout the years, and an overwhelming majority of them have had down to earth explanations. However, there are still tiny percentages that are baffling, which remain unexplained and deserving of further attention.

Unfortunately, instead of delving into those, too much time is still spent on the kind of UFO stories that have become a cottage industry of media hype, which offer little in return except possible fame and fortune for those who devote their lives to promulgating them.

A good example was afforded us in a recent television series on UFOs, which like many others before it, promised to reveal the truth about UFOs, backed by files kept over the years by MUFON, which had begun opening their files to the public. I found this odd, largely because MUFON seems to have no secrets to reveal. After all, they aren’t the CIA.

The first episode was about how President Dwight Eisenhower supposedly met with aliens in 1954, and even struck some secret deal with them; a ridiculous fiction that has been repeated many times throughout the years. Subsequent entries became even more absurd as the weeks wore on.

When I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I then became the recipient of an invite to a lecture, which was also being put on by MUFON… to discuss the link between UFOs and Bigfoot.  

This is how the UFO industry makes money.

Scientists with PhDs write UFO books and hit the lecture circuit because it pays better. They talk about abduction revelations brought out by hypnosis, but have absolutely no training or experience in that field.

The possibility that aliens had in fact crash-landed at Roswell during the summer of 1947 used to keep me up late at night. Years later, I realized that a craft with technology advanced enough to traverse the stars is not going to suddenly blow a gasket and crash land on a ranch in New Mexico.  Even most of the pilots and crew of the 509th never believed that story. But there was a reward offered for the discovery of a flying saucer after the Kenneth Arnold incident, and for a couple of days, the world went nuts.

Life soon returned to normal, that is until Stanton Friedman resurrected the Roswell non-event many years later in 1978 with his interview of Jesse Marcel. Only then did faulty memories and obscure secondhand witnesses come out of the woodwork. Like a snowball rolling downhill, people jumped on the bandwagon, and a new book then created a full-blown conspiracy. In short, the world ate it up.

Eventually, evidence that would emerge showed that the famous wreckage in photos that Marcel had been posing with had been made of balsa wood and foil; it actually belonged to an enormous high altitude balloon that was used in secret to monitor soviet nuclear tests. Many refused to believe it. And why not? Because everyone made out, including the town of Roswell.

Over time, opinions started changing. Kent Jeffrey was a former pilot and one of Roswell’s most vocal proponents through the years.  He was also the author of the Roswell Declaration, a collection of over 20,000 signatures destined for the White House, seeking the truth. For Jeffrey, it ended when he eventually gained access to declassified documents proving the Air Force never possessed anything even remotely resembling a flying saucer. He now provides a thorough explanation on the Internet of what really happened, with hope that no one makes the same kind of mistakes that he once did.

Extraterrestrials are beyond our current understanding, but the behavior of humans and many things attributed  to aliens is easily exposed with a little common sense. For example, crop circles were being made by the hundreds beginning in the 1970s by two artists, of sorts, named Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. The overwhelming majority of these appeared in England at first, with copycat variants that didn’t start appearing around the world until Bower and Chorley’s public admission in 1991. Researchers will report these formations appear near roadways and areas with dense population, and always in places with easy access. They seldom appear in areas with any surrounding fences or warnings of trespass.

Coincidence? No.

This is man-made agricultural art done on the sly. And just like Roswell, the market for Crop Circles have created bus and helicopter tours, T-shirts and book sales.

There are those among us who think our world governments have extraterrestrials in their possession. But consider the logic behind this: I don’t think we would be spending billions searching for tiny microbes on Mars if alien grays from Zeta Riticuli were already being kept in an underground facility at Area 51. Had we acquired alien technology as some have suggested, I would propose it as likely that I would be commuting to work in a flying car by now. Planes would not need five hours (and lots of jet fuel) to get from coast to coast, and certainly our spacecraft could go faster than a mere 35,000 miles per hour, and taking 75,000 years to travel to the very nearest star.

Our fascination with UFOs, according to Albert Harrison, professor emeritus of psychology, is a modern day expression of an age-old enchantment with events in the skies, where space-age visitors have replaced signs from the gods, omens and portents of yesteryear.

If UFO researchers want the respect they so desperately crave, they are going to have to make some changes.  Maybe it’s time to leave Roswell behind, and spend our time and energy focusing on some reports that may have some merit.  Ufologists need to create an active lobby, and start funneling money into serious, independent, scientific investigations. That’s what the Planetary Society does, and they do it by galvanizing their large membership to fund projects and influence politicians. The UFO community needs to do the same.

There are sightings that deserve a further look just as well. Kenneth Arnold and his 1947 experience near Mount Ranier (among the first in the modern era); mysterious lights over Washington DC in 1952,  tracked on radar and seen by hundreds of witnesses, but never adequately explained; reports of strange craft in World War II called “Foo Fighters” that predate the use of experimental military aircraft.  Airline pilots have consistently reported things that exhibit impossible aerial maneuvers that seem to violate the laws of physics, and have subsequently gone on record to tell about them (and at great risk to their professional reputations). Sightings continue to be made by very credible people, and decent reports have been made over the years be individuals that include at least two presidents. Does that automatically make these objects ships from another world?  No. But this is the kind of stuff that should be taken seriously, and still warrants further investigation.

I compare it all to SETI’s lack of success, despite what they called the “WOW signal.” Not proof, but as Robert Gray called it, a tug on the cosmic fishing line that keeps you looking.

But where?

There are some that categorically continue saying nowhere. Proponents of the rare earth theory say the formulation of intelligent life on our planet happened purely by accident. An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and that was the only way little mammals that had once been preoccupied with not getting stepped on eventually evolved into the dominant species on Earth today.    However, many seem to think that evolution would have prevailed in their favor regardless. Even without that cataclysmic event, perhaps in time we would have had raptors and stegosaurs running medical clinics, or a police force fitted with tyrannosaurs.

They also use Fermi’s Paradox in much the same way Einstein’s theory of relativity refutes travelling faster than the speed of light. If Einstein says no, then it can’t be done. If Fermi says there are no aliens because we would have detected them by now, then that’s it. Case closed.  But as brilliant as Fermi was, there is a flaw in his famous paradox. Humans will have changed quite a bit in as little as a few thousand years from now. Take an alien race radically different from us to begin with, and now add in a few extra million years of evolution and advancement of technology. Beings such as this could be so highly evolved that they might not even be recognizable as life forms to the likes of us. Detecting their presence might be almost impossible, at least for the time being. But Fermi never factored this into his calculations.

For success to be ensured, any serious discussion regarding the possibility of extraterrestrial life must be carried out in the absence of anthropomorphic thinking. The odds that aliens will be humanoid with large heads and dark oval eyes are remote. They are not going to be concerned about our nukes, our sperm, or our cattle. They may communicate via mental telepathy, ride sunbeams, and be as altogether different from us as we are from the weeds growing in your garden.

The worlds these beings may inhabit will be unlike anything on Earth. They could be waterless and have storms that rain glass. There might somewhere exist seas of acid, with petroleum lakes and fireballs that roam the landscape like tumbleweeds. Their homes could be in the clouds, and they may use the wind for transportation.  In such places, up could be down; one-plus-one may not always equal two.

There could be many reasons why evidence of an alien presence still eludes us. But in a few years, we will be able to directly image exo-planets. An alien society hundreds or thousands of years more advanced than us might also stand a better chance of knowing we’re here by now, but there are probably far more interesting places to visit than our Earth. Why would we want to look at an ant hill in a neighbor’s yard when we can go see a movie, or go to some cosmic Disneyland?

If however, UFOs turn out to be piloted by extraterrestrials, there is the possibility that they could be vaguely similar to us, and they may even have selfish reasons for visiting. A prelude to an invasion, or maybe a cosmic safari, of sorts, looking to stock some interstellar zoo… with us.  We could be just another stop on a galactic travel package. Perhaps even the destination for hunters, out to make a few of us the featured special on some alien’s dinner menu.

More likely, if technologically advanced aliens are just checking us out because they’re curious, it’s probably a safe bet that life in our galaxy is exceedingly rare and, by perhaps by default, we are one of the more interesting destinations.

Stephen Hawking has advised against alerting the galaxy to our existence without further study.  He thinks contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization will end badly for us. When European settlers first encountered American Indians, they were the technically advanced society, and they destroyed a way of life that had remained unchanged since before the first rudiments of civilization.  The same thing could happen to us today, Hawking argues. It is conceivable that many alien civilizations remain silent, not willing to advertise their presence in fear of some sort of Darth Vader and his evil empire gobbling them up.

It could also be that the few civilizations that do come and go with time evolve and die out relatively quickly, so that the odds of more than just a couple existing at the same time are unlikely. Theoretical physicist Paul Davies uses the example of a town consisting of one hundred people. Each resident is given instructions to independently turn their lights on for just 10 seconds during a 24-hour period. What are the odds that two would be on at the same time or intersect for more than just a couple of seconds? Not good. But you add more people, and increase the duration the lights are on, and once again the law of large numbers begins working in our favor.

After endlessly plugging numbers into the Drake Equation, many scientists have theorized that the number of advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy could be as many as 20,000, or as little as just one or two. I think our galaxy is probably teeming with life, but that the number of highly evolved alien civilizations is relatively few. A guess would put that number at around one thousand. That’s less than many had hoped for, but still more than others today probably think, and more than enough to keep our dreams of contact alive. If that number is anywhere close to being right, it would mean there is one advanced civilization for about every 200 million stars, and placing vast distances between them.

With some luck, answers to these guesses, and the questions that spawned them, will probably start emerging within the next two decades, when telescopes become powerful enough to  detect the first evidence of alien existence on distant planets. But even then, questions will remain. Will nations and boundaries dissolve, yielding to a new world order of man that may emerge? And what about our concept of a God? What will be the impact on religion, and how we view ourselves in the grand scheme of things?

Perhaps even more importantly, when contact is eventually made, will they come as friends—benevolent beings, advanced beyond the need for aggression—or will they be invaders? Will they be ruthless and brutal creatures bent on conquest, looking to harvest our planetary resources after exhausting their own? Could their superior technology make it so that any resistance on our part would be utterly futile, leaving us no choice but to follow our saurian forebears of prehistory into the wasteland of extinction?

The scientific community is divided on this issue, so your guess is as good as mine. But for now, I would put it at around fifty-fifty. A cosmic roll of the dice, in other words, with a rather hefty price tag if you crap out!