Tag: Enrico Fermi

Sure UFOs Exist. But There’s No Reason To Conclude That Aliens Are Flying Them

An apparently unidentified object detected on a Navy plane’s infrared camera. (U.S. Department of Defense/Navy Times)

It seems to happen with some regularity.  Claims that Unidentified Flying Objects are visiting us have captured the public imagination once more and a big reveal is expected soon.

That will come, oddly, from a government report required to be released by the end of June that will supposedly detail the many sightings made by high-flying military pilots and unexplained detections by satellites.  The requirement was added to the Covid relief package that was passed by Congress in December and orders the Department of Defense and the Office of the DIrector of National Intelligence to release their unclassified findings on the subject, information that has been apparently collected for decades.

In terms of national defense, these reports could indeed be meaningful.  If other nations are sending

This well known poster was first introduced during an episode of the 1990s television show, “The X Files.” and featured in a subsequent movie.

drones or satellites of some sort (true UFOs) to get close to and study American assets, then that’s important news.

But, of course, the UFO drama is overwhelmingly about something else:  The claimed presence of intelligent aliens that are scoping out Earth for reasons ranging from awe-inspiring or extremely worrisome.

The report — which sources say concludes that there is insufficient evidence to confirm or conclusively rule out extraterrestrial UFO sightings —  will no doubt be widely consumed by a population with many “UFO believers.”  After all, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 33 percent of American adults said that alien spacecraft from distant planets and galaxies have been visiting us.

I find all this to be not only unfortunate but also misguided and potentially damaging.  The moment will pass with no intelligent aliens identified, and then will return again some time in the future for another round.

The potential damage is to the very real, very challenging, very cutting-edge science being conducted around the world that seeks to identify actual signs of actual extraterrestrial life in the cosmos, or at least to know what to look for when we have space telescopes and instruments with the necessary power.

And I’m concerned that a focus on UFOs imagined to be carrying intelligent alien life takes away from the hard-won seriousness of their enormous and so compelling scientific effort.  This is especially true now that the scientific search for extraterrestrial life is on the front burner for the National Academy of Sciences, which will soon make recommendations about a next grand observatory for the 2030s.… Read more

Do Intelligent Civilizations Across the Galaxies Self Destruct? For Better and Worse, We’re The Test Case

The Eastern Seaboard as seen from the International Space Station in 2012.    (NASA)

In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory,  renowned physicist Enrico Fermi was lunching with colleagues including Edward Teller, Herbert York an Emil Konopinski.  The group talked and laughed about a spate of recent UFO reports during the meal, as well as a cartoon about who might be stealing garbage can tops.  Was it aliens?

A bit later in the meal Fermi famously asked more seriously, “Where are they?”  Sure, there were many bogus reports back then about alien flying saucers, but Fermi was asking what has turned out to be a significant and long-lasting question.

If there are billions of exoplanets out there — as speculated back then but proven now — why have there been no bona fide reports of advanced extraterrestrials visiting Earth, or perhaps leaving behind their handiwork?

Many answers have been offered in the following decades — that we are alone in the universe, that the distances between solar systems are too great to travel, that Earth became home to life early in the galaxy’s history and other planets are only now catching up, that life might be common in the universe but intelligent life is not.

I would like to focus on another response, however, one that came to mind often while reading a new book by the former holder of the astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress, planetary scientist David Grinspoon.

This potential explanation is among the most unsettling:  that intelligent and technologically advanced beings are likely to ultimately destroy themselves.  Along with the creativity, the prowess and the gumption, intelligence brings with it an inherent instinct for unsustainable expansion and unintentional self destruction.

I should say right off that this is not a view shared by Grinspoon.  His “Earth in Human Hands,” in fact, argues with data and conviction that humans are more likely than not to ultimately find ways to work together and avoid looming global threats from climate change, incoming asteroids, depleting the ozone layer and myriad other potential sources of mass extinction.

But his larger point is the sobering one:  that the fate of Earth is, indeed, in our hands.  We humans are a force shaping the planet that is as powerful as a ring of volcanoes, a giant impactor from space, the long-ago rise of lifeforms that could, and did, dramatically change our atmosphere and along the way caused near global extinction.… Read more

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