Friday, 27 April 2012

The UFO Bestiary

Seth Shostak
You may not see massive UFO exhibits at your local science museum, but there's no dearth of saucer stories infesting my email. Every day I receive several reports of alien sightings, extraterrestrial plans for Earth, and agitated screeds about the reluctance of scientists to take the whole subject seriously. Plenty of people think they have convincing evidence for other-worldly visitors, and they want me to know.
Allow me to first note that this is a phenomenon worthy of attention. If aliens are really hanging out in our 'hood, it's hard to imagine any other fact more worthy of study. If not, then why does such a large fraction of the populace insist on believing they're here?
Note that few, if any, of these emails are penned by hoaxers. The correspondents are sincere, and many simply wish to help us in our search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Others are ticked off, usually at me.
It's a fire hose of correspondence, but stepping back a bit from the massive electronic corpus, it strikes me that virtually all of it falls into one of four categories. For the curious and interested, I list these subject areas below, together with a modestly elaborated description of each.
Sightings. The majority of my UFO diet consists of reports describing suspected encounters. This is not surprising, as there are thousands of sightings annually. The emailer has seen something unusual in the sky that he interprets as probable evidence of alien presence. Unfortunately, it's hard to say much about these stories. After all, I wasn't there.
I much prefer the photos and videos that are sometimes offered. The UFOs generally appear small, but contrary to frequent assumption, this doesn't prove that they're at high altitude moving at high speed (consider bugs and birds).
Many of the images are artifacts of photography. One gentleman sent me dozens of nighttime photos of city streets, featuring big, blobby and bright UFOs. But these luminous aliens only showed themselves when there was a street lamp in the shot. I suggested that they were internal reflections in the camera lens, and not alien ships behaving like moths. He disagreed...
Suggestions. Some people just want to feed the suggestion box. They've got information on how we can do our job better, such as telling us to swing our antennas in the direction of a particular star system where they're sure aliens are awaiting discovery. A favorite suggested target is the star system Zeta Reticuli, a locale made popular by the famous UFO case of Betty and Barney Hill. As it happens, we have examined Zeta Reticuli with our antennas -- not because of Betty and Barney, but because it's close (39 light-years). We didn't hear any Reticulans.
Other mails ask why we still look for radio signals when advanced aliens would surely communicate via hyperdimensional physics. Whatever that is. Others urge us to tune our receivers to the "frequency of DNA." Whatever that is.
Strange stuff. Why are we wasting time hunting for signals, say some correspondents, when extraterrestrials have left calling cards all over the planet? Virtually any pointed edifice is considered a candidate for alien engineering. After all, how could the Egyptians or Mayans have possibly stacked up stone blocks into pyramids? The Washington Monument -- also pointy -- is not considered an alien artifact as it was built by Americans who, of course, can manage this sort of project without extraterrestrial contractors.
Another story I get several times a month is that Homo sapiens is a deliberate creation of other-worldly beings. We're E.T.'s science fair project. The fact that our DNA is 98 percent the same as that of chimps implies that either the aliens must have also created our simian pals, or they were content to make us only very slightly better than what Nature had already served up.
A final category of strange stuff includes the correspondents who repeatedly claim that they are aliens. I wonder if they enjoy equal protection under the law.
Slams. While the above correspondence is interesting, it's not particularly unnerving. That cannot be said for those folks who like to excoriate me for being skeptical about alien visitation. They generally argue that the only reasons that few scientists give much credence to the visitation idea are these: (1) The government is keeping all the good evidence under wraps, and (2) Scientists are knee-jerk debunkers, unwilling to take any of this stuff seriously.
It's hard to believe that the aliens have cleverly arranged things so that only governments can find convincing evidence of their presence. And, of course, if you accept that premise, it follows that all the UFO reports by ordinary citizens are inadequate to establish the truth of aliens-on-Earth (a bummer of a message for organizations like MUFON).
As for the idea that scientists are either dumb or deliberately mum -- well hey, that's a slur both silly and personally wounding.
Imagine if Bigfoot enthusiasts blamed their failure to convince zoologists of the existence of these elusive beasts on (1) the state of Washington, which was deliberately covering up the really good evidence, and (2) forest rangers, who were derelict in their duty because they don't relentlessly investigate these hirsute hominids. Would such arguments convince you that Bigfoot was afoot?
The fact is, if you're certain that our planet is hosting alien visitors, the way to gain acceptance for your point of view is to prove it, not insist that the problem lies with third parties. The blame game is a cop-out