Is there anybody there?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
Do you think we are alone in the universe? Read this and let me know if you change your mind...

Submitted: December 11, 2011

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Submitted: December 11, 2011

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When I was 18 years old I was riding a motorbike through heavy summer holiday traffic in the centre of Gloucester in England with a friend riding pillion behind me. While we were waiting in a long queue of cars, I looked up absent mindedly towards the clear blue sky above me, and there, perfectly still in the bright sunshine, was a shiny cigar shaped object. I asked my friend if he could see it, but as I did so the traffic moved so I put the bike in gear and moved forward a few feet. When we stopped I looked up again, but the object had disappeared. I asked my friend if he had seen it and he confirmed that he had, then told me that while he was looking at it, the object had suddenly shot off to the right at amazing speed and then completely disappeared. (Cue spooky music…) UFO..? or optical illusion..?

If you are not old enough to remember the Unidentified Flying Object or “UFO” hysteria of the post war years you have most probably heard about it. The “Roswell Incident” in 1947, concerning the alleged crash of an alien space craft in the desert near Roswell in New Mexico, plus later numerous blurry images of cigar-shaped objects hovering over various remote parts of the world, and then occasional very shaky moving pictures of mysterious groups of lights flitting about in impossible ways in the night sky, all added up to convince many people that there were highly technologically advanced aliens lurking behind every cloud ready to invade the earth.

In my opinion, it is no coincidence that this hysteria began almost immediately after the Second World War. The citizens of earth had just been convinced beyond any doubt that there were evil creatures ON THE SAME PLANET that would like to conquer and control them, so, at the time, the “bogeyman” from another planet was not as ridiculous a concept as one might imagine. Add to this the amazing technological advancements made during the war, and you can understand why the average man would need little convincing that things beyond his wildest imagination might be possible. There were now machines that could see into the darkest of nights and detect incoming enemy aircraft, flying machines with no propellers and flames coming out of the back of them that were traveling faster than anyone believed possible, and a single bomb that could wipe out an entire city. Out of this world.

Also take into account the fact that the victorious Allies had forcibly recruited most of Hitler’s surviving scientists and engineers to work for them and share their knowledge and research. All these great brains, at the time probably the greatest in the world, were shipped to the US and allowed to continue their work, only now it was for the benefit of the winning side. It is not hard to imagine then, with the threat of Russia and what turned out to be the Cold War approaching, that these German genuises would have been put to work in the greatest secrecy in the most remote locations, testing new forms of flying machine and all kinds of fiendish new weaponry. When the average man occasionally caught an unexpected glimpse of this amazing and seemingly impossible technology, it is understandable that his mind might leap to conclusions that would require the involvement of unearthly beings.

Another technology that came on in leaps and bounds during the war was photography. The crucial need to record and convey clear visual information in war time had made movie and still cameras far more accurate and reliable than they had ever been before, and after the war the companies whose research and development had effectively been paid for by the warring governments could now supply high quality cameras to the man in the street at reasonable prices. Before the war, the art of photography was mostly confined to wealthy explorers and philanthropic documentary makers. After the war it became far more accessible to the general population. So now there were all kinds of new-fangled flying machines and weapons in the skies over remote parts of the US, and thousands of new fangled fancy cameras on the ground in the hands of a paranoid generation. Put the two together, add a dash of money-hungry Hollywood and a pinch of sensation seeking media, and you have UFO hysteria. Then of course take into account the ability of unscrupulous attention seekers to manipulate images and fabricate stories and “personal accounts” and you have the “UFO” as a plausible part of every day life. Thousands of books were written on the subject and films and TV series proliferated. Some authors went to great lengths to “prove” that aliens were in fact on earth long before us, and some even showed us “evidence” of their existence in remote parts of south America and elsewhere in the world. All in all the whole concept of the UFO took on a life of its own, and the term “UFO” itself became a synonym for “alien space ship”, when all it really means is “unidentified flying object”, literally anything that flies that the observer doesn’t recognise.

But is there life on other planets? In 1961, Frank Drake, at the time a radio astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia and later Founder of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, put forward the Drake Equation. It’s a complicated equation and meaningless to the average layman, but Drake says it gives the probable number of planets in our galaxy which harbour intelligent life forms which might be trying to communicate with other planets. When Drake plugged in his estimates of the values for each element of the equation, he came up with the answer ten. TEN planets in our galaxy alone capable of supporting life intelligent enough to be trying to communicate with other planets at any given time. Independent current estimates using the latest figures from NASA and other qualified sources place the number at 2.3. Of course a pessimist could stuff a zero in for one of the assumptive elements of the equation and thereby produce another zero at the end. Some of the learned in these matters say the equation is purely hypothetical and complete nonsense.

Then there is the Fermi paradox, which simply stated, argues “If they do exist, then why aren’t we seeing any solid evidence of it?” This is particularly relevant in these modern times, now that tens of millions of snap-happy people all over the world have video and still cameras in their pockets 24 hours a day. How come back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when there were relatively few cameras around, we regularly saw mysterious grainy images of UFOs from all over the world? Now we see hardly any, when we should logically be seeing thousands of high resolution pictures of our alien friends and their craft every day – if they exist. But then, as one of my favourite expressions goes, and completely contrary to the Fermi paradox, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Having said all that, I personally believe there must be life on other planets. However I do not believe we will ever be lucky enough to connect with it. As far as we know the universe is constantly expanding and therefore infinite so there must surely be other life out there somewhere (in fact logic dictates that in a truly infinite universe there are truly infinite possibilities so there must be a planet out there somewhere inhabited only by cello playing monkeys). But how far away is it, and will it still exist by the time we get the news? Will we exist by the time the news reaches this far? Will they communicate in a format we can comprehend anyway? How do we know we they are not communicating with us right now in a format we can’t understand? Maybe the positions of the stars are telling us something.

If you don’t believe that there is life on at least one of the other estimated 50 billion planets in our galaxy, or on one of the estimated 35 trillion planets in the observable universe, then you should be against convicting people of crimes using DNA evidence. The odds are not good enough for you. And if you don’t believe there is life on any of the infinite number of planets that must exist in the entire and constantly expanding infinite universe, then you should probably get your head examined. Or maybe I should.

There is a great line in the movie Contact which sums up my feelings very well. “If it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.”


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