Ep 3: Are UFOs Alien Technology?
Welcome back to the UFO Rabbit Hole podcast. I’m your host Kelly Chase.
So now we’re really starting to get to the good part. As we discussed in the last two episodes, the Pentagon has confirmed that UFOs are real — however, they’ve very conspicuously avoided public speculation about what they could be.
What they have said basically boils down to this: there are intelligently controlled technological objects being tracked in our skies and in our oceans that can do things that we can’t explain. We don’t know what they are exactly, and we don’t know who they belong to. But they aren’t ours and we don’t believe that they belong to any other country.
So what the heck are they? And does this mean what it sounds like it means?
Although the Pentagon has very purposefully not said the words “alien” or “extraterrestrial” they have yet to offer any other explanation. And so the natural conclusion for many is that, if they aren’t from here, they must be from “out there”.
So what evidence is there that it’s aliens? Like everything that has to do with this topic, the answer is more complicated than you might think. So get some snacks, clear your schedule, and buckle up, friends. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today. And a great place for us to start is with Fermi’s Paradox.
Fermi’s Paradox: Where Is Everybody?
In 1950, Enrico Fermi, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory — who, as a side note, developed the first nuclear reactor — was having lunch with his friends when he wondered aloud, “Where is everybody?”
Fermi had been thinking about the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial life, and it just didn’t make sense to him. After all, if the Universe is 14 billion years old and there are over a billion trillion stars, how could we possibly be alone? And if we’re not alone, shouldn’t we have heard from some of our neighbors by now? (1)
Just look at our own development as a species: in less than a million years we went from rudimentary wooden tools to landing on the moon, launching a probe beyond our solar system, and we’re starting to eye Mars for colonization. Fermi crunched some numbers and he reasoned that any species with the ability and drive to colonize other worlds would be able to colonize an entire galaxy in about 10 million years. (2)
Now, 10 million years may sound like a crazy long time, but when you think about the fact that our galaxy is 10,000 million years old, you realize that’s no time at all.
So given those odds, we almost certainly should have encountered extraterrestrial intelligence by now — but as Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?” And that’s the paradox.
There are a bunch of possible explanations for why this is the case, and all of them are super interesting, and also very relevant to this whole “is it aliens?” conversation. So let’s spend a little time with this.
Young Earth, Old Universe
One thing that makes Fermi’s Paradox particularly perplexing is that the Earth is relatively young in the context of the Universe. The Universe is estimated to be 14 billion years old, but the Earth is only about 4.5 billion years old.
If we think about how difficult it would be for someone from 1000 years ago to comprehend our current level of technology, and then recognize how our technological development has seemed to increase exponentially over the last century, it can be hard to imagine what a civilization that 1000 years ahead of us would look like — much less one that had a head start of billions of years.
There is this model called the The Kardashev Scale that we use to try to wrap our minds around this. The Kardashev Scale is based on the assumption that as a civilization advances and begins to colonize the universe that it’s population growth and technological developments will require increasing amounts of energy, and it categorizes civilizations by the amount of energy that they are able to harness. (3)
There are 3 main categories: Type I, Type II, and Type III Civilizations
Type I Civilization
A Type I Civilization is able to harness all of the energy of its planet. Humans actually aren’t even a Type I Civilization yet. We’re still down at Type 0. And to give you a sense of how far we are from that, right now we’re actually only able to produce about 1/100,000th of that energy. But as a Type I Civilization, we’d hypothetically be able to harness all the power of the Earth’s oceans, volcanic activity, and more.
Type II Civilization
A Type II Civilization is able to harness all of the energy of its host star. That would take a level of technology that we can scarcely understand. Scientists have proposed that it could be done with a hypothetical megastructure called a Dyson Sphere that would basically be built around the sun to catch every bit of solar radiation. (4)
Type III Civilization
A Type III Civilization is able to harness all of the energy of its galaxy. I’m not even going to pretend to speculate on how that might be done. It truly boggles the mind.
However, if a civilization was really billions of years ahead of us in their development, this is the level of advanced civilization that would be possible. And if they’re out there, you’d think they’d be super noticeable, especially if there were a lot of them.
So how many of these advanced civilizations do we think might be out there? That’s where things get complicated.
The Drake Equation
There is a generally accepted formula for determining how many alien civilizations there should be who have reached a level of technological sophistication that we should be able to detect. This is called the Drake Equation, and while scientists agree on the formula itself, when you start plugging in numbers, there’s a lot of debate.
I’m not even going to attempt to read you this equation. I don’t really math. But it’s pretty straightforward and logical once you break it down.
Basically you multiply the following variables together.
The Drake Equation is:
N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L
N : The number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* : The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life (number per year).
fp : The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne : The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl : The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi : The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc : The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that produces detectable signs of their existence.
L : The average length of time such civilizations produce such signs (years).
Makes a lot of sense, right? The issue with the Drake Equation is that it’s one big multiplication problem. So if even one of the numbers you plug in is zero — for instance if the number of other planets on which intelligent life can evolve is zero — than the answer is zero and the reason we haven’t found anyone else is because they aren’t there.
And because that has been our experience, it can be easy to want to stop right here, and say “case closed”. The problem is that if we assume that any of those variables in the Drake equation are zero — or close enough to it to effectively be zero — that makes us VERY special. We’re not talking about one in a million, but one in one hundred billion — and that’s just talking about the planets in our own galaxy.
What are the chances that we are actually that special?
That’s a question that is actually impossible to answer, at least with the data we currently have, because of something called the observation selection effect.
Observation Selection Bias
An observation selection effect exists when some property of a thing is correlated with the observer existing in the first place. When such an effect is present the data will be biased, often in significant ways. The more extreme the correlation — basically the more that the thing being observed is related to the observer — the more unusual effects it could have. (5)
So in this case, the thing we’re trying to observe is whether or not we are unique on a level that would make finding others like us unlikely. The problem is that our human intellect that we use to even ask that question inherently makes us special. As far as we know, we’re the only species in the 4.5 billion year history of this planet that has reached this level of sentient consciousness and intelligence. That’s pretty special right there.
So ultimately we really have no way of knowing how special or how not special we are. Even if there was only one intelligent species in the entire Universe, that intelligent species would inevitably ask this question. We could be that one — or we could be one of billions. We simply don’t know.
And so that leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but also a lot of possibilities in terms of what could explain the Fermi Paradox. We can’t really narrow it down without more information. So let’s talk about what those possibilities are.
Fermi Paradox: All The Possible Explanations
If we get down to basics with the Fermi Paradox, one of two things is true:
- We haven’t found signs of intelligent life outside of our planet because it isn’t there. (We’re special.)
- There is intelligent life all over the place, but there’s a good explanation for why we haven’t found it yet. (We’re not special.)
Let’s start with the first possibility.
Explanation #1: We haven’t found signs of intelligent life outside of our planet because it isn’t there.
So this is the world in which we are special, but, as we’ll see, that’s not necessarily good news for us. Because while Fermi’s math calculated that there were potentially thousands of other intelligent civilizations in our galaxy and other people claim much smaller and much more specific numbers (like 36), if even one of them is a Type II or a Type III Civilization, their presence should be pretty obvious. (6)
The Great Filter
So if there are supposed to be other intelligent civilizations here and they aren’t — then that means that there must be something else going on. And to address this problem, there is the theory of The Great Filter, which is basically the idea that somewhere between the pre-life stage of a planet and the Type III stage, there is a filtering event that all (or very nearly all) species fail to get past.
If that is the case, then our fate is very much tied to where we are in relation to the Great Filter. And there are 3 basic possibilities:
- We’re rare.
- We’re first.
- We’re screwed.
Possibility #1: We’re rare.
In this scenario, the Great Filter is already behind us, and we’re one of a vanishingly small amount of species that ever make it this far. Yay us!
So if this is the case, then what could the Great Filter have been? It’s hard to tell, but there are some strong candidates:
It could be that the conditions that create life are extremely rare, and that the vast majority of planets never even get that far. Or it could be that simple forms of life like single-celled organisms are relatively common, but that it’s extremely rare for those to develop into multicellular organisms. Or it could be that complex life like plants and animals as we know them are pretty common, but that developing human-level intelligence is super rare.
It could also be that just the Earth itself is super rare. We tend to take for granted how perfectly calibrated our planet is to support life. Just the fact that we have such a big moon that orbits so closely to the planet and is tidally locked with the Earth creates the ocean tides and currents that stabilize our seasons, making our planet particularly hospitable to life.
Maybe it’s our moon that has allowed complex life to evolve and flourish long enough to produce intelligent life. It’s certainly possible. And actually, we have lots of reasons to believe that our Moon is nothing like other moons. It’s an outlier in a lot of ways.
I know I don’t have time to talk to you about the Moon right now. We’re in the middle of something. But stick a pin in that and we’ll get back to it — because the Moon is weird.
Possibility #2: We’re first.
If we’re not rare, but we still can’t find anybody else, could it be that we just got to this stage of development first? Perhaps.
One obvious complication for this possibility though is that, as we discussed, the Earth is relatively young compared to the Universe itself. So how could we be first if we were seemingly late to the party?
One explanation could be that the Universe was just too chaotic for life to develop during the time before the Earth was formed. The Earth may have just popped up at the earliest time where there was enough stability to support the development and evolution of complex life-forms. In this scenario, there wouldn’t even necessarily need to be a great filtering event. We just have to be patient until everyone else catches up.
Possibility #3: We’re screwed.
The final possibility is that the Great Filter is ahead of us, and we’re most likely on a collision course with our ultimate demise as a species. In short — we’re screwed.
It could be that once a species reaches a certain level of technological advancement that most — if not all — of them end up destroying themselves. This scenario hits pretty close to home when you think about the absolute havoc that our technological advancements have wreaked on the planet and on each other.
Not only are we destroying the environment, but we currently have 150x more nuclear bombs on the planet than it would take to effectively end life as we know it. The idea that the Great Filter is ahead of us doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch (7)
However, luckily for us, there is still the second possible explanation for Fermi’s Paradox.
Explanation #2: There is intelligent life all over the place, but there’s a good explanation for why we haven’t found it yet.
While the first explanation depends heavily on the idea we’re special in some way, this explanation relies on the Mediocrity Principle — which basically assumes that our planet and our solar system are pretty average and not different from most other solar systems in any meaningful way. (8)
So if we’re not special in any way, then there should be other intelligent species in the galaxy. And so if we can’t see them, we have to assume that there is just something that is preventing us from detecting them. As for what that “something” could be, the possibilities are pretty mind-bending, and I’m not going to lie — some of them are pretty terrifying.
Possibility #1: We’re assholes.
It could be that we’re just projecting the idea that a highly advanced technological society would want to do things like colonize space and find increasingly elaborate ways to harness more energy to meet perpetually rising demand because those are the kind of asshole moves that we would make.
And yet those are the very assumptions upon which the Kardashev Scale is based. So our idea of what a Type I, Type II, and Type III Civilization would be, could just be way off base. Maybe most higher intelligences are smart enough to pursue more worthy and less destructive pursuits. Maybe at a certain point they just upload their consciousness to a nebula and just vibe. It’s possible that they’re out there and we just don’t know what we’re looking at because we expect them all to be dicks like us.
Possibility #2: There are way bigger assholes out there than us out there.
It could be that there are scary predator civilizations out there, and it’s so quiet because most intelligent civilizations are smart enough to not go announcing their location. If you think about it, we’ve been pretty cavalier about broadcasting signals out into space and trying to contact alien life considering that we have no idea who is out there — and who or what might respond to our little messages.
Some of the greatest scientific minds of our times, including Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, were both vehemently opposed to trying to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligences because of this exact danger.
In the always poetic words of Carl Sagan:
“The newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.”
Possibility #3: There’s just one super-asshole.
It could be that there is just one super-advanced predator species out there that keeps tabs on other technologically developing species and basically exterminates them when they cross a certain threshold. Terrifying. Moving on.
Possibility #4: Aliens have been here, but it was a long time ago.
Earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we’ve only had the ability to meaningfully look for signs of other intelligent life in the galaxy for the last century or so — a tiny blip in the history of both humanity and of the planet. Just because we don’t see exterrestrials hanging out around our cosmic neighborhood now doesn’t mean that they’ve never been here — or that they won’t return.
Possibility #5: We live in the boonies.
It could be that the galaxy is colonized, but that we just live in some far-flung outpost that they rarely visit. Basically the Earth could just be in a very unfashionable zip code.
In all seriousness though, our solar system actually is way out on the edge of one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. Maybe we’re just too far out to get visitors very often.
Possibility #6: Our technology is too primitive to detect them.
Just like you wouldn’t be able to talk to someone on a cell phone with a messenger pigeon, it could be that the technology that is out there is just so advanced and so different that we’re basically looking for the wrong evidence with the wrong tools. We assume that the signatures of intelligent communication would look the way that ours do, but we could be very wrong about that.
Possibility #7: We are too primitive to detect them.
In the wise words of renowned physicist Michio Kaku:
“If ants in an ant hill detect a 10-lane superhighway being built near them, would they understand how to communicate with the workers? Would they assume that the workers communicate only on ant frequencies? In fact, the ants are so primitive that they would not even understand what a 10-lane superhighway was.” (9)
It could be that we’re ants in this scenario, and that extraterrestrial civilizations are right in front of us, potentially even sharing space with us, and our perspective from our current stage of evolutionary development is such that we don’t even comprehend what we are seeing.
Possibility #8: The government is hiding the evidence.
We’re going to talk about this one a lot more later, so we don’t need to spend much time on it, but it is a possibility.
Possibility #9: The Earth is a zoo.
It could be that we are being observed by another species as a part of some sort of experiment. Or it could be that the solar system is being treated like some kind of a protected national park. Either way, there might be a “look, but don’t communicate or interfere” policy with regards to our planet — sort of like the Prime Directive from Star Trek.
And if you feel like we’re starting to get into Crazy Town with these possibilities, you should know that some of the most respected names in ufology and the disclosure movement — including Lue Elizondo — do not scoff at this idea and throw it around as a genuine possibility.
I told you in episode one that I was going to make you 75% weirder at dinner parties — and I meant it. We’re just getting started.
Possibility #10: We are fundamentally wrong about the nature of our reality.
In recent years, scientists have increasingly discussed the possibility that we could be living in a simulation. For real. So hypothetically, it could be that there just weren’t any other advanced intelligences programmed into the simulation.
In fact, regardless of whether or not it helps us explain Fermi’s paradox, the simulation hypothesis still might end up being true. The more we learn about quantum mechanics, the more evidence we find that could point to that startling conclusion.
A lot of those findings are too complex to get into now, but I’ll give you this little thought experiment —
In recent years, scientists have increasingly discussed the possibility that we could be living in a simulation. For real. So hypothetically, it could be that there just weren’t any other advanced intelligences programmed into the simulation.
In fact, regardless of whether or not it helps us explain Fermi’s paradox, the simulation hypothesis still might end up being true. The more we learn about quantum mechanics, the more evidence we find that could point to that startling conclusion.
If you think about the evolution of computer and video games from the early 8-bit systems to the current emergence of virtual reality, it’s clear that our ability to create more-and-more realistic virtual environments is increasing exponentially. Even with VR headsets now, it may not look real exactly, but your body still responds to it like it is. And with this exponential improvement of VR technologies it’s not hard to imagine that at some point we’re going to be able to create simulated experiences and environments that are indistinguishable from reality.
From there the logic is that if you could create this sort of simulation, you would. And hypothetically someone could create a simulated universe and in that simulated universe a species could advance to the point that it creates its own simulation within the simulation. And so on. Hypothetically there could be a near infinite number of simulated universes within the real universe, so if that’s the case, then what are the chances that we’re actually in base reality?
And that’s actually one of the least convincing arguments for the simulation hypothesis — we’ll definitely get to the others in another episode.
But for now, we’re still on the alien question, and through the lens of the Fermi Paradox — and its many, many explanations — we can start to see how complex this question is, and how many questions we still have to answer.
Belief In Extraterrestrial Life
I don’t know what your experience was, but as a kid born in the 80s, when I was growing up the idea that we were alone in the Universe was treated as the default and the most likely option. And I’m talking like completely alone — as in, the conditions for even the most simplistic and rudimentary forms of life are so rare and mysterious that the Earth was likely the only place that it ever happened.
But as I’ve gotten older — and particularly in the past ten years — it feels like a shift has occurred where more-and-more people believe that the Universe is likely teeming with life, and it’s only a matter of time until we find it. And we’re even taking a long hard look at places within our own solar system.
I did some digging and it turns out that there have actually been some pretty dramatic swings throughout history when it comes to our belief about the existence of life on other planets. However, by and large, the dominant belief through most of recorded human history has been that the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe wasn’t just a possibility, but a probability. Our more cynical outlook on the prospect in recent decades is more the exception than the rule. (10)
These days our outlook on the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life is much sunnier. Two-thirds of Americans say that their best guess is that intelligent life exists on other planets. (11)
What Extremophiles Tell Us About Extraterrestrial Life
To find evidence of the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the cosmos, we don’t need to look any further than our own planet.
Like we were discussing with Fermi’s paradox, until we find evidence of life somewhere else, it’s hard to know how common it is for life to develop on a planet — especially considering that we don’t actually know what causes life to develop in the first place.
We know that our planet appears to be uniquely calibrated to support life, so we can probably assume that if there are certain conditions that are particularly favorable to the spontaneous creation of life they probably existed on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago. But how many other Earth-like planets might there actually be out there?
As we continue to identify more and more exoplanets outside of our solar system, we’re getting more and more data to help us answer that question. Although there is considerable debate about what exactly constitutes an Earth-like planet and how likely a planet that is like ours would be to develop life evidence suggests there may be as many as one Earth-like planet for every five Sun-like stars in the Milky Way alone. That gives us a lot of chances for life to develop. (12)(13)
But what about places that are nothing like the Earth? Could life possibly arise in environments that aren’t as friendly to life as we know it?
The more we learn about extremophiles the more we think that the answer could be yes. Extremophiles are organisms that live in conditions that we would normally consider to be hostile to life including extreme temperature, acidity, alkalinity, or chemical makeup. These organisms challenge everything that we thought we know about what it takes to support life. (14)
For example, there is a bacterium called D. radiodurans that not only thrives in the cores of nuclear reactors, but it can survive exposure to everything from toxic chemicals and corrosive acids to extreme heat above the boiling point of water, subzero temperatures, and the vacuum of space.
There are also three species of fungi that were discovered inside the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Scientists studied these fungi and found that they grow faster in the presence of radiation, and even effectively “eat” the radiation using the pigment melanin that captures the radiant energy, similar to the way it absorbs UV radiation in human skin to help avoid sunburns. (15)
These extremophiles force us to rethink what it even means for something to be “alive” and to reconsider all of the vastly different ways that life might adapt itself to various environments. It even begs the question of whether or not the Earth really is uniquely suited to support life, or if we just view it that way because it is the only environment we know of that supports life as we know it.
There’s even evidence that some extremophiles on Earth could survive in the conditions on Mars. So it’s not difficult to imagine that there might be a wide variety of environments that could potentially give rise to at least simple life forms. (16)
Wait…Did We Already Find Life On Mars?
And speaking of Mars, the idea that there could be life on Mars could be more than hypothetical. In fact, former NASA scientist, Gilbert V Levin, claims that evidence of life on Mars was found back in the 1970s. When the Viking landers were sent to explore the Martian surface, Levin was the principal investigator on an experiment that he claims detected microbial respiration in the Martian soil. (17)
He claims his team actually recorded four separate positive results, supported by five varied controls, coming from each of the twin Viking spacecraft which landed around 4,000 miles apart. For Levin, finding what was a clear byproduct of life was incontrovertible proof that there must be some sort of microbial life in the soil of Mars.
However, because actual organic matter was not found, NASA dismissed the positive results as being evidence of some sort of inorganic matter that was mimicking life, but was not life. No other explanation was offered for what that might be. In other words, “Don’t worry about it.”
Other Candidates For Life In Our Solar System
Still, it does make sense why NASA would hold off until finding actual life itself before making such an announcement. The profound implications for finding even microbial life on other planets is hard to overstate.
For one it would eliminate most of the answers to the Fermi paradox that are based on the idea that we are special. If our nearest neighbor, who we previously thought was potentially too hostile for life, proves to have microbial life, it would mean that we weren’t that special and that the Universe is likely teeming with life.
So for now, we continue to look for signs of life in our solar system. And it turns out that we actually have some pretty strong candidates.
Europa is the smallest of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, named for Galileo who first discovered them in the early 1600s, and is slightly smaller than our own moon. Ice-covered Europa might not seem like a great candidate for finding life at first glance, but due to an elliptical orbit around Jupiter that causes geothermal activity within the moon itself, there is believed to be an ocean of liquid water beneath the surface of Europa. This along with a thin, oxygen atmosphere gives scientists hope of one day finding signs of life in Europa’s icy depths. (18)
Although Titan is a moon of Saturn, it actually has more in common with the Earth than it does with other moons in our solar system — and, as far as we know, it’s the only other place in the solar system where stable bodies of liquid can be found on the surface. Titan has many other features that would be familiar to us including it has a seasonal climate, weather, and familiar surface features like rivers, dunes, and deltas.
However, that’s where the similarities end. Unlike Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is made of nitrogen, not oxygen. And instead of oceans and rivers of water, Titan’s liquid bodies are made of liquid methane and ethane. That combined with recorded temperatures of -290 degrees fahrenheit, and we have to assume that if life does exist on Titan that it looks very different from life as we know it.
Another moon of Saturn, Enceladus, may also be harboring alien life. Like Europa, Enceladus has an icy crust covering subsurface oceans of liquid salt water. Tectonic activity inside the moon causes cracks and rifts in the surface ice, causing huge geysers that spray out of the moon, the trail of which helps to form one of Saturn’s rings. And in those geysers scientists have been able to detect evidence of organic compounds that make up some of the building blocks of life here on Earth.
Is Interstellar Travel Even Possible?
So while we still don’t have definitive answers about the existence of life on other planets, based on the existing evidence, it appears that our chances of finding life elsewhere in the cosmos is pretty good. Now whether any of that life could potentially be intelligent life is another question entirely.
But let’s assume for a minute that there was intelligent life on a planet in another solar system? Would it even be possible for them to get here?
There are many who believe that, while there very well could be intelligent life on other planets, that the vast distances between solar systems would make it impossible for any species to visit even their nearest neighbors. And this isn’t an insignificant problem to overcome.
Let’s take our closest star Alpha Centauri, and imagine that there is an Earth-like planet around it that we’d like to visit. It takes light from Alpha Centauri about 4.3 years to reach the Earth. Obviously, we’d need to travel much slower than the speed of light, so how might we get there and how long would it take?
Well to start with, rocket fuel — which we’ve traditionally used for space travel — is completely out. The fastest manned vehicle ever was the Apollo 10 rocket which reached a blistering speed of 25,000 mph. However, at that speed it would take 120,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. Obviously, that’s not ideal.
To get to Alpha Centauri in one human lifetime, we’d need to be able to travel at one-tenth the speed of light. But to travel that fast with rocket fuel, we’d need a fuel tank that is the size of the known Universe. That’s definitely not going to work.
What we need is a much more efficient fuel than rocket fuel. So what else could we use to achieve interstellar travel?
We could use fusion. Or put more directly, we could basically blow up a bunch of nuclear bombs behind us and ride that wave to another solar system.
Specifically, we’d need about 300,000 one megaton hydrogen bombs that we’d set off behind us, one at a time, at regular intervals for a month straight. That would be enough to get us to one-tenth the speed of light, and to Alpha Centuri in about 44 years.
However, it’s not just enough to arrive at Alpha Centauri, we actually need to be able to stop — and stopping in space is not easy. In order to stop using this method, we’d need just as much energy to slow down as we would need to get up to our cruising speed, which means that we’d need to double the amount of time that it would take to get there.
So in this scenario it will actually take us about 90 years to get to Alpha Centuri, so we’d probably need to take 3 human generations on that trip to ensure they had enough people to man the ship for their entire journey. Suddenly this is getting pretty complicated.
So are there ways we could go faster? After all, although nuclear fusion is significantly more efficient as a source of energy than rocket fuel, it’s still not very efficient. Fusion only turns about 1% of its rest mass into energy.
If we wanted something that would turn close to 100% of its rest mass into energy, we could use a theoretical device called an antimatter drive.
Now, I’m not even going to attempt to explain what antimatter is. The top minds in science are still working on figuring that one out. Just know that antimatter is like the weird Wario version of matter — it’s matter’s exact opposite. So if you have one electron of matter, you could also have another particle that is identical to this electron, except with an opposite charge, called a positron. And if an electron and a positron collide they completely annihilate each other, releasing 100% of their energy.
So perhaps antimatter drives could one day be the answer to unlocking interstellar travel for humanity. But for now, it costs $100B to make even one milligram of antimatter, making it far too expensive to be a possibility until we find a way to create it at scale.
There’s another hypothetical device we could potentially use to travel the cosmos called a light sail. A light sail would essentially allow us to harness light in much the same way that a sail harnesses wind — which would have the added benefit of meaning that we wouldn’t have to weigh ourselves down carrying a bunch of fuel.
So how does it work?
Let’s say that you have a kilometer wide sail that is coated in a reflective and heat resistant substance like sapphire. If you blasted it with a giant laser with the power equivalent of 100 nuclear plants, the sail would catch that light like wind and could conceivably get us up to one-tenth the speed of light. Hypothetically, we’d only be limited by the size of our sale and power of our laser.
However, the scale of such a project would be truly mind-boggling considering that the laser would be so big that we’d likely have to build it on the moon or we wouldn’t be able to get it up into space. And it would have to be powered by massive reactors, which add plenty of complications of their own.
Black Hole Drive
Another hypothetical device we could use would be a black hole drive, which would literally involve creating a tiny black hole and harnessing its power. In this case, the black hole would be created with light and not mass. If you had a sufficient density of light concentrated into a small enough area — we’re talking the equivalent of 600 billion kilograms, or two Empire State buildings down to the size of a single proton — it could bend the fabric of spacetime enough to create a singularity, and therefore a black hole.
This black hole would radiate Hawking radiation, and the smaller the black hole, the more it would radiate, and hypothetically, we could use that energy to travel the Milky Way.
One of the top candidates for interstellar travel doesn’t concern itself with next-level propulsion systems at all, because with this method, hypothetically anywhere in the Universe would effectively be right next door — because we’d be traveling through a wormhole.
I won’t even attempt to get into the physics of wormholes right now, but all you really need to know is that wormholes are basically tunnels between two black holes that connect two different places in spacetime. Obviously this would be ideal because we wouldn’t have to deal with figuring out a way to travel across mind-bending distances — but there are a few issues with this method.
The first is that technically, we don’t even know for sure that wormholes exist. It should be possible, but until we actually manage to find one or make one, it’s all just speculative. And the second is that, even if they do exist, we don’t know if it would be possible of human — or anything else, for that matter — to travel through one. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d volunteer to be the first one to try it out. (19)
So Is It Possible?
So going back to the question of whether or not interstellar travel is possible, the answer is a hard maybe. We can’t do it now with our current technology, but we’re at least tantalizingly close enough to be able to speculate about potential methods. And it seems likely that we’ll eventually be able to make it happen — though whether that will be in 100 year or 1000 years or 10,000 years is hard to say.
But certainly, if we think about an advanced civilization, especially a Type 2 or a Type 3, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that a species that had achieved that level of technological advancement would be able to crack interstellar travel. So who’s to say that they couldn’t come here — or that they haven’t already?
And What About Alien Abductions?
There’s another pretty major piece of evidence that I, frankly, don’t totally know what to do with — and that’s reported cases of alien abductions.
It’s one thing to talk about the likelihood of the existence of intelligent life in the abstract, or even to have more “nuts and bolts” conversations about the craft themselves. But as soon as you start talking about actual human encounters with a non-human intelligence, things get even more complicated.
One major complicating factor is that alien abduction is usually an individual experience. Even when multiple people claim to have been abducted at the same time, their experiences often differ in ways that range from minor to significant.
This also happens a lot with UFO sightings. For instance, take the Phoenix Lights incident, which was witnessed by hundreds of people over 3 hours and over 300 miles from the Nevada line down through Tucson. When you have that many people reporting this sighting independent of each and at the same time, it’s hard to deny that they saw something.
But even among those witnesses there is a lot of variability in terms of what they saw. Some people saw 4 lights. Some saw five or six. Some people said the lights were white, while others said that they were orange or red. And while many people agree that the lights were part of one solid, v-shaped or triangular craft, others report seeing the lights moving around independently of each other. (20)
This is pretty typical of reports related to the UFO phenomenon. There’s an infuriating variability and lack of consistency not just between different sightings, but even within each of the individual sightings themselves. And these inconsistencies become even harder to parse when you’re talking about incidents that involve just one or a handful of people, as is typically the case with abduction reports.
Could Alien Abductions Actually Be Sleep Paralysis?
Further complicating the issue is that many of the hallmarks of alien abduction reports sound remarkably similar to a relatively common phenomenon that nearly half of all people experience at some point in their lives — sleep paralysis.
When you enter REM sleep, a combination of neurotransmitters in your brain switches off motoneuron activity effectively paralyzing you, which keeps you from harming yourself or others as you dream. When this mechanism in the brain doesn’t work correctly, people can end up sleepwalking, which can be dangerous. In extreme cases, sleepwalkers have been reported to do things like jump out of 5th floor windows, walk into traffic, or even commit murders.
In many ways, sleep paralysis is the opposite of sleepwalking. During normal sleep, the paralysis of REM sleep is basically switched off before you wake up. But when this doesn’t happen correctly, a person can wake up in a state somewhere between sleeping and waking up and find themselves still unable to move.
When this happens the amygdala — the part of your brain that deals with identifying threats freaks out and triggers a “fight or flight” response that causes feelings of extreme fear in the sleeper. And in this state of semi-wakefulness, people can still have dream-like hallucinations, which often take on terrifying forms because of the terror that the person is already experiencing. (21)
And while these hallucinations can vary wildly, there are a lot of similarities between common descriptions of sleep paralysis and reports of alien abduction. People often report awakening to find a malevolent intruder standing over them, feelings of extreme fear, feelings of being pulled or dragged out of their bed, and even experiences that sound very similar to the grotesque and often weirdly sexual experiments and procedures that people report enduring during an alien abduction.
So many people believe that alien abductions are just misidentified cases of sleep paralysis. And there’s other evidence that this could be the case beyond just the similarities of the experiences themselves. A significant number of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens say that they have had this experience multiple times throughout their life. And these experiences often seem to run in families where multiple family members over multiple generations claim to have experienced abduction.
Sleep paralysis more or less follows this same pattern, with around 40% of people experiencing sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime and a much smaller percentage of people — about 6% — experiencing multiple episodes of sleep paralysis over long periods of time. And there is even evidence now that sleep paralysis likely has a genetic component suggesting that it could run in families, just like abduction experiences. (22)
However, one glaring problem with this theory is that not all alien abductees claim to have been taken at night while they were sleeping. So while sleep paralysis could offer a solid explanation for many alien abduction cases, it can’t explain all of them. So what else could be going on here?
Abduction Blueprint: Betty and Barney Hill
Let’s look at the example of what is largely considered to be the first reported case of alien abduction, the Betty and Barney Hill Incident.
In September 1961, married couple Betty and Barney Hill were driving down a dark and winding country road in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. They hadn’t seen another car for miles, but the couple started to notice a bright light in the sky that seemed to be following them. (23)
The next thing they remembered was arriving home in Portsmouth at dawn. They were dirty, their watches had stopped, Betty’s dress was torn, and there was 2 hours of the drive that neither of them could remember.
The Hill’s sought the help of a psychiatrist to help them understand this terrifying and unsettling incident, and under hypnosis, they claimed to have recovered memories of being abducted by gray beings with large black eyes who took them into a metallic, disc-shaped craft that Betty said was roughly the size of their house. On the ship they were subjected to an examination before their memories were erased and they were returned home.
In many ways, this story has become the blueprint for alien abduction. Despite the stunning variety of differences between abduction stories, there are certain elements of the Hill’s story that pop up again and again — a bright light in the sky, a metallic and often disc-shaped craft, gray beings with large black eyes, failure of clocks and other machinery and electronics, missing chunks of time, and being the subject of examinations and experiments.
And also like with the Betty and Barney Hill incident, many abductees are only able to initially access memories of these incidents through hypnosis — which complicates things.
Could Alien Abductions Be Implanted False Memories?
There is a lot of controversy around the use of hypnosis to recover lost or repressed memories. Many psychologists even question whether it’s even actually possible to banish memories to your unconscious mind and only become aware of them under hypnosis. Because memories are entirely subjective — and there’s no way to know definitively what another person remembers or does not remember at any given time — the scientific evidence for this phenomenon is dubious, at best. (24)
And even if the skeptics are wrong and it is possible to entirely forget a traumatic event and then recover it under hypnosis, there is the added layer of complication that comes from the fact that there is considerable evidence that it’s possible to implant false memories into a person’s mind through hypnosis.
For example, in 2011, a woman named Lisa Nasseff of St. Paul Minnesota sued her former therapist, Mark Schwartz, and Castlewood Treatment Center saying that he had falsely implanted memories during hypnosis that made her believe that she had been part of a satanic cult while receiving treatment for anorexia.
Nasseff claimed that she had experienced extreme anguish and was isolated from her family and friends because Schwartz had made her believe that her family and friends were members of this satanic cult who had subjected her to ritualistic abuse including forcing her to eat babies. (25)
It wasn’t until she left the facility and began to connect with multiple other patients who also believed that they also had recovered memories of being abused by a satanic cult that Lisa began to question these recovered memories. After all, what are the chances that multiple people in this one small facility had this exact same experience?
This questioning eventually led to the lawsuit by Nasseff, along with lawsuits by three other unnamed women — including one who had come home from the treatment center with memories of horrific sexual absue by a neighbor that her family says logisiticallly could not have occurred. Dr. Schwartz and Castlewood Treatment Center denied these claims. All 4 lawsuits were settled out of court two years later in 2013. (26)
Many cases similar to this one have occured over the past several decades, including the infamous Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s. Many of these cases have been debunked, and even more have been called into serious question due to a lack of evidence to support the validity of the memories people have claimed to have recovered. So it seems likely that at least in some of the cases where people recover lost memories that there is something deeper going on.
Could this be the case with Betty and Barney Hill and other people who claim to have experienced alien abduction? Could their memories have been intentionally fabricated, or even implanted into their minds, during hypnosis? It’s hard to say, but it is certainly possible.
And that’s what makes it so difficult to come to any clear conclusion on the alien abduction phenomenon and what it really represents. It’s a highly subjective and messy business to try to come up with an answer that satisfies all the twists and turns of this bizarre phenomenon, and likely there is no simple answer.
Would Aliens Be Anthropomorphic?
However there is one aspect of the alien abduction phenomenon that is especially compelling and also deeply relevant to the alien question and it’s worth taking a moment to explore. And that is the fact that in the vast majority of alleged alien abductions cases, the aliens that abductees report seeing are all similar in one very eerie and seemingly impossible way. They look like us.
Many abductees claim to have encountered gray, big-eyed beings similar to those reported by Betty and Barney Hill, often referred to as “the Grays”. Some abductees report seeing tall grays. Other see short grays that are only about three feet tall. Some see reptilian beings, while others see tall, blonde human-looking beings. But in the vast majority of cases, these various alien species, despite their differing appearances, are still distinctly and undeniably humanoid. (27)
By-and-large, they have two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth. They have two arms and two legs. They walk upright. Their entire body has the basic schema of a human body.
And for many people, that right there is evidence that the alien abduction phenomena must be the product of sleep paralysis, false memories, or even a hoax — basically anything except for actual exterrestrials. Because, when you think about it, what are the actual chances that beings from another planet would look so much like us?
If evolution happens as the result of a mind-bending number of random mutations over time and then those genes are selected based on their ability to help a particular species better thrive in a particular environment, how likely is it that beings that look so similar to humans would evolve on a completely different planet?
Just think of how different a human is from animals that have evolved to live in the extreme conditions of the Mariana Trench. And yet if you go back far enough, we have a common ancestor. How different might a species look that evolved on a planet with different gravity, chemical makeup, atmosphere, temperature, etc.? It feels logical to assume that if there are extraterrestrial beings out there, they would almost certainly look vastly different than anything that we’ve ever seen before. (28)
And yet, surprisingly, many scientists are beginning to come around to the idea that aliens might actually look more like us than we might think.
Evolution May Be Less Random Than We Think
According to Charles Cockell, professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, extraterrestrial life might look “eerily similar to the life we see on Earth.” In Cockell’s book, The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution, he suggests that a “universal biology” may exist and that lifeforms on Earth could provide us with a basic blueprint for the kinds of life we are likely to find elsewhere in the universe. (29)
His basic premise is that, although the genetic mutations that fuel evolution are random, the particular mutations that are selected for through natural selection are not. These mutations are still subject to the law of physics and also are restricted by the conditions and materials necessary for life to thrive. And according to Cockell, these factors narrow the scope of evolution to a degree that it’s likely that life would evolve in similar ways on another planet.
We can see examples of how this might work right here on Earth. Animals that live in cold environments usually have thick fur. Animals that live in the ocean are typically hairless and have long, sleek bodies perfect for swimming in water. It’s obvious just by looking at the different species on Earth that certain environments and conditions tend to produce certain body types and characteristics.
And despite these many differences, there are certain distinct similarities that the vast majority of life on Earth seems to share such as bilateral symmetry. Bilateral symmetry basically means that you can draw a line down the center of an organism and it is the same on both sides. Bilateral symmetry is great for things like being able to walk or swim in a straight line and accurate depth perception.
When you try to imagine an animal that has any kind of significant asymmetry and how it might operate, it’s easy to see how bilateral symmetry could very possibly be necessary to the evolution of complex and intelligent lifeforms. So evolution really might not be as random as we think.
More evidence to support this idea comes in the form of a concept called convergent evolution. Convergent evolution describes organisms that evolve similar features entirely independently from one another.
For example, sharks and dolphins look very similar, despite sharks being a egg-laying fish and dolphins being a mammal — and their last common ancestor swam the seas 290 million years ago. That’s 60 million years before the earliest dinosaurs first appeared on Earth. (30)(31)
Even more surprisingly, flight appears to have evolved separately and at four different times in history: in insects, bats, birds and pterosaurs. The mechanism of how these animals fly is virtually identical. (32)
Stranger still, both octopuses and humans separately evolved camera-like eyes with an iris, a lens and a retina — a very exact and complex set of structures, all of which are essential parts of an imaging device. And this happened despite our last common ancestor existing 750 million years ago.
All of this is to say that, although it might be counterintuitive to think that extraterrestrials could have similar features and body structures to humans as is reported by most alleged abductees, the more we learn about how evolution actually works, the more likely it seems that these beings could look very much like us.
So Are You Telling Me It’s Aliens?
So, I’ve thrown a ton of information at you, and yet it probably feels like we’re no closer to an answer when it comes to the question of whether or not UFOs could be extraterrestrial technology than we were when we started. And that’s OK. If we’re going to continue down this rabbit hole, we need to get cozy with ambiguity and uncertainty, because there are no straight forward answers here.
We can say that it’s probable that alien lifeforms exist, and that a certain percentage of that life — though we don’t know how large or vanishingly small that percentage might be — has likely evolved to a level of intelligence that would make space travel possible. We can say that interstellar space travel is theoretically possible, and that it seems likely that a more advanced civilization than ourselves could undertake such an enterprise. And while we can’t say with certainty that humans have yet encountered any of these beings, the reports that we do have of such alleged encounters are more or less in line with what scientists would expect these beings to look like.
But is it aliens? That’s hard to say.
There’s this idea in math called a transitive property that basically says that if a=b and b=c then a=c. So, for example, cats are mammals. Mammals are warmblooded. Therefore, cats are warmblooded. And this feels like a situation where you could say that if UFOs are real and if UFOs are alien technology then aliens must be real.
But that logical leap only works if UFOs are alien technology — and we’re not at a place where we can assume that. In fact, as we’ll discuss in our next episode, although we tend to equate UFOs with extraterrestrials, there are several other possibilities that could potentially explain the UFO phenomenon.
Something Strange Is Going On
And, if you listen closely to what former AATIP Director, Lue Elizondo — and others in the disclosure movement with access to privileged information — are actually saying, you may begin to wonder if what we’re dealing with is really is of extraterrestrial origin.
Listen to Lue Elizondo’s response to a question on the Fade To Black podcast when host Jimmy Church asked a question about the origins of the infamous Tic Tac video from the Nimitz incident.
Crazy right? And then there was a puzzling and intriguing answer that he gave on That UFO Podcast when he was asked about a previous statement he had made where he said basically, “What if it’s not “mankind” but “mankinds”? Listen —
So that’s where we will pick up next time, with the idea that the extraterrestrial hypothesis for the origin of UFOs, is one of the less bizarre and exotic explanations — and that what we are dealing with here might lead us to answers that shatter our paradigms in ways that could make us wish for something as simple and clear-cut as an alien invasion.
Until next time.
- Why Haven’t We Found Aliens Yet? | Vox
- Fermi Paradox: Where Are the Aliens? | Space
- The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization | Futurism
- What Is A Dyson Sphere | Space
- Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy | Notre Dame Philosophical Review
- 36 Alien Civilizations In The Milky Way? | Forbes
- A National Pragmatic Safety Limit for Nuclear Weapon Quantities | MDPI
- Principal Of Mediocrity | Brittanica
- Michio Kaku – Impossible Science | Daily Grail
- Until Recently, People Accepted the ‘Fact’ of Aliens in the Solar System | Scientific American
- Most Americans Believe In intelligent Life Beyond Earth | Pew Research Center
- What Are The Most Earth-Like Worlds We’ve Found? | Planetary Society
- As Many As Six Billion Earth-Like Planets In Our Galaxy, According To New Estimates | Science Daily
- Living At The Extremes: Extremophiles And The Limits Of Life In A Planetary Context | Frontiers In Microbiology
- How Extremophile Bacteria Living In Nuclear Reactors Might Help Us Make Vaccines | Forbes
- Some Of Earth’s Tiniest Living Things Could Survive On Mars | Popular Science
- Nasa Found Life On Mars Over 40 Years Ago But Ignored It, Former Scientist Claims | Evening Standard
- These Are The Most Likely Places To Harbor Alien Life In Our Solar System | Forbes
- If Wormholes Exist, Could We Really Travel Through Them? | Discover
- Phoenix Lights | Wikipedia
- Awake In A Nightmare | The Atlantic
- A Twin And Molecular Genetics Study Of Sleep Paralysis | US National Library Of Medicine
- How Betty And Barney Hill’s Alien Abduction Story Defined The Genre | History
- Implanting False Memories | Psychology Today
- Therapist ‘Brainwashed’ Woman Into Believing She Was In Satanic Cult, Attorney Says | ABC News
- Castlewood Eating Disorder Lawsuit To Be Dismissed | St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- List Of Alleged Extraterrestrial Species | Wikipedia
- 10 Strange Animals In The Mariana Trench | Ocean Info
- Extraterrestrials Might Look Like Us, Says Astrobiologist | Forbes
- What Is Convergent Evolution | Life Science
- A Brief History of Dinosaurs | Life Science
- The Evolution Of Flight | Science World