NASA held a hearing the other day.
The topic was UFOs — or, in agency parlance, unidentified anomalous phenomena and its far less delectable acronym UAP.
The meeting was NASA’s first since it launched a study last year into unexplained sightings. Some of the 16 experts on the panel have experienced online abuse, apparently for daring to provide rational explanations. One Pentagon official at the hearing said that only 2 to 5% of the 800-plus cases being examined by the Defense Department remain unexplained.
Well, OK, but math tells you that there are some 16 to 40 cases that cannot be filed away as drones, weather balloons, blowing trash, optical illusions or, in one memorable anecdote from former astronaut Scott Kelly, a UFO that on literal second glance turned out to be a Bart Simpson balloon. The message in that case: Don’t have a cow, man.
One panel member went so far as to say that “there is no conclusive evidence” that any of these UAPs had an extraterrestrial origin.
But these explanations and rationalizations miss the point. They debunk specific sightings, to be sure, but isn’t it possible — if not entirely likely — that any species advanced enough to reach our orbit from whatever distant land it calls home would also be advanced enough to disguise its presence from us?
Let’s consider probability.
The observable universe is generally considered to be about 93 billion light-years in diameter. That’s big. It’s the distance light would travel in 93 billion years at 186,000 miles per second. That’s just the observable universe.
And general estimates say that the observable universe contains between 100 and 200 billion galaxies — though some astronomers put the total at 2 trillion. It also is generally understood that our own Milky Way galaxy has at least 100 billion planets.
Using the conservative numbers, that’s 100 billion planets times 100 billion galaxies, which equals 1 quintillion planets in all. At least. That’s a 1 followed by 18 zeros. So why on earth would we think we are alone in that immensity, no matter what we’ve seen or not seen in our skies?
If any of those sightings turn out to be explicable as craft operated by species unknown to us, consider how smart they must be to have gotten here, how much more advanced they are in energy and physics and engineering and math and computer science and communications and a host of other fields and disciplines needed to achieve such a feat.
And then they find us. What would they think?
We’d be at least a curiosity, I hope. Worth a little study, perhaps a mention in a communiqué back home. But I’m fairly certain that if they have gotten here, they have taken a look and realized they don’t have to bother much with us. Because it must look to them like the biggest threat we pose is the threat to ourselves.
What does it say about us that virtually all of the major menaces to humanity are human-made? Or, at least, human-exacerbated. Nuclear war, climate change, pandemics and, now, the darker side of artificial intelligence. We engage in real war and culture war. We drive people out of some places and refuse to let them into others.
Our human conceit is that our species is constantly striving to get better, though lately we disagree even about that. But the desire to improve is articulated in the opening words of our national Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . ”
Not perfect, mind you, but more perfect, acknowledging that it’s a journey, one with no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome.
Perhaps the UFOs we think we’ve seen — and the ones we’ve surely missed — know where we really are on that arc and what awaits.
I wish they’d tell us.
COLUMNIST MICHAEL DOBIE’S opinions are his own.