Neil deGrasse Tyson is America’s most famous astrophysicist and host of the modern remake of the science show “Cosmos.” So it is hardly surprising that he has something to say on the subject of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and little green men.
Last year, Tyson made headlines by joking, I think, to Business Insider, “People ask, ‘If life is teeming across the galaxy, where are they? How come they’re not just walkin’ into the White House or visiting us in Times Square?’ I have some unorthodox thoughts on that matter.”
Here’s the joke part of his answer: “I wonder, first, maybe they have visited us in Times Square but no one noticed, because everybody who kinda hangs out in Times Square is just a little crazy. And then I worried, suppose the aliens visited during Comic-Con and they would land at Comic-Con and everyone is dressed as aliens and nobody notices.”
And here’s the bit where he makes a half of a serious point: “A more serious concern I have is, by the way, our hubris forces us to think of ourselves as intelligent. We have a certain intelligence gap between us and other creatures on Earth. You don’t walk by the worm on the street and say, ‘Gee, I wonder what he’s thinking. I’ll somehow have deep insights.’ No, you step on the worm! This is what we do as humans.
“So I wonder if, in fact, we have been observed by aliens and upon close examination of human conduct and human behavior they have concluded that there is no sign of intelligent life on Earth.”
Other Scientists Agree with Tyson
Like the late science popularizer and previous “Cosmos” host Carl Sagan, Tyson really wants intelligent life to exist on other planets. He is honest enough to admit we have not found any convincing evidence for this yet. At the same time, Tyson is highly creative at coming up with reasons why ET has not phoned us.
Tyson is broadly representative of scientists who spend time thinking about the heavens. They tend to have great secular faith that life really is out there. At a recent NASA conference, CNN reported that Charles Bolden said he spoke for many who found it “highly improbable in the limitless vastness of the universe that we humans stand alone.”
MIT planetary professor Sara Seager elaborated: “We believe we’re very, very close in terms of technology and science to actually finding the other Earth and our chance to find signs of life on another world.” Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who helped repair the planet-hunting Hubble telescope, chimed in, “Finding Earth’s twin, that’s kind of the Holy Grail.” Kevin Hand, a scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, boldly predicted, “in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe.”
But what if they’re wrong?
Science is like oil drilling in that it sometimes hits dry holes or the reservoirs of insight run out. Plenty of promising theories prove dead wrong. Others prove to be of limited utility, given later information. Newtonian physics was useful for its time, but then along came Einstein.
The Great, Empty UFO Search
With the backing of governments and other organizations, scientists have poured untold billions of dollars into searching for intelligent life out there somewhere. SETI scans cosmic noise for tunes. Yet, all it has produced is a useful plotline for B-grade sci-fi movies.
Astronomers are building ever more powerful and expensive telescopes to peer deeper into space. Hawaii will soon host the Thirty Meter Telescope. The University of California-Los Angeles reports the cost on that particular piece of hardware, even before construction has begun, is already $141 million. NASA is set to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit by 2018, at a projected cost of $8.8 billion.
This is not money flushed down some theoretical wormhole. We have made basic astrophysical discoveries, from the afterglow of the Big Bang to the shape of our universe. Yet, there isn’t as much as a pip or a squeak suggesting the existence of intelligent life.
But worry not, top scientists reassure us. Such a discovery is just around the corner. NBC’s Keith Wagstaff put Hand’s “20 years” prediction in context by noting that astronomer Andrei Finkelstein “gave the same time-frame three years ago,” and Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the SETI Institute, “has said we will discover a signal from intelligent life by 2025, only 11 years from now.” But if 11, 20, or 30 years from now, we still have not detected, seen, heard, smelled, or received any other indication that intelligent life exists, what then?
Likely, future Tysons and Sagans will repeat variations of the same theme: Space is incomprehensibly vast, and we can observe so very little of it. With enough time and investment, we will find intelligent life if it is out there. If we only keep the faith and pony up for the latest scientific kit, it will pay off eventually.
But that is only true if there is advanced life out there. With billions of exoplanets in the sky, surely a few of them host an advanced civilization, right?
For Some, UFOs Explain How Life Exists
The short, Facebook-friendly answer is “it’s complicated.” Water is probably a necessary condition for life to arise, but not a sufficient one. The late Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle was an atheist who was nevertheless perplexed by the existence of any life at all, and higher life forms truly baffled him. In a statement often parroted by creationists, Hoyle said that the “chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”
Hoyle’s statement was not applicable to that great chain of being, the evolution of life from simple organisms to more complex, word-processing ones. Yet on the existence of life itself, it is absolutely on target. Given his ironclad commitment to materialism, the Cambridge astronomer had to come up with an alternate explanation: panspermia. That is a very British-sounding word for the theory that life was seeded here from (wait for it) outer space!
Of course, this does not solve the problem of life’s origins but merely pushes it back to another, highly theoretical planet.
Though the lack of observable intelligent life elsewhere seems to challenge the secular faith of many scientists that we simply cannot be alone in the universe, aliens would not trouble most people of religious faith. C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, to name two popular Christian novelists, wrote works that imagined life on other planets. And there is even a passage in the Hebrew Bible about a “wheel-within-a-wheel” that some folks have interpreted (I think wrongly) as a UFO.
The encounter has its own song, which used to be taught in Sunday School. The refrain goes something like this: “Ezekiel saw a wheel / WAY UP in the MIDDLE OF THE AIR / Ezekiel saw a wheel / way up / in the middle / of the air!”