Horatio upon seeing the ghost of his father: "O day and night, but this is wonderous strange." Hamlet: "Therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
(Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)
If someone wanted to ruin his career, taking UFOs seriously has been a good way to do it. In polite circles, the idea that nonhuman species are visiting Earth from distant civilizations has ranked high on the kook scale. Now that might be changing.
Speculation about extraterrestrial presences has been around a very long time, from theories about crop circles to speculations that advanced civilizations have intervened in human affairs occasionally to help us avert crises or boost our intelligence. What's new is that straight-laced military officials in the United States have just added a hint of credibility to encounters with UFOs.
At the request of the United States Congress, the Pentagon1 has issued the results of an investigation into UFO encounters with military aircraft. It turns out that military leaders have started taking these encounters seriously because highly trained and disciplined fighter pilots are not known for flights of fancy.
Thousands of UFO sightings are reported around the world every year. They became more frequent in the United States in the 1940s after it detonated the first atomic bomb. The U.S. military began investigating in 1947, but suspended the program in 1969 after looking into more than 12,600 sightings. Its investigators left about 700 incidents they could not explain.
Then, in December 2017, the venerable New York Times published a front-page story that the Pentagon was still conducting a secret program to investigate its pilots' encounters with airborne objects that displayed unearthly speed and maneuverability. The popular television news program 60 Minutes recently interviewed two of the pilots and showed their videos. That reignited persistent rumors that the U.S. government knows much more about alien spacecraft than it admits.
The Pentagon was to give Congress the results of its investigations on June 28. According to pre-release leaks to the media, it concluded that neither the military nor the U.S. government was responsible for most of the 120 UFOs pilots observed. Investigators found no proof that these were alien spacecraft, but they did not rule it out. Parts of the report to Congress were to remain classified.
The very long listen
Scientists have been trying for more than a century to find intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. They began searching our solar system for radio transmissions from other planets in the early 1900s. The search eventually expanded to our galaxy, the Milky Way, and became international in the 1980s. Enormous radio telescopes have pointed skyward and listened for a signal from planets among the galaxy's 100 billion to 400 billion stars.
Now, we may want to pay more to what’s happening on our own planet. Thousands of seemingly normal people claim they have experienced physical contact and communications with alien species. It would not be the first time governments have investigated phenomena that challenged our understanding of the world. In this case, the search for persuasive evidence of extraterrestrial life on Earth seems as important as listening for intelligent life many light-years away or deploying our own spacecraft to scoop up evidence of life on Mars.
What are the odds?
According to Gallup, one in three Americans, regardless of their political views, believe UFOs are visiting from other planets or galaxies. A separate survey in 2017 found that half the people in the world believe in alien life and want to make contact.
Prominent scientists agree the odds are pretty good that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. Astronomers confirm there are at least 4,000 "exoplanets" revolving around stars in the Milky Way. They think there may actually be trillions. Some are in "habitable zones" where conditions are right to support intelligent life, as we understand intelligence and life.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in 1997, "There can be little doubt that civilizations more advanced than the earth's exist elsewhere in the universe." Researchers at the University of Nottingham's School of Physics and Astronomy concluded last year that at least 36 intelligent and communicative civilizations likely exist in the Milky Way, and there could be hundreds. Six years ago, NASA's chief scientist at the time, Ellen Stofan, predicted we will discover alien life by 2025.
Their optimism is backed by math. Earth did not form until billions of years after the universe and the Milky Way. Humans emerged 200,000 years ago; our civilization is only about 6,000 years old. So, there were many billions of years for extraterrestrial life to evolve and create advanced civilizations before homo sapiens arrived. If alien beings exist and are capable of interplanetary travel, their intelligence and technologies are obviously much more advanced than ours. If they have visited Earth, they've found a relatively primitive and barbaric civilization.
What would they want?
Shortly before he died in 1996, Carl Sagan told an interviewer that he had been "captured by the notion of extraterrestrial life, and especially extraterrestrial intelligence, from childhood." But as the most important discovery in human history, "the stakes are so high on whether it's true or false that we must demand the more rigorous standards of evidence." Sagan encouraged us to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism until those rigorous standards are met.
However, for the sake of responsible risk assessment and interesting conversation, let's assume that alien species are present on Earth. Why would they be here? In the military, intelligence, and national security communities, the understandable first reaction is that an alien presence threatens the human species. On one hand, other species sufficiently advanced for interstellar travel undoubtedly are able to obliterate humanity with little effort. On the other hand, if that were their intent, they would have done it long ago.
Although governments have investigated contacts with UFOs, it's less clear they have scrutinized the reports of individuals who claim to have had physical contact with alien species. There are many such reports, ranging from alien abductions to aliens that have healed illnesses. Some "contactees" say aliens told them they are here to advance human consciousness because the Earth is important in the cosmic scheme, and we humans are dangerously close to destroying it.
Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out that most movies about extraterrestrials depict them as monsters wanting to obliterate or control us. Tyson believes these are projections of how we humans treat each other. "In our own civilization we know the consequences of a more advanced culture coming upon a less advanced culture; they get enslaved, they get disease-ridden, they get put in camps or they get slaughtered," Tyson said. "So it disturbs me a bit as an astrophysicist to have we humans portray aliens based on how we know we would treat one another rather than on how they might otherwise treat us given our highest and noblest causes...Maybe aliens are beyond us in every way including their capacity to treat one another kindly."
The idea that aliens want to save us from ourselves comports with the increase in UFO sightings after the first detonation of an atomic bomb, the frequency of UFO sightings around naval ships and military installations, and the account of retired Air Force Captain Robert Salas, who commanded an intercontinental ballistic missile installation in Montana. Salas says the installation's nuclear missiles were mysteriously deactivated after witnesses saw a UFO hovering nearby.
Some type of extraterrestrial intervention also comports with the fact that humanity is on a slippery slope to massive species exterminations, nuclear annihilation made more likely by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the catastrophic deterioration of climate conditions that made our planet livable. Imagine human scientists collaborating with vastly more advanced beings to develop limitless clean energy, reverse global warming, disarm nuclear weapons, end hunger and poverty, and heal illnesses ranging from cancer and Covid to the common cold. So far, we humans have proved unwilling or unable to solve those problems ourselves.
Are we already looking?
It would be surprising if security-conscious governments were not already investigating the many reports of physical and mental contacts with extraterrestrials. If they are not, they should, transparently with international involvement.
For example, we could create an Intergovernmental Panel on Extraterrestrial Intelligence modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)2. An IPEI could combine the resources and work of several organizations already involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It could include astronomers, astrophysicists, ethnologists, anthropologists, linguists, social scientists, physicians, psychologists and other experts qualified to evaluate any credible evidence of encounters between humans and aliens.
In the United States, the newest branch of the military, the Space Force, should be renamed the Space Corps to replace the connotation of conflict with that of collaboration. The Corps' mission should be peaceful operations in space as well as protecting America's assets there. Among other things, it could monitor, document and attempt to communicate with further UFO activity.
We can ridicule these reports of close encounters and dismiss them as fantasy, overactive imaginations, psychosis, mass hysteria, too many video games, psychedelics, or "deep state" conspiracies. Or we can do what science does best: Turn speculation into knowledge. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by treating this seriously. In fact, we should hope for the benign presence of extraterrestrial intelligence here. We humans clearly can use all the help we can get.
1 The Pentagon is the name of Defense Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. It is often used as a collective noun for America's military commanders.
2 The IPCC was created by the United Nations in 1988 to foster collaboration among the world's climate scientists.