Russell Crowe filmed a UFO over Sydney’s Botanical Gardens this week. Nobody else saw it, but the video’s on U-tube if you want to check it out. (I know what I said.)
The Botanical Gardens are on the left in this picture I took from Sydney Harbour in 2010. No aliens, though.
Aha! He saw a flying saucer. Or something. My bet is with the ‘or something’. Still, aliens are among us…aren’t they?
A ground view I took of the gardens.
Certainly people see things in the sky they can’t themselves explain. And their description may not have enough detail for science to explain it either. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation – or that the unlikely one must be true.
I actually saw a UFO once. It was over Wellington, New Zealand, one autumn night in 1987. It was parallel to the horizon, a glowing ball of red fire that threw sparks and, as I watched, tumbled and broke up into fragments that died away from sight.Very, very impressive. And even as it went out, I knew what I’d seen. The colour of the fireball, size, behaviour, trajectory on the usual satellite orbital track made it obvious. I’d witnessed a re-entering satellite. Collectors here occasionally pick up the trash NASA and ROSCOSMOS drop on us. Spherical bits of titanium and the like.
Memories of a bygone age. This is “Atlantis” over the South Island, New Zealand – as simulated by me using Celestia (seriously, seriously cool science package).
As for ‘alien spacecraft’ – no. I don’t think anybody’s seen a single one Not one. Nada. Zip.
Why? Well, as I say, funny lights in the sky for which the watcher has no explanation don’t prove a hypothesis. But in any case, space is big. Really, really, mind-blowingly big. If the Earth were the size of a pea, the Sun would be nearly 120 metres away, and the nearest star – Proxima Centauri – would still be 30,000 kilometres distant.
Look out at the night sky. Most of the stars you see with the naked eye are within 200 light years, a trivial distance compared to the scale of the galaxy (let alone the visible universe).
I set Celestia up to look back at the Sun from Beta Pictoris - this is the view. Note that the brightest stars in our own neighbourhood (Sirius A and Vega) are visible. The Sun isn’t. You’d need a telescope. Did I mention Celstia is tres cool? I did, didn’t I.
If you were in space near the super-Jupiter we’ve found orbiting Beta Pictoris, which is about 60 light years away, you couldn’t see our sun with the naked eye. That’s how insignificant we are. Sixty light years – invisible. In a galaxy 100,000 light years across. Quite apart from the scale of the whole universe which is 45,700,000,000 light years across,.
Sure, you might be able to pick up I Love Lucy from Beta Pictoris, along with Cold War microwave radar transmissions and the like. But our radio broadcasts are still a tiny, tiny dot against the galaxy. Here’s a diagram.
We’ve also made a concerted effort to find another civilisation that might be broadcasting. Nothing. Alien civilisations are probably out there. The problem is finding them – and vice versa. And then communicating. By the time we get a signal from Zog the Tentacle Monster, 5000 light years away (5 percent the size of the galaxy), Zog’s whole civilisation might have died. And that’s without considering the 5000 years it would take our reply to get back. Space, as I say, is big.
There’s another dimension to it, too – time. Earth has been around about a third of the life of the universe. We’ve had complex life for 600 million years, and modern humans have been around for about 200,000. Civilisation has been around less than 10,000 years, and at the rate we’re consuming resources, I doubt it’ll be around another 10,000. The chances of another civilisation popping up within range, just when ours appears, is even more remote.
But my real problem with the ’UFOs are aliens’ idea is that the conception is utterly human-centric - and culture-specific to the west. Aliens who look like us with big heads, small bodies and big eyes, who travel like we do, who have the answers to specific human (western) moral problems, and whose existence is hidden by The Authorities (playing into western pop-culture fantasies of large-scale public deception)? Come on! This isn’t reality – it’s very, very bad science fiction.
Our inner solar system vs the Kepler 22b system. NASA/JPL, public domain.
The science is clear. As J B S Haldane pointed out, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine. It’s stranger than we can imagine. I’m in no doubt we’ll find an Earthlike world. But who says it will have life? Or life we recognise? It might be algae. That’s what life was here for most of Earth’s existence. Would we recognise them as intelligent? Would they recognise us? Who says intelligence might develop at all? Or be restricted to just one species per planet? Or that ‘they’ travel in things that look like our concept of a vehicle? Indeed, is civilisation even automatic?
The answer to all these questions is that we have a sample of one, us, which isn’t enough to generalise - and for the rest, ‘we don’t know’. However, the fact that ‘we don’t know’ doesn’t make every crackpot theory automatically right.
Besides, were aliens to turn up here, we would know. It would be impossible to hide. And it would be the greatest irony, given all our conceits, fantasies and arrogance, if they didn’t bother with us.
What do you think? And do you figure that writers could – and should – invent a better sort of alien contact story?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up next week: More writing tips, inspirations, and other fun stuff.