Do you believe in Russell Crowe’s UFO – or any UFO?

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.
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?

Uh. No.

A ground view I took of the gardens - note the birds on the lawn.
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).
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 - this is the view. Note that the brightest star in our own neighbourhood (Sirius A) is visible. The Sun isn't. You'd need a telescope.
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.
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.


23 thoughts on “Do you believe in Russell Crowe’s UFO – or any UFO?

  1. Seems like Crowe’s UFO was a boat crossing the path of the long exposure camera he had. I no longer believe in UFO’s of the alien variety, although, there is every possibility that we could be visited. Distance has no bearing on the logistics. For a far superior intellect it may well be possible to travel through other dimensions or even through time. We could have a comparable intellect of a single celled organism to some other civilisation that started it’s life journey a billion years before us. 🙂

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    1. If you look at some of the imbecile behaviours of humanity around the world, it’s arguable that amoeba, already, have a better intellect than we do. 🙂

      It’s certainly possible that a civilisation that has discovered the last secrets of the universe could travel where and when they wanted. Robert Heinlein portrayed one in ‘Have Spacesuit – Will Travel’, which was pretty cool. I still think the problem relative to anybody coming here is our discoverability. Humanity flatters itself to think we might be important – it’s kind of like the problem of you or I trying to get our blogs read and our books marketed via the blog-0-sphere, only multiplied a trillionfold (a British trillion, at that)… :-).

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      1. Yes, considering how many intelligent life forms there must be it’s more likely we are visited by automatons – just for a look-see. 🙂

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  2. Aw, Matthew, really? No LGMs? How depressing!

    Contrarily, your analysis seems cogent and logical. My only caveat would be that it depends upon speed-of-light as a limit on travel. OK, I realize this identifies me as a Trekkie and whatnot, and yes, I’ve studied the equations too, but in my heart of hearts I can’t make myself agree.

    It’s not that I believe in UFOs so much; it’s just that I believe in the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701 et seq.) Or the equivalent.

    As for UFOs, have you ever read the work of Jacques Vallee? He has some extremely interesting ideas on the subject. Spoiler alert: M. Vallee does not conclude that “UFOs” are extraterrestrial.

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    1. Hi – good to hear from you! I am definitely a fan of Trek -TOS and the movies derived from it – really good stuff. I am not so enthused with some of the later ‘Trek’ concepts, largely because to my mind it got a bit tired. The large-scale tech they envisaged was wonderful – and boy, do I wish it could happen! Inevitably it was Heinlein who envisaged anomalous gravity (and what happens when it’s shut off- compare the space burial scene in ‘Starman Jones’ with one of the earlier Trek movies where the grav was shut down). There is a theoretical possibility that an ‘Alcubierre’ drive might work.

      My take is that we haven’t yet reconciled the fundamental dissonance between Einsteinian physics and quantum physics. If we do, we might discover it’s possible to travel anywhere in time, space and relative dimensions. Ideally. We can but hope!

      I haven’t read Valee – will look out for him.

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      1. Stealth Doctor Who reference tagged and released.

        People don’t pay enough attention to the “U” in “UFO” do they. My feeling is, we’ve still got interesting things to learn about ball lightning, for one thing.

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  3. As far as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” goes, though, I think one might argue that position as having more to do with the psychology of scientists than with science itself. What, exactly — or more accurately, who — decides a claim is extraordinary? Are there agreed-upon criteria? Or simply a collection of (forgive me) unexamined prejudices that “everyone knows” to be true? One might cite the historical example of the French Academy laughing at ignorant peasants who believed that stones actually fell from the sky, q’uelle idee! Similarly, the phrase “extraordinary evidence” begs the question of how much is enough? Science is properly founded on skepticism; “prove it” is a fundamental requirement, and “proving it” isn’t as easy as it might be in, say, mathematics. Rightly so! Nonetheless I would argue that “extraordinary evidence” verges upon a philosophically unscientific position: the idea that for some propositions more proof than the strictly adequate and necessary is required. Again, why? Who gets to decide, and based on what criteria?

    My favorite thing about the UFO debate is less whether UFOs exist as to what it might reveal to us about our own belief systems, and the wonderful opportunity thus afforded to examine them. I think this may be what J. Allen Hynek meant when he wrote that so-called UFOlogy wasn’t so much about studying UFOs as it was about studying UFO reports and the people who made them.

    And yeah…Have Space Suit Will Travel was one of my favorites growing up!

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    1. I agree. The debate tells us an awful lot about ourselves. As I said in the post, my main problem is that our vision of ‘aliens’ is wholly humano-centric, even western culture-centric. Whereas if or when we do encounter them, the key thing is that they will be – well, alien. Like nothing we’ve imagined. Or perhaps can imagine. I draw parallel with our visions of Mars, which even in the early-mid twentieth century largely revolved around a kind of ‘planetary Arabia’, often with Martians (single intelligent species every time, often humanoid). Nobody envisaged what Mars was really like until the first space probes arrived there in the late 1960s, and what we actually find is utterly different from what anybody envisaged, certainly popularly.

      Similarly, my guess is that our visions of aliens – currently informed by our visions of ourselves – would have to go through various metamorphoses once informed by proper data about real aliens (if we ever find any). Certainly the aliens will be different from what we imagine – and, equally, I think we probably won’t fully predict the actual social outcome on us of the discovery.

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  4. The Fermi Paradox has always fascinated me. The idea that statistically it is almost certain there should be intelligent life out there, but that it hasn’t made itself evident. I’m of the perhaps pessimistic opinion that the answer is that any intelligent civilization destroys itself before developing the technology to settle outside of its home solar system.

    On another note, I once met an Australian journalist who was in the air during the famous UFO sighting off Kaikoura in the 1970’s. The film he shot of lights flying around his aircraft was absolutely remarkable, they were tracked on radar and while some theories have been put forward about what they were there is no conclusive answer. UFO’s? Certainly. Aliens? Highly improbable. But still interesting!

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    1. I am inclined to agree about civilisations destroying themselves before transcending interstellar space. Alas! Ours, especially.

      Those Kaikoura sightings are still a mystery, though, as you say, it’s almost certain that they were NOT alien spacecraft. I did see something suggesting they were a combination of air inversion layers (which would show on radar) and refraction, via those layers, variously of either Venus or offshore trawler lights. I recall various discussions about it at the time, and it was pretty easy to spot which camp people would fall into on the basis of their general world view.

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  5. I’m with you on most of that, but have to say my fave alien contact story is The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham because he gives us aliens with which we have almost nohing in common and this seems way more believable than little green men with a probe fetish!

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    1. I haven’t read it myself – but Wyndham was a fantastic writer – so lateral in his imagination. Must look out for the story. Curiously, he was part of Arthur C. Clarke’s writing group – Clarke later concocted the ‘aliens ignore us’ story in ‘Rendezvous with Rama’.

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  6. What fascinating posts. Thanks, guys. Actually, I’m ancient enough to remember reading about Mars, and wondering to myself if the inhabitants were really LGMs. [Just to do a bit of name-dropping on you, my dad helped to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge, way back in the 1920s. Thanks for the pictures.]

    However, someone pointed out to me a verse in the Bible that not only dismisses the LGMs, but also the entire idea that there is another civilization out there, never mind one that displays greater intelligence than we.

    To the best of my humble knowledge, I have never yet heard of anyone who can successfully prove that the Bible is not what it claims to be, the Word of God.

    If we accept that the Bible is genuine, therefore worthy of our appreciation and action, then it is good to consider the words of the apostle Paul at Hebrews 9:28.

    (Hebrews 9:28) “so also the Christ was offered once for all time to bear the sins of many; and the second time that he appears it will be apart from sin and to those earnestly looking for him for [their] salvation.”

    Note the words in line 1 “once for all time.” If there are other civilizations out there then surely the very real possibility would exist that one or other of them would fall into sin and require a ransomer, Jesus Christ, who has already given his life as a repurchaser of humankind, “once for all time.”

    TTFN LGMs. Too bad you’re not out there for us. It would have been fun getting to know you.

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  7. I’m a big fan of SciFi and I like a good “Alien Contact” story as much as anyone else. But I don’t buy into this “Taken” and “Area 51” stuff. Unusual lights in the sky are far more likely to be something the Skunkworks team is working on for Lockheed. Even if aliens capable of FTL were to stumble across us, they’d look at the way we treat each other and believe Earthers were not ready for alien contact.

    That said, I believe there’s a very good chance that there’s alien life and even alien intelligence out there. As you explained clearly, the shear vastness of our galaxy makes finding alien intelligence astronomically difficult. It’s fun to dream about alien contact, but we need to understand that’s most likely to remain a dream for a very long time. When we finally develop FTL travel, we’ll have a shot at it.

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    1. I agree on all points. It’s always seemed to me, in fact, that this issue of scale is going to be the real killer in terms both of us trying to find aliens – and them finding us.

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      1. Even if FTL travel through wormholes turns out to be possible, then we’ve still got a problem with finding alien intelligence. Wormholes may not exist everywhere, at least not usable ones. If an intelligence emerges no where near a wormhole, they may never be able to escape, as posited in “The Mote in God’s Eye.” But in some cases, that may be a good thing.

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