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Open sky. Photo: © 2011 Acid Pix. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

What Good Are UFOs?

During a recent U.S. congressional hearing on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a conservative member of the House asked UC-Berkerley SETI director Dan Werthimer about UFOs in general, and the History Channel series Ancient Aliens in particular. Werthimer’s response was one for the books: “UFOs have nothing to do with extraterrestrials.”

There’s a great deal of content, here and elsewhere, about UFO visits. No point in hashing that out in much detail. But let’s suppose, as a matter of brute fact, that we were able to verify with a high degree of certainty that an alien spacecraft flew the skies over Earth, and all we knew for certain about it was that it was extraterrestrial in origin. What would that tell us?

Well, we can assume to begin with that if the craft serves a primarily scientific purpose, it would probably be an unmanned probe. As we have discovered ourselves, life support systems are not generally an efficient use of spacecraft resources. And if we sent a spacecraft to a world that we knew contained (semi-)intelligent life, we wouldn’t needlessly risk the lives of personnel by having them fly around in the flak-filed skies before we’d made contact with the general population. Even if the craft were invincible, it would be a horribly inconvenient trip, and—unless the visitors are tourists who want to spend a vacation on a foreign world—there would be no scientific reason to send them here.

We can also reasonably assume that the entity that sent the craft didn’t want to hide it. We’ve already discovered technology that would allow us in principle to make aircraft invisible, and we can assume that any alien civilization capable of traveling to Earth would be similarly familiar with nanomaterials.  Remember those helicopter photos of an uncontacted tribe on the Peruvian border, and how unethical many observers found them to be? This would be (at best) the intergalactic equivalent. If we can see extraterrestrial probes, the civilization sending them is trolling us—and maybe being a little cruel about it.

In other words: if any UFOs really are manned alien spacecraft, I think they’re probably full of obnoxious space tourists who don’t have enough to do with their time.

Am I being unfair? Do you have any alternative theories to suggest? Share them in the comments below.

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  • UFOlogy in general has always struck me as a sort of bumbling endeavour. Not necessarily from the side of UFOlogists, though an argument could be made, but from the side of the UFO’s. It’s always seemed to me that the typical UFO sighting is the result of a mistake or malfunction on the part of the UFO. If that’s the case, they sure malfunction a lot. You’d expect craft capable of traversing the galaxy to be a little more robust and efficient.

  • mph23

    I figure that if a technological alien civilization, with the desire and capabilities to directly observe earth, wouldn’t send what we think of as UFO’s. They’d either observe us from safe distances (really high orbit at the closest), or with very small robotic probes (think insects, at the largest). Also, it’d be safe to assume this technology of theirs wouldn’t be noticeable to us, or even resemble what we’d call ‘technology’.

  • Graig Burns

    they want to genetically modify us so either we breed with them or taste like pork

  • Xenomorphine

    “Well, we can assume to begin with that if the craft serves a primarily scientific purpose, it would probably be an unmanned probe”

    No, we couldn’t assume anything of the kind. By our modern-day, conventional standards, yes, a case could be made for saying life-support systems would take up too much room, but we’d obviously be talking about a magnitude of technological expertise greater than our own (or at least, than what we’ve admitted to having). Any such civilisation may well have solved such issues and, if so, then a manned craft becomes infinitely more PREFERABLE to an unmanned probe, due to not always being able to trust autonomous craft in a highly unpredictable environment. Especially one which would be operating in foreign – and guarded – airspace.

    It’s a completely different situation to sending off some slow-paced crawler to Mars’ surface.

    “We can also reasonably assume that the entity that sent the craft didn’t want to hide it.”

    Assumption after assumption… For all we know, an alien civilisation might have no idea what stuff like radar even is. Just look at World War Two: The Germans used it purely for navigational beacon purposes, not at all realising it could be used for detecting enemy planes (and, likewise, we could have had access to jet aircraft in the 1920s, here in the UK, if their inventor had been listened to – imagine how history could have differed if we had done). There’s even a novel where we defeat an alien invasion, due to them never having thought up the concept of the armoured tank and, thus, never factored it into their plans.

    Technological progression is NOT a linear path. A different civilisation might have come up with more radical – or even tamer – technologies than us and vice versa.

    An alien race could well assume (there’s that term, again) they’re undetectable to us, when they might well not be. Or, alternatively, have sufficient countermeasures against us to simply not CARE if we detect them.

    And, yes, there are supposed ‘invisibility cloaks’, but they have their limitations, too – and won’t stop you being detected by a multitude of other sensory arrays. Even if you could plate your entire hull with them, doing so might simply not be worth it. You’d still be putting out heat, an EM field or something just as obvious. On the whole, mere stealth in the visible spectrum of light would be pretty low down the list of priorities.

  • Xenomorphine

    Insect-sized drones have severe range limitations, precisely because of the microscopic levels of fuel they could practically carry. Plus, they’d need to be released relatively low in the atmosphere or could burn up or become victims of solar radiation (the smaller you get, the less ability you have to shield all your vital electronic components). They would also need somewhere in the atmosphere or based on the ground or in large bodies of water (which, intriguingly enough, UFOs are often seen going in and out of), in order to report back to and get repairs and additional supplies from. Which further negates any would-be stand-off advantages with them.

    At that point, you might as well simply zip about with a manned crew on the shuttle-like craft you would have to use to venture down in order to deploy them in the first place. 🙂

  • Xenomorphine

    Could be, but until we can crack noeof the things open and take a look at what’s inside, we don’t know what their behaviour might be a side-effect of. Maybe they’re traversing such enormous distances by way of ‘dimensional fluxing’ or whatever. If the cost of that is to create a miniature light-show around the hull of your ship or to spin off at odd angles, it’d probably be a fairly small price to pay.

  • matt

    I seriously doubt the validity of a nuts and bolts explanation for the UFO phenomenon. Personally I entertain Jaque Vallee’s theory of UFO’s as a social phenomenon and a control mechanism as much more plausible. It’s obvious to me that UFO’s are only a modern iteration of something that has had a huge influence on the course of human history. By studying them with an open mind, I believe we can unlock something fundamental to the human experience and consciousness.

  • ivr

    The question I hate to hear is “do you believe in UFO’s?” Because it is essentially a meaningless question. The other down side to that question is that there is no simple way to explain the UFO phenomenon. There really are only opinions on the matter of UFO’s and what they may or may not be. There is no one size fits all explanation. However, there have been so many credible witnesses and artifacts (including such things as PTSD) that to dismiss the phenomenon as nothing more than a series of misidentified objects or mental states that produce visual apparitions, is to do a disservice to the other wise intelligent well balanced individuals that have experienced these sightings.
    My suspicion is that there are probably several different answers as there likely several different phenomenon occurring simultaneously; the answers are likely to be surprisingly simple, obvious and completely unexpected. In the end the question may not be why are ‘they’ here, but rather why won’t they go away?

  • Meow Panda

    One *would* think that a higher intelligence would have no problems with stealth. But a higher intelligence may or may not even care if they are seen – and they also make mistakes! Imagine your undergraduate extraterrestrial given the job of tagging human beings – there’s probably a lot of room for error.

  • CM

    The bottom line, scientists are continually being humbled by our own darn planet! They are at a loss to explain why some things occur terrestrially, let alone above our little spinning water ball. Our intellect as a species is still in its infancy when compared to the age of the universe in which we exist.
    It has been discovered that only 5% of the matter in the universe is substance which is tangible and observable. What’s the rest?! Dark Matter?…We don’t even understand what that stuff is yet. Earth it would appear, is an anomaly with its “actual matter” compared to the rest of the unobservable universe which appears to be made up of “non-matter”. Whoa! Mind blown!
    My point is, there is a multitude of unexplained phenomena science hasn’t even begun to understand about this planet and the universe without. How do we know the UFO phenomena isn’t naturally occurring to this earth? I’ve seen cave paintings which imply this has been going on for some number of millennia. Adversely, with all that big open space and beauty up there in the stars, It would be an awful waste if it were only us here, alone in the universe to figure it all out….I’m just sayin’.