* Things Every Adult Ought To Know, No. 1
Welcome to the first of — it is to be hoped — many. This one will provide few answers but many questions. And isn’t that what science is all about?
They’re Here! They’re Here!
Every ten or so years for the past three quarters of a century, Americans go UFO crazy.
Just after the end of World War II, and extending into the early 1950s, people in our Holy Land started seeing UFOs all over the place. Then, in the mid ’60s and on into the ’70s, after a lull in sightings, people became all agog over alien visitations again. UFO mania hit rock bottom in the ’80s and ’90s and then on into the 21st Century when people were too busy playing the stock market or worrying about when the Muslim War on the West * would explode. [ * Speaking of manias. ]
1st Question: Do You Believe In UFOs?
Well, do ya, punk? As for me, the answer is, Yes, of course I believe in UFOs! No one in good conscience and/or operating under the simple rules of grammar and logic can deny the existence of UFOs. They are things some people occasionally see in the sky that they cannot in any way, y’know, identify.
Now, if what you really mean is Do you believe this planet is being visited by intelligent beings from some other planet and they have been flying around for decades, watching us do whatever it is they think we’re doing?, my answer would be somewhat different. Is it possible alien spaceships are careening through our blue skies? Sure. It’s possible. Anything’s possible. But is it probable? Now things get a little sticky.
Perhaps one of the reasons many people are eager to believe UFOs are actually alien spaceships is their knowledge that even we, humans, the otherwise lunkheads who cannot save ourselves from climate change immolation or racial bigotry or jaw-dropping wealth inequalities, have already, in the last 64 years * sent rocket ships and odd-looking machines into orbit around the Earth; to the moon, Mars, and Venus; on a grand tour of the solar system, and even into the fiery Sun.
[ * The USSR launched Sputnik into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. It was the first human-made gadget ever to partially escape the bonds of this planet’s gravity. Sputnik, nearly two feet in diameter, was a shiny hollow metal ball with four radio antennae attached to it. Frankly, it looked cool as hell but, natch, it scared the bejesus out of America because many of us alive and aware at the time figured the godless commies were fixin’ to either drop hydrogen bombs on us from orbit or at least keep an eye on everything we do down here. Sputnik 1 stayed in orbit for precisely three months; it burned up in the atmosphere on January 4, 1958. The launch of that first Sputnik (Russian for satellite — clearly the Russkies’ guys in charge of naming the thing were not spiritual descendants of Tolstoy or Chekhov) signaled the beginning of the Space Race. ]
The idea being, hell, if we can do it, surely others in this big, wide universe can send contraptions our way, right?
The problem is, our space travels thus far have been embarrassingly modest in scope and distance. We’ve not yet come anywhere near traveling to inhabited cosmic locales. Some researchers suspect Mars or Saturn’s moon Enceladus may now or at some time in the past have harbored primitive, microscopic life, but it’s a good bet those little critters — if they exist — aren’t running around telling each other about visitors from another planet.
The farthest one of our spacecraft has flown is Voyager 1, launched in September, 1977, to go poking around the outer reaches of the Solar System. As of May 31st this year, it is still flying outward from us and the Sun, still receiving and transmitting messages, and is a little bit more than 14 billion miles away from our star. Now 14 billion miles seems like a fairly ambitious trek but, in the scheme of things, it’s next to nothing.
It’s taken Voyager 1 some 47 years to get that far out. But, as I say, “that far out” ain’t squat. The space probe still is within the boundaries of the Solar System. Even at 14 B miles out, it’s not but a third of the way to the currently known edge of the Solar System, a boundary known as the Kuiper Cliff. The farthest extent of the Kuiper Belt, the eponymous Cliff is that the place beyond which no objects circling the Sun have yet been identified. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, only that we can’t see them. So the Solar System just might extend out much farther than the 47 billion-mile circumference of the Kuiper Cliff.
That means we haven’t even left home yet, really.
So, assuming no intelligent creatures live in our Solar System (and there’s debate over the question of whether we humans are intelligent creatures, to be honest) we’ll have to look to the stars for civilizations that might be advanced enough to take an extended weekend trip to this tiny rock.
The nearest star to our Solar System is called Proxima Centauri. It is four and a quarter light years away. That’s almost 25 trillion miles. Trillion, babies. Twenty five thousand billion. It’d take Voyager 1, were it so aimed, nearly 84,000 years to get to Proximi Centauri at its current rate of speed. To give you an idea of how long that is, consider that humanity, 84,000 years ago, had not yet achieved its Great Leap Forward, in which it learned to bury its dead, make clothing from animals skins, or even draw those animal figures in the Lascaux caves in southwest France. In other words, humans have evolved to a spectacularly dramatic extent in that time. How might our species evolve over the next 84,000 years. We’d certainly be unrecognizable to our contemporary selves, no?
Anyway, let’s assume that putative intelligent civilization on a planet circling Proxima Centauri has developed a propulsion system allowing its space probes to travel much faster than Voyager 1. There are a couple of problems with getting spaceships up to interstellar speeds. One is fuel. You can’t use coal or gasoline to achieve those speeds, of course, and even our most advanced liquid rocket fuels — subcooled liquid oxygen and kerosene in Space X’s Falcon Heavy — can only produce speeds of 25,000 miles per hour. And the Heavy must carry 430 tons of the stuff to get it into orbit around the Earth. Multiply that on the fingers of both hands plus those of several of your friends to get a rocket free of the Earth’s gravitational bonds. That’s heavy (you’ll pardon the pun) and a problem our Proxima Centauri folks’d have had to overcome so many, may, many, many, many years ago.
Let’s assume the Proxima Centauri-ites have developed the Mother of All Rockets, capable of propelling a probe at speeds far beyond what we, simple humans, have thus far conjured. How fast would it go?
Well, you’d like it to travel at some significant fraction of the speed of light, right? Oops. There’s another problem. The speed of light is the universe’s…, well, speed limit. No complex piece of material can travel faster than that. In fact any material that even approaches that speed limit soon begins to transform itself into pure energy. Meaning some super-advanced Toyota Prius whose makers might hope for it to go, say, 90 percent the speed of light, would soon become just another part of the electromagnetic spectrum, rather than a readily identifiable coupé. That’d play havoc with the comfort of its occupants.
Not only that, the energy needed to accelerate a nice-sized piece of machinery to any significant fraction of the speed of light approaches infinity the nearer it gets to that speed. It takes scads and gobs of energy simply to get a subatomic particle within a fraction of the speed of light at places like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider or Fermilab’s Tevatron, so much so that when the operators of those devices turn them on, people in surrounding areas see their light dim. Imagine the power needs of our souped-up Prius.
So, we’ll have to say it’d take those Proxima Centauri explorers at the very least many thousands of years to get to us, during which time, they’ll not only have evolved through countless generations but they’ll have had to eat, defecate, bathe, read, have sex, clean out their rocket’s closets, and all the other things intelligent creatures must do. I’d guess after some tens of thousands of years, interstellar space travelers probably would have forgotten why in the hell they headed this way in the first place.
Then again, they might have sent un-crewed space probes to visit us. That’s a possibility. The problem there is powering the thing. The Proxima Centauri-ites’d have to have come up with a power source to keep the turn signals and navigation system on in the thing, no mean feat. Any civilization that comes up with a battery that lasts tens of thousands of years is advanced indeed.
Say they did send an un-crewed craft to fly around our skies. Fair enough; as I say it could be possible. The thing is, people these days are seeing not one, not a couple, not several, not even ten, but dozens and hundreds of UFOs that, they think, must most assuredly be alien spaceships. All those problems associated with getting one craft here from another star’s planet must be multiplied accordingly to get those hundreds here.
Come to think of it, why is the Earth so special that another civilization must labor so spectacularly to get here? And why must that civilization’s scientists keep its probes circling the Earth for years and years and years only to learn that we obsessively watch TV, hate each other over our external colors, spend our treasure on devices that kill each other, and amuse ourselves by listening to Kanye West and Harry Styles?
Were I a Proxima Centuari-ite, I’d say Earthlings are a dreadful bore when they’re not downright dangerously weird. Let’s go someplace else.
I’ll say it again, it’s entirely possible some wildly advanced alien civilization has visited the Earth or is in the process of gallivanting around in our atmosphere. I doubt, though, if it’s true, that we’d even be able to recognize their arrival. The difficulties in interstellar travel are so many that we can’t even comprehend what such successful travelers between the stars might look like. They wouldn’t be traveling in souped-up Priuses or even customized Falcon Heavy rockets.
I can’t see the dark blobs on photographs and videotape taken by Air Force pilots being the preferred method of interstellar space exploration for a group of beings that has somehow outpaced human intellectual development by a factor of thousands.
Again, there are UFOs, to be sure. And again, we have no idea what in the holy hell they are.