Space Aliens: Do They Walk Among Us?
Though what he really said is open to doubt, the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi gave his name to an elegant and seemingly convincing argument against the existence of intelligent life on other planets. There are 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone. 20 billion of these are like our own sun. Let us assume that one in five of these has planets – and we find new exoplanets every year – and let us assume that one in a hundred of these one in five has one planet with liquid water: that gives us 40 million earth-like planets. I will not carry on with the assumptions, but it seems reasonable that there should be around a hundred thousand other advanced civilisations in our galaxy alone.
This being so, the “Fermi Paradox” asks, where are they? So many other civilisations – so many of them presumably older and more advanced than our own – and they have not visited us. Nor, after generations of scanning with radio telescopes, have we detected any unambiguous signals from them. Either intelligent life on other planets does not exist, or it is so rare and so far apart in time or distance or both, that we shall never find it.
Writing in 2008, Nick Bostrom of Oxford University takes the argument to conclusions that are either depressing or exhilarating. He proposes a set of Great Filters, each of which limits the emergence of intelligent and technologically-advanced life. The most obvious filters are in the past. We shall soon be able to estimate how many planets in our galaxy have liquid water. We still have do not know how life begins. Obviously, it began here. But we have never been able to create a self-replicating organic process in our laboratories. It may be very unusual. It may also be very unusual, once begun, for this process to evolve beyond the very simple. Then it may be very unusual for larger and more complex living structures to evolve, and hardest of all for anything to emerge with the right combination of mind and appendages to enable the birth of a technological civilisation.
Or the Great Filter may be in the future. It may be that civilisations like our own are reasonably common – but that they invariably blow themselves up shortly after finding how to split the atom.
Bostrop’s conclusion is to hope that, when we get there, we shall find that Mars is, and always has been, a sterile rock. Independent life of any kind on a neighbouring planet would suggest a universe teeming with life, and some probability of civilisations like our own. This being so, the lack of contact would put his Great Filter in the future, and would suggest that we are, on the balance of probabilities, heading for self-extinction. No life at all on Mars, now or in the past, would let him keep hoping that the Great Filter is in the past, and that we may have a splendid progress before us.
The main counter-argument to the Fermi Paradox is that aliens have made contact with us. Since at least the 1940s, there have been thousands of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects and their crews. The problem with this counter-argument is that the claims of UFO sightings all appear to involve some kind of deception. Most lights in the sky turn out to have a human or astronomical origin. Most claims of physical contact are made by frauds or persons of unsound mind. In the past few days, I have watched dozens of YouTube videos that claim to show various kinds of alien encounter. Every one of them strikes me as fraudulent.
The wider claim of a conspiracy between governments and aliens can be dismissed at once. The most obvious deal between these parties is that our rulers give resources to the aliens, and they give our rulers a more advanced technology. But I can see no discontinuous leap in any technology. Everything we have now would have seemed marvellous to a man in 1948. But all of it has plainly grown out of what we already had in 1948. There are no warplanes with anti-gravity paint on them, no telepathy machines, no teleportation. Our rulers continue to get old and decrepit, and to die. Many people claim to have seen Elvis Presley since 1977. No one claims to have seen a rejuvenated and renamed Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, or any of the Rothschilds or Rockefellers. Bill Gates looks authentically past the bloom of youth.
Nevertheless, I do not believe that every reported sighting is untrue. I cannot say which ones are true. But I do find it likely that some are true. The problem with modern claims is that they involve a mass of intellectual “white noise.” We live in a civilisation where primitive space travel is an established fact. We can easily imagine more sophisticated forms of travel between stars. We are willing to consider the possibility of life beyond the stars. Many of us want to believe in life beyond the stars. Therefore thousands of reported sightings that involve some kind of deception. How to decide if any may be true?
The answer, I suggest, is to look into the past. Despite a scientific consensus growing since before 1600, the general idea, until then, was that our planet was the largest object in the universe, and was at the centre of the universe. Angels might visit from the skies, but hardly anyone imagined there was any place above the skies from which natural beings might arrive. So, are there any records of UFO sightings from before our own Age of Science?
There are many. I will give two of these. I could give more, but have decided to give the only two I can find that I can be sure have not been forged in modern times. When I was a boy, I read and believed Erich von Daniken. I then discovered that most of his alleged evidence from ancient times was based on doctored or just fabricated documentation. I therefore take two records of sightings that are in Latin – a language I can read – and that can be found in published texts of undoubted repute. For your benefit, I give both English translations and images of the pages where the originals can be found.
My first account is by Agobard, a bishop of the ninth century. Note that he refuses to believe the story he has heard. Note also, however, the claim of flying vessels, engaging in some kind of trade.
We have seen and heard many overcome by such madness, separated by such stupidity, that they believe and say there is a certain place called Magonia, from which [place] ships come through the skies, in which [ships] are carried back to that place [Magonia] the crops which were ruined by hailstones and lost in storms – these sky-sailors making payment to the Tempestarii [Masters of the Storms?], and having in exchange wheat and other crops. From these [people] so blinded by deep stupidity, that they are able to believe such things can happen, we have seen many at an assembly, showing off four captives – three men and one woman – as having fallen from these ships. These they showed in chains for several days in this assembly, as I have said, in my presence, saying that they should be stoned to death. But, truth overcoming them after much debate, the people who had shown the prisoners were confounded, in like manner to the words of the prophecy, that the thief is defeated when captured. (Bishop Agobard of Lyons, d. c840, “Liber Contra Insulam Vulgi Opinionem de Grandine et Tonitruis,” c.II – given on p.148 in Patrologiae Latinae, Vol. 104, Migne Edition, Paris, 1864)
My second account is by Gervase of Tilbury, writing in the early thirteenth century.
In our own day appears new corroboration of the greatness of the sea which is above the sky. This is well-known, but wondrous even so. On a feast day in Great Britain, when the people had finished attending a service and were leaving the church, and it was dull and dark outside, because the sky was covered in dense cloud, there appeared the anchor of a ship above the tombstones. Its hook stuck under a fence, and the stretched cable went high into the sky. Everyone was amazed by this vision, and spoke much about it. At last, they saw the cable begin to move as if someone were trying to move the anchor. When the anchor remained stuck, a voice was heard in the heavy air as of sailors when they seek to recover a stuck anchor. Without delay, the work going nowhere, the crew chose one sailor, who came down the cable. He came down hand-over-hand just as our own sailors do. As soon as he let go, he was seized by those who were standing close by. He died in their arms, suffocated by the damp of our heavy air as if drowned in the sea. The sailors who remained above decided that their companion had drowned. After one hour they cut the cable and sailed away leaving the anchor behind. Afterwards, following prudent advice, it was decided to make iron fittings for the church doors out of this anchor in commemoration of the event. They can still be seen there. (Gervase of Tilbury, c1200, Otia Imperalia, Hanover, 1856, pp.2-3)
These accounts are widely-spaced in time. They seem to owe nothing to each other. They prove no theological point. One of them is sceptical. They both speak of ships in the sky. One of them speaks of a crew member unable to breathe our air. It is a rebuttable presumption that both are garbled accounts of UFO sightings. They are of undeniable authenticity. If I had the relevant language skills, I have no doubt I could find similar accounts in Arabic and Chinese. I will not look for these, because I am unable to vouch for their authenticity. But the Latin is enough for me.
Why might aliens be interested in us? I have no idea, and see no value in speculating. Why they seem to have taken less care in the past to hide themselves than nowadays is easier to answer. When I was a very young boy, the women in my family would get dressed and undressed in front of me, confident I would never remember anything when I grew older. As I did grow older, they behaved with greater modesty. In the same way, it makes sense that an alien mission of some kind would show itself to intelligent but untechnological beings, making greater efforts at concealment only when these beings began a rapid course of technological progress. What these aliens might be doing here is unknown. But the evidence that they are here begins to mount long before the 1940s.
Now, an objection to both these texts is that they are taken from longer works filled with other marvellous accounts that I would dismiss out of hand. Am I not giving my belief in an arbitrary way? I do not think I am. If a monk is said to have converted the heathen by cooking meat without fire, or by raising a man from the dead, this can be dismissed as involving some kind of deception. Our knowledge of how the world works has no room for miracles. But there is nothing miraculous about a UFO sighting. As said, if a man says now that he saw a flying saucer, our default response should be sceptical. When a writer of the middle ages reports a sighting, what he says should be taken into consideration.
Another objection to my general point is that the texts may record folk memories of a long-vanished human civilisation on this planet. The flying ships may be distant Echoes from Atlantis. There is an easy reply to this objection. Since about 1500, we have made obvious and irreversible changes to the planet. We have introduced tobacco and tomatoes to Europe, and horses to South America and rabbits to Australia. We have extracted all the mineral resources that can be easily got at. If the human race vanished tomorrow, and all our cities fell to dust or were overspread by jungle, it would still be obvious to any alien visitor that the Earth had once supported an advanced civilisation. The fact that we took control, after 1500, over a virgin planet indicates that ours is the first advanced civilisation on this planet.
This being so, anomalies like the Baghdad batteries and these accounts of flying ships are more easily explained as echoes of low-scale alien visitation. Those mediaeval chronicles raise an arguable case. The burden of proof is on the doubters.
Here, then, is my answer to the Fermi Paradox. The universe may well be teeming with life. And I certainly look forward to exploring those Pyramids on Mars.