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Are UFOs visiting Earth?
In a sign that the news may be slowly returning to normal, another UFO craze seems to have landed in the media -- particularly in light of hints that a Pentagon report to Congress is about to reveal evidence not previously revealed in public. After the last year, "UFOs could be real" seems almost refreshing as a headline.
■ It seems virtually certain that there is alien life out there in the universe. We know of at least 4,000 exoplanets and the number grows all the time. Surely we're barely in the infancy of being able to count. If there truly are 10^24 stars in the Universe, then even if only one in a million had a planet, then there would be 10^18 planets. That's an unfathomably large number all on its own, and it's surely a wild underestimate. The odds alone make it virtually certain that life has emerged at least one other time somewhere out there.
■ But -- even if the likelihood is great that other planets exist and that at least some of them contain life, it seems far less likely that any such life would expend the tremendous resources necessary just to come here and check us out. Traveling from even some of the nearest stars would require considerable resources in terms of energy and time.
■ We measure space distances in light years, and so far, we are profoundly behind the curve in figuring out how to make solid objects go nearly as fast as the speed of light. If any life from elsewhere has made it here, it either tapped into rules we're profoundly incapable of understanding -- or it buckled in for a long, long trip. In human terms, we're looking at measuring those distances in generations.
■ Sure, we're confined by our own thinking about how quickly time passes or how long a life might be, but the distances required to hop to any known planets outside our solar system would still seem long to life forms that had life expectancies ten times ours. And certain non-biological limitations -- like our inability to find anything that travels faster than the speed of light -- suggests that it would take an extraordinary confluence of circumstances to warrant sending any living beings here.
■ Even if an alien experienced an Earth year the same way we experienced an Earth minute (like speeding up our sense of time by a factor of 525,600), then sending a message on a round trip to even our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, would still feel like an 8-minute lag between call and response. Not to project human values on hypothetical alien beings, but that would seem prohibitively isolating -- again, unless we're missing something quite extreme in either the laws of physics or the relative experience of time.
■ We shouldn't dismiss the possibility that intelligent alien life could send unpiloted vehicles across time and space to conduct investigations and report back. We fired off Voyager to go as far as possible and send back reports, too. But do consider that as Voyager 1 and 2 have gone interstellar, a bunch of their instruments have been shut down just to save power. Things could be entirely different in an alien technological world, but they would need to have cracked some pretty incredible limits to have the technology to go long distances, remain in contact with home, move around freely while checking out Earth, and then presumably move along to visit somewhere else or return home.
■ It's neat to imagine that we might be important enough to merit a visit from outer space. And it's statistically logical to conclude that there's probably something out there. But whatever unknown phenomena we encounter in our skies, we should likely hold back from assuming it's alien life coming for a visit.