UFOs, and the problem is national security?

I just came across an article published by Reuters about a group of ex-military who will share their UFO experiences.

Witness testimony from more than 120 former or retired military personnel points to an ongoing and alarming intervention by unidentified aerial objects at nuclear weapons sites, as recently as 2003. In some cases, several nuclear missiles simultaneously and inexplicably malfunctioned while a disc-shaped object silently hovered nearby. Six former U.S. Air Force officers and one former enlisted man will break their silence about these events at the National Press Club and urge the government to publicly confirm their reality.

Now, one thing bugs me a little in this article:

Captain Salas notes, “The U.S. Air Force is lying about the national security implications of unidentified aerial objects at nuclear bases and we can prove it.”

So let me get that straight: we have unidentified flying objects allegedly shutting down nuclear missiles, and we should think about national security? To me, this looks like the really wrong priorities. What about planetary security? What about scientific implications? What about politics and sociology?

If the UFOs don’t exist, it’s a sociology problem, not a national security problem. If the UFOs do exist and come from the US, then conspiracy theorists have it right and it’s a political problem more than a national security issue. If the UFOs do exist and come from, say, Russia or China or France or Liechtenstein, then there are some national security implications, but the scientific, economic and political implications seem far greater to me.

But when you say “UFOs”, most people think about objects of extra-terrestrial origin piloted by non-human intelligent beings. If that’s really what is happening, then it’s by no means a problem of national security. If the aliens in question are hostile, then it’s an problem for the security of the entire human race, it’s not a problem that the US armed forces should deal with on their own. But even if they are peaceful, proving the existence of UFOs would have enormous scientific consequences.

Remember: our current scientific theories make long-distance space travel either impractical or very confusing. If nobody can exceed the speed of light, then interstellar travel is impractical and expensive (assuming that time is money for extra-terrestrials as well). If it is actually possible, then it’s theoretically equivalent to time travel. We all know how confusing time travel stories can be.

In any case, we don’t really know how to shut down nuclear missiles, we don’t know how to hover silently in flying disks. So if the reported UFOs have any reality, the the science being displayed here is a bit more advanced than ours. And that’s a bit more concerning and perplexing to me than any national security issue…

Dark matter as a proof of E.T. intelligence?

Here is a random thought… What if dark matter was a sign of intelligent extra-terrestrial life?

The idea is simply that a Type III civilization on the Kardashev scale would control the flows of energy escaping their galaxy. Many solar systems (the inhabitable or useful ones) would end up with mechanisms such as Dyson spheres, therefore lowering the amount of energy escaping these system, to the point where we would no longer be able to identify such systems as stars.

I don’t know if the idea has any merit, but a quick Google search shows that I’m not the first one to have it

Fête de la science 2007

We spent a day with the family at the 2007 edition of Fête de la science (a sort of national science day). We went to the Valrose campus in Nice, where many experiments and shows presented science in a way that was accessible to children and distracting to adults.

Among other things, there were:

  • Remains of various hominids on display, showing the progressive evolution
  • Robotics experiments
  • Mechanics experiments, like gyroscopes, balances
  • Optics experiments, with lasers going through various materials
  • A replica of Sputnik
  • Chemistry experiments, which attracted a number of people, notably with liquid nitrogen ice-cream (yum!)
  • Experimental psychology
  • Marine biology
  • Genetics and genetic engineering

I had a long discussion with members of the zetetics observatory. I don’t know how to define zetetics precisely, but let’s say that it’s a form of scientific skepticism, in the good sense of the term. A lot of what they do is debunk pseudo-science or low-quality science.

So naturally I started asking questions about UFOs and how one could address, in a scientific way, something which is by construction difficult to catch and relies entirely on witness reports (with all the associated sociological effects). This was a very interesting discussion, and he pointed me to a book, available on-line (but in French) which apparently demolishes the work of the GEIPAN. I did not find the studies of the GEIPAN too convincing, so I’m glad to hear that there is a more scientific and systematic verification of what they did, and apparently, it is not pretty (I did not read the book yet, it’s only hear-say at that point).

Unfortunately, zetetics will also tend to dismiss witness reports, for a simple reason. Between various explanations, they will always prefer an explanation that matches known laws. It turns out that this algorithm tends to select the option: “witness (or someone along the reporting line) is lying or at least distorting the observation”. This option is always valid, it obeys a known law. But I think this introduces a kind of methodological bias. I don’t know how to eliminate that bias. Do you?

Update: I started reading the book in question, and I got a very bad overall feeling about it. It is exactly what I talked about: the primary argument is casting doubt about the validity of the testimonies. This has some value, of course, but pointing that the work of someone studying a phenomenon is sloppy is easier than figuring out a non-sloppy way to do it.

Why we need to go into deep space

An interview of A.C. Clarke reminded me of a topic I wanted to write about for a long time: why do we need to gain the ability to go into deep space?

50 years in space

During the first 50 years of space exploration, we have sent many satellites and, more importantly, developed a whole economy around space flight. Recently, private companies have entered the fray. Sir Clarke mentions the Google Lunar X-Prize foundation as one of our hopes to get back to the moon.

The current state of our space technology is largely due to many historical accidents, including World War II and the following competition between the Soviets and the Americans for the best long-range ballistic missiles. In the interview, Sir Clarke recalls Bainbridge’s observation that we were not necessarily due for space travel yet:

As William Sims Bainbridge pointed out in his 1976 book, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study, space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence upon individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khrushchev, the Moon—like the South Pole—was reached half a century ahead of time.

Despite what may have been an early start, or maybe because of it, we only explored the immediate neighborhood of Earth. The initial rate of progress (and, in retrospect, pretty wild risk taking) led many science-fiction writers to confidently predict the colonization of the solar system by 2100. The chances of this actually happening now seem a bit more remote than in the 1970s. While we went to the Moon and back, we did not establish any permanent base there.

Scarcity of resources? Not in the solar system

The first step beyond that is to do for the solar system what happened for Earth orbit, which is developing some kind of successful economic model of space. One requirement for this to happen is to lower the cost of space launches, and our best bet for that so far is some kind of space elevator.

Such a technology would also lower the cost of satellite launches, but to me, that’s not the main point, and it is also not all-good thing knowing how much space junk there already is. I do not entirely share Stephan Scherer’s optimism:

50 years after Sputnik, Space below the geostationary orbit has become quite crowded. Fortunately, it is still wide enough

The main point of solar system exploration, as far as humanity is concerned, is really to find useful stuff there, like hydrogen, water, and who knows what else would become useful. Resources that are scarce or, at least, limited on Earth may be available in vast quantities out there, that much is certain. What is not certain is that we could ever lower the cost of exploiting this bounty to a point where it would make sense at all.

But even the solar system is only the beginning…

Deep space vs. Local space

Given our track record in the past 50 years, it may seem premature to talk or think about deep space exploration. First of all, let me explain that by “deep space”, I am referring to space beyond the solar system, warp drives and this kind of far-fetched stuff.

Why do we need that? Well, it’s simply a matter of not taking chances with the survival of our species. On a cosmic scale, there are just many events that could wipe out the entire human race. And, unlike a few, I do not consider this a good thing.

Many of these so-called extinction-level events (ELE) could impact the whole planet. The most well-known type of ELE is an asteroid impact, something so widely known that it even received the Hollywood treatment.

The problem is that it’s not just the whole planet. Some large cosmic events could easily impact the whole solar system. Many cataclysmic scenarios have been imagined, like a gamma ray burst a little bit too close, and in some cases the Earth’s magnetosphere might be insufficient to protect us, while the rest of the solar system would become even more hostile than it currently is.

Are we alone?

Another reason that is always behind everybody’s mind when we talk about space travel is: are we alone in the universe? In that respect, I find Sir Clarke’s comment in the interview highly illogical:

I have always believed in life elsewhere in the universe (though I don’t agree that some are visiting us secretively in flying saucers).

To me, it is quite illogical to believe in something while at the same time dismissing the only “evidence” there is about it, irrespective of how weak that evidence is. There is simply no better reason to believe in intelligent life out there than witness reports that seem hard to explain otherwise.

Sir Clarke’s position is about as logical as believing that one can win the Lottery, but that any testimony of alleged winners must be a big fraud.

Standards of skepticism are too low

Don’t get me wrong: it is possible, even likely, that the majority of this evidence is crap, and one cannot even rule out that all of it is fabricated. But in reality, most “debunking” sites are not more convincing than the believer’s sites, and don’t hold themselves to any stricter standard of analysis. It’s belief against belief, generally with a strong dose of the other guy is stupid ad-hominem rhetoric.

The real reason most scientists don’t believe in UFOs of extra-solar origin is that we have no science that would allow it. Einstein proved that there is an absolute speed limit in the universe, the speed of light, and we don’t know how to go over that speed limit. As far as we know, it’s impossible for any material object to even reach the speed of light. If Einstein is right, then there can be no extraterrestrials from other solar systems in our backyard, it’s really that simple. Interstellar travel based on what we know will never allow a human voyage to a remote star. And for that same reason, it also precludes the visit of biologically similar organisms.

How to cross the light barrier?

What if Einstein was wrong? It is not a stupid question. A few serious scientists have given it a try. It takes some humility to admit that there are still a few things we don’t know about the universe. Lord Kelvin’s famous quote is a mistake not to be repeated again:

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

This does not mean we can accept anything. Einstein cannot be too wrong. His theory has been verified over and over again. So the solution is not to be searched by trying to add more fuel to rockets so that they break the light barrier. That simply won’t work. Clearly, we need some kind of breakthrough, something more subtle than brute force.

Maybe a new understanding of the structure of space-time would help, but based on my personal experience, even that may not be sufficient. As far as I can tell, my own “demolition” of space-time only made Einstein’s limit more solid, instead of weakening it. One does not need space-time if all the properties we attribute to this “background” can instead be shown to be properties of electromagnetic interactions. No space-time, great! Properties of electromagnetic interactions, not so great: the speed of light limit comes back with a vengeance. How can you ever hope to go faster than light if time, space, and the relations between them are actually defined by light itself? (For the most curious minds, it’s spelled out in section 3.2 of the article).

On the other hand, looking for a breakthrough does not mean that current space research is useless, on the contrary. Even if today’s automobiles rely on a propulsion system that would have seemed very “improbable” to the average middle-age horsecar driver, a lot of the technology developed back then remained useful, including: the wheel, the seat, roads, maps, and so on. It is very likely that even if we invent some new and fancy way to cross interstellar distances, we will still need space suits or protection against radiation.

Can it be done at all?

The only real question is whether the quest is futile or not. Can interstellar propulsion be done at all? And here, I take exactly the opposite point of view compared to Sir Clarke.

Based on whatever little evidence we have, I would give it a pretty good chances, precisely because in-depth analysis of the UFO phenomenon cannot really explain some cases other than using some hypothetical intelligence driving some apparently mechanical object with a behavior that, as Sir Clarke would say, is so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.

Let’s now assume that there is a good chance we can do it. The question in that case is: how? And I regret to say that my own hobby research did not bring me any closer to answering that question.

France opens UFO files

The French agency for UFOs just opened their database. Unfortunately, the CNES/GEIPAN web site has generally been down since then, presumably due to the heavy traffic. In these conditions, I’m not sure that the add prominently featured at the bottom is really helpful:

This site was built using the CNES-SiTools Framework. SiTools is Copyright © 2004-2005 by CNESSiTools

Why should we show any interest in UFOs?

I don’t think opening up this archive will change anybody’s mind on the topic. For those who believe, there are already a large number of sites with tons of “evidence”. For those who don’t, there are similarly convincing arguments against. So this is one case where the human brain has trouble sorting things out, simply because the available evidence is not strong enough one way or another.

Is there any point talking about this, if we can’t prove anything? I believe there is. In many fields of science, evidence is statistical. It’s the accumulation of facts that, individually, mean very little, which together form evidence. Over time, we learned how to locate small solid bodies outside of the Earth’s atmosphere with sufficient precision that some predictions and useful observations can be made about meteors. For a very long time, this was not the case. Similarly, if one person sees little men in a flying saucer, it does not mean much, but if dozens of people report similar incidents over the span of a few decades, then there may be some truth to the observations.

Not scientific, but not necessarily “false” either

It remains very frustrating for scientists, of course, because they can’t reproduce the phenomemon at will. So there is a strong temptation to classify this as “non science”. And, in the present state of knowledge, that’s really what it is. It is not a science not necessarily because it is not true, but because we do not know what to make of the little evidence we have. There is no theory which would allow us to predict when and where UFOs will land, for example.

But from “not science”, another step is often taken, which is: “it’s false”, or “it’s bogus”, or “there can be no extraterrestrial because Albert Einstein said that we can’t travel faster than light”. That step is irrational. We cannot deny evidence on the basis that we don’t know what to do with it. It would be like saying “Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes, this person cannot be dead, because I am unable to explain how the murderer proceeded”. That would have made for much less interesting books, don’t you think?

Personal UFO experience

But in this “polluted” atmosphere surrounding UFOs, making a personal opinion on the topic in today’s context is difficult, in particular when you have not seen a UFO yourself. Even when you have seen one, you still won’t know what to believe. There is a big gap between “unidentified” and “extraterrestrial”. I saw a “UFO” once, but “U” here only means I could not identify it personally, and found it “misbehaved”. “Misbehaved flying object”, that might be a better acronym… What I know, however, is that I saw something I could not explain, and denying it would simply be lying to myself. Again, not a very logical attitude…

So, what did I see? Well, it was not that impressive: walking in the countryside one evening, I saw a light shoot rapidly skywards. It could have been an amateur rocket, though in my recollection, it was a bit fast for that, and I don’t remember hearing a noise nor seeing any smoke. To this day, I still have no idea what it was, and I will probably die ignoring whether it was a weather balloon (unlikely), martians (unlikely as well), some optical effect (why not), or a probe from a remote region of the galaxy (now, that is quite likely…).

Whether the archives of the GEIPAN will help solving that mystery, only time will tell.