I saw a UFO, once. I was going north on I-70 outside of Pittsburgh and suddenly there was a gleaming shape in the sky, reflecting light, receeding slowly from me. It looked sort of conical and had a pair of leg-like things at the bottom, and blade-like things from the sides which curved down slightly.
It took me several seconds to realize that I was seeing an Airbus A-310 that had taken off from the airport and was at a sharp angle of ascent. From directly behind the aircraft, at that angle, it did not trigger my brain’s recognition of an airplane, so I was suddenly captivated (briefly!) going “what!? what?!”
I’m very skeptical that alien spacecraft visit Earth, land outside our trailer parks, grab people using technologies of immense power, and explore their anal cavities with odd devices. That said, there are a lot of unexplained sightings of things, which just mean that they are “unexplained” – it doesn’t follow that, because someone can’t figure out what something is, that it came from interstellar space.
Now that the intelligence community has declassified some of its shenanigans, we know that they were lofting giant shiny silver mylar balloons, testing SR-71s, and who knows what all else. I can’t be arsed to try to research “ufology” stories to see if they match up to now-published records of SR-71 and rocket sled flights, but I’m comfortable with the idea that there was a lot of stuff flying around Area 51 and White Sands Missile Range, that people couldn’t recognize.
If you were a farmer in the 1950s or 1960s and found a chunk of mylar, it might look like material from another planet. Likewise, if you found chunks of a crashed SR-71, the titanium skin might look unlike any other metal you had experienced. But by – let’s say 2000AD – it seems to me that everyone should know what an SR-71 looks like (or have a friend that does) and everyone knows that titanium is an earthly material. Ditto, carbon fiber. Back in 2000, I got a chance to handle a piece of space shuttle wing-edge, which is carbon/carbon: carbon fiber matrix filled with bonded carbon, it’s crazy light and feels extremely hard. When you hold it in your hand, it’s so hard and stiff it has a kind of resonant frequency that feels weird – but I don’t see how a human who has lived through the 90s doesn’t know what carbon fiber composite looks like. It’s not “alien” it’s “unusual” and we have no basis for assuming that because we don’t recognize something, it came from interstellar traveler.
That brings me to the point: the failing New York Times reports [gizmodo] that the pentagon was briefed about various unidentified flying objects.
Aliens could be real and the U.S. government has been conducting classified briefings in recent years about things left behind by “off-world vehicles.”
Things left behind? Well, I suppose that semitrailers lose the occasional hubcap, so a space-craft might, too. Never mind that spacecraft tend to not have parts that fall off, because that’s bad for business – I suppose aliens might have sufficiently powerful thrust-producers that the loss of a chunk of ship doesn’t bother them much. But, really?
Naturally, the new article appears on the 17th page of today’s paper because everything else here on Earth is fucking bonkers and the existence of aliens barely makes headlines.
Never mind that it might be that The New York Times is reluctant to give too much credence to such a story because it’s not news.
Eric W. Davis, an astrophysicist who worked as a subcontractor and then a consultant for the Pentagon U.F.O. program since 2007, said that, in some cases, examination of the materials had so far failed to determine their source and led him to conclude, “We couldn’t make it ourselves.”
And that’s where I check out. How can someone in 2020 say “we couldn’t make it ourselves” with a straight face? For one thing, we humans now understand the different kinds of matter that exist and how they are made. For another, the entire universe is made of the same stuff – it’s not as though some alien planet, somewhere, has – let’s call it “vibranium” – there aren’t gaps in the periodic table that say “here there be dragons” where vibranium might lurk. Sure, there are composites and alloys without number but that’s what chromatography and spectrometery are for. Basically, this guy is looking at something – let’s say Silly Putty – and saying “We couldn’t make that ourselves.” Oh yeah? Maybe, but you can’t just say that and walk away concluding it was space aliens that made it.
The “alien materials” trope is one of the core tropes of UFOlogy, which is one reason I resolutely refuse to take them seriously, at all. If they’re going to be so intellectually lazy that they look at a chunk of silly putty and say “that shit’s so weird it must have been made by aliens!” I’m willing to believe that they’re so lazy that they see a weird-looking airplane and go, “wow, that must have been made by aliens!” No, most likely it was made by Burt Rutan’s team at Scaled Composites.
Mr. Davis, who now works for Aerospace Corporation, a defense contractor, said he gave a classified briefing to a Defense Department agency as recently as March about retrievals from “off-world vehicles not made on this earth.”
Mr. Davis said he also gave classified briefings on retrievals of unexplained objects to staff members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 21, 2019, and to staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee two days later.
Classified briefings don’t mean much. I’ve had casual emails of mine grabbed and classified (which was odd: I was not cleared to read something I had written) – the fact that something is kept secret doesn’t mean that there’s any actual content there.
The thing about materials is that they are – material. It’s easy enough to ask “anyone make this?” and let other people look at the material. What they’re afraid of, obviously, is that someone will say, “oh, that’s Silly Putty! It’s a mix of sodium borate and silicone oil – very fun and non-newtonian, sort of like borate and polyvinyl alcohol… Hey, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
The military-industrial complex love to keep the UFO thing alive, because it provides handy cover for whatever experimental shit they’re getting up to, and anybody with even a cursory knowledge of the history of ufology should be able to spot the remarkable concordance between the various common UFO types and the various later-declassified secret technologies over time. There’s quite a lot of evidence (waves hands vaguely) that many of the classic UFO stories were deliberately promulgated by the USAF as cover for their activities. I assume Mr Davis is just continuing in that tradition.
In general, whenever some official or psuedo-official source says… well, anything really, but particularly anything especially eye-catching, I always try to remind myself to wonder why they’re saying that particular thing at that particular time. It’s not that they always lie, but I do think that they rarely volunteer the truth without a reason. What interesting new tech is the current rash of UFO talk covering up, I wonder?
Marcus Ranum says
What interesting new tech is the current rash of UFO talk covering up,
Hypersonic cruise missiles.
I can think of two cases where the “we couldn’t make it” now excuse could potentially seem valid: An ultra-exotic but known (or at least suspected) object, such as a mini black hole; or an utterly unidentifiable spectrum (now, time X) which later (time ≥Y > X) is shown to be a new stable element first synthesized at that later time Y (How the hell did it exist back at time X?). In both examples, “aliens” is not the only possible answer, but is a very weak hypothesis. Rather like LGM were (for a very brief period of time) when pulsars were first discovered.
I myself tends towards Issac Asimov’s criterion (paraphrasing): “A crew and craft, in plain sight, allowing inspection for a reasonable period of time.”
As I’ve said before a species that can cross interstellar space to visit Earth in a practical tmeframe probably also has technology that would allow them to watch us undetected. They’re not going to be sending out readily obvious spacecraft and playing games with US Navy fighters.
If the US DOD had convincing evidence of aliens coming here they’d most certainly use it to find ways to increase their budget. “Yes, Mr. President, we need 300 billion extra dollars this year to prepare for a possible alien attack.”
It seems extremely unlikely that if aliens are crashing their ships here it’s always going to happen in places where they can be conveniently cleaned up with little fuss by the local authorities. Or in places where the government will cover it up. All it takes is aliens to crash their ship in some country whose leadership decides to reveal what happened and the jig is up. Which hasn’t happened.
Back when I was the base fuels accountant at March AFB (during the Viet Nam era, but I was never in ’Nam
and make no claim to being a hero), I created a daily secret report. No detail in the report was classified
at any level, and pretty much anybody could make rough estimates of all the actual numbers just by
walking around and paying attention.
But I guess, as the saying goes, if I tell you any more I have to kill you. 8-)
Marcus Ranum says
It seems extremely unlikely that if aliens are crashing their ships here it’s always going to happen in places where they can be conveniently cleaned up with little fuss by the local authorities.
Its also a unique form of suck that they can build starships that hold together long enough to get here, then fall apart quietly in deserted areas.
@6, Well, the Martians overlooked the possibility of germs…
Marcus Ranum says
That all really happened. HRH government suppressed it because it was embarrassing how easily the martians crushed England.
Ketil Tveiten says
This here ermagerd alienz shit regarding low-res video of weather baloons and bits of titanium or whatever, is on the shortlist for “most stupid thing I have heard in 2020”, and I’m not kidding.
John Morales says
Official UFO Disclosure “May Be Imminent” – A Historical Perspective
Yeah, it has never been clear to me why people make the automatic jump from UFO (unidentified flying object, ie hubcap) to Alien Spacecraft. As to Eric W. Davis, astrophysicist, just remember that Stella Immanuel (Dr. DemonSeed) is apparently a real physician and reportedly passed her med boards at one time.
Real nerds say “Dow Corning Dilatant Compound 3179”, 😛
I once saw a strange object floating towards me in the middle of the day back in the1960s probably during the UFO craze.
As it got closer it turned into an airborne plastic shopping bag.
BTW, why would anyone want be be covering up hypersonic cruise missiles. IIRC the Russians and possibly the Chinese already have some operational.
/Eric W. Davis, an astrophysicist
I would have thought a materials scientist or engineer would have been a better choice. I don’t think astrophysicists built a lot of planes let alone UFOs.
So we’re being visited by the alien equivalent of teenages is riced out honda civics shedding their body kit?
The first time I saw a couple of sky lanterns move slowly across the sky I contemplated whether it was the beginning of an alien invasion. Thanks to the internet that was cleared up in a few minutes.
call me mark says
I once saw a fleet of glowing orange “things” in the sky that were flying “like a saucer if you skip it across the water” exactly like Kenneth Arnold’s described his famous 1947 sighting. As they got closer I realised it was actually a group of seagulls with sodium streetlights reflecting off their undersides.
johnson catman says
If the US government was keeping secret UFO files from the public, you can be sure that The Orange Toddler-Tyrant would have revealed it to some Russian diplomats in a White House meeting by now.
Marcus Ranum says
Real nerds say “Dow Corning Dilatant Compound 3179”
I briefly genuflected in your unknown general direction.
I used to have a 25# block of the stuff I got from an engineer at Lockheed Martin. Apparently it’s used to shock-insulate some secret stuff or troll people – I don’t know which. But I dropped down a concrete stairwell and the sound was unusual. Probably sounded like aliens.
Reginald Selkirk says
That seems very unlikely to me. The thing about the periodic table is that it’s, well; periodic. Even if there were an element unknown to us (protactinium), we would have a reasonable estimate of what it’s spectrum would be like.
Reginald Selkirk says
Off-topic, but it’s been a while since you posted a blade-related post:
Katanin is an enzyme that severs microtubules. You know what it’s named after.
@Reginald Selkirk #19
That’s actually not quite the case with the extremely heavy elements the inner electron velocities start moving into the relativistic regime which in turn perturbs how the outer electrons behave. Because of this you get things like the fact that lead could not work in a lead acid battery if the it behaved like it’s cousin, Tin. The effect gets worse as you move into the transuranics. It’s part of the reason there is a set of research chemists like looking at actinides for new catalysts and the like. So elements that we have yet to synthesize might very well have spectra we haven’t even predicted. Because accurate dirac equation calculations of systems with 100+ electrons are very computationally intensive. Such things usually scale in difficulty faster than exponential, if my memory of the methods of numerical atomic physics is good.
Now, there are other reasons why they probably will not be able to synthesize new elements. We are rapidly approaching the range where they just fall apart. From compound nucleus experiments there is some reason to believe that for atomic numbers > ~200 the nuclear electric field is so strong it rips virtual pairs out of the vacuum to get the electrons (to capture to turn protons into neutrons) and so observationally looks like it just starts dumping positrons into the space around it. In less insane territory there are some predictions that around atomic number >173 the electrons have greater binding energy than their rest mass. This is either a sign that it is not physically feasible, or that something interesting is going to happen, the kind of interesting that usually involves significant disruption to the system that the interesting thing is occurring in.
There are nuclei larger than these limits, but they are bound by gravity, not the strong nuclear force, and I would hardly call them nuclei, they’re called neutron stars. As to the region between those behemoths and the nuclei / elements we know… It is possible nature will surprise us with unexpected stability in higher masses, but in these regions “increased stability” usually means half-lifes on the order of minutes instead of milliseconds. Thus, for a different set of reasons, it seems unlikely that aliens will come in a ship made of materials that we don’t know the spectra for.
Rob Grigjanis says
There’s nothing virtual about the pairs created. Julian Schwinger first did the calculation nearly 70 years ago.
Also, if the electron turned a proton into a neutron, there would be neutrinos as well as positrons coming out.
“””Well, I suppose that semitrailers lose the occasional hubcap, so a space-craft might, too. “””
Space Shuttles (both US and USSR) lost some heat shield tiles during their early test flights. Though not intentional the craft were fine. I doubt all the missing pieces were recovered – I’m not even sure anyone tried to – but there might be the odd farmer, park ranger or proud garden owner with an old heat shield tile on their mantlepiece.
As for aliens, if they travel between stars they can probably afford very generous engineering margins. So when they build ablative shielding, maybe big chunks do come off – by design, this time. As someone who has wasted a lot of time with Kerbal Space Programme, I know from experience that it can be very frustrating to find out at the end of a very long journey, that your heat shield isn’t thick enough or you didn’t bring enough parachutes. Speaking of half-arsed designs, maybe the aliens, for all their technology, would still use expendable Apollo-style landers. They’d set down on the White House lawn, be taken to Our leader” and, after a very brief and disappointing chat*, take off again, leaving behind a battered descent stage and some unwanted radioactive garbage.
*”The universal translator must be broken, captain. All I get from this being is garbled nonsene.”
Re: timgueguen (#4):
“As I’ve said before a species that can cross interstellar space to visit Earth in a practical tmeframe probably also has technology that would allow them to watch us undetected.”
Sorry, but that seems a non sequitur. It’s a bit like saying, because humans can build big aircraft, they can also build perfect stealth vehicles. Sure, there’s overlap and even a degree of dependency when a machine is expected to do two things at once. But both tasks are completely unrelated. I don’t need to know jot about flying to figure out stealth and vice versa.
It also begs the question why alien visitors should care whether they’re spotted or not. With humans, stealth is basically a military application, so unless we’re to be conquered (and even then) or they actually follow the prime directive, they might just not care enough to stay hidden. If aliens were poking around the solar system, the main reason for us not seeing them would be that we’re just not that great at monitoring space.
We’ve been trying for decades to locate all the (bigger) asteroids in our home system and track dangerous space junk right outside our own atmosphere. Even those are difficult and never-ending tasks and it is much harder still to look in the right direction at the right time to spot the approaching starship.
Baring weird new physics or a very long-lived species travelling slowly, an interstellar deceleration burn would probably look like a nearby supernova – visible to the naked eye at noon on a sunny day.
Sunday Afternoon says
@ jrkrideau, #13:
Speaking as a (lapsed) astrophysicist, you are quite correct! Notably, the area of physics specifically *excluded* in my undergraduate astrophysics course to make space for the astro stuff was solid state (crystals and condensed matter physics, ie: materials science!).
The start and then (symetrrically) the end of the Serenity movie
Springs to mind here .. “Did something just fall off my ship?!”
Of course, that’s science fiction but still .. plausible scenario for aliens too?
A story from back in the 70s was that an early camera pod was being checked out when the RIO spotted a strange shiny/ scintillating object. The RIO asked the pilot to turn toward the object and as soon as they did it dashed, at incredible speed, the other way. Every time they turned toward it it would move the other way. They had quite the story.
Right up until a technician pointer out that what they were chasing was a drop of condensation inside the plastic cover protecting the camera.
Look up “orbs” and how people think they are spirits that only show up on camera. Normal healthy people have claimed all sorts of stories about dead civil-war soldiers haunting locations based on “orbs” captured on cameras. In reality almost all of them are small objects, like dust or small insects, close to the camera and caught in the flash.
Another possibility is what happens when you use high powered lasers, radar, sound emitters and microwaves for various purposes and they interact with moisture in the air, thermal inversions and dust. There are all sorts of interesting visual effects at significant ranges.
Have I seen any UFOs? Sure I have seen a lot of flying objects and some of them I couldn’t rightly identify. I don’t think any of those were aliens.
I saw an unidentified flying object today. Then, I identified it.
“Whoop! Is that a kite?”
“Nope, It looks a little like a model airplane, but there’s no engine/propeller. It’s a hand-launched glider.”
“Wait. That thing is staying in the air for an awfully long time. Is it actually maneuvering? Could a radio controller be used to manipulate control surfaces and keep it in the air?”
“Well, it finally landed right in front of someone holding something in both hands. I’m pretty sure it’s a radio-controlled glider.”
[Search radio-controlled glider, loads of hits.]
It looked like it was made of foam. Adding “foam” to the search brought up more hits, most of which looked too complex to be what I saw. But there is this simple-looking DIY RC glider, which sure looks like it:
I would argue that there is a correlation, because one of the technological trends that we are following is miniaturization of both energy storage and sensing devices. If you want to cross interstellar space, especially with, say, robot probes, it’s most energy-efficient to do so with the smallest and lightest devices that will do the job. The end result, though, would probably mean that you would have monitoring devices that are stealthy by virtue of being very very small.