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Alien to Logic PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Phil Plait   

I am frequently asked if I believe in aliens and UFOs. I shock most people by saying "Yes, and no." Alien life, somewhere in the Universe? Sure! But flying saucers whizzing by Earth, stopping just long enough to trample our wheat stalks and to pose for blurry photos?

Nope.

My friend David Mosher over at Discovery Channel's blog collective asked me to write up my thoughts on this, and I obliged. Pardon this rather rude redirect, but you can read my thoughts over there.

Here's an excerpt:

As far as aliens go, I suspect pretty strongly that there's life in space. We know of over 300 planets orbiting other stars, and we've only just started looking. In our Milky Way Galaxy alone there are probably literally billions of planets. Life on Earth got started pretty rapidly, relatively speaking, after the crust cooled and liquid water formed, so we know it's not tough for life to get its start... and it's entirely possible there is microbial life inside icy moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn.

So thinking aliens exist has a pretty decent scientific basis. But them coming here is an entirely different beast.

I'm amazed at how much heat I take from the UFO community over this sentiment. As I have said over and over again, all I really want is evidence. You know, something solid to hold in my hand that says, "This came from out there." Evidence.

I suspect that'll never satisfy people who believe UFOs are alien spaceships. But maybe my post at the Discovery Channel blog will help; I simply and briefly lay out my reason for thinking that if aliens exist, they have better things to do then imitate Venus or hot air balloons.

At least, I hope so.

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Earth
written by dimmer, November 29, 2008
"Nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there."
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written by TDjazz, November 30, 2008
I have to politely disagree with one of your answers to the question of whether you believe in aliens and UFOs. I would answer yes to both, the latter part of UFOs because I frequently see UFOs--I see objects that are flying which I can't readily identify...that they are aliens from another planet is something I don't believe.
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written by kedo1981, November 30, 2008
I once had a discussion with a co-worker (a UFO believer) that went something like this.

Me: I’m pretty sure there is life out there somewhere, but also sure that we are not being visited.

a UFO believer: What do you mean, of course they are coming here, look at all the sightings, abductions, cattle mutilations, Hollywood movies (I’m not making that last one up, evidence for UFOs are all the movies about them?), they all can’t be fake.

ME: Well yeh they can and besides if a spacecraft that can travel from one soar system to another were to come to our solar system we would probably be able to see some kind of energy blast or something like a super high energy contrail from a jet plane.

a UFO believer: They just have technology we don’t understand.

Me: But they still have to obey the laws of physics, the ship needs energy to move and then the same amount of energy to slow down, that is what we would detect, the aliens would broadcast their arrival by bathing the whole solar system with radiation.

a UFO believer: No they just warp space like on Star Trek.

ME: That’s just a tv show dude, look at it this way, to even close to the speed of light a small “Roswell size ship” would need the like the energy of millions of nuclear bombs, the USS Enterprise would need about the energy from a sun to warp space and then come to a orbit around a planet.

a UFO believer: then they must use something beyond the laws of physics.

Me: Then you might as well call them angels.

a UFO believer: Oh I believe in ANGELS.

Me: coffee’s over, back to work
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Billions
written by DZiemke, November 30, 2008
In Phil's article for Discovery, he makes the point that there are likely "...billions of planets out there". And that's an accurate estimate based on the number of galaxies, stars, and planets discovered to date.

But what most people don't understand when they read something like that is how much 1 billion really is. It's a huge number, and hard to put in to perspective. With just one letter difference, it sounds like a Million and the number gets thrown around as a single thing when talking about everything from corporate profits, to net worth, to government bailouts.

So when people are comprehending the thought of other life out there, and they understand Earth is just one planet among "billions", it's important they put in to context just how many more planets that means. This might help them understand that if our planet has just the right mix of "the stuff of life", isn't it likely there is some other mix out there that can sustain life too?

Whenever I can, I try to illuminate others to the difference between 1 million and 1 billion. And I do this referencing something from John Allen Paulos' book "A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper". In that book, he compares 1 million seconds to 1 billion seconds. When I first read it, being the skeptic I am, I had to do the math myself to confirm it, and I found it very enlightening. I like to reference it when I can. For example, I occasionally get the chance to present to K-12 students about science and technology, and whenever I do I like to ask them if they know how much a million seconds is and how much a billion seconds is. Some come close on the million seconds, but nearly all don't even come close on a billion seconds.

One million seconds is about 12 days, but one billion seconds is nearly 32 years.

I think that comparison, which takes a number and puts it in perspective of time (you can also use Height or Weight, or some other tangible measurement), helps make it "real". So my hope is that people think deeply about the very likely reality that there are "...billions of planets out there". If we could somehow safely visit and explore each one of those planets every second, we'd be doing so for at least 32 years, but more like 64 years or maybe 96 years. And isn't it likely (dare say Highly Likely) that we're going to find some evidence of life out there on at least one of those visits?

I think so.
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written by Shrike, November 30, 2008
@TDJazz

I don't think the answers are respectively, as in Yes to aliens, no to UFO's.
I read more Yes and no to both (especially if you read the article).
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written by Kuroyume, December 01, 2008
Phil said "In our Milky Way Galaxy alone there are probably literally billions of planets." And I tend to agree. This ONE star has (arguably) nine planets. The Milky Way Galaxy has an estimated 100 Billion stars! If even 1 percent had 10 planets, that would be 10 Billion planets. So Phil is correct in his assessment. The universe, on the other hand, probably has many trillions of quadrillions of planets!! Think upon it.

I also agree (and UFOlogists use this to their advantage) that UFO = "Unidentified Flying Object" whereas usages of "Flying Saucer" and "Alien Spacecraft" are more direct hypotheses - yet unproven in any form whatsoever. We've all seen many UFOs but I doubt anyone has see a real extra-terrestrial spacecraft originating from another planet. Evidence is not just sparse - there is none.
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Comprehension
written by TDjazz, December 02, 2008
I don't think the answers are respectively, as in Yes to aliens, no to UFO's.

To Shrike: But Mr. Plait did just that--his intention is clear. I don't want to use this blog to go off topic and get into a dialog about English comprehension, but please read the first and second paragraphs again.
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written by JoeTheJuggler, December 02, 2008
In the second to last sentence, "then" should be "than".
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alleged behavior of aliens unlikely, too
written by Trish, December 02, 2008
Besides the vast distances and speed-of-light speed limit that make frequent visits from extraterrestrials unlikely, there's the behavior that the aliens suppposedly engage in: weird, semi-sexual, semi-reproductive acts performed in the middle of the night.

While earthly genetic tech has advanced - we can get DNA from pretty much any cell - these supposedly advanced creatures use huge, painful aparatus on subjects who feel the procedure and are only made to imperfectly forget the experience later. These creatures also steal fetuses to raise themselves.

But, as we learned from Star Trek [and Genesis?] human women are the hottest babes in the universe. Everybody wants a piece of us.
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Its the distances that boggle the mind
written by Bill Henry, December 02, 2008
Well, i for one new that 32 years is about 1 billions seconds ...

The moon is 385,000 km away. (it would take many hours to walk that far). The nearest star is 100 million times as far away.

The galaxy is 25,000 times bigger than that.

The nearest galaxy to ours is 20 times farther than that.

The universe is probably about 10,000 times as large as that distance.

Incomprehensible personally.

The idea I like is pointing out that light can get to the moon in a little over a second.

Yet light that left he sun when that Jesus fellow was around is still only 2% of the way accross the galaxy. Damn thats a big place. And mostly empty.
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Word and expression change their meaning with time
written by Aepervius, December 03, 2008
Yes UFO=Unidentified Flying Object=Could as well be a Frisbee disc. But in popular mind, and in the media, UFO has come increasingly to means Alien Spacecraft. I think it is a losing battle to try to differentiate both when the other side has already won the "vocabulary" battle. Just like Hack/Cracker. This is why when I answer such post, I always nowadays avoid "UFO" but plainly write unknown object.
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written by pxatkins, December 03, 2008
"Life on Earth got started pretty rapidly, relatively speaking, after the crust cooled and liquid water formed, so we know it's not tough for life to get its start... "

Compared to where else? This entire thing commits the error of assumption; with only a single instance of life one cannot calculate probability of it existing elsewhere.
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written by Kuroyume, December 03, 2008
You are making the assumption of 'special circumstances' implying that Earth, out of sextillions(+) of possible other planets is the only one ever in the history of the universe capable of forming life upon it? While I will accept that we have only one example, we have only just started looking and examining the entire principle. And the universe is big and far away - it could take millenia to find other examples of life. The probability (based on chemistry, planetary formation, etc.) is strongly in favor of life having come into existence more than once. Redo your probabilities, please...
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written by DZiemke, December 03, 2008
I agree, Kuroyume. If this was a Vegas bet, I'd take it in a second.

"written by Kuroyume, December 03, 2008
.....The probability (based on chemistry, planetary formation, etc.) is strongly in favor of life having come into existence more than once. Redo your probabilities, please..."
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written by tctheunbeliever, December 04, 2008
I've always thought that maybe if more Creationist sympathizers had a feel for big numbers, they wouldn't find evolution so unlikely. 4 billion is a lot bigger number than 6 thousand. But when ignorance is considered a virtue.....

And on the subject of "others" coming to get our women, that sounds familiar----it has long been a well-attested fear of racists. (If you were implying that already, Trish, please forgive me for being Mr. Obvious.)
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written by rancemohanitz, December 05, 2008
Space is infinite, and it is certainly possible for intelligent life to have evolved on other planets. However, the likelihood that any intelligent life is developing spacefaring technology in an area close enough for it to reach us, during the time that we are sufficiently evolved enough to comprehend it, and before the time that we destroy ourselves or are destroyed by our sun, is not very probable, even in an infinite space. The probability that this life would be remotely humanoid is tiny. I miss Arthur anyway.
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written by pxatkins, December 05, 2008
Kuroyume, you're just repeating the error.
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written by Kuroyume, December 05, 2008
There is evidence, albeit very controversal, that life may have existed or might even still exist on Mars. No assumption there, though it does still require more verification.

Still, I'm not using assumption and logic. I'm using probability and statistics against the numbers, physics, and chemistry. And that says that the chance of life having started on some other planet somewhere besides Earth is pretty good. We have one example already: Earth. It demonstrates that, indeed, life can start, evolve, flourish, and even reach sentience given time, lots of serendipity for sure, and a few well placed asteriod impacts and other catastrophes. And little seems to stop it, disaster after disaster, life here has continued for 3.5 billion years.

In other words: the probability that there is life in the universe is 1.0 (we're here, heh?). The probability that life exists elsewhere in the universe is NOT 0.0. Based on evidence, no, we can't say for sure. Based on statistics, that we might find more and more evidence is likely. Dismissing it out of hand is maybe proper logic but improper probability. We have a *few* more planets to find and check (sarcasm: a few quintillion) and that search and determination is not a quick and simple one - it may take millenia. And humans may not succeed in that before we pass on into the great void of extinct species.
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written by peteril, December 05, 2008
Phil,

most of the responses I see fellow sci/eng types write about questions of UHF existance use the same type of objections you did in this piece,
and I also use them whenever some asks me the same question. But I think we need to also discuss the physical impossibility (or at the very least improbability) of interstellar travel. You know as well as I do that the physics, along with the limitations of biological life processes make interstellar travel nothing but a fantasy. The distances, the time involved, the physics of celestial mechanics and any conceivable methods of propulsion, the radiation environment, Special Relativity, material science,,,, you name the field of science, there is a problem. And the problems are all HUGE. (Ex: simple how to make any machine that can function for 1000's of years). When I point these things out, the next inevitable question is,,,, well in the future they will think of something (like how to defeat SR and travel faster than light,,,, never mind the issues with interstellar dust grinding away at the spacecraft any velocity anywhere near C !!!) I usually counter such silly questions with,,,, "Oh you mean the magic wand effect !" That usually stops them cold, and makes them think.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is perhaps the next time someone asks you to write about UFO's maybe a little physics lesson for laypersons might help. I find if you take the time to put things in english, most curious people will listen and at least try to understand.

Of course the real looneys will never be convinced, but the average person who simply doesn't know any better might.
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written by Trish, December 05, 2008
Hey tctheunbeliever - when I mentioned the aliens' desire for human female flesh, the racist angle didn't occur to me. I was really thinking earth/nonearth beings, and the unlikeliness that our DNA would be of any use to such beings.

It's amazing to me that, while certain aspects have evolved over time - aliens' appearance more & more consistent with the cover of "Communion", more than one "species" of aliens working together, to name two - the use of 1970s nightmare scenarios of IVF, clumsy, complete with painful aparatus & procedures, sexual overtones & hybrid babies remain the same.
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written by DZiemke, December 06, 2008
I don't think we should rule out completely that there is some technology, or manipulation of the laws of physics, or further knowledge we will gain to achieve some of the things we now think impossible. People thousands of years ago must have thought travel to the moon was impossible. I agree there are a ton of problems to solve with interstellar travel, and it's highly unlikely we've ever been visited by aliens from another galaxy. But science is the relentless pursuit of hypothesizing, testing, and establishing new understanding. And if some of the given laws of physics we have today can be broken or modified or thrown out to re-write our view of the world, it will be, and it won't be the first time.

written by peteril, December 05, 2008"But I think we need to also discuss the physical impossibility (or at the very least improbability) of interstellar travel. "
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I don't think anyone's rejecting the possibility of alien life or galactic travel
written by Trish, December 08, 2008
DZiemke, I don't think anyone is totally ruling out the possibility that we might discover or be visited by aliens, someday. We just find the evidence presented to support the claim that they've been visiting since 1947 to be rather thin. I personally find bizarre the behavior that the aliens have been accused of: abducting people in the middle of the night
performing crude & painful procedures on those they abduct
causing partial amnesia that can be removed by verbal suggestion
creating a secret hybrid species
not meeting openly with representatives of either national governments or international bodies like the U.N.
not making themselves available to the media, and leaving not a single piece of unambiguous physical evidence of their presence

Also unlikely, the idea that the U.S. or any other government, could keep secret the presence of alien corpses or live aliens for decades on end.

And if the aliens, as accused, have such superior technology & plan to take over the earth, they sure seem to be taking their sweet time about it.
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oh, one other thing...
written by Trish, December 08, 2008
I also notice that the times when the largest number of sitings was when our radar technology was in its infancy. As technology got better, instead of seeing *more* things in the sky that could be identified as ships, we see fewer...
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