Sunday, 25 September 2011

Is there anyone out there?

Andromeda Galaxy
I was born 64 years ago the day before yesterday. I didn't want to write then, as it seemed a bit sad to be drawing attention to my birthday. Why two days later seems less sad is anyone's guess.

I decided to google, and find out what other momentous events took place on the 23rd September 1947 (look, my birth was momentous to my parents, OK?)

I came across a fascinating Top Secret document called, PROJECT 1947, sub-titled UFO Documents. It was a report from Lieutenant General N.F. Twining of the US Air Material Command to Brigadier General George Schulgen of the US Army Air Force. Twining had been asked to investigate reported sightings of "Flying Discs", and the report was his considered opinion.

In his opinion,
  • The phenomenon is something real and not visionary or fictitious
  • There are objects probably approximating the shape of a disc, of such appreciable size as to appear to be as large as man-made aircraft
  • There is a possibility that some of the incidents may be caused be natural phenomena, such as meteors
  • The reported operating characteristics such as extreme rates of climb, maneuverability (particularly in roll), and motion which must be considered evasive when sighted by friendly aircraft and radar, lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically or remotely
He goes on to describe their shape, formation, sound and speeds. He suggests that consideration must be given that these "flying discs" are of domestic origin - "the product of some high security project not known to this command". Also, "the possibility that some foreign nation has a form of propulsion possibly nuclear, which is outside of our domestic knowledge". He recommends that further, more detailed study is undertaken, and that funding for this should not interfere with existing projects.

Reports of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) have been around certainly since 1909, but it was a reported sighting by Kenneth Arnold on the 24th June 1947 that was a catalyst for the US Military investigation. He was flying in southern Washington in search of a missing marine plane, and said that he sighted nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation at 3pm. They were extremely bright, as if they were nickle plated, and flying at an immense rate of speed. By the end of July 1947, there were over 850 UFO reports, and while many of them have been shown to have been hoaxes, or genuine mistakes, approximately 150 reports made their way into the files of the US Technical Intelligence Department. It was all of these reported sightings that brought PROJECT 1947 into being. Lest you think that this is solely an American phenomenon, sightings were also reported from Scandinavia, France, Australia as well as other countries. A website has been created, called Project 1947, which aims to catalogue apparent sightings, and anyone interested can view the site here.

It was also in 1947 that many believe in Roswell, New Mexico, a spacecraft and alien bodies were recovered, and that this has been hidden by the Government for over sixty years. See here for more on Roswell. This conspiracy theory has been exploited by thousands of books and films over the years, and none better than the finest television series ever, which ran from 1993 - 2002, and occupied an hour of my life every Tuesday evening.

The X-Files. FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully explore 'unexplained' cases. Mulder is the believer that "other life is out there", having seen his sister abducted by what he believes to be aliens when he was aged 12. Scully is the medical doctor and scientist who is sceptical of there being "other life". It's this challenging difference between the two of them, and the continuing "plausible deniability" from the Government that made the programme so absorbing.

"Are we alone in the universe?" is a question that occupies the minds of many, including my own. Bill Watterson seems always to be quoted in any article on this subject, so I'll continue with the trend. "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us". It's a fun statement that shouldn't be taken too seriously. Leaving aside Government conspiracy theories that proof does exist about extra-terrestial beings; it's just being hidden from us, how possible is it to believe that we are not alone in the universe? Given the scale of the universe, it would be the height of human arrogance to unequivocally declare that no such possibility exists.

How big is big? The numbers are mind-blowing. I haven't counted them myself, but in 2003, the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union calculated that there were around 70 sextillion stars in the universe. We are told that modern telescopes can detect about 50 billion galaxies, each of which has billions of stars. These stars are spread over a very, very, very long distance. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 100,000 light years across. The closest galaxy to our own is the Andromeda Galaxy, which is two million light years away from us. This is all a big amount of space, and surely there has to be a smidgen of a possibility that we are not alone in all of that vastness.

Deniers of this possibility often speak of the impossibility of places sustaining 'life'. But what is the definition of 'life'? Why should it only be carbon based entities such as ourselves? Why? Here's something very technical for all you geeks out there. In 1961, Frank Drake, the astronomer and founder of the Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence (SETI), perfected an equation to suppose the possibility of other life in the universe. It's nonsense of course, as it's based on assumptions and guesswork. However, it's great fun. Here it is.

N = the number of civilisations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible, and
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fe = the fraction of civilisations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time such civilisations release detectable signals into space

Drake's equation means,

R* = 10/year (10 stars formed per year, on the average over the life of the galaxy)
fp = 0.5 (half of all stars will have planets)
ne = 2 (stars with planets will have 2 planets capable of developing life)
fl = 1 (100% of these planets will develop life)
fi = 0.01 (1% of which will be intelligent life)
fe = 0.01 (1% of which will be able to communicate)
L = 10,000 years (which will last 10,000 years)
N = 10 x 0.5 x 2 x 1 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 10,000 = 10

So, according to Drake's formula, there are ten civilisations in our galaxy (forgetting all other galaxies) that we might communicate with. Star Trek would call them "M-Class" planets. That was fun wasn't it?

Is there anyone out there? I've personally no experience of this. Are Governments across the world capable of cover-ups if some had been in touch? Of course they are.

Do I believe that we are not alone in the universe? Well, I want to believe. The universe is too huge for me to accept that we are all alone in this vastness.

I agree with Curtis Silver, who concluded an article last year with these words. "Of course, in the end, there's no way to really tell at this point whether or not we are truly alone. I think it's a bit arrogant to think that we are that special to be the only form of intelligent life in the universe, but hey, until we're shown otherwise (ie when the invasion starts) why not be selfish?" It's fun looking at the subject, isn't it? And as the X-Files says,

"The Truth is out There".

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