From Saturday’s Daily Telegraph: Whitehall may have decided that aliens don’t exist – but how can we be so sure?
I want to believe. It would be brilliant if the skies above us were filled with Zeta Reticulan lizards and Vulcans and little grey men in flying saucers. I’d like to be able to thumb a ride on a Vogon construction ship to Barnard’s Star. Planet Earth is interesting and all that, but while it’s nice enough for a visit, you wouldn’t want to live here.
It appears that the Ministry of Defence wants to believe as well, or at least it wanted to. In the Fifties it set up a “UFO Desk” in the RAF, and set about looking into reports of unexplained sightings in the skies for the next half-century. A near collision between a police helicopter and an unknown something over Birmingham; a mysterious “exploding blob” in the air over Wiltshire; a craft with “blinking lights, like a plane” (but not a plane, obviously) over a McDonald’s just off the A50. Inevitably, the UFO desk has come to be known as the British X-Files, although the picture of Mulder and Scully interrogating the burger chef at Uttoxeter services does not come easily to the imagination.
Sadly, though, the MoD’s proud search for alien life came to an end in November 2009, defeated not by cold-eyed men from shady government departments smoking ominous cigarettes in multi-storey car parks, nor even by the aliens themselves, but – perhaps ironically – by hippies. That year, a bumper 643 people claimed to have seen an Unidentified Flying Object. (It’s beaten only by 1978, when suggestible types were driven into a frenzy by the cinema release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 750 of them phoned up in a panic.) The trouble is that they didn’t really put much effort into Identifying said Flying Objects: researchers found that at least two thirds of those 643 potential alien spaceships could be explained without much difficulty as those paper Chinese lanterns beloved of Glastonbury festival-goers. Understandably, in these financially straitened times, it was felt that investigating hundreds of summer solstice parties was not a sensible use of military funds.
But, of course, the fact that the more inexplicable sightings had been drowned out by a great wash of flying lanterns does not mean that the aliens aren’t flying above us, or indeed walking among us. Indeed, those of a conspiratorial bent might suggest that if you were an alien trying to hide your own craft – and you couldn’t work out a way of turning off the flashing lights that they all seem to have, which must be a right pain from a stealth point of view – then flooding the skies with silly floating candle things would be a perfect diversion.
This argument doesn’t convince the MoD. (“No UFO sighting reported to [the MoD] has ever revealed anything to suggest an extra-terrestrial presence or military threat to the UK… there is no defence benefit in recording, collating, analysing or investigating UFO sightings.” Well, that’s us told, I suppose.) They seem to be more swayed by boring considerations such as: if aliens set off from Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, travelling 10 times as fast as the fastest man-made object ever, it would take them nearly 2,000 years to get here. And after a journey like that you’d expect them to do something more interesting than kill cows, draw stupid circles in cornfields and abduct vulnerable loners in the rural US.
The demise of the MoD’s Men in Black, or perhaps Men in Tasteful Dark Tweed, is understandable. The truth may be out there, but it’s probably not going to be found hiding behind a rain cloud over Market Drayton, Shrops. But it’s perfectly possible – sensible, in fact – to believe in the existence of alien life without believing that they’re running the government. (There is room here for an obvious joke about how they couldn’t do a significantly worse job than the current lot. Also, I’d suggest that super-advanced flying saucers armed with plasma cannons and photon torpedoes would be a handy addition to our currently underemployed aircraft carriers.) There are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and hundreds of billions of galaxies; the famous Deep Field Image photo by the Hubble space telescope, of a tiny area of the sky equivalent to a one-millimetre square drawn on a piece of paper held at arm’s length, showed thousands of them, scattered like sand. Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Even if a planet has only a one-in-100-billion chance of developing life, there’s probably quite a lot of it about, albeit a long, long way away.
Arthur C Clarke once wrote: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” But he was wrong: it’s far more alarming to think that we’re alone. That would mean we’re the only bit of the entire cosmos which is trying to figure out how the whole thing works. That’s more responsibility than I want for our somewhat dilettantish species; most of us are too busy watching 24 Hours in A&E, or ripping off Douglas Adams jokes for silly newspaper columns, to be entrusted with discovering the hidden truths of reality. But luckily, we’re probably not.
We might never know for sure, of course. There could be 100,000 civilisations in our galaxy, none of whom know about the existence of any of the other 99,999, because the distances involved are so ridiculous. But they, like the truth, are probably out there. Or at least it would be much nicer – and much, much cooler – if they were.