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Regional Interests

UFOs: SETI Astronomer, Stanford Researcher, Aerospace Expert Weigh In

Sometime this month, military and intelligence officials will dip a toe down the UFO rabbit hole by releasing a report required by Congress to include every unclassified fact the government has gleaned about UFOs — now officially called UAPs, for unidentified aerial phenomena. The analysis was mandated last year after Sen. Marco Rubio included it in a bill to fund intelligence activities. The stipulation came on the heels of publicized encounters between U.S. Navy pilots and mysterious unidentifiable objects reported to maneuver well past the limits of present technology. According to stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, officials who were briefed on the upcoming report said the findings are inconclusive about what these mysterious objects are, but that a much-theorized extraterrestrial origin was not specifically ruled out.

Below are three interviews about these strange developments with professionals from different fields who have different takes on what’s going on. Seth Shostak is the senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, located in Mountain View, which searches for signs of intelligent alien life by scanning for radio or light signals in space. Garry Nolan is a professor of microbiology and pathology at Stanford who is currently analyzing alleged UFO artifacts. And Nick Cook is the former longtime aviation editor of Janes Defence Weekly, who specialized in covering the Pentagon’s black budget programs and made a TV documentary examining the relationship between top secret aerospace projects and UFOs. 

The following have been edited for length and clarity.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer, SETI Institute

Let’s proceed logically. First off, how much more likely do we think it is than, say, 30 years ago, that there’s life on other planets? 

Seth Shostak: When you think back 30 years, that’s more or less before the big discovery of exoplanets — planets around other stars.

But by 1995, there were articles appearing about finding planets around normal stars, and very quickly it became obvious that essentially all stars have planets. That’s the big change that’s happened in the last 30 years. This knowledge that habitable planets are probably as common as, you know, junk food. That doesn’t mean there are a lot of aliens. Given, say, a million planets like the Earth, how many of them will ever produce a species that can build a radio transmitter? We don’t know. But there are roughly a trillion planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Buy a trillion lottery tickets, you’re going to win.

Has this relatively recent development become part of the Drake equation in terms of figuring out the odds of some extraterrestrial life-forms existing that have the brainpower of humans or greater?

Ever since the Drake equation was written down by Frank Drake in 1961, the only term in that equation where you actually have more data now is the fraction of planets. But, you know, they were very optimistic back then and figured probably 100% of stars like the sun have a planet like the Earth. That’s actually close to what we now think is the answer. So, the Drake equation still remains totally determined by unknown quantities, parameters like the lifetime of societies and what fraction of planets with life cook up intelligence. We don’t know anything more about that than we did then.

But say, well, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out 66 million years ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because there was no reason that the dinosaurs couldn’t have gone on essentially forever, because they were quite successful and they were adapting; you didn’t need brainy beings. So that that’s a big uncertainty. Just because you’ve got a million worlds with life doesn’t mean that you’ve got a lot of worlds with intelligence. But nobody knows.

How far away might the closest habitable planet be?

The nearest other star is Proxima Centauri, and it has a planet in the habitable zone. The Breakthrough Listen people at UC Berkeley found a signal coming from the direction of it. Its most likely interference, but if it turns out that it is a real signal, then the nearest cosmic companions are only four-and-a-half light years away.

At our present rate of space travel, how long would that take us?

NASA’s fastest rocket,  the one that took the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto, went about 10 miles a second, which means you could be here in Mountain View from where you are in San Francisco in three-and a-half seconds. To take that rocket and go to Proxima Centauri would take 75,000 years.

Okay, given all that, are you quite certain we haven’t been visited by aliens, at least in our lifetimes?

Personally I am. But you know, about one third of the population simply disagrees with me. And it’s a highly emotional issue. I get emails every day from people who are having difficulties with aliens in their personal lives. Whether we’re being visited today, sure, a lot of people believe it’s true. But you have to ask, well, how good is the evidence? I mean, you could argue that it’s very difficult to do because of the time required for interstellar travel. Or you could also ask, why are they here now? Why didn’t they visit the Romans? On its face, it doesn’t strike me as a very reasonable assumption, but in the end, it depends on the evidence, and the evidence to me is not good.

That brings us to the present moment, where outlets like The New York Times, The New Yorker and “60 Minutes” have covered these sightings by Navy pilots. What do you make of the latest collection of evidence?

I watched “60 Minutes,” and I thought it was very one-sided. I’ve looked at the videos. They’re certainly intriguing; you see something in these infrared camera scope displays and so forth. But I’ve talked to people about that and, for example, the Tic Tac video, that could just be a twin-engine aircraft in front of the Navy jet. Because it’s an infrared camera, you’re looking at heat. So you’re looking up the tailpipes of a twin engine jet and it looks like a peanut from five miles away or whatever.

There are two things that you really have to watch out for playing out in the whole story of the Navy videos. One is argument from authority: “This is true because these guys went to flight school,” so they know what alien spacecraft look like. That’s when they bring on, you know, the former defense minister of Canada or Edgar Mitchell [two believers of extraterrestrial visitations]. You know, “He went to the moon.” Argument from authorities doesn’t work in science. Just because somebody says it’s true doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if it’s Einstein. I mean, look, where are the data? Show me the data.

The other thing is argument from ignorance. They say, look, we haven’t convinced you guys, you guys being the science community, and you tick us off by saying it’s all rubbish. But we know there is compelling evidence, proof that you would accept, other than the fact it’s being hidden by the U.S. government. You should believe us because we can’t show you the evidence. That’s a pretty weak argument.

Is it irksome to you that your life is dedicated to using science to try to make this very important discovery, while what you deem to be poor argumentation and a lack of evidence is being put out there to claim it’s already been discovered?

No, maybe because I’m used to it. I mean, I hadn’t been at the institute for more than a couple of months when a TV crew from some Fox show wanted to interview me. And I said, well, let me talk to the the boss here, who was the local NASA guy. He said, yes, it’s OK, just don’t let them ask you anything about UFOs. He was obviously sensitive to the issue. So they said fine, we’re not going to ask you about UFOs. They came down and they shot about two hours, and I thought, OK, they never asked about UFOs. But then I happened to see the show, and they had a housewife from the Midwest. And she said, “I was abducted twice by aliens,” and then they cut to me saying, “Well, we’re looking into that.” So I’ve been dealing with this for a long time. They invite me all the time to these UFO conferences; I don’t, as a rule, go. But I have spoken at, for example, ancient aliens [a conference].

You must be very unpopular. Do you get booed?

There was one guy who would write me. He’s a well-known person, you can hear him on the radio and TV often. He threatened violence. It’s very emotional. I think that’s almost more interesting than the question of whether there are aliens teasing our Navy pilots.

Why do you think it is so emotional?

My answer to that is probably not very good, but I think it’s partially empowering that Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch know something that those pointy-headed guys down at the local university don’t. Maybe that’s it. I mean, it’s certainly an interesting thing to know; it’s important, if true.

Let’s say when this report from the director of national intelligence comes out, it says, “We think that we have been visited.” What would be your reaction?

I would be totally gobsmacked, as the British like to say. I mean, honestly, I would say, you know, why don’t we see them? We’ve  got all 800 satellites looking down at the Earth all the time.

I honestly think that if we were hosting aliens in our atmosphere, we would know it 10 different ways from Sunday, because it isn’t that nobody ever looks up. Or that there aren’t hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers using their telescopes on every clear night. So it would be like saying to the chief Inca in 1533, “You think we’re being visited by Europeans?” Those guys knew they were being visited. It wasn’t up for debate.

Garry Nolan, professor of microbiology and pathology, Stanford University

So how did you get involved working on UFOs?

Garry Nolan: I was approached by some people representing the government and an aerospace corporation to help them understand the medical harm that had come to some individuals, related to supposed interactions with an anomalous craft. I had no expectation of this, but they came primarily because they were interested in the kinds of blood analysis that my lab can do.

What were your findings on that?

It turned out there couldn’t be any findings because some of the events had happened so long ago that the signal would be lost in the noise of time, and it just wasn’t worth going into.

You’re now looking into some alleged artifacts that came from UFOs, including a case from Jacques Vallee, perhaps the most famous UFO researcher. How’s that going?

You can think of it as almost like investigative forensics. Somebody claims something happened or didn’t happen. And so you use whatever psychological or scientific means to investigate and document the case. And in the case of some of these materials, they’re almost all metals that are claimed to have either been dropped by these UAPs, or somehow left behind. In the case of Trinity, two boys got into what they claimed is a craft and took a piece of it. And they’ve kept it since 1945. I come to it with no preconceptions. I come to it with, well, here’s how you do the analysis. Am I the best person to do the analysis? No. Absent an actual metallurgist stepping in, I’m willing to do the groundwork, to get preliminary results that might interest a sufficiently expert metallurgist to go the next step.

What can you say about the results of your analysis?

If people are expecting a spectacular smoking gun, this is not it. But the objective is to take even some of the most blasé cases and just create a pipeline of how this should be done, to demonstrate to people that you don’t need to come up with a spectacular answer. I mean, we don’t disprove anything with this case. It’s just not a case of this being an obvious piece of technology.

The things that interest me the most are the cases where there are claimed changes in the isotope ratios of given elements. The point I’ve always made is we don’t know why you would do that in the first place, because it’s expensive. And so if somebody is engineering isotope ratios for a practical purpose, I’d like to understand why, because that would be evidence of an understanding of material science that we don’t currently possess.

And so if you put together this idea of material science understanding that we don’t possess with some of the claimed observations of craft that do things that we don’t know how to do, it’s like catnip to somebody who likes to solve problems

If you come to a conclusion that is not supported by the facts or anecdotal, and start pushing an agenda, you’re only going to discredit yourself, because one of the things I’ve learned in looking at this area is that it’s way too complex to come to some Hollywood conclusion about aliens. As many people have said, the majority of the so-called sightings are likely to be mistakes. And so let’s get the mistakes off the table.

I’ve dealt with fake cases before. People brought me things that were clearly faked trying to make money. So it’s a fraught field.

How have your colleagues reacted to your work in this area?

A little bit the usual giggles, and some have said, “Garry, you’re going to ruin your reputation.” And my response is: I’m not making a conclusion. I’m just saying that there is data here that is anomalous and that somebody needs to explain. I’m willing to take the time to explain it.  What scientist takes something off the table? If the explanation is sitting there right in front of you and you decide to throw it away before you even come to a conclusion, you can’t really claim to be a scientist — you’re a cultist.

I think the crux of the whole issue here is: Why are we afraid of talking about it? It’s interesting that suddenly in the last year this has come to national attention. We train these pilots for tens of millions of dollars, and we entrust them with multimillion dollar pieces of equipment. Now people are coming to me who kind of giggled in the past, and they’re saying, “Garry, it looks like you might have been right. I’m really interested in this. Can you tell me more?” It’s a little bit more open now, and that’s a good thing. And if it is disproven, ultimately, I’m perfectly fine with that.

Are you aware of any other scientists who are working on UFO issues?

Dozens. And there are probably others who just don’t want to step forward. I’m the only one perhaps foolish enough to be a bit more public about it. Part of the problem is that there is no funding, so people are doing it on a nickel and a dime, paying for it themselves in their spare time. And I think that when people say, well, there’s no real results, it’s because nobody’s funded the question properly to get the results. As many people know, science is on some level capitalist in nature in that it will follow the money. If there’s money in research grants and things to be done, people will start investigating.

It sounds like you think there is really something to this phenomenon.

I think there is genuinely something interesting there. How to explain it, I don’t know. As Jacques once said, the problem with coming to conclusions is if you can come up with one counter conclusion or one counter observation, your whole set of conclusions can fall apart. So maintain your distance until you have all of the data. All I’m saying is there is data that is interesting.

Is it fair to say that your open-mindedness about this issue is a minority position among the scientific community?

I think it’s a minority position. But in my science, I always consider everything. I’m very much, “Keep it on the table.” So it might be a low probability, a 0.1% chance. If I throw it away and consider it impossible, then I might be limiting myself. That’s how I’ve succeeded, at least in my field. Not everybody works that way, and I don’t think everybody needs to. We need the skeptics. They are, in a sense, peer review. As long as they’re not pathologically skeptical. There has to come a point at which we agree there’s a proof point. We can still be proven wrong later.

Nick Cook, former aviation editor, Janes Defence Weekly, author of ‘The Hunt for Zero Point Energy’

What are the possibilities we might see in the U.S. intelligence report due out this month?

Nick Cook: Given that we haven’t seen the report yet, there are four possible options. The first is that it will largely fudge the issue and go for “nothing to see here, please move along.” The second is that there will be some declaration perhaps that this is classified U.S. technology that’s deeply secret. The third is that it could be Russian or Chinese, near-peer adversary technology that is streets ahead of anything that has been developed in the U.S. And the fourth is that it’s none of the above and that we are truly confronted by a bizarre explanation for these phenomena which defy rational explanation.

For that fourth possibility, what has been mentioned or at least hinted at is extraterrestrials. Is that what you’re talking about as well?

Well, let me couch that with a bit of a proviso, which is that there is a lot of skirting around what the fourth one is. So if  it’s none of the above and the explanation as put to Congress is not accounted for as “this is a big nothing”; or this is classified U.S. technology that we’re not prepared to discuss; or this is stuff that China or Russia is doing, we are left with “something else.” No one really wants to say, well, it’s not from here, therefore it must be extraterrestrial. But extraterrestrial itself is kind of shorthand for a much more complex explanation.

If this were merely visitations from entities from another planet or other planetary systems, of course that would be extremely interesting. But it doesn’t really account for the facts that these craft that are witnessed by very professional witnesses, predominantly the U.S. military, still exhibit facets which don’t really conform to just an ET explanation, that they’ve come from light years away from other star systems to here. Given the frequency with which these things appear in our airspace, it seems extremely unlikely to me and actually to a lot of other people who are having to confront this phenomenon that ET is an explanation. Does it therefore have to delve into an even more complex scenario? So, that last explanation, which is that it’s not from anything or anyone here on Earth, is replete with all kinds of bear traps, booby traps and unfortunate corollaries that Congress would then have to deal with.

But wouldn’t you say, given there isn’t a more mundane explanation, that it’s much more likely that this is either secret U.S. technology or adversarial technology from right here on planet Earth?

If I’m to be absolutely honest, it would be much more convenient if the Pentagon and the intelligence community could come up with a relatively rational down-to-Earth, so to speak, explanation for these sightings. However, that flies in the face of a lot of the data that underpins the phenomenon. These sightings, at least in the modern era, go back to 1945, sort of the end of the Second World War period. So we have a 75-year window in which this data has presented itself to us and in which people, including the Pentagon and the intelligence community, have had a chance to examine it. In order to say this has been developed by us, America, or by China or Russia, you have to acknowledge that the technology has been in existence for the last 75 years, and that is patently impossible. That is even more irrational than the ET explanation.

So you don’t see a possible analogue to these craft in the stealth planes that were developed in the black and went into operation before they were revealed to the public?

Stealth came out of conventional physics. The algorithm from which you derive stealth technology, whether that’s radar-absorbent material or the shaping of the aircraft, that is down to basic albeit clever math. If you apply that same sort of thinking to these anomalous aircraft that the Navy is coming up against, they defy our understanding of math and physics. So whilst there are similarities to the stealth story, there are also great discrepancies as well, because stealth, as weird as it was back in the early 1980s, was borne of rational physics, and the stuff these people are seeing in the skies now defies rationality if you apply it to our current understanding of physics.

It’s tempting to say that this has all been developed in the black. It’s so ahead of its time that you would want to keep it beyond unacknowledged. I mean, stealth was unacknowledged and deeply secret, but this would be such a quantum leap in terms of capability, you’d want to keep this buried for decades more. If we saw this stuff appearing in 100 years time, it would be soon. So whilst that is tempting, you look at what these people say they see, and these are qualified witnesses, military witnesses, to my mind, it just doesn’t conform to our understanding of technology development.

Technology development, broadly speaking, follows a fairly ordered pathway. And there are clues in physics and in science and technology and research and development that give even outsiders like us hints to what may be being developed in the black world. There are no hints, or there are very few hints, despite attempts by people to try and develop breakthrough physics, that this could have been developed in the black to the degree that it’s developed a performing aerospace vehicle such as are reported by these very credible witnesses.

So what are the attributes that these objects have reportedly exhibited that are outside the bounds of what we think of as our current level of aircraft capability?

The most significant attribute, I think, is that these craft, as they seem to present themselves, have no visible means of propulsion. There’s no propeller-driven source of energy; there is no jet engine attached to it. So when you look at the propulsion side of it, you are confronted by craft that just don’t have any analogues in our world. You go beyond that into other attributes that they exhibit, such as stealth and cloaking — these things, whilst plotted on radar, often vanish from it. People who are watching them occasionally say they’ve vanished before their eyes. That would not be a characteristic that you could pin to a conventional kind of aircraft. They are also capable of phenomenal speeds, in excess of Mach 25, which is the orbital velocity that a rocket needs to escape the bounds of Earth’s orbit. And they’re capable of high maneuverability and stop-start motion, so they can literally stop on a dime and then accelerate to phenomenal speeds, all of which, of course, is not recognized by any aircraft designer. And even when you apply those attributes to the classical world, where we have seen some of those things develop, such as stealth, and there have been efforts at least in the last 25 year to try and instill cloaking through clever camouflage means to aircraft, it’s the totality of all of those things that just doesn’t add up to anything that has been or could have been developed over the last few decades.

Have all these attributes you mention been documented by instrumentation or credible eyewitness accounts, even outside the recent sightings described on “60 Minutes” by the airmen?

Within the last two decades, the U.S., particularly the Navy, has fielded a new generation of sensors, particularly in the radar field and in the infrared field, which may have accounted for an increase in the sightings data. The airborne, electronically scanned array AESA radars of these F/A-18s, which have been going up against these craft, are relatively new. The technology itself is not that new, but they’ve been fielded within the last couple of decades. So it may be an attribute of the sensor systems that they’re picking up more evidence of these things. There are other sensors like infrared search and track systems. And then there’s the fusion of data that you get from within a fleet; that is all networked now. So even if your own radar on your F-18 is blinded or blindsided, to some degree, you can tap into offboard data from ships, from airborne early warning aircraft and even satellites, to give you a sort of fused picture of the battle space. And that may be eliciting more sightings data than we’ve had than before.

It’s quite interesting listening to Ryan Graves, one of the pilots who has come up against these things. He said even when he couldn’t pick them up on his own radar, he was fed off-board data from the rest of the fleet, either from an airborne early warning aircraft or a ship itself that suggested these things were out there in his airspace.

Have you talked with people in the defense industry about this phenomenon?

I’m no longer a journalist, but I’m a consultant in that field, and I’ve maintained a lot of links into the aerospace and defense world. So I talk to people a lot in and around the kinds of regimes where this sort of technology would be developed, if it were being developed. And they are predominantly as baffled as everyone else. So you have several bodies of people who should know about this stuff and who remain baffled — the pilots and the operational community, and the development community, insofar as I can speak to it. Even outfits known for the development of radical technology, like Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, appear to be baffled by this technology. Now, you have to caveat that with: It’s not impossible that this has been developed in the black. But on the balance of probabilities, when after you’ve spoken to all of those people who are all equally baffled by what is going on, and then you apply that to Congress, which should have, at least in some courses, some oversight of what is going on, and they are baffled, you’ve got to sort of shrug your shoulders and go, you know, whatever this is, it’s much more interesting than anything I’ve had an opportunity to examine in the course of a 30-odd year career in aerospace and defense.

So far, what we’ve heard from intelligence officials who have gone public with this, and from Sen. Marco Rubio, is that they worry about this phenomena as a threat. Is it a concern that these alleged incursions are being framed almost exclusively that way?

I think it is incredibly important that the military does not exclusively own this narrative, because it will begin to shape it to its own ends — the threat narrative will build and build. We’ve seen this before with Soviet bombers and Soviet ICBMs during the ’50s and ’60s, and you get a massive ramp-up in defense spending.

But there’s a corollary to that, which is that the intelligence community has a responsibility to examine threats. Are they right to sort of dwell on that unnaturally? No, I don’t think that is particularly helpful. But I think it is good to sort of bear in mind that when you have a quantum leap in technology and you don’t have it yourself, it behooves you to find out what this is, and in as much granular detail as possible.

Do you find this whole set of events disorienting at all? 

Yeah, I will confess to feeling disoriented by it, even though I’ve written books on exotic propulsion, and I’ve investigated and reported on the periphery of this sort of world. I’ve looked at highly advanced aerospace technology, the kinds of technologies that are being developed in the black. That can be a fairly discombobulating world in and of itself. It’s a world of sort of smoke and mirrors. But this is something else. When you’ve got mainstream media publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and we’ve got them over here in the U.K., writing about this.

In days gone by, I could sort of look at this stuff, read up about it, even investigate it a little bit, but then I could put it back in a box, and I could get on with my day job, and the balance of my orderly life was restored. But with so much information now coming out in the mainstream media, which has traditionally absolutely abhorred any idea of covering this topic, to see it with regularity in the headlines of those news outlets means that I cannot leave my safe, closed Pandora’s box on the side, because every day it is being opened for me by the mainstream media. And there I am having to confront these dark potential secrets, and potentially destabilizing paradigms of physics, science and reality, such as I have known them for the best part of my life. So, yes, it is disconcerting and discombobulating. And, you know, I just don’t know anymore what tomorrow will bring in terms of new headlines.

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