The Drake Equation versus the Fermi Paradox

When considering the possibility of life elsewhere in the galaxy and the proposition that such life has delivered some kind of surveillance spacecraft to our own world, (as many we interviewed proposed or endorsed in this episode), it is important to review the current “state of the union” with respect to astronomy, planetary science, astrobiology, and SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).  In truth, there is a tension in play that I am particularly interested in, which is the collision between two fundamental concepts: The “Drake Equation” and the so-called “Fermi Paradox.”

Briefly, the former is a famous attempt to roughly calculate the number of advanced civilizations in our galaxy based on known facts and “best-guesses.”  The guesswork is necessary when it comes to estimating factors like the number of worlds around other stars and the likelihood that life would evolve upon them.  With this in mind and often considering the Principle of Mediocrity, which states that our solar system is statistically more likely a common system than a rare one, there are so many stars in our Milky Way galaxy that the odds of intelligent extraterrestrial life is good.

However, in contrast to this possibility is the latter – a question posed by famed nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi.  Simply put, the Fermi Paradox asks if there are so many extraterrestrial civilizations out there, as alleged by many interpretations of the Drake equation, why have attempts to detect radio signals from them proved fruitless, and why have there been no definitive discoveries of extraterrestrial spacecraft and probes, satellites, etc.?  In short, “Where are they?”  This leads to the Rare-Earth Hypothesis, which suggests that the evolution of life required a very unique or rare combination of geological and astronomical events and circumstances, and therefore the odds of intelligent extraterrestrial life is poor.

Both possibilities are still scientifically on the table.  However, Fermi’s question is one that in my opinion bears significant weight.  For whether or not a person subscribes to pervasive conspiracy theories about governments concealing evidence of past “first contact” with alien beings or technology, such a proposition merely silences voices from the past.  It does not explain the lack of new information coming from many civilizations allegedly populating the rest of the cosmos, which is simply beyond the control of any human interest(s).

 

Side-by-side images showing this episode's featured "UFO" passing in front of a STS rocket plume. (Credit: NGT/Ben McGee)

 

UFOs and Considering the Natural World

Often, despite the fact that declaring an unexplained object to be a bug, bird, or conventional aircraft at a strange oblique angle sounds to many ears to be pedantic, the simplest solutions are in actuality the most probable ones.  Such is the case with the alleged “UFO” featured at the beginning of this episode.  Whereas many propose it to be evidence of some sort of non-terrestrial air(space?)craft traveling at incredible supersonic speed during a space shuttle launch (despite the fact that is does not create a sonic boom), a detailed visual analysis of the video indicates that the object is actually much smaller and in front of the rocket plume.

The object is traveling quickly enough that it is captured by the camera multiple times in a given frame, (i.e., it appears as a moving dashed line), which is related to the refresh and scan rate of the digital camera’s electronics.  With this in mind, consider the image on the left in the analysis above, which is before the UFO has crossed either in front or behind the plume.  The red circles outline where the subsequent streaks are predicted to appear if it is a more conventional object, like a bug, given the object’s apparent trajectory and rate of speed.  The image on the right, leaving the previous red circles in place, shows the UFO “streaks” superimposed on top of the plume, right where they are predicted to be, which one can see as a darkening of the pixels precisely in-line with the streaks in previous and subsequent frames.

In short, this “UFO” is little more than an interesting optical illusion of something much closer to the camera (that was spotted afterward by someone with an incredibly sharp eye), which explains why the object did not create a sonic boom – it was not actually traveling faster than the speed of sound.  In my opinion, it is likely a bug.  (This is Florida after all.)

 

Ben McGee talking with Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell. (Credit: NGT/Dave West)

 

Edgar Mitchell, Kepler Worlds, and the Possibility of Alien Life

To my great pleasure, we had the honor of interviewing Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell at the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, Florida.  This was a particularly poignant experience for me, as the reason I became a geoscientist and began performing geophysical fieldwork in the first place was with the hope of one day returning to and exploring the world closest to our own – the Moon.

During our conversation, Dr. Mitchell repeatedly stressed a point that did not receive in my opinion due attention in the segment’s final presentation, which was this: His belief in visitation by extraterrestrial life was simply an opinion, and one made based not on his own experiences but rather largely on modern scientific discoveries, such as Kepler worlds, and intelligent guesswork, such as the Drake Equation mentioned above.

The Kepler space observatory, which was launched in early 2009, is dedicated to the discovery of Earth-like planets around alien stars.  Since it began operating, it has discovered 61 planets that have been confirmed by other astronomical methods, along with a whopping 2,300+ additional possible planets that have yet to be verified by other techniques.    All indications are that the search for other “Earths” is just getting started and that many if not most star systems in our galaxy include planets.  In this sense, the former gaps or guesses in the Drake Equation are shrinking, and the possibility of life as we know it appears greater than ever.

As a hypothesis, there is no scientific disagreement with Dr. Mitchell’s proposition that alien life may be common in the cosmos. The Principle of Mediocrity as mentioned above may rule the day, and life may be common out there.  However, there are still hurdles to overcome as far as our understanding of just what the requirements are for life to evolve is concerned, and many of these are big ones.  As mentioned in the Rare-Earth Hypothesis above, life could still conceivably be quite rare.  With this in mind, concluding that such life exists and has traveled to Earth is a different proposition entirely.  Even as a scientist, to make such a statement – one that would be admittedly thrilling if true – is not a scientific conclusion, merely an opinion.

So, as for the impact this made on me, I must say that I deeply respect Dr. Mitchell’s opinion, but I’d need more scientific evidence before accepting his opinion as fact.

 

The many infrared sources and artifacts in the UFO surveillance scene featured in this episode. (Credit: NGT/Ben McGee)

 

Regarding Reflected UFOs

One of the factors that I have noticed receives the most neglect when it comes to investigating unexplained sightings is the equipment between an observer and an apparent “UFO.”  Particularly in the digital era, the camera itself adds layers upon layers of potential sources of strange lights (artifacts) recorded in any image.  From lenses to filters, and from the photosensitive circuits to any software processing involved, all are aspects that may be and often are responsible for a given UFO and must be doggedly ruled out before concluding that something “out-of-this-world” is going on in the sky.

Despite the reality that I didn’t get much traction with those I was with, the UFO captured during the evening in Florida was most certainly a reflection from the bright infrared cameras we were using while performing our stakeout.  In truth, the stakeout was a mess from an imagery perspective – there were strange flares and artifacts all over the images gathered that night, as can be seen in the screen-capture above.  The brightest infrared light source, circled in red, generated two opposing lens flares, which are identified by red arrows and moved in the direction of the red arrows off-camera as we walked from right-to-left.  Additionally, the second-brightest light source created a small reflection, which is what Ryder identified in the sky.  Both of these are circled in blue.

I say that this “UFO” is definitively ruled out as anything other than a lens/filter reflection for one simple reason – our movement is identical.  The “UFO” in the sky stops while we are stopped, and it only moves while we (the light source) moves, in exactly the same direction and at the same pace.  Finally, as our light is obstructed on the ground, the “UFO” disappears in the sky.  Open-and-shut.

While not a very fantastic explanation, it was admittedly impressive in the moment and highlights a very important reality: It’s of paramount importance, even when excited, to take a breath and work through all of the conventional alternatives.  It is all-too-easy to get carried away with excitement, declare a strange light a “find” and walk away.  A scientific background demands more rigor than that.

 

Alligators as seen at the Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue. (Credit: Ben McGee)

 

The Everglades, Swamp Gas, and the Superior Mirage

A rationale for our visiting the Everglades that was shot but not featured in this episode was to test the so-called “swamp gas” hypothesis for UFO sightings.  A famously-ridiculed explanation for UFOs, this refers to spontaneously-burning volatile gas released as a byproduct of the bacterial breakdown of organic material in marshy environments.  In reality, to accomplish this without an external heat or flame source is exceedingly rare and requires truly exotic chemistry.  However, we set out and collected soil and aerosol samples to take a quick snapshot at the decomposing organics in the area to see if it was even possible.

Ultimately, I must admit that I feel swamp gas is not a tenable explanation for the sightings people have had in the Everglades area.

However, the story doesn’t end there.  There is a second component to the swamp gas hypothesis that is frequently overlooked, which is that the burning gas must be made to appear as though it is in the sky – at the very least above the tree canopy.  To do this, there must either be a gargantuan fireball with enough burning gas to rise above the trees, or there must be an atmospheric optical illusion that makes lights that are on the ground appear to be in the sky.  Such an illusion commonly exists, which is called a “superior mirage.”

A superior mirage is the opposite of what people consider to be a “normal” hot street or dry lake-bed mirage, where the sky above is made to appear as though it is below the line-of-sight.  (This makes the desert appear to reflect the sky like water.)  In the reverse case, if a layer of air is warmer than the air directly beneath it (thermal inversion), then the atmosphere can act like a lens in the opposite direction, refracting the light from things on the ground up into the sky.  This sort of illusion has happened with a number of objects and light sources throughout history, from floating sailboats and mountains to lights from cars or campfires, making strange “orbs” appear to hover over the distant horizon in the sky.

Many forget that the atmosphere through which we look at distant objects can profoundly affect the appearance that reaches our cameras, telescopes, or eyes.  This in a simpler case makes city lights and stars appear to twinkle.  Street lights up close do not flicker, and neither does the sun, so why should cities and starry skies?  The reason they appear to change in intensity and sometimes even color at a distance (atmospheric scintillation) is because of the moving air between an observer and the light source.  Entire divisions of astronomy are devoted to understanding and correcting for these effects (adaptive optics), which are in many cases significant sources of error during scientific observations.

The take-home here is that on a world with a thick atmosphere, such as our Earth, seeing a light in the sky doesn’t mean the light was actually in the sky.  Reality can be much more complicated, and one must recognize that our atmosphere often acts like a lens.  From a planetary science perspective, then, seeing is not believing until you account for atmospheric effects.

 

The Apollo space program monument in front of the moon in Titusville, Florida. (Credit: Ben McGee)

 

Wrapping Up Florida

Despite what many often claim, I believe the scientific and exploratory impulse to walk on other worlds and consider the possibility of alien life is identical to that which drives those who make fervent and often very emotional appeals that such life exists and is already here.  In the sciences, the impulse simply manifests differently.  Few realize the frequent truth that those who scientifically attack an extraordinary claim the hardest are the same individuals that would admit in person that they would be thrilled should the claims turn out to be true.

From the perspective of scientific inquiry, assaulting an extraordinary hypothesis is the only way to keep oneself honest when peering into claims of the fantastic.  The history of science shows us that if such a claim is true, no matter how hard it is attacked, it stands up to even the most caustic scientific scrutiny and can even lead to a revolution in understanding.  If such a claim does not stand up, where the claim scientifically falls down often leads to researchers on an entirely unexpected journey toward an increased understanding of either the universe around us or human nature – or both.

 

Semper Exploro!

Ben McGee

_____

Ben McGee is a member of the Chasing UFOs team.  A true skeptic by nature, Ben is Chasing UFOs’ resident scientist. 

Get to know Ben and the rest of the Chasing UFOs team, Fridays at 10P et/pt. And be sure to check back to the blog Friday night for Ben’s post-show wrap-up.

Comments

  1. Dave E.
    Virginia
    August 4, 2012, 11:08 pm

    Guys, I have to tell you, your show is horrible. The only reason I keep watching is out of sheer curiosity – like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You guys spend more time looking down and getting spooked by the wild life in your night time ‘investigative’ settings than anything else. Ben, you are the ONLY voice of reason in this comedy act. And the producers, what is wrong with them? Playing Hawaiian music in a Florida setting?! Are you kidding me? My wife and I were howling! LOL That whole scene where you guys are sneaking up on the Space Center, what was that about? So then the show turns into this thing where you guys are getting chased out of sensitive areas. Its just plain stupid. Some of the supposed UFO footage is so blatantly identifiable its ridiculous. The supposed alien spacecraft flying by a shuttle launch… in a split second I said, “Insects!” and your teammates are all bug-a-boo’d over the aliens. Completely laughable.

  2. Stevie
    Canada
    August 6, 2012, 12:27 pm

    The stigma that used to surround the UFO subject, among others, has been disintegrating steadily faster even after the turn of the century. There is no question that there are very many people who have either seen a UFO, or believe that there are (un-marked) UFOs, or are otherwise interested in the subject. so by all means, investigate the phenomenon — it’s safe now. However, the viewer-ship is available without the need to sensationalize or manufacture evidence. As a personal standpoint, I am more interested in the research and the investigation than any real conclusion or “smoking-gun”, or even tangible evidence. The show does not need to shoot footage of a UFO in every single episode, and in fact it does more harm to its credibility if it does.

    The production team should take a page out of UFO Hunters. Choose one subject or one case, confine the focus so that you can cover all of the important elements in the case: talk to witnesses, go to the local library and research, go out to the scene of the event, take some samples, analyze samples, make appeals to the proper authorities, talk to experts, and so on. Most of the time, UFO Hunters do not come to a verifiable conclusion, but rather a more of a refined speculation. They do not let us down by not having a clear answer: the journey was entertaining as it was informative.

    Chasing UFOs on the other hand breaks off much more than it can chew, usually covering two expansive cases or more in one show. Too many questions are left unanswered by the viewer, and further, the time they do have to expound the cases are truncated by face-cam shots and wild animals, making much of the show wholly off-topic.

    UFO Hunters was replaced after History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” pilot episodes did extremely well, so they opted to replace UFO Hunters with Ancient aliens, the reason being that you cannot have two UFO shows on one network; otherwise I am confident UFO Hunters would have been produced for at least another season — the format was and is clearly viable on network television (if done right).

  3. Lee
    Detroit
    August 6, 2012, 11:31 pm

    Everything that Dave said. The entertainment value of this show is about like Wipeout. Just so silly it is funny to watch.

  4. Tod Crean
    United States
    August 7, 2012, 2:16 pm

    What are Erin Ryder’s professional credentials? She is about as annoying, pretentious, and stupid as one can get. She must think that this show is a spinoff of “Destination Truth” . All fluff and no facts. You need to take those stupid personal cameras off of the investigators. Why are there so many night tapings? This could be a great show with a lot of credibility if you would knock off the silly dramatic antics. Oh yeah, get rid of “Ryder”. What woman would rather be called Ryder than Erin? That should tell you something.

  5. Tod Crean
    Waukesha, WI
    August 7, 2012, 2:26 pm

    Did anyone notice that Edgar Mitchell had a very obvious booger in his nose while the team was interviewing him. He had a little green man up his nose I guess. Thank you HDTV we finally found the smoking gun.

  6. Alien Invader
    Orbit
    August 10, 2012, 5:46 pm

    Am watching this show for the first time and, 20 minutes in, it serves as well as any of the other mindless, wholly unbelievable ‘reality’ comedies that populate tv when one wants to while away completely unproductive hours. These shows serve as the lightest form of entertainment for most of us but what is sad is that ultimately such programs bank on the truly mentally limited and impaired who take them seriously and as presentations of truth. They knowingly exploit the simple-minded and disingenuously propagate conspiracy theories. However common and widely accepted this drivel may be these days, it is truly, gut-wrenchingly sad to see National Geographic attaching their name to it. At some point, such irresponsible activity will result in some form of tragic real-world consequences as that delusional target audience will feel spurred to action.

    As for this specific episode, c’mon people. Do you REALLY think that clearly educated, coherent people would film themselves violating incredibly sensitive federal homeland security laws (as they indicated they were doing in their alleged approach by water to NASA’s Cape Canaveral facilities) and then broadcast it on national television?!? Really?!!?

  7. Brian Murphy
    Tucson Arizona
    August 10, 2012, 5:56 pm

    The Chasing UFO’s team needs to be advised when looking into the skies. I was tricked when I saw a brilliant night light appear out of nowhere in Tucson arizona one night while sitting in my hot tub. it flew over me without sound and after 20 seconds simply vanished.

    Good thing I shared this experience with a friend who was working on a local military base told me that was the MO of a preditor drone. Flying low, when looking to identify smugglers or border crossers closer, it switches on a brilliant spotlight then switches off when confirming targets closer up. No sound, no flashing lights….pure military drones looking out for our national security.

  8. Drew
    MA
    August 21, 2012, 2:13 pm

    U guys are dum take a look at the video Ryder took at the police mans house and instead of looking at the plane look at the top right hand corner of the screen and it shows the very same thing the police man saw with his wife next time open up your eyes k.

  9. Gord Seifert
    October 11, 2012, 1:24 pm

    This doesn’t apply to this episode, but to the untitled episode that begins with the ‘UFO’ that ‘crashes in the desert’ after one amazing bounce. That video is really quite interesting. About the only things I have seen on this whole series that was. But at 8:35, as a military witness tells his story, a B36 bomber is shown, as if it is the plane he was in at the time, and then as the witness continues his story, “We did a climbing right hand turn”, a B47 is shown as if it is supposed to be the same plane. Come on! Doesn’t anyone who puts this garbage together care at all? Just one more example of why I will not be watching this series or anything else on National Geographic channel in the future.