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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.