Lost in airspace: Our bearings, maybe, as UFOs make news

Published 6:46 am Saturday, June 8, 2019

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

For starters, let’s establish that “UFO” stands for “unidentified flying object,” nothing more. It does not indicate “extraterrestrial.” As far as is reliably known, one of the people to have come closest to encountering alien life-forms on this planet is Will Smith, who punched one out in “Independence Day,” saw to it that another was made mush in “Men in Black” and interacted with still others weekly as “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” The actor is probably relieved at this point to be appearing on screens as a genie.

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That doesn’t mean that UFOs are unserious stuff. As the New York Times reported last month, the U.S. Navy this year updated guidance to its pilots on logging unexplained phenomena, and several pilots spoke to the Times about their experiences near the East Coast. What stands out are sightings of objects that “had no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes, but … could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds … making sudden stops and instantaneous turns — something beyond the physical limits of a human crew.” One pilot said he “almost hit one of those things.”

The pilots saw the objects during training maneuvers in 2014 and 2015 off the coast between Virginia and Florida. The sightings ended after their aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, was sent to the Persian Gulf. Some of the incidents were videotaped, and the pilots’ reactions can be heard. Money quote: “Wow, what is that, man? Look at it fly!”

The Times reported that a separate video made in 2004 and analyzed by the military shows an object encountered by Navy jets off the West Coast near San Diego and described as a giant Tic Tac.

The pilots interviewed by the Times would not speculate about what the objects might be. One said that “we’re here to do a job, with excellence, not make up myths.” Other people, though, have suggested possible explanations ranging from drones, natural phenomena, radar artifacts or foreign surveillance beyond expected capabilities. Each of these surmises can be countered, though the last of them fires the imagination worrisomely.

As for E.T., what are the odds? A common way to guess at the number of other intelligent civilizations is with the Drake equation or its derivatives, which factor several inputs, some highly subjective, reducing the probability at each step but still producing results notably above zero. The equations don’t provide statistical certainty so much as show what it would take for such entities to exist — assuming they behave in a way that is detectable by us. A way to experiment with the idea is a visualization at the website Information is Beautiful (tinyurl.com/et-probabilities), where you can fiddle with the inputs. But remember, too, the Fermi paradox, which asks: If extraterrestrial civilizations are likely, where is everybody?

Maybe in front of us. Probably not. It’s good that the Navy is collecting data on what its pilots are seeing, but it’s best thought of as an example — with applications beyond the topic at hand — of being open to new and perhaps dubitable information while operating on the best knowledge available. After all, one thing that can be supposed of the future is the backtestable proposition that we’ll know things then we don’t know now.