UFOs are in the news again. Last month the Pentagon and NASA held public hearings into the phenomenon, discussing the findings of specially-established committees from both institutions. “We see these metallic orbs all over the world… making very interesting apparent manoeuvres,” said Sean Kirkpatrick, director of the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO).
If Kirkpatrick’s intention was to destigmatise the study of UFOs and bring it away from the tinfoil hat cliché, it hasn’t wholly worked. Governments plus UFOs often equals conspiracy theories, especially at a time when faith in official integrity is so low and state institutions are widely seen as mendacious concealers of truth from the common man. What’s the long game for NASA and the Pentagon? What do they know but are not telling us? And how much control do they really have over what they’re keeping secret?
Then again, UFOs are always in the news one way or another, for they speak deeply to our sense of humanity. We wonder what else is out there, beyond the limits of our senses and our technology, and we always have. Every age had its UFOs: ghosts, witches, demons, miracles. We know how little our ancestors understood, and in centuries to come our descendants will know how little we currently do. A Mayan walking on a Yucatán beach in April 1519 would have seen hills and towers moving about on the sea before disgorging men with unnaturally pale faces whose weapons shot out flashes of lightning at will and could split hillsides. An alien invasion? No: merely Hernán Cortés come to conquer Mexico. But the difference to that Mayan would have been moot.
There are many explanations for UFO sightings: stars, planets, aircraft, missiles, satellites, space debris, balloons, unusual cloud formations, fireballs, mirages, moon dogs, and many more. These explanations are scientific, dull, prosaic, and almost always correct. But they are not infallible. The rational and the irrational coexist in every one of us. Even Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of all, devoted years to studying alchemy and the occult.
Believing in UFOs, or at least in the possibility of them, is a necessary part of being human. Reflexive cynicism is easy but unfulfilling: a sense of wonder is emotionally vital. Arthur C Clarke’s third law posits that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and without magic our lives would be monochrome. “We all start out knowing magic,” said American author Robert McCammon. “We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out.”
As we send space probes across the universe, perhaps the favour is returned, like a cosmic dating app, Tinderstellar
McCammon’s emphasis on the natural world as a source of magic is pertinent. It’s no accident that so many alien sightings take place in landscapes which inspire awe, such as the vast high desert mesas of the American southwest. Many years ago I was running at dusk in Suffolk’s Rendlesham Forest, location of the UK’s most famous UFO sighting. It was a strange place: not necessarily a hostile one, but one which challenged me to slow my stride and tarry awhile, to overcome the fear of human superstition and the comfort of walls and a roof. A world of folk magic, of creatures half-believed and half-glimpsed: a world where this dimension might butt up against another, if only I could find the join.
We are always trying to place ourselves within a wider context. Everyone remembers Carl Sagan’s description of the earth as a “a pale blue dot… a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” but much less recalled is what he wrote next. “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach’s view is more positive. “It would actually be reassuring, at a deep existential level, to know that interstellar space travel is possible. That it’s something we might do someday. Alien visitors by their mere existence would imply that we can overcome our worst instincts (war, hatred, pollution, Twitter) and survive. It would be nice to know that the kind of intelligence humans possess, and which gives rise to technological civilisations like ours, won’t always backfire, that it’s not only a nifty evolutionary adaptation in the short run but something that’s durable. The aliens give us hope.”
Just as we send our space probes on their travels across the universe, so too would we like to think that somewhere out there the favour is being returned, like a giant cosmic dating app. Tinderstellar, perhaps. Are we alone? We don’t know. But just as the conspiracy theorist can never be satisfied that there’s no conspiracy, only one yet to be proven, so too can we believe that there is life out there: it’s just that we’ve yet to find it. And the more we look to the skies, the more we see inside ourselves.
Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now