Are we alone? Unfortunately, neither of the answers feel satisfactory. To be alone in this vast universe is a lonely prospect. On the other hand, if we are not alone and there is someone or something more powerful out there, that too is terrifying.
As a NASA research scientist and now a professor of physics, I attended the 2002 NASA Contact Conference, which focused on serious speculation about extraterrestrials. During the meeting a concerned participant said loudly in a sinister tone, “You have absolutely no idea what is out there!” The silence was palpable as the truth of this statement sunk in. Humans are fearful of extraterrestrials visiting Earth. Perhaps fortunately, the distances between the stars are prohibitively vast. At least this is what we novices, who are just learning to travel into space, tell ourselves.
Cover of the October 1957 issue of pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. This was a special edition devoted to ‘flying saucers,’ which became a national obsession after airline pilot Kenneth Arnold sighted a saucer-shaped flying objects in 1947.
I have always been interested in UFOs. Of course, there was the excitement that there could be aliens and other living worlds. But more exciting to me was the possibility that interstellar travel was technologically achievable. In 1988, during my second week of graduate school at Montana State University, several students and I were discussing a recent cattle mutilation that was associated with UFOs.
A physics professor joined the conversation and told us that he had colleagues working at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, where they were having problems with UFOs shutting down nuclear missiles. At the time I thought this professor was talking nonsense. But 20 years later, I was stunned to see a recording of a press conference featuring several former US Air Force personnel, with a couple from Malmstrom AFB, describing similar occurrences in the 1960s. Clearly there must be something to this.