Thinking About UFOs and Alien Visits

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

It’s funny how things happen. This essay resulted from a pingback. If you, like me, had not heard this term before, then welcome to our new age of Internet media. “Ping” is an old word based on resemblance to a sound. It was certainly used extensively during World War II to designate a sound emitted by sonar that would be bounced back by objects. The time required for the ping to make the round trip gave the distance. The high frequency of the ping meant that the signal was more directional because low frequencies tend to spread more.

More recently, I encountered ping in Internet activities. A Unix utility is called ping, and it sends a signal out to an Internet protocol (IP) address. If the address is active and responsive, you get a signal back. Hackers troll the Internet by sending pings to all possible Internet addresses to find out which are in use. They then may attempt to hack into the servers they find. If you have a server and Internet router, as I do, you may tell the router not to respond to pings and thus make it invisible to such searches.

The word “ping” has expanded and morphed into pingback meaning that you receive notice when someone puts up a link to your site. You then put a link to theirs in your comments section — or not.

In this instance, the article that referenced my “Mars: One-Way or Round-Trip” article was from a URL (universal resource locator) called, clearly a site that deals in UFOs and alien sightings. The article is titled “Alternative 3:  Evidence that We were on Mars in 1962.”

My first response was laughter. In 1962, there were a few satellites in orbit and the Apollo program has just begun in response to President Kennedy’s challenge to put men on the Moon by the end of the decade. On the Moon, not Mars!

As I read the article, I found that it was entirely about an April Fools’ Day joke movie produced in the U.K. but released late due to scheduling difficulties, in 1977. So, we have a 1977 movie made as a joke citing people on Mars in 1962. Yet, I found a rather long article about this entire episode on this UFO-oriented site. What could they be thinking? 

Near the end of the movie, starting during minute 48, it shows footage of what is described as a landing on Mars. You are looking through a rounded rectangular window at a barren surface as the vehicle swoops toward a landing spot. Finally, it lands and focuses in on a small patch of dirt.

Here it is — the climax of the spoof. You can see what appears to be a mole burrowing through the surface of the red planet. It’s “life on Mars.” There are quick concluding remarks and credits afterward.

Why did this site pick up on this 36-year old movie? Are their claims valid? Are any claims of UFOs and/or alien visitation on Earth valid? How can we know?

I’ll pick up the story beginning with a quote from the article.

“It was quite evident at the end of the movie that something was fake because almost every single person filmed on the show was an actor, not genuine footage.”

Fine. I have no problems here because the entire movie was faked. However, to understand well what this site’s author has in mind, I have to quote an entire paragraph:

What you will see on this tape may do for you what it did for me – my hair stood on end (I believe this is an indication of the truth). It shows the view through a window of some kind of flying vehicle that is flying over the surface of Mars. You see a blue sky and you can hear American and Russians in the background cheer that they have found life on Mars, when they see a small burrowing animal on the ground.

We all can be quite certain that no Earth-based or Earth-built spacecraft was anywhere near Mars in 1962. We hadn’t even reached the Moon until 1959. The first manned landing there was ten years later. Yet the site insists that the short bit of film is fact despite the entire movie being a grand hoax. Their logic is based on a belief in a particular concept and a desire to prove that concept. The concept is that UFOs are real and represent visits from outer space. If you read the entire article, you will find some parts that are somewhat paranoid: mysteriously lost documents, tapped telephones, sinister intelligence agencies, and getting too close to the truth.

The plot line of the hoax movie has this ultimate video clip initially being static, but a discovered printed circuit board discovered somehow allows it to be decoded into what is shown, complete with English and Russian commentary. The hoax plot line also has a number of scientists disappearing mysteriously.

Here’s where things get really strange in the article. I cannot quote because it goes on for several long paragraphs. The argument basically begins from the conclusion and back to the conclusion using fictional plot lines to support it. For example, it argues that the movie was not made in Hollywood (or the British equivalent) because it was kept so secret that people were being killed over it. But there’s no evidence of anyone being killed except for the fictional movie.

There’s a book, Alternative 3, to go with the movie. It’s out of print in the U.S. So, the article argues about why was the book banned in the U.S. But it wasn’t banned; it simply went out of print due to lack of sales. Based on this flimsy evidence, the article continues by assuming that the tape is real. (Is this article an April Fools’ Day joke too? But it’s not April yet.)

The article writes of lack of window bolts and the large size of the window to prove that this is a flying saucer. It does the same regarding the motions of the scenery. It even takes the brief moments of static between scene changes as meaning that “UFO’s are controlled by high intensity electromagnetic fields.” (Gee. Doesn’t everyone know that!)

There’s even readouts in English and Russian on the screen giving the temperature (4°C), low wind speed (21 km/h, which is about 12 mph), and air pressure (707.7 millibars or about 70% of Earth pressure). Then, there are the circular landing pads visible (obviously designed for saucers despite helipads having the same shape) and a building.

If you’re seeking a particular pattern, many things can appear to match that pattern. In this case, the pattern being sought is that of UFOs and alien visits. Ignore contrary evidence and interpret, even twist, other evidence to support your expected pattern. This case is somewhat extreme, but we must recall that science has had many such issues. There was “cold fusion” not so long ago. The scientists involved hoped for fusion and they “found” it. But it was all just interpreting data as they wished it to be.

On the other side, we have geologists strongly denying that the continents moved in just the last century. They claimed that such enormous masses could not move despite the evidence surrounding them. This dogmatic viewpoint must be fought by scientists because it creeps in quietly and settles down on an establishment and quashes innovation. We saw something similar regarding the asteroid hypothesis of dinosaur extinction.

For these reasons, we should be careful in debunking the ideas of others while retaining a healthy skepticism. So, I’ll go over the evidence that we can see.

1. Blue sky. (See first quote above.) The Martian sky is not blue but rather a reddish color as many images from Martian landers have shown. The video clip was certainly made where blue skies predominate, i.e., Earth.

2. Air pressure. The air pressure on Mars is about 6 to 10 millibars, much less than indicated in the movie. We didn’t even have to land on Mars to estimate that value because telescopic analysis of the density of its atmosphere is possible. Of course, the readouts on the screen can be, and certainly were, faked. The fakery was way off, though.

3. Temperature. Actually, 4°C is possible at the Martian equator during Martian summer in the middle of the day in secluded spots. However, the average temperature on Mars in more like -40°C. It ranges from a maximum of 20°C to -153°C. It’s unlikely that you’d find Mars at 4°C upon landing there but not absolutely impossible.

4. Rotating scenery. Proves nothing one way or the other. The film makers could readily have done this from a helicopter in a desolate area.

And so it goes. Is there any reason that the film makers would have obtained a real clip of landing on Mars to go with their entire hoax film? Certainly not. Any rational producer would simply have faked that too.

All of the above begs the issue of UFOs and alien visits. Are such things possible? Are they likely? How likely?

To address this issue properly, you must distinguish between probability and possibility. Is it possible for a tornado to assemble a house under construction instead of destroying the building site? It’s about as likely as finding a particular grain of sand amongst all of the beaches in the world while digging down to a depth of a few meters on every one. Most would classify either event as impossible, but a scientist might qualify it as being astronomically improbable. That’s one of the fun things about science. Many things are possible, but few have any reasonable likelihood once we know the facts.

Look at the stars near to us, excluding our own Sun. The closest set of stars is Centauri a bit over four light-years distant. Then, Barnard’s star is nearly 10 light-years away. Quite a few are within 15 light-years but not a really large number. Planets are circling the majority of these stars, with around 100-400 billion in our own galaxy.

And, if indications are to be believed, life is common and easy to get started on planets with liquid water. So, why not consider contact with alien civilizations? The issues become very technical, having to do with the effects of large moons on climate, the way evolution works, the locations of supernovas, the availability of heavy elements, and much more. There’s also the issue of finding strong enough radio signals to sort out the content against the background of noise and the lifetime of radio broadcasts into space of a mechanical and electronic civilization.

While we continue to broadcast radio and television signals, these are giving way to cable and satellite signals that will not propagate strongly into space. It appears that we may not continue to broadcast into space much longer. The window on catching a civilization sending such signals into space may be only 100-200 years. We’d have to match up rather closely for SETI to find anything. As far as space travel is concerned, the time to reach the nearest star using imaginable technology is quite long, decades. Reaching a star that could have large land animals on it would probably take centuries. Finding “intelligent” life would expand the range even further.

What about those factors that affect the development of tool-using, self-reflective, and potentially electronics-using life? Oddly enough, the Moon is an important factor. Simulations suggest that a moonless Earth would have extreme winds very often. These would limit the size of land plants and animals to a few centimeters in height, too small to develop into large tool-using animals.

When life develops on a suitable planet, a nearby (in galactic terms) nova or a more distant supernova would sterilize the planet with heavy-duty cosmic rays. Stars nearer to the center of the galaxy will certainly have their planets sterilized often in geological terms.

Heavy elements are created by stars exploding. They accrue slowly in the universe over hundreds of millions of years. Without them, the Earth could not exist. Both silicon and iron come from these sources and constitute a large amount of our planet’s mass. Calculations indicate that when the Earth formed, about 4.5 billion years ago, the amounts of heavy elements had finally reached a level that would allow rocky planets to form. In other words, we are one of the earliest planets to be capable of life.

Then, for close to four billion years, no multicellular life existed on Earth. Estimates put first life at around 500 million years, followed by 3.5 billion years of single cell life only. For just over 500 million years have we had multicellular life here. Crucial in the development of that life were some unusual planetary events. That life evolved very quickly in geological terms until the seas were teeming and the trilobites appeared. A major extinction, which some attribute to decades-long volcanic eruptions, paved the way for a new group of animals that culminated in dinosaurs. (My apologies to paleontologists who may be upset at my condensation of this history.)  During the dinosaur era, over 150 million years, mammals were only small burrowing creatures keeping carefully out of the way of the dinosaurs. The Cretaceous extinction destroyed the dinosaurs who showed absolutely no tendency toward toolmaking or intelligence, and allowed the age of mammals to begin. (Again, my apologies to those who know that we live in a continuing age of bacteria and in a more recent age of beetles if you count species instead of taking the anthropomorphic point of view.)

Both extinctions were unlikely events and would not be often duplicated on other planets. Evolution does not head inevitably toward large brains. So it is that many planets with life will not develop multicellular life. Many of those that do will never see large animals with sizable brains. The chances for tool-making, self-reflective, land-based life developing on a given planet with life are hard to measure, but must be substantially more difficult than winning the lottery. Add to that the likelihood of our state of advancement matching that of another planet within 100 light-years, and you are searching for that grain of sand. It’s possible but EXTREMELY unlikely.

Because we cannot travel faster than light, getting a spacecraft from and to a distant star becomes the journey of several lifetimes. Advances in medicine may fix that problem someday. Once we have solved the problem of our brief lifespans and of launching into interstellar space and of avoiding cosmic radiation for decades in deep space, why would we choose to go visit another planet from which we have detected possible radio signals? Why would the peoples of another civilization? Curiosity is the only motivator I can imagine.

Just think. Once you get there after a few centuries of travel, your messages back to Earth will take decades to arrive. By then, you will have been forgotten. Travel to another star must presume complete disconnection from Earth forever — except for messages that will be decades old when you receive them. Some may choose such a life if it ever is available, but we’re not talking about exploratory visits by some intelligent race from afar here. Except for the very immediate vicinity in our galaxy, this concept fails miserably.

The very idea of some alien race zipping about the galaxy and visiting remote stars leaves me in stitches. It makes great television series (Star Trek, Firefly, etc.). It’s fun to think about. But, when you sit down and analyze the situation carefully, it comes up short. Were FTL (faster than light) travel possible, I’d feel differently. You cannot even send a message faster than light speed, let alone a person. To send a message faster than light speed would lead to a paradox because you could send messages back in time and alter the present. Again, it’s fun to speculate on this stuff and some authors have made good money doing so. It’s fun to speculate about living for 500 years or longer, and this speculation has some potential for happening by the end of this century, but for the present, it’s just fiction.

No one can absolutely say that no aliens could ever have or ever will visit Earth. However, you can put the likelihood against finding that particular grain of sand somewhere on some beach. It’s in the same ballpark. So it is that fanciful notions of a visit to Mars in 1962 are just out there somewhere on the fringes of reality, and the particular one in the referenced article fails on the face of the evidence presented. Its chances of being real truly are zero.

One Response

  1. As you may gather from the article, I am a skeptic regarding alien visitation. In my opinion, we’re stuck going it alone here on this bit of rock circling an unremarkable star somewhere in the “suburbs” of the Milky Way galaxy. We should behave like that’s how it is.

    It’s nice to speculate and then indulge in wishful thinking, but it doesn’t get us to the next day or even the next century. UFOs and aliens distract from our world, the real world, by suggesting that a fantasy world is available.

    Many will argue that we don’t know what we don’t know. True. However, we can extrapolate unpresumptiously. Just because we don’t know everything, we should not speculate wildly. We cannot know the future, but we can know physics.

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