[From the letters page of the heavyweight intellectual social and political monthly, Prospect magazine (Dec. 2006 issue):]
OUT OF THE CRADLE
In your Foreword (November), you state: "Secular humanism has conspicuously failed to create an alternative system of belief to organised religion, and in the process seems to have failed to give people sufficient reasons for having babies."
Excuse me for pointing out that this is untrue. The Russian visionary Tsiolkovsky put it best: "The earth is the cradle of mankind, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever."
Over the next decade or two, with renewed US interest in exploring the moon and a growing commercial passenger spaceflight industry, the worldview expressed in this well-known saying is likely to receive ever greater prominence.
British Interplanetary Society
[Thanks also to Michael Martin-Smith, who also wrote in to Prospect on this point. Your letter didn't get printed, but it must have helped to persuade them that I wasn't a lone voice in the wilderness, but represented a whole sector of public opinion -- which of course we do -- S.A.]
Spaceflight magazine, October 2006 issue: Nick Spall puts the case that the UK government should be persuaded to change its policy and fund a tiny number of UK official astronauts (say, two or three) to do research on the International Space Station.
This would be at a time -- please note -- when Virgin Galactic expects to be creating British astronauts by the dozen, if not the hundred -- starting with a certain Sir R. Branson. Yes, they'll only be up there for five minutes at a time, but they'll be exactly the sort of personalities who'll make a splash with the media. Plus: their flights will be opening up an industry with astronomical growth prospects -- at least, for the American spaceplane industry, it will.
What are the growth prospects of two or three UK government astronauts on the ISS? Well ... two or three UK astros on flights to the Moon ... two or three on flights to Mars ... that's two or three PER DECADE, if we're lucky, or, to judge by Beagle 2, more like two or three per century ... that'll really make space relevant and exciting and accessible to everybody, won't it?
There is a better way! And it's scheduled to appear in the January 2007 issue of Spaceflight ...
[This was sent to The Telegraph, but I have not heard that it was published -- S.A.]
Letters to the Editor
The Daily Telegraph
1 Canada Square
London E14 5DT
10 September 2006
Duncan McMillan's article (report, September 5) on British involvement in human spaceflight was most welcome.
However it could be argued from the 18 scientists quoted in the report as opposing human space exploration that they all missed the point.
The British Interplanetary Society, with the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society have been holding discussions on how to lobby the government for a more active UK participation in space exploration, ultimately with humans. Educational inspiration and public enthusiasm were two key points which emerged.
I heard British-born American astronaut Michael Foale speak in Canterbury last year. There was a large audience present, able to chat with Dr Foale informally afterwards.
How many times have the UK public had a chance to chat with robot space explorers?
Malcolm Smith, FBIS
At a British Interplanetary Society symposium in May this year, Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) made an appearance in relation to ancient contact myths in Earth's history, the latter an area which historian Zecharia Sitchin explored in several books. This got Astronautical Evolution's editor thinking about this controversial issue, and he asked me to write something about my thoughts on the debate. It's very flattering to be asked to write a "guest" contribution; hopefully I can do it justice, an admittedly impossible task in anything less than a scholarly book.
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has, for the main, been conducted by listening for ET's radio signals, using radio telescopes. Radio SETI pioneers like Frank Drake (who started out in 1960, and is father of the famous Drake equation) and Jill Tarter (on whom Jodie Foster's character in the film "Contact" is based) like to quote the mantra "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" in their search for ET, which admittedly is difficult to refute. Whilst several intriguing signals have been received (e.g. 1977's "Wow" signal), nothing firm emerged that has ever got the scientific collective to raise its hands and say "we are convinced". (Perhaps a result of the sceptical nature of science, a philosophical discipline constantly refining itself, and the definition of objective reality? But, dear reader, I digress.)
Criticisms levelled at traditional SETI include the assumptions that aliens would use radio signals to communicate, they would target signals at our planet, they would use similar (even compatible?) technologies, or even that chronologically either they -- or us -- exist at differing times in the universe's history, so advanced societies have already become extinct, or else we are currently the most advanced intelligent species, and other habitable nearby planets have less-technologically-developed life. Of course, perhaps our instrumentation is not sensitive enough yet to pick up fleeting signals within Earth's radio noise, etc. Speculation is endless.
However searching for ET should not be confined to radio. Optical SETI (e.g. looking for lasers) and even SETA, the Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts (i.e. "alien archaeology"), are alternative approaches. This latter topic was explored in detail at the BIS in May -- indeed several papers from May's symposium will be appearing in a new BIS Journal shortly. Again, like so much of what I write here, it is hardly new to even moderately well informed AE readers or BIS members. If you are interested in finding out more, either about the search for ET, UFOs, or the approaches used in their studies, again there are numerous books and papers you can look up. I particularly like those by British science writer Edward Ashpole (e.g. The UFO Phenomenon and Where is Everybody?). I'd better mention others before my focus narrows, so here's to you the late Dr Carl Sagan and Professor John Mack in the US, and Britain's C. S. French, for your differing views.
Personally I feel the UFO debate will "run and run". There are a variety of entrenched viewpoints on the issue, from fanatical alien believers at one end of the belief spectrum to the totally dismissive sceptical, debunking scientist at the other. Statements of faith more than of objective reality, perhaps? The boundaries of science, philosophy, religion, psychology, metaphysics and subjective human experience now begin to blur, and with their siren call, threaten to pull me away from the topic in hand ...
One of the reasons the "scientific mainstream" shy away from the UFO debate is distaste for the hackneyed cliches so often involved, e.g. flying saucers, little green men, a desire to invade/help Earth, and so on. Some have drawn comparisons with ET and biblical angels: yet another route one could investigate, before running into Erich Von Däniken.
To take just one example -- the humanoid appearance possessed by many extraterrestrials -- a terrestrial biologist (is there any other sort?) once said: "The trouble with little green men is not that they're green, but that they're men." (Charles Darwin has a lot to answer for.)
The problem of how to approach the whole issue I feel was best summed up by the comment an Oxford University postgraduate once made. In an interview with the Times newspaper, around a decade ago, he said something along these lines: "Radio SETI is seen as scientific because it uses funky instruments like radio telescopes and advanced signal-processing computers, whilst the UFO approach is not, as it seems to deal with ghosts and ghouls. Yet neither approach has been successful."
Can we say who is "correct"? As an outside observer of both the SETI and UFO landscapes, to me it does seem to come back to a question of religious-type "faith". Science is just one form of modern religion? Intense scepticism by one side is contrasted by absolute conviction on the other. Both sides appear to be talking at rather than to one another, hence a "ya-boo", ad hominem politics dominates the whole debate, preventing more sober discussion and, dare one say it, accommodation between some very dedicated individuals committed to searching for a truth "out there". Or as a friend once said to the audience at a 1990s UFO conference: "If the truth is out there, then why are we all in here?" (I make no apologies for the "X-Files" popular culture reference, incidentally.)
In conclusion I cannot commit to either side, but must sit uncomfortably on the fence, wanting to believe, but not yet feeling either side's evidence can sway me one way or another. However, I do believe that differing academic disciplines should try and work more closely together, rather than in the separate compartments so often erected by individual subject areas. So history, archaeology and legend are, with the necessary caution employed, as valid investigative approaches as the more familiar astronomical ones. If my comments here stimulate debate or provoke violent disagreement then all to the good. Be challenged -- it's how we learn!
For some other, at times quite light-hearted, views on the UFO perspective,
read the University of Glamorgan astrobiology blog:
Sometimes events conspire to prompt one to take an interest in something which one would not normally have considered.
Earlier this year I had a phone conversation with someone who started talking about their UFO experiences. Then I was invited to a discussion at the Oxford Union at which one of the other speakers was a specialist in counselling UFO abductees. And in May, a speaker at Malcolm Smith's "Archaeology for Space" meeting at the BIS again raised the topic of UFO sightings, starting with a personal observation he had made of daylight disks over London many years ago.
At both of those meetings, UFOs were brought up in the context of SETI. The claim was that the aliens are already here.
So, time for a bit of research. I read the classic investigation by J. Allen Hynek, The UFO Experience -- A Scientific Enquiry, followed by Bryan Appleyard's recent book Aliens -- Why They Are Here, and dipped into one or two others.
Reading about the UFO phenomenon, particularly close encounters of the third kind, one is struck by a number of points: the dreamlike, emotional and often sexual nature of encounters with supposed aliens, the experience of missing time (something which is actually shared by all normal people for around seven hours a night), the habit which UFOs have of vanishing without trace into the distance, the lack of any specific location which they might be using as a base, whether on Earth or in space, the lack of any coherent communication from the supposed aliens, and the way in which accounts of UFOs easily get mixed up with fringe phenomena such as hypnosis, telepathy, conspiracy theories, religious cults and fantasies about biologically absurd breeding programmes aimed at creating preposterous human-alien hybrids.
Obviously, the phenomenon is real to those who experience it. It can have a powerful emotional impact, and in some cases a sighting is witnessed by several people independently, each of whose evidence corroborates the others. And many witnesses appear to have been reliable people such as policemen or airline pilots -- not in the least cranks or mystics.
So my preferred hypothesis is this: the UFO phenomenon is some kind of involuntary collective hallucination -- a realm of existence lying somewhere between the physical world and the imaginary world of dreams, and having more to do with human hopes, fears and fantasies than anything extraterrestrial.
The fact that there exists this alternative, soft reality with the power to intrude temporarily into physical reality will be of extreme importance to the study of psychology and consciousness. But it has nothing to do with the hard science of exobiology in the physical cosmos around us.
UFOs do not offer a short cut to discovering extraterrestrial life.
UFOs come from planet Earth.
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