Fox News published a startling article Monday (Dec. 3) with the headline "NASA scientist says Earth may have been visited by aliens." Unsurprisingly, that news rocketed around the web, with similar articles soon turning up in the New York Post, Russia Today and The Daily Wire. (Fox appears to have been the first major U.S. news source to run with the story.)
These articles are based on a document on NASA's website by Silvano Colombano, a researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. It really does argue that scientists should at least take seriously the notion that aliens may have visited planet Earth. But Colombano told Live Science that the coverage on Fox News and elsewhere misrepresented what he was trying to say when he wrote it.
"It is not accurately represented," he said. "My perspective was simply that reports of unidentified aerial phenomena should be the object of serious study, even if the chance of identification of some alien technology is very small." [13 Ways to Hunt Intelligent Aliens]
There's some nuance here. Colombano really does believe, as Fox News wrote, that aliens "may" have visited planet Earth. As in, it's theoretically possible that this has happened, not entirely impossible, and worth looking for evidence that it has. But that's not the same as expecting to actually find any such evidence, or believing that there's a good chance aliens are scuttling around under our noses — an impression you might get if you read Fox News's article.
Though Colombano's name and email address appear right on top of the document, he said Fox News did not contact him before publishing their story. (Live Science has reached out to Fox News to confirm this, but has not yet heard back.) Fox described the document as a "new research paper" — a term usually used to describe formal articles intended for publication in research journals and making conclusions based on evidence and the scientific method.
But that's not what this document is.
"The context was a presentation delivered last spring at a meeting of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute," he said.
"The meeting was to get feedback from scientists as to future directions for the Institute's research program," Colombano said.
The document accompanied a talk he gave in which he suggested that perhaps the notion of aliens visiting Earth isn't quite as ridiculous as most scientists believe, and that SETI might devote some resources to systematically hunting through UFO reports and other data for evidence that this has happened — to hunt for a faint, unlikely signal in a lot of messy noise.
In other words, it was a speculative piece of writing intended to persuade other scientists to spend their resources on a long-shot project — not an argument about whether or not aliens have actually visited Earth. Colombano's position is that it's possible, but not necessarily likely.
Blick auf NASA Dokument:
NEW ASSUMPTIONS TO GUIDE SETI RESEARCH. S. P. Colombano, NASA Ames Research Center, MS 269-2, Moffett Field CA 94044, firstname.lastname@example.org
Overall Goals and Objectives:
In light of our most recent understanding of the age of the planetary systems that might support life I discuss the set of assumptions that currently guide SETI re- search and make recommendations for a new, more “aggressive” approach.
Background and current assumptions:
Recent discoveries due to the Kepler project have iden- tified planetary system as old as 10.4 Gyr (Kepler-10)  , and 11.2 Gyr (Kepler-444) . Considering that the age of our solar system is about 4.5 Gyr, earth like planets could exist that are 6 Gyr, older than our own.
Considering further that technological development in our civilization started only about 10K years ago and has seen the rise of scientific methodologies only in the past 500 years, we can surmise that we might have a real problem in predicting technological evolution even for the next thousand years, let alone 6 Million times that amount!
In light of these numbers, I think we need to re-visit even our most cherished assumptions:
1. Interstellar travel is impossible or highly un- likely
Clearly distance and energy are insurmountable prob- lems for the technologies we have available and our present understanding of physics. Still we are able to fathom possibilities of achieving much greater under- standing and control of matter-energy and space-time. Even if the speed of light continues to be an unbreak- able barrier, over spans of thousands of years civiliza- tions could probably make interstellar journeys, de- pending on what assumptions we make about the forms of life that they will comprise (see below).
2. Radio waves continue to be the major form of communication for thousands or millions of years.
I suspect that, even if the radio medium continues to be used, the packing of information inside it would be so much greater that we would not be able to recognize any “structure” and would not be able to distinguish it form noise, unless a civilization would in fact decide to use it as a beacon. Even with that intention, that form of communication might quickly have become obsolete, and they might choose other types of beacons for civilizations that are closer in development to theirs. Whether and how civilizations would choose to com- municate could also be a fertile field of techno- sociological study.
3. Intelligent civilizations would be based on carbon life
Given the fairly common presence of elements that might be involved in the origin of life throughout the universe, it is a reasonable assumption that life “as we know it” was at least a common starting point, but our form of life and intelligence, may just be a tiny first step in a continuing evolution that may well produce forms of intelligence that are far superior to ours and no longer based on carbon “machinery”. After a mere 50 years of computer evolution we are already talking about “super-intelligence” and we are quickly becom- ing symbiotic with computer power. I don’t want to address here the issue of the survival of our species, or its future “role” within a continuing evolution of mil- lions of years. I simply want to point out the fact that the intelligence we might find and that might choose to find us (if it hasn’t already) might not be at all be pro- duced by carbon based organisms like us. How might that change the above assumptions about interstellar travel? Our typical life-spans would no longer be a limitation (although even these could be dealt with multi-generational missions or suspended animation), and the size of the “explorer” might be that of an ex- tremely tiny super-intelligent entity. And how might this change our assumptions about openness or desire to communicate with other civilizations?
4. We have not been, and are not being... visited
It seems to me that SETI has ignored (at least official- ly) the potential relevance of UFO phenomena for three reasons: 1) The assumption of extremely low likelihood of interstellar travel, 2) The very high likeli- hood of hoaxes, mistaken perceptions or even psychot- ic events in UFO phenomena, and 3) The general avoidance of the subject by the scientific community.
I think the approach the scientific community could take, instead, is very similar to what SETI has done so far: find the signal in the noise. In the very large amount of “noise” in UFO reporting there may be “signals” however small, that indicate some phenome- na that cannot be explained or denied. If we adopt a new set of assumptions about what forms of higher intelligence and technology we might find, some of those phenomena might fit specific hypotheses, and we could start some serious enquiry.
The recent Kepler discoveries of Earth-like planets offer the opportunity to focus our attention on detect- ing signs of life and technology in specific planetary systems, but I feel we need to become more flexible in our assumptions. The reason is that, while it is still reasonable and conservative to assume that life is most likely to have originated in conditions similar to ours, the vast time differences in potential evolutions render the likelihood of “matching” technologies very slim.
Conclusions and recommendations
In light of the challenges described above I propose a more “aggressive” approach to future SETI explora- tion, in the following directions:
Engage physicists in what might be called “speculative physics”, still grounded in our most solid theories but with some willingness to stretch possibilities as to the nature of space-time and energy.
Engage technologists in futuristic exploration of how technology might evolve, especially w/r Artificial Intelligence, “Evolvable Robot- ic Systems” and symbiosis of biology with machines.
Engage sociologists in speculation about what kinds of societies we might expect from the above developments, and whether and how they might choose to communicate.
Consider the UFO phenomenon worthy of study in the context of a system with very low signal to noise ratio, but nevertheless with the possibility of challenging some of our as- sumptions and pointing to new possibilities for communication and discovery.
(A) The proposals of this white paper relate to questions 2 and 3 of the Alien Mindscape arti- cle (how intelligent life communicates and how it can be detected) in that it addresses the fundamental issue of the potential nature and technological age of intelligent life.
(B) (B) One of the recommendations made is to study UFO reports as a low signal to noise ra- tio phenomenon. Big Data Analysis could ap- proach several existing data bases such as 130,000 pages of declassified U.S. Air Force documents, National UFO Reporting Center Database and several other international data bases.
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