January 29, 2023
We Americans are constantly subject to pseudoscience such as the Climate Change myth or the fable that cloth masks prevent the spread of COVID. But there is one myth that never seems to be challenged: extraterrestrials have visited out planet.
Even our Defense Department established an office to give this myth lip service. There are Netflix shows such as Ancient Aliens, where perfectly rational sounding experts pontificate about the plethora of evidence that aliens participated in the construction of the pyramids, crop circles in England and even the Arc of the Covenant. Elon Musk recently tweeted that the pyramids were “Obviously built by aliens.” I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was joking.
The main argument goes as follows: There are 100 million stars in our galaxy. There 125 billion galaxies. Multiple stars have multiple planets revolving around them; therefore, there are trillions of planets (a trillion is a 1 with 12 zeros after it). How could anyone rationally believe that there is no other life in the universe? There is even a formula to calculate the probability of intelligent life on other planets, the Drake equation.
But let’s assume there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe. How would they visit Planet Earth? Let’s look at the facts.
Our government (under NASA) has set up SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a collection of radio telescopes in New Mexico that scans the heavens for Electro Magnetic Radiation (EMR) emitted by another civilization.
What is EMR? It is the flow of energy through space generated by a source of power such as our sun or by a human-made device such as a television transmitter. The energy of EMR is determined by its wavelength. There are television waves, gamma waves and light waves. Light waves have a very specific range of wavelengths that are visible to the human eye. But humans cannot see gamma waves or television waves.
EMR has a specific speed, 186,000 miles per second. While this is commonly referred to as the speed of light, all EMR travels at this speed. Superficially, this seems astonishingly fast. But when compared to interstellar and intergalactic distances, it is snail-like.
The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is four light years away. The term light year is confusing. It is not a measure of time; it is a measure of distance, i.e., the distance light travels in one year, approximately six trillion miles. What this means is that if Proxima Centauri blew up today, we would not know for four years because that is how long it would take the light to reach Earth. And this is the closest star. Most visible stars are hundreds if not thousands of light years away.
The closest galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy which is 2.2 million light years away. If a star went nova in that galaxy now, we would not know for 2.2 million years. Thus, even if SETI were able to detect EMR from a distant civilization – which it has not done so far – that civilization could long be extinct. Afterall, the most technologically-advanced country on Planet Earth gave its citizens a choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden for its leader. Could other civilizations do better? Do civilizations like this last for thousands if not millions of years? Will we?
Even if life exists on other planets, what is the chance that their civilization will coincide with ours? After all, Earth has been around for five billion years yet we have only had a civilization capable of creating EMR (maybe the aliens are watching the Jets choking to the Dolphins and keeping the Steelers out of the play offs) for 100 years. This means that any other civilization that was trying to detect our EMR for the past five billion years had a 1 in 50,000,000 chance of doing so – about the same odds of the Jets winning the Super Bowl.
Now maybe technology will come up with spaceships in the future that can travel at multiples of the speed of light just like the warp drive in Star Trek. There is a problem with this though. Star Trek is science fiction and so is warp drive. According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.
While only a few geniuses can understand Einstein’s math, the Theory of Relativity is quite simple conceptually. It means that the way the world appears to you depends on your view point. For example, if you are walking down the street dribbling a basketball, the ball would appear to be going straight up and down because your pace follows your dribbling. Someone observing you would see the ball going in a jagged pattern of 45-degree angles. Who’s right? The dribbler or the observer? The answer is they are both right from their given view point.
All Einstein did was this apply this to time. Einstein stated that when you travel at a speed close to the speed of light (let’s say 180,000 miles per second), time slows for the person going at this high velocity. In other words, if a father travelled to the nearest star at close to the speed of light, and then returned eight years later, his eight-year-old daughter would now be a 16-year-old teenager (which is why he may want to return to Proxima Centauri) while he had only aged one month. It is impossible to go faster than the speed of light because you would have to go backwards in time.
If this sounds crazy to you; you are not alone. When Einstein postulated this in 1905, everyone thought he was nuts. He never received the Nobel Prize for the Theory of Relativity; he received it his the discovery of the photoelectric effect. His theory was not proven until the 1930s but now it is considered settled science.
What does this mean? It means that aliens that travelled to Earth could not remain in contact with their home planet. Even if they developed the technology to visit us, the world they left may not exist by the time they arrived here. Thus, they would be colonists, like the Pilgrims. And since no little green men have come to my office for an eye exam, it is safe to assume they are nowhere to be found, unless they are avoiding Connecticut’s taxes.