The Science of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena I NOVA Now

The Science of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena I NOVA Now

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Alok Patel: Hey everyone! Who out there is into  aliens? Well, this Earthling sittin’ right here   certainly is. Which is why in late June,  I was totally psyched when the Pentagon   released its 9-page report on Unidentified  Aerial Phenomena, or UAP, formerly known as   UFOs. And it was invading our news cycle. Reporter: The report provides an assessment   of over 140 UFO sightings between 2004 and this  year, a number of which involved Navy personnel.   Alok Patel: The report comes after the  declassification of a few videos showing   mysterious sightings. And while it doesn’t  mention extraterrestrial links to these events,   it says there’s too little information “to  allow for detailed trend or pattern analysis.”   So we have to ponder… Have explorers from  elsewhere in the universe been visiting   us? And what can science tell us about  what we might be seeing in the sky?   This is Nova Now where we probe for answers  behind the headlines. Join us! I'm Alok Patel.  

Some videos that have circulated  in the news and social media show   black and white images of what a pilot would  see during flight: clouds, water… but then,   you see some kind of blobs or tic  tacs—cuz they look like the tiny candy—,   that seem to make “unusual movement patterns.” Hakeem Oluseyi: If truth is what you are after,   you don't have to do belief, you can do confirm.  There are rigorous processes for getting there.   Alok Patel: Hakeem Oluseyi is an  astrophysicist at George Mason University.   He’s been Space Science Education Lead for NASA's  Science Mission Directorate. I wanted to get his   reaction to the release of that UAP assessment. Hakeem Oluseyi: OK, so now we can apply some  

rigorous analysis and figure out what's going on.  I've completely given up on the extraterrestrial   UFO flying around Earth's atmosphere notion. I  find that to be ridiculous on a lot of levels.   If there is an unknown, if there is a mystery, oh,  I love it! There is a problem to be solved, love   it! But filling in the blank with my favorite bias  or make-believe is not the way I approach things,   to fill in the blank with with what I think; it  is to allow the data to tell me the story. But,   you know, research is in the realm of the unknown.  So there's always going to be little deviations.  

But if you take one step back, [chuckles] you'll  see that, you know, what we call our concordance,   you know, all the scientists agree -- that  doesn't mean that we all agree on a lie.   Alok Patel: When I was looking at the UAP,  I sincerely wanted to believe that this was   something coming from another planet, another  world, finally. And, you know, I'm reading this   quote right now, and it says that the conclusion  that it was probably a physical object because   most of them were, quote, “registered across  multiple sensors to include radar, infrared,   electro-optical weapon seekers and visual  observation.” So when we have that kind of   physical data, what makes the UAP so unusual?  What those pilots were seeing, does that conform   or contradict our understanding of physics? Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah. Our approach to  

data is to distrust everything from the  outset. Human perception is not reliable.   So what we have to do is we have to make  reliable, rigorous measurements from the data. And   every time you make a measurement, there are  uncertainties associated with making those   measurements. Understand what I'm trying to figure  out here: You have a moving object observed from a  

moving object that's carrying a moving camera! Alok Patel: Lots of movement.   Hakeem Oluseyi: That's a lot of movement! And  you're just looking at its position relative to   background stuff. So it's tough to disentangle all  of that. And so, you can have one perception of,   “Oh, my God, look at that acceleration, the  speed!” But once you do a rigorous analysis,   you find that it's not as extreme as maybe you  thought. And so until we go down those steps,   it’s hard to draw conclusions. But  there is what is likely and what's   not likely. Alok Patel:   Of the 144 UAP reports mentioned in the document,  only one of the unidentified aerial phenomena was…   identified, and it was a large deflating balloon.  I’m over here wondering about the other 143.  

Hakeem Oluseyi: If I see anything that's  human-like at all, I'm like, it's human!   Name something else that you know of that's doing  what humans do — building craft and flying around.   And if you're from another planet, what are  the chances that you're doing what humans do?   It's very small, I'm guessing. Alok Patel: Yeah. For someone like me,   to the untrained eye, it was the combination of  wanting to believe and also the fact that these   pilots were like, I can't say their exact quote  because I’ll get kicked off the podcast. But they   were saying, “What the explicit is that?”  And then, you know, we need the perspective   of scientists like yourself to say, everyone,  “Cool your jets.” So in your experience, then,  

what are some of the usual bodies that we're  used to seeing in the skies and then normal   things out there that people may mistake for UAPs  because we're just not trained to see that type   of pattern, that type of blob, if you will? Hakeem Oluseyi: Right. Venus. Every time I'm   associated with an observatory, going back to the  ‘90s, when Venus is the evening star, people call   the observatory and said, “You see there's light  in the sky. It's following us.” And people would   be in a darn near panic sometimes, cuz they'll  call from their car. And so if something is   sufficiently far away, no matter where you go,  you're going to see it. [laughs] And it happens   year after year after year. Venus is the UFO. Alok Patel: But, you know, you check out the  

unclassified intelligence document, what I find  interesting is that the remaining unexplained   are put in these five categories, including  airborne clutter— birds, balloons, things,   natural atmospheric phenomena like ice crystals;  or USG or industry developmental programs which   are classified, which is, you know, I can see  conspiracy theories saying that; foreign adversary   systems like some Chinese or Russian something,  or “other” bin. Now, I find it kind of implausible   to think that there could be so many different  possibilities for this when we should be able to   just look at it and say “that's what it is.” Hakeem Oluseyi: You would think, right,   with all the cameras around and you know, but  all we get is Tic Tacs and blobs. Right? [laughs]   It's about being skeptical. You know,  when we write scientific papers,   you need to be able to reproduce my experiment.  You need to have access to the same data.   So the data that you're getting is not your data.  You're getting it from somebody else. But someone  

has to do an independent analysis. And it has to  be rigorous. For me, it remains an unknown. Don't   be so damn trusting and don't fill in the blank! Alok Patel: But scientists can be skeptical of   these UAPs and still consider the possibility  of there being life elsewhere in the Universe.   Hakeem Oluseyi: Do I think it's probable and  likely? I do. Absolutely. And the biggest   piece of evidence is how quickly we find  evidence for life in Earth's fossil record.   There is irrefutable evidence going back 3.8  billion years. So, as early as we can look in the   fossil record for life, we find it here on Earth.  And it is the only planet we’ve studied closely.  

So that says to me that this process gets started  really quickly when the conditions are right. Now   really quickly, includes hundreds of millions of  years. So, you know, that's a different timescale   of quickly. If we use Earth as a guide to  finding life on other worlds, we're going  

to come up with ideas like the habitable zone. The habitable zone is the orbital region around a   star in which an Earth-like planet can have liquid  water on its surface —because the temperature is   juuuust right—and possibly support life. Hakeem Oluseyi: [laughs] Right. Which is   restrictive for where life could possibly be. Alok Patel: And when we see other planets or I   see a headline about Proxima B, and they're like,  Hey, that is an Earth-like planet. And it is   close enough to this star to possibly have  the condition to bring life. And that is based   on everything we have learned on our planet  about how life may have originated. And so,  

what I'm gathering you're saying is that  when we talk about life in the universe,   that's based on assumptions that we've made here  about how life starts. And so that's why you say   it's restrictive. Am I correct in saying that? Hakeem Oluseyi: Well, almost. You just keyed in   on the key distinction, and that is the difference  between how life exists today on Earth versus how   life starts. Today, we have a web of life that  depends ultimately on sunlight and animals that   use oxygen chemistry for metabolism. But what  the astrobiologists and biologists have realized   is that when life got started, it was in the  absence of oxygen. Oxygen was poisonous to this  

early life. So now, you don't need a habitable  zone to get life started. All you need is liquids,   the right thermodynamics, and the right stuff  available. And so that can be under the ice of   Enceladus, Europa on Titan's lakes. Alok Patel: Enceladus and Europa are   icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, respectively.  And Titan is another one of Saturn’s moons with  

pools of liquid methane on its surface. Hakeem Oluseyi: Who knows, right?   So that's the idea there, right, is that life gets  started in the absence of oxygen, completely the   opposite of what life looks like today on Earth. Alok Patel: So that makes sense to me. And that   makes me even more convinced of my theories that  there has to be extraterrestrial life somewhere.   Hakeem Oluseyi: Oh, absolutely. Now there's life  and there's life, OK. So if you look at Earth,  

it's not until you get to the Ediacaran period  right before the Cambrian explosion that you   start seeing, you know, large multicellular  life and some diversification of life.   Alok Patel: The Ediacaran Period spans 635  million years ago to 541 million years ago,   a time period when the planet  transitioned from microscopic organisms   to a Cambrian world swarming with animals. Hakeem Oluseyi: So really, you're talking about   almost four billion years of setting the stage  for multicellular life. So what this says to me  

about probabilities, about life in the universe is  that chances are it's everywhere there's liquids.   Now, when you have the rare situation that your  life is able to find more energetic pathways   like life here on Earth did, it learned to perform  photosynthesis and it learned to utilize oxygen,   then that's one energetic pathway that led to us.  You know, perhaps there are others. If you find   those pathways, that is where a habitable zone  really stands out cuz sunlight is energy and   it's all about energy. You know, think about  it this way: If you live on Venus, you don't   know that stars exist because the atmosphere is  just so damn thick. So having a surface that's   bathed in sunlight, that's bathed in starlight,  that's intense enough to support life is not   something that you can guarantee, that's going to  be rare. Even if you are the right distance, your  

atmosphere isn’t necessarily going to be right.  And that's what we see with Venus, Earth and Mars,   right? Only Earth turned out to be Earth. Alok Patel: This is trippy. I feel so fortunate   to be an organism right now. [laughs] Hakeem Oluseyi: Ah, you should be. You’re   concentrated energy, man. That's what I see  life as these days. Just concentrated energy.   Alok Patel: Figuratively and literally. Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah.  

Alok Patel: You know, I understand you're saying  when 300 million years is probably quick relative   to what we know about universe processes. But in  terms of probability, if there was intelligent   extraterrestrial life out there, in your  opinion, it's not probable that they would   be in a humanoid flying object. Like, if we saw  a UAP It's not probable that that life somewhere   out there also has a similar understanding of  physics and with the same type of jet propulsion   technology or whatever to create a UFO. Hakeem Oluseyi: Well, think about it! We   always assume that aliens are going to be way more  advanced than we are at this point. I'm thinking   maybe we are the advanced aliens. Alok Patel: Team human.  

Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah, I don't consider  humans to be the only intelligent species   on Earth, personally. Once you know  you're you, you're intelligent,   right? [laughs] But now going from intelligence  to technological advance technology,   that's another major leap of all the species  we've had on Earth. We're the only ones who've   done that. We've had species use simple  technology. But doing what we've done – Oh,  

that is something I think is incredibly rare. Alok Patel: I'm so proud to be a human, but also   enlightened right now cuz I’ve never thought of it  that way because, you know, as you're mentioning   this, I brought up Proxima B earlier, and people  see that they're like, “Oh, it's Earth like!” It's   still four point what, four point three light  years away which means whatever intelligent   life would have to be able to do something that  we cannot do. Richard Branson is not going a light   year anytime soon. No one is pulling this off. Hakeem Oluseyi: No. When you look at it from like   a universal perspective, all of our space travel  is damn near a joke, right? Because space is vast.   How far are we going? You know, that's like takin’  one step in your living room, it’s like, “I've   explored America!” You know? [laughs] For me,  the question is, does life exist in the universe?   Does intelligent life exist in the universe?  Does technological life exist in a universe? Yes,   it does. I've observed it, here on Earth.  So, yes, it does exist in the universe,  

which means that it will exist elsewhere in the  universe. The statement is there are levels to   this. [chuckles] And if you look at the four  and a half billion year history of Earth,   you can see the levels. ‘Cuz for the first four  billion years, there were no bears pooping in   the woods, right. So there's a lot of  coincidences that go into becoming us.  Alok Patel: Ever since the former Soviet  Union launched Sputnik, Space travel has   redefined what humankind thought was possible.  But how far can we really go? After the break,  

we talk to someone who takes our technological  intelligence to its interstellar limit.  Adam Steltzner: If we find life on  Mars, it will be like the algae,   it won't have binoculars and self-awareness. If  the life on Mars is advanced enough to perceive   things like motion, we would definitely look  like a UFO. Because we come rippin’ in using   a set of technologies that haven’t yet to  show up to the surface of Mars. It would  

look like a dream or a ghost or a something! Alok Patel: Steltzner also led the team that   developed the sky crane landing system for the  Curiosity Rover which landed on Mars in 2012,   but way before that... Adam Steltzner: Oh, and before that,   I was a wanna-be rock and roller Alok Patel:   Back in 1984, 21-year-old Adam was playing  bass for a rock band in the Bay Area.   Heading to a gig one night... Adam Steltzner: There was a big,  

beautiful constellation over the east. Alok Patel: But on his way back,   he had a cosmic revelation. Adam Steltzner: And as I was   driving home after the show, it was over the west  and I was like, “Whoa! The stars are moving.”   Alok Patel: Steltzner was looking  at the constellation of Orion.   Which made him curious about the stars,  so he signed up for courses in astronomy   and physics at the local community college. Adam Steltzner: I was totally blown away by the   idea that there are some simple laws that govern  the way our universe works. Then I just got into  

physics and the application—the  creative application of physics,   which is the art of engineering. One of  the beautiful things about science. It's an   endeavor to discover the truth. It's an endeavor  to understand our universe and so very, very woven   into that act is appreciating the partial nature  of our understanding of the universe. We know that   we don't know all the laws of physics. There are  whole zones of our universe that we can't quite   understand and explicitly describe today. Alok Patel: He says there is science to   support the possibility of life beyond Earth. Adam Steltzner: Through the Kepler mission and  

our observations of the solar system and  our galaxy, we've come to realize that   many, many more stars than we thought have  planets around them. And many, many of   those planets are in an area where liquid water  would be capable of existing. And our tendency   would be that those could be places where life,  as we understand it here on Earth, could flourish.   There's a great equation called the Drake  Equation, and it basically goes like: You take   the number of stars and you multiply it by the  probability that there's a planet around a star   and then by the probability that there's life  formed in that planet. And as long as you put   anything close to a good estimate for the  number of stars, you end up with certainty   that there must be life out there because  there are hundreds of trillions of stars.   Alok Patel: And yet... Adam Steltzner: Why haven't we heard from them?  

Why, hello? You know, time. We've  only been talking and emitting   electromagnetic radiation that would tell the  universe that we're here for maybe 100 years,   50 years. And so, that has to go some  distance before it gets there and comes back.   So, if there aren’t some laws of physics to  be learned that change our understanding,   you know, we won't be talking to folks much  out there in the universe because it takes   thousands of years for the message to get there. Alok Patel: When the Office of the Director of   National Intelligence released that document about  the unidentified aerial phenomenon, or as a lot of   us saw it, a UFO over American airspace, what  was your gut reaction? What was the first thing   you thought when you saw and heard that report? Adam Steltzner: Well, some of the things are very   hard to explain, especially when there's multiple  sightings, especially when there's multiple   methods of detection like pilots are seeing them,  and they're being picked up by radar and tracked   by some of the devices on these aircraft. But  still skeptical. I mean, still skeptical that some   intelligent entity capable of the biggest, hardest  deal is crossing the distance from wherever they   are to to here would be so foolish as to let  us see them if they didn't want to be seen.   Alok Patel: So you as an expert of, as you  worded it, of Identified Flying Objects,   what is it about the motion of some of these that  makes them so fascinating? Is there something   particular that they do or don't do? Adam Steltzner: Oh, certainly. Look,  

I’m laying down a big caveat, right. So, we've  all been driving our car and looked at an airplane   that seemed to be floating in the air and not  moving. It's just sitting there in the sky. Well,   that's because your perception of how far it  is from you puts it in a place where it looks   like it's not moving, but it really is in fact  moving. Now, that said, some of these observations   seem to not be that kind of a thing. Alok Patel: Steltzner says it's   telling that the report didn’t dismiss these  observations as a fluke of human perception.  

Adam Steltzner: The motions seem  to be associated with forces   that would, if they were here on Earth, move  air around or need to have wings or need to   have rocket plumes or need to have some other  of the tools that we use to provide forces in   such a way. And we see none of the telltale signs  that we would expect from ways that we would apply   such forces or generate such power and energy. Alok Patel: What about that is going against our   understanding of law of physics?  Is there something about this—   what exactly is puzzling about it? Adam Steltzner: Well, it’s mostly what the   pilots are discussing. Pilot: Look at that thing,   it’s rotating. Wow, got it, woo-hoo! Adam Steltzner:   And they are amazed at the capacity of  this apparent object to move against the   very strong winds and move as it is. The vehicle's  radar or targeting system does pick up this object  

and it's moving above the water. And so we know it  can't be too far away. We have a targeting system   that has just picked up an object. To do that, it  needed to know where that object was in distance   from it, too. And we have data about how far the  thing is away. So, I don't think that they all  

are dismissible from a perception perspective. Adam Steltzner: Richard Branson just flew to   the edge of space off of New Mexico a couple of  days ago. Somebody has a license with the FAA to   conduct an experiment... or fly certain fast in  a certain area, and that's not generally known   to everybody. And somebody else sees their rocket  ship go ripping by, and they say, “What the heck?”  

We develop here in this country,  missiles that go very, very fast,   hypersonic, right? They go  faster than Mach3, Mach4.   You know, if you happen to see one of those from  us, from our nation, or from some other nation   being tested, you would be very surprised.  And if you didn't know that that was going   on and you're a pilot, you'd be freaking out. Alok Patel: Are there any specific experimental   aircraft that you think people could see  up there and it wouldn't move in a way the   average person would understand? [9.5s] Adam Steltzner: The US make a couple of   fighter planes that use thrust vectoring --  that means out of the back end of the engine,   the nozzles can move. Now the F-22 is a  supersonic fighter aircraft. We've been  

making them for maybe 20 years? It will do all  sorts of things that totally defy your intuition.   It's a pointy, fast looking thing,  and it's sitting up on its tail   and then it moves forward and starts flying.  [00:31:52] The aerodynamic surfaces would   essentially be stalling. It defies your intuition,  your physical understanding of how aircraft work,   mostly because you've looked at a lot of  aircraft in your lives—all of us have—none   of which had thrust vector control. [20.1s] Alok Patel: If the government were working on   other wild aircraft that could do unexpected  things in the sky, would they tell us?   Not necessarily. In the 1950s, they  secretly tested U2 spy planes in Nevada,  

leading to years of supposed UFO sightings. Adam Steltzner: Absolutely. If the federal   government were doing something special,  there might be all sorts of people,   certainly citizens and maybe even other folks  in the government that don't know about it.   Alok Patel: Another category  in the report is “other.”  

Adam Steltzner: Well in that bin of "other",  this is where the classic UFO, the classic   flying saucer, would find itself in that taxonomy.  I personally don't spend too much time because if   it's a flying saucer from another planet, well,  I'm not going to worry about it. Because the fact   that they got here, they're so far ahead of us  that if they want to come and eat our brains   or enslave us, our brains will be eaten and we  will be enslaved. They've got a huge upper hand.   If there are creatures that live in other parts  of the universe, which I do definitely believe the   mathematics tells us there are. So these are vast  distances. If human beings using the technology  

that we-- all the physics we understand today --  were to try and go from here to the nearest star,   it would take generations of human beings  living in a spacecraft successfully.   Think about how the long the longest, most  stable nation has existed on the surface of   Earth and a group of humans would have to be more  stable and exist for a longer period of time in a   spacecraft to make it to the next star. And so,  if another species has figured out how to cross   that distance in an appreciably shorter time,  they've got crazy technology. There’s a set   of laws of the universe, a set of behaviors of the  physical universe that we have yet to understand,   and that maybe when we unlock that, which might  be tomorrow, it might be in one hundred years,   we may never get there, that we might find a  universe filled with a chorus of conversations   between other intelligent species that are  happening. My sense is that if these ever were   or ever are other entities from another place,  they're leveraging a set of laws of physics that   we have not discovered yet. Alok Patel:  

NOVA Now is a production of GBH and PRX. It’s  produced by Terence Bernardo, Ari Daniel,   Jocelyn Gonzales, Isabel Hibbard, Sandra  Lopez-Monsalve and Rosalind Tordesillas.   Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt are  the co-Executive Producers of NOVA.   Sukee Bennett is Senior Digital Editor.  Christina Monnen is Associate Researcher.   Robin Kazmier is Science Editor. And Devin  Robins is Managing Producer of Podcasts at GBH.   Our theme music is by the DJ with otherworldly,  astronomical turntable talent, DJ Kid Koala.  

I’m Alok Patel. We’ll be back in two weeks  which is enough time for you to try and   find a UAP and decide if it’s a foreign  government spy plane, a cloud formation,   a missile test, venus, a massive balloon, ice  crystals, a secret US military experiment or…   maybe just maybe, it’s an alien spaceship from an  extraterrestrial world coming to say what’s up.

2021-07-25 07:10

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