Sunday, 7 March 2010

Alone Again: Naturally?

Professor Paul Davies' new book The Eerie Silence: Are we alone in the universe? was published on 5 March and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and 'UFOs'. I blogged about Davies's views on UFOs earlier this year and the book has now been reviewed by Jon Ronson in The Guardian and by Lord Martin Rees in The Times.

Particularly worth reading are Davies's comments on UFOs and government cover-ups (discussed in Chapter 1). As a student at Royal Holloway during the 1970s Davies was a believer in UFOs as craft visiting Earth from other worlds, and was convinced by the catalogues of ground traces and radar trackings used by UFOlogists as proof that structured craft from elsewhere are regularly visiting Earth.

But his mature views after 40 years as a SETI scientist are worth contrasting with the beliefs of Stan Friedman, Tim Good and the 'disclosure movement'. As chair of the SETI Post-Detection Task Group, it would be Davies who would be the first to announce to the world that contact has been made with an extraterrestrial civilisation, as they would be first to receive it. And he would do that via the scientific community, making any notion that governments would or could successfully conceal such amazing news redundant.

In his review of the book Jon Ronson mentions that at the recent Royal Society conference to mark the 50th anniversay of SETI, a man in dark glasses stood up during the Q&A session with Davies to announce: "Why does SETI ignore what's right in front of us? The 6,000 abductions! The 10,000 cattle mutilations!" His succinct answer was: "To expect alien technology to be just a few decades ahead of ours is too incredible to be taken seriously." To Davies, unpicking the mysteries of the universe utilising fundamental physics and astrobiology leads to a far more satisfying explanation of the wonders of nature, compared to which the UFO abduction industry is merely a updated medieval demonology.

On the subject of UFOs, Davies appears to have reached the same conclusion as others such as Jenny Randles, Paul Devereux and myself namely that, despite scepticism borne of past experience in investigating UFO incidents:
"it would not surprise me if a small fraction of cases involve new or little-understood atmospheric or psychological phenomena. But whatever lies behind that stubborn residue of hard-to-explain cases, I see no reason to attribute them to the activities of alien beings visiting our planet in flying saucers. UFOs, like ghost stories, are fun to read, but cannot be taken seriously as evidence for extraterrestrial beings. They do serve a useful purpose, however, by providing a window on how the human mind imagines aliens and alien technology. What is striking about the accounts is not their weird and otherworldly character, but their distinctly mundane and human-like quality. We would surely expect of extraterrestrials something more extraordinary than humanoid beings piloting the equivalent of souped-up Stealth bombers" (pg 22 of The Eerie Silence).
This is a viewpoint which is entirely sympathetic to my own position after 20 years on the flying saucer beat. As I was quoted by The Times: on 18 February "I think either aliens are watching our TV and adapting their aircraft accordingly, or people are seeing these things in popular culture and adapting them in their own imagination."