UFO and Ancient-Astronaut Paradoxes

This is something that I wrote some years ago about this issue. I'll likely have to revise it some day.

Here, I will discuss some problems with the extraterrestrial-spaceship hypothesis of UFO's (Unidentified Flying Objects), and problems with the related hypothesis of "ancient astronauts". UFO's was the term that the US Air Force invented for "flying saucers"; it has been generally accepted because of its greater sobriety. The ancient-astronaut hypothesis does not refer to the likes of John Glenn, but to the work of the likes of Erich von Däniken, its best-known exponent. Here are those paradoxes:

"I Saw It with my Very Own Eyes"

This argument, or some variant involving the eyes of others, is widely used by UFO enthusiasts. The trouble with that argument is that objects do NOT come with name tags on them, and one has to infer what they are. One's observations may be entirely correct, but one's interpretations can be way off, especially if one is observing something unfamiliar or surprising. So, IMO, the most trustworthy observers of unfamiliar phenomena are those who try to state their observations in as un-interpreted a way as possible, because otherwise, it may be difficult to tell what it was that they really saw.

An important special case of this principle is distance determination. If one makes a visual observation of anything beyond a few feet/meters away, its parallax across one's eyes will be so small as to be undetectable, so ANY distances one concludes are pure interpretation of observations. Any observer who is careful about this deserves respect; any observer who dogmatically insists on a measurement of distance by perception deserves the opposite.

Another interesting special case is the interesting misperception that one is being followed around by some celestial body. This is a side effect of their great distance; as one moves, one produces a parallax that is too small to see. This misunderstanding has even happened to professional aircraft pilots, such as military pilots.

One counterargument is that these sorts of arguments would indicate that human visual perception is to fallible to be usable. But a counter-counterargument is to consider the nature of UFO reports; they are reports of extraordinary events, and extraordinary events are much more newsworthy than ordinary events, especially if they are rare. Thus, if one sees Venus 100 times and never thinks that it represents anything unusual, while once becoming convinced of having been followed around by that planet, it is the latter sort of event that would be the more newsworthy of the two.

"Pictures Don't Lie"

But their takers may. The UFO business has had a very long history of photographic fakery. Robert Sheaffer in his years at Northwestern University made numerous fake UFO pictures to attempt to show the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek how easily one could pull it off with modelmaking and analog-imaging techniques. Digital-imaging techniques allow one to do much better; with computer hardware and software now available for only a few thousand dollars, one can produce extremely impressive fakes.

What is especially interesting here is the rarity of detailed UFO video, despite video captures of numerous rare events. It may simply be very difficult to make a good fake one, one that does not look like a model on a string, though that may change as advancing computer hardware and software makes it possible to construct a plausible fake UFO movie without an inordinate expense of both time and money.

"They're Covering It Up!"

This has the question of motivation; supposedly, some important US government agency feels that something bad will happen if the truth gets out. However, that is not the usual reason to cover something up; usually it is some sort of embarrassment that gets that treatment. Furthermore, numerous scandals have been revealed in Washington, DC over the decades. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, CIA shenanigans such as plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, Iran-Contra, then-President Bill Clinton's sex life, ... have all been exposed in very gory detal; that makes it unlikely that such a coverup could be successfully maintained for nearly four decades.

The Advanced-Technology Problem

UFO enthusiasts point that these alleged extraterrestrial spaceships undoubtedly have technology much in advance of ours, but they go on further to claim that we are in no more position to judge their capabilities than (say) someone living in the Amazon jungle would have to judge a helicopter's capabilities. The difficulty there, however, is that we have much more genuine knowledge than someone who had been living in the Amazon jungle would have, and we do seem to have made some important progress in understanding many phenomena. Our ability to discuss this kind of question ought to be at least one indicator.

Furthermore, this argument can easily be stretched to explain anything, and therefore really nothing; it is deficient in falsifiability. How would one be able to tell if something was not the result of sufficiently advanced technology?

Lights at Night: You'll Be Spotted

Why is this a difficulty? It is because the main purpose of night lights on vehicles is to advertise their presence, so as to keep others from colliding with it. Consider bicycles, motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks, trains, boats, ships, helicopters, and airplanes. Many of them do have headlights for illuminating what's ahead, but these are visible over only part of the sphere of directions.

And if one wants to do some espionage, it is important not to let oneself be spotted. And night lights do exactly the opposite -- advertise one's presence.

Avoiding collisions could even done by watching out for Earthling aircraft, which conveniently advertise their presence.

However, one can think of counterhypotheses; for example, that these illuminated craft are some kind of experiment being performed on us Earthlings to see how we react, or even some kind of monstrous practical joke.

Supersonic Flight: No Sonic Booms?

Many reported UFO's can fly supersonically -- and without producing a sonic boom. However, according to a great body of theory, computer simulations, and observations, shocks (jumps in density, velocity, and pressure) -- and therefore sonic booms -- will always appear from supersonic motion. My Ph.D. thesis had involved hydrodynamics calculations and supersonic motion, so I can claim direct knowledge of this problem. Sonic-boom suppression would require some sort of manipulation of the surrounding air that is far in advance of our technology, if it is feasible at all.

Furthermore, boomless supersonic flight would be *very* valuable for airplane manufacturers -- if it could be achieved, because it would remove a major drawback of supersonic flight. Supersonic airliners are currently restricted to flying over oceans and other thinly populated areas for this reason, and boomless supersonic flight would also be valuable for military aircraft, since a sonic boom could give them away.

The "Flying Saucer" Shape

Why are UFO's seen up close so often reputed to be disk-shaped? And why is this the case, even though the aerodynamics of that shape are almost certainly suboptimal? This may date from the mangling of Kenneth Arnold's 1947 report of objects "that skipped like saucers" into "flying saucers", which has an amusingly incongruous ring. Thus, the term "flying saucer" stuck, despite UFOlogists' preference for a more dignified term.

The saucer shape seems to me to have suboptimal aerodynamics, as indicated from the performance of flying-wing airplanes, those with the closest approximation to that shape. They have a reputation as fuel guzzlers, which indicates that their lift-to-drag ratio is not very good; that shape is valued for its low radar cross section, one possible merit of a saucer shape. One counterargument is the performance of "lifting-body" aircraft, which are roughly potato-shaped with stubby wings. However, their greater front-to-back extension and their wing stubbiness makes them un-saucerlike.

The best shape for traveling through a fluid is a missile or torpedo shape; this is the shape of swimming animals like fish, cetaceans, and squid; this is also the shape of submarines and airplane fuselages. Airplanes' main depatures from a missile shape are due to their necessity of making lift and controlling their flight; wings and tailfins are rather thin surfaces.

One could argue that with very advanced technology, one can use whatever shape one wants to and overcome poor aerodynamics with some high-tech brute force. However, that tends to waste energy, which has to be carried aboard the craft, unless some really advanced technology enables getting around that (high-density energy storage, low energy consumption, extraction of energy from environment, transmission of energy). In the absence of such technology, we may assume that an extraterrestrial spyplane would have to be shaped something like an Earthling missile or airplane. But they are not often reported with that shape.

There is a circumstance in which shape does not matter much, however, and that is if the craft is traveling very slowly by airplane standards, less than about 20-30 mph/kph. However, this does not account for all the UFO's that reportedly travel faster than that.

This is also true of vehicles that operate solely in outer space; most Earthling spacecraft are irregularly-shaped, because outer space is essentially a vacuum, meaning that it gives resistance too small to measure. Not surprisingly, these spacecraft are carried up inside of missile-shaped enclosures. An interesting example of this contrast is in the Apollo spacecraft; the Command and Service Modules had to travel through the Earth's atmosphere on their way to the Moon, while the Lunar Module was stowed behind it, behind a partial-cone-shaped enclosure. The first two modules had a streamlined shape, while the third one had an irregular shape. These shapes were memorialized in the Apollo 9 codenames "Gumdrop" and "Spider"; it is easy to guess which module got which code name.

So IMO the most plausible hypothesis is that the saucer shape is a byproduct of that misbegotten term, "flying saucer"; from this discussion, the most likely shape of an extraterrestrial spaceship that travels fast in the Earth's atmosphere would be a missile or airplane shape. However a very slow one or an outer-space one would likely have an irregular shape.

What do the UFOnauts Look Like?

There is the serious question of what the UFOnauts look like. They are usually depicted as humanlike in appearance, with the degree of resemblance varying. What I find rather curious is that they all seem to be tailless, that there is none of them that looks like (say) what an intelligent theropod dinosaur would have looked like, tail and all. And why aren't there a lot of robotic-looking ones? Such as one that looks like a mechanical spider.

We can expect some convergence, because living in the same Universe that we do will generate similar solutions to shared problems; that has happened many times in Earth life. However, in all these cases, there are numerous differences in detail between the various outwardly-similar evolutionary inventions:

Why don't the UFOnauts Tell Us Anything Interesting?

There are several people who have claimed that they have been contacted by benevolent UFOnauts. However, these UFOnauts have not revealed anything really interesting, such as the solution to certain important mathematical problems; instead, there are such banalities as that we ought to be nice to each other and not threaten to use nuclear bombs on each other. According to "The Demon-Haunted World", Carl Sagan had sometimes been challenged to give some question to ask some extraterrestrials by some who claim to have contacted them. Mathematical-theorem questions would go unanswered, while "Shall we be good?" and similar questions would get answered.

Those who claim that the UFOnauts have showed them other parts of the Solar System, like George Adamski, have had some interesting tales to tell, but their accuracy can easily be checked by comparing their stories to the findings of later space-exploration. George Adamski claimed that he had met inhabitants of Venus, Mars, and Saturn (why not Jupiter?) who looked almost exactly human, only better-looking. These inhabitants could survive under Earth conditions without any special protection. And they had established bases on the Moon. However, Venus has a very hot and thick atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, which has fried every space probe ever sent into it, Mars has a cold and very thin atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide that water cannot be liquid in, and Saturn has an atmosphere of mostly hydrogen and helium -- and no condensed surface.

Where is All the Ancient Astronauts' Infrastructure?

These long-ago extraterrestrial visitors had supposedly launched rockets and built airfields(!), such as the Nazca lines. However, the Nazca lines could not be airfields, because they lack much of the necessary infrastructure. The "runways" are unpaved, while good paving is a necessity for serious-sized aircraft. And there are no central airport areas, no control towers, no fuel tanks, no maintenance facilities, no runway lights, and no other familiar airport items.

The situation for rockets is even worse. Those with any serious size need launchpads, service towers, assembly buildings, propellant storage tanks, and other such stuff familiar from such well-known spaceports as the Kennedy Space Center and the Baikonur Cosmodrome. So where are the ancient spaceports? None of the ancient-astronaut advocates have pointed out any clear examples of any such facilities with infrastructure like that of Kennedy or Baikonur; all they point to is mysterious ancient ruins that show little direct evidence of advanced technology.

More broadly, this point applies to the general lack of high-tech junk. None has yet been found, despite such junk being a very interesting find if it could be found.

One possible way to recognize such junk would be to look for parts that have to fit other parts. In Earthling industries, there are widely-shared conventions for the sizes and shapes of such parts; this enables parts manufactured on different production lines and by different manufacturers to fit together. In such conventions, sizes are usually some simple multiples or fractions of some favorite unit of measure; this is why there exist separate sets of English-unit and metric-unit nuts and bolts, for example. Thus, if extraterrestrial visitors had used nuts and bolts in their construction, they would likely have used a few standard sizes of these fasteners, but those sizes would have differed from the corresponding sizes in corresponding Earthling fasteners. And they may possibly be left-handed instead of right-handed, as most Earthling screwed fasteners are.

A good example of this principle in action in a higher-order design can be seen in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Two separate teams, in the United States and the Soviet Union, had made their spacecraft capable of docking with other spacecraft, yet their docking systems were incompatible with each other. Which meant that a docking module had to be built for the mission, with one end capable of docking with an Apollo spacecraft and the other end with a Soyuz spacecraft. And there is every good reason to expect the same principle to be true of extraterrestrial visitors' designs.

Why didn't the Ancient Astronauts Tell Us Anything Interesting?

This is parallel to a similar question about present-day UFOnauts, and is related to one well-known backtracking: that the visitors had not built those mysterious ancient monuments but had instead taught people how to do it. However, the question arises of why teach one thing and not another. There are lots of simple things, or at least things that do not require a lot of mathematical and similar background, that these visitors could have taught our ancestors, but did not: The large majority of these discoveries were made in historical times; there is an abundance of well-documented times and places where many or most of them were unknown. So those ancient astronauts were not doing their job!!! :-)

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