Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Meyer, Krauss, Nelson: UAPs, UFOs, and Panspermia

Photo credit: Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash.

As noted already, in a New York Post op-ed over the weekend, Stephen Meyer put UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, formerly known as UFOs) into a helpful perspective. See, “Why God is still the best scientific theory to explain our life on Earth.” He points out that scientists have been talking about aliens for decades in the context of so-called directed panspermia. But, says Meyer, this is all way of evading, unsatisfactorily, the mystery of life’s origin, whether that happened on Earth or on another planet.

“Little Green Men”

Atheist Lawrence Krauss writes about the UAPs, not panspermia, over at Quillette. He’s quite sure: “Whatever It Is, It Ain’t Aliens.” There’s the usual sneering reference to “little green men.” But he offers five serious reasons for thinking the mysterious aerial phenomena can’t be aliens. Those are topped by:

1. The Laws of Physics: Travel from another star in any reasonable time requires near-light speed travel. A ship propelled by onboard conventional rocket fuel would require more fuel than there is mass in the visible universe to accelerate to near light speed and slow down at the end of the voyage, so clearly some more advanced fuel would be required. But even using nuclear fusion one would use more than 2,000 times the mass of the ship in fuel for each acceleration and deceleration to and from near-light speed. Basic physics constraints imply that any on-board propulsion technology that could power a conventional ship-sized spacecraft to travel from one solar system to another at near light speed and decelerate it within our solar system would require using energy that is comparable to the entire amount of power used by all of humanity at the current time. Hard to imagine any civilization devoting such extensive resources to visit us only to hang around secretly spying on aircraft carriers, or abducting humans to perform kinky experiments.

Limited Scientific Imagination

Philosopher of science Paul Nelson isn’t so sure. As he told me:

I don’t take a position on the cause of the anomalies (who the heck knows), but I do argue that Krauss’s counterarguments all run afoul of his limited scientific imagination. The key is Clarke’s 3rd Law (from the prescient science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Krauss gives reasons, based on our current physics and technological limits, why UAPs cannot be advanced extraterrestrial technology.

But, like many skeptics, he lets his skepticism put shackles on his imagination. Skepticism should always come packaged with a huge ceteris paribus (all things being equal) clause. Problem is, if ETs exist, it is entirely likely that all things are NOT equal, especially with respect to the limits of THEIR physical knowledge. 

Parallel: Krauss’s debunking is logically equivalent to Aristotle snorting with derision, or even David Hume, if we told them that in 2021 it will be routine to fly several miles above the surface of the Earth, close to the speed of sound, while drinking Cabernet and listening to Mozart on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones (whatever those are). Others have been eloquent on this point. If new and surprising physics remains to be discovered — and why not? — ETs may already have found and exploited it. Hence their technology may be as indistinguishable from magic, to us, as an iPhone or a jumbo jet would be to Aristotle. Clarke’s 3rd Law.

And Aristotle was one smart dude.

Who can argue with that last observation? I also like Paul’s point about “Who the heck knows?” The puzzling fact that we can’t identify the UAPs, in light of our own “limited scientific imagination,” should not be permitted to manipulate us into a false dilemma of “It’s either aliens or it must be some familiar earthly phenomenon.” It may well be — in fact, probably is — neither.