UFOs? Sure, I’ve seen ’em.

One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this. But we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.

-Stephen Hawking, from ‘Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places,’ referring to planet Gliese 832c.

Just an FYI: The number of unlikely things that can happen is so large, you can be assured that unlikely things are likely.

tweeted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I’m a skeptic. But I’ve seen some things. More on that below.

UFOs were in the news recently, with the release by the Department of Defense of some grainy video footage showing strange, flying objects. One of the videos was previously leaked by Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 fame. As if the world needed to be any more bizarre.

Those things in the video are indeed UFOs. Unidentified Flying Objects. They’re objects, they’re in flight, and we can’t identify them.

Yes, they could be spacecraft with little green men at the helm. Or maybe they’re stunt planes covered with strobelights being piloted by pranksters. Maybe they’re experimental military aircraft. We don’t know, and what’s wrong with not knowing?

I’ve heard the usual official explanations for the lights in the sky, that they’re weather balloons or swamp gas or whatever. None of the explanations are particularly satisfying, are they? When someone sees something their mind can’t make sense of, these glib, “official” dismissals are disheartening. They do little to slake our thirst for knowledge.

And to keep digging for the truth is to risk being branded a crackpot or a nut. It’s tough out there for UFO enthusiasts, isn’t it?

To my way of thinking, there is every bit as much evidence for the existence of UFOs as there is for the existence of God. Probably far more. At least in the case of UFOs there have been countless taped and filmed—and, by the way, unexplained—sightings from all over the world, along with documented radar evidence seen by experienced military and civilian radar operators.

-George Carlin, ‘When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?’

I’m no UFO enthusiast. Most of what we’ve seen can be readily and rationally explained. Still, I figure there is life somewhere else in the Universe. We are not alone. As astrophysicist Katie Mack recently wrote, “the idea that Earth is fully unique, the one inhabited world in the universe, or even the Milky Way, seems a bit absurd.” Maybe there are aliens, and maybe one day we’ll meet them.

What if the aliens are already here, and the people in charge are keeping it a secret? Personally, I’m happy not knowing, because if I don’t know, then no one else does, either. True, I’m not excited by the prospect of a less-than-completely-transparent government, but that’s the world we live in, isn’t it?

And speaking of the world we live in, given recent events, can you imagine how our population would react if the aliens’ existence and presence on Earth were finally and unequivocally revealed?

This sentiment is expressed best in the film Men in Black, during a conversation between Agents J and K, before J officially joins the team. On a bench in Battery Park, K is telling J about the aliens living their lives in Manhattan, undetected by the majority of humans.

From Men in Black. But you knew that already.

“Why the big secret?” J asks. “People are smart, they can handle it.”

“A person is smart,” K answers. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

To the people in charge, it wouldn’t even be a choice. Telling us would be catastrophic. Too many of us can’t be trusted.

So we’re all left to wonder what’s really out there. Some of us, anyway. For most people, any interest in space aliens begins and ends with entertainment. Books, movies, video games, TV shows. Aliens are great for fiction, because they can do anything or be anything we want. Evil villains? Benign purveyors of advanced technology? Sexy love interests? Aliens can do it all. We’re limited only by our imagination.

Crashed alien spacecraft in ‘Fallout 4.’ The pilot (green-skinned, big-eyed, humanoid) is hiding in a nearby cave. He isn’t friendly.

It’s a shame, then, that we rarely conceive of an alien that can’t be portrayed on the screen by an actor wearing makeup. Seriously, I hate that. We make contact with life from a distant galaxy, only to find it’s evolved along nearly the same lines as life on our planet? Science tells us such a thing is possible, but it’s highly unlikely. And terribly unimaginative. We’re used to seeing it, thanks to countless films and TV shows like Star Trek (where being an alien might mean nothing more than a funny haircut). If we ever really made contact with aliens, we’d probably lose our minds at how weird they are compared to life on Earth.

Why am I talking about all this? Well, part of it might have something to with this book I’m writing.

It might.

Okay, it does.

But more on that another time. Right now, it’s time for some show-and-tell. I saw something in the sky a few months ago my skeptical mind can’t adequately explain. And believe me, I’ve tried.

Oh, and I have a photo, too.

It was this past October. I was in my backyard, setting up my camera. There was supposed to be a meteor shower that night, and even though it would take a considerable amount of luck, I thought it’d be cool to capture some of the fireballs by taking long exposures of the night sky. Where I live, the sky isn’t particularly dark, so I wasn’t expecting much. Still, I figured it’d be fun to try.

I had my camera on the tripod and was trying to decide in which direction to point it. Looking up, something caught my eye.

Movement.

A swarm of tiny orange lights, dimmer than the stars, was moving slowly across the sky, weaving back and forth. While trying to decide what they were, I aimed my camera, focused as best as I could, and opened the shutter.

I watched the lights. They seemed to be fairly high up. They weren’t moving like jets. My first thought was birds, but why the lights? If they were high enough, they could have been illuminated by the sun from over the horizon, but this was well past sundown, so that seemed unlikely. Or maybe, if they were birds, they had some sort of tracking tag on them with an LED, but they’d have to be pretty damn bright to be seen from that distance. And why would there be LEDs anyway? They could have been a swarm of drones, but wouldn’t they fly straight? Why all the weaving back and forth?

The best explanation I can offer is that a bunch of mylar balloons ended up at a high enough altitude to catch some sunlight and were caught in an air current. But with the way they were staying in such a close formation, I’m not sure that’s the best fit.

Here’s what my camera captured (click for higher res):

Note the faint streaks on the left half of the image.

I hadn’t focused very well, but you can see the faint paths those lights traced across the sky (the stars are elongated because of the exposure time; the Earth rotated while I had the shutter open). I count six streaks in the photo, but there were more in the sky. If you want to take a look at the RAW file from my camera, it’s here (note: you’ll need the proper software to view this, and it’s quite large; ignore the preview that pops up and click the Download icon).

They were flying. They were objects. And I can’t identify them. Are they aliens? I don’t believe that. I just don’t know what the hell they are.

And that’s okay. One day, we might learn that some of those lights in the sky are, in fact, very shy aliens working up the nerve to land. Right now, though, we’re not ready to meet them.

Let’s hope they give us time to get our shit together.


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