Sean Moncrieff: Are UFO sightings just alien tourists having a laugh?

Maybe Earth is an unpopular destination, the intergalactic version of Longford

When I was a kid, one of my favourite television shows was called UFO. Set in the dizzy future of 1980, it told the story of how a secret organisation (posing as a film production company) was battling invading aliens. There was a submarine with a jet attached to it. There was a base on the moon. But mostly, there was a lot of catsuits and wigs.

It played with a standard sci-fi trope that if there were visitors to Earth, hostile or not, all our governments would instinctively not tell us about it: the reason being that it would cause “panic”. Why it would prompt such hysteria is rarely explained – though it is implied that the arrival of beings who don’t look like us and are probably smarter than us would collapse the Judaeo-Christian world view that humans (or Americans) are unique.

That fictional convention plays into a real-world fear that there are things going on that we don't know about: one that has ballooned into what is, by today's standards, on the more benign end of conspiracy theorism. The US government knows all about aliens. They are living in secret bases. They gave us the internet. Vladimir Putin is from Venus.

The truth might be more prosaic and bureaucratic. By the time you read this, the US Congress may have already been presented with a report about what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena”; or UFOs. Or it’s just about to happen. Or, if you have time-travelling capabilities, you read it ages ago.

Unusual objects

Don’t start building a bunker just yet. While the overwhelming majority of UFO sightings have a humdrum explanation, there have been a number of encounters over the years that can’t be so easily explained. Experienced pilots have seen unusual objects. Radar has tracked things moving at high speed and making manoeuvres that would be impossible for human-made craft.

A couple of videos have been leaked in which US Navy pilots tracked these craft – if that’s what they are. But like all such evidence, the pictures are grainy and not very convincing. A billion-dollar aircraft and they spend $10 on the camera. Their accounts describe objects of different shapes. One looks like a tic-tac. Another is triangular. It could be a piece of Toblerone.

But none of this gives us even a hint of what these flying sweets are, or where they come from. The various theories are entirely the result of political or cultural expectations. Some US politicians suspect the Russians or the North Koreans. Other people, many of them reasonable people, maintain that we have to consider the possibility that they might be extra-terrestrial in origin: because a century of science fiction has drummed the idea into us that anything unexplainable must come from outer space.

Unpopular destination

I’d love if that were true. But there are far more questions than answers. If they have travelled hundreds or thousands of light years to get here, why have they no interest in making any contact with us? If they are so technologically advanced, how is it that we’ve seen them at all? If you can build a craft capable of faster-than-light travel, surely you can also make it invisible?

It could be that they don’t care if there’s an occasional sighting; or they are doing it deliberately. They might not be here to study humans or steal our organs or mine our planet for some rare mineral. They might simply be tourists; and it’s likely that Earth is one of the less popular destinations, the intergalactic version of Longford.

So, just to jazz it up, part of the tour might be to hover above a bar in rural Idaho until some drunk people stagger out, spot the craft and scream in terror. The aliens might find that hilarious. The truth, if it ever emerges, might indeed be one that we find difficult to accept: planet Earth and human beings aren’t that interesting.