One of the Biggest Stories of the Century Happened, We Just Don’t Know Which

In 2017 the New York Times ran a front-page story reporting that UFO videos had been confirmed by the US government. If true, this would likely be the most important story of the 21st century.

No one cared.

In fact, someone probably got a dressing down for actually thinking anyone wanted to read about UFOs instead of what Donald Trump had tweeted.

But forget about whether UFOs are real; just consider whether the sightings are important. I’d say they are, because if you think about it there are only 3 possible explanations, and all of them are bananas.

Here are the possibilities, in ascending craziness:

1. Mistaken identity

The most commonly cited skeptical explanation for UFOs is simple mistaken identity, that witnesses were confused by weather or conventional aircraft. I accept this explanation for nearly every other UFO report, but the 2004 USS Nimitz incident described in the NYT seems to defy normal explanations. It was separately detected on radar by a Navy plane and ship, filmed on a fighter’s infrared, and witnessed by 4 Airmen.

Even if it were mistaken identity though, it’s still a big deal because:

  • If some other man-made object fooled the US military to this extent, this represents a massive security weakness. Also, what happens when a nuclear early-warning system gets fooled?
  • If this is a previously unknown natural phenomenon, it’s a huge scientific discovery, making giant squid or ball lighting look like peanuts. Whatever it was showed up on radar, then infrared, and flew around!

2. US Government PsyOp

To the more conspiratorial-minded, this could all be a big PsyOp (psychological operation) by the government. This would be even bigger news than mistaken identity, because of how unprecedented it would be for a peacetime operation.

One of the most famous PsyOps in history was the British WWII claim that carrots had improved RAF pilot’s nighttime performance, to cover for advances in radar technology.

If radar prompted the British to lie about carrots, what would it take to prompt the US to lie about spaceships? Regardless of the likelihood, this would be a fascinating path to speculate on was it not dwarfed by the final possibility:

3. Advanced technology

I’m going to group the wacky explanations (Aliens, time travelers, etc.) with the theory that the UFOs are actually secret US/Chinese/Russian drones. I do this because it doesn’t really matter where the technology came from, it is so advanced and paradigm-shifting that the story stops here as far as I’m concerned. If you agree that what was seen during the Nimitz incident indeed was a form of advanced technology, then its demonstration is the biggest news of the 21st century; any origin story is just icing on the cake.

Here’s why:

  • Movement without apparent propulsion - Unlike propellers, jet engines, rockets, ion drives, or any other engine we know of, the UFO didn’t seem to require propelling mass behind it to move. This would confirm the possibility of something like the currently only speculative reactionless drive or field propulsion.
  • Movement without interacting with the surrounding atmosphere - It exhibited incredible speeds that should have resulted in not only a sonic boom, but also aerodynamic drag that would heat the craft’s skin until it glowed white-hot and dazzled infrared cameras. Somehow, neither of these things occurred. (Video: a high-speed railgun projectile igniting the air from friction.)
  • Materials that can either withstand or bypass massive g-forces - Based on the USS Princeton’s tracking, we can estimate that the craft sustained repeated acceleration on the order of 100+ G’s, far beyond any known aircraft.[1] As a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense put it “there’s nothing that we could build that would be strong enough to endure that amount of force and acceleration.”
  • An enormous and highly efficient mobile power plant - The craft was able to operate for long periods of time, engaging in energetically expensive acceleration rapidly and repeatedly. A basic potential and kinetic energy estimate shows that there would be massive power and fuel demands, far beyond anything we have. What’s more, despite expending huge amounts of energy, it doesn’t appear to be throwing off any heat, implying an unheard-of level of efficiency. For comparison, modern engines and power plants discharge 1 to 2 units of waste heat for every 1 unit of useful energy.

Each of the technologies is so advanced that just establishing any of them as possible would earn you a Nobel Prize, let alone actually making one.

So what is it?

In the case of the Nimitz, mistaken identity seems unlikely because of the number of corroborations from sensors and trained professionals (who would generally rather not be associated with UFOs).

A PsyOp seems like the type of thing that the US government might use as a temporary distraction (like the “ammunition dump explosion” covering for the Trinity test), but maintaining the fiction for nearly two decades, all the way through a Congressional hearing, would be unprecedented. Even if UFOs are a cover story, it also requires an even bigger story worth covering.

Finally, the black-ops drone explanation seems the most unlikely of all, because it requires you to accept all the incredibleness of the UFO tech, but additionally tack on a conspiracy theory that it was covertly built by early 21st-century humans many generations ahead of schedule (so much for the great stagnation).[2]

Thus I’m in the awkward position described by Sherlock Holmes:

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.[3]

That said, while only the improbable remain, there isn’t evidence for any particular improbable. We may gravitate towards Aliens, but that was our favorite explanation long before there was anything that needed explaining. If The Terminator were as popular as Star Wars, would we say time travelers?

(My pet theory, because it’s funny, is that we’re in the Simulation and the UFOs are sysadmins.)

Ultimately, the question of whether the UFOs are Aliens or not is a distraction and jumping the gun: the question should be whether it’s technology or not–and the implications are huge regardless. If it is technology though, the “How?” is so far beyond our limited understanding that we must also be humble about the “Why?”

Uncontacted Peoples
Literally Us. (Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Certain missiles can experience g-forces on the lower end of this order of magnitude, but only once and only briefly, meanwhile aircraft top out at ~10 G’s. ↩︎

  2. Ancient Greenland Inuit were found to have iron tools, despite being decidedly stone-age technologically. How could they have come to possess such advanced technology? Naturally, it came from space. ↩︎

  3. I honestly don’t want to be the UFO guy. I’ve spent enough time trying (often unsuccessfully) to pass as sensible, yet now I can’t seem to stop myself from adopting these scarlet letters. But I’ve kicked around the thoughts for years, and there are at least a few smart people similarly willing to make fools of themselves, so I really have no excuse for staying shy about it. ↩︎

Addendum: Why does nobody care?

My first reaction to belatedly hearing of the UFO reports was astonishment, but not at the reports themselves, but that no one seemed to care. No debate between skeptics and true believers, it wasn’t even in the cultural zeitgeist (unlike Flat Earth for example).

I once made it through 15 minutes of the film What the Bleep Do We Know? All I remember of it was a feeling of exasperation, and this:

We only see what we believe is possible — Native American Indians on Caribbean Islands couldn't see Columbus's ships [sitting on the horizon] because they were beyond their knowledge.

I found it eye-rolling at the time, but now, though I don’t think of it as literally true, I see what they were getting at.

Actual UFOs are just so far outside of our conception, that like the European ships, we just don’t see them. It’s not that we are carefully looking and considering the unusual blob on the water, then deciding that it’s not anything; we just don’t regard it at all.

Thanks to Uri and Kaamya for feedback on drafts of this.


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