Yep, it’s true. When I was thirteen years old, I was waiting for the bus one morning on a quiet country road in rural British Columbia. It was cool out, and I was alone at the bus stop, which was nothing more than a slightly wider portion of the gravel shoulder of the road. I happened to be looking up the road to where it climbed a steep hill into some trees, and I saw a bright, silvery object speed through the trees near the summit of the hill. There was no sound, and I could see no obvious front or back of the craft. The object quickly passed out of sight, and I have never seen anything like it since. So, what was it? For quite a number of years, I had convinced myself that I had seen an alien spacecraft; I even remember dreaming about a secret alien base hidden in one of the many fields behind my family’s home. I wondered why they were here, what they wanted, and why I was the only person who had seen their craft. By the time I left home for university, I was unshakeable in my belief that I had seen a real alien craft in the trees that morning. And if I never bothered to critically examine the event, I would have continued to believe that, I imagine. And for many people I suspect, this is as far as they have gone when they think that they have witnessed something unusual.
My story, like so many others that I’ve heard about mysterious encounters with unknown or unusual objects, can be examined more closely, whereupon a number of questions arise. The first question to spring to mind is; how far away from the object was I? Well, having grown up on the road where the ‘encounter’ occurred, I can safely state that the object was between 1 and 1.2 Kilometers away (or around 3/4 of a mile) from my position, and roughly twenty meters (about 65 feet) above me, at the top of a hill. That’s a pretty fair distance away – far enough that were a person standing in that location, I’d be able to see them, but I would be able to make out very little detail. At that distance, it would be quite difficult to make a positive identification of any type of vehicle which may have passed by – alien or not.
The next question I have to ask myself is: are there any other, more plausible objects that this ‘craft’ could have been? Well, near the top of the road there is another, little-used gravel road which runs perpendicular to the one on which I stood. It is quite possible that at the time I was looking in that direction, a large vehicle could have passed by, and of course, that’s what had happened. There are dump-trucks and gravel trucks which often use that road as a short cut to get from one side of the valley to the other (did I mention I lived in a valley? No? Well, I did.), and there is a certain kind of trailer that is often used by such trucks to carry gravel. The trailer is an unusual shape – it’s roughly a trapezoid – which from a distance could look like some kind of flat-bottomed flying saucer. I had seen a gravel truck pass by; I was too late to see the cab of the truck, which had already passed behind the trees lining the road, but caught a brief glimpse of the trailer ‘gliding’ across the gap in the trees at the top of the road; at that distance, I wasn’t able to make out the wheels beneath the vehicle, and I was far enough away that the sound of the truck was muffled and hidden amongst the rest of the background noise. I had mistaken a dump-truck for an alien spacecraft, and had subsequently reinforced that erroneous belief with fantasies of my own design.
This is the drake equation. It’s math. Lots of math. So much math in fact, that it has been criticized by scientists and non-scientists alike of incorporating far too many untestable variables into its formula for it to be anything other than a guess wrapped up in a complicated-looking bit of algebra. It does however, help in explaining why the prospect of visitation by alien explorers is so unlikely; if even a fraction of this equation is correct in any meaningful way, we are still faced with the prospect of a relatively small number of intelligent, curious, technologically advanced species capable of communicating with us in any way. It is even less likely that any of these sorts of beings have the capability to cross the vast stretches of empty space to reach us. Why not? Well, says the skeptic, we have no evidence that it has ever happened, or that it is even possible. I’ve often been told by UFO enthusiasts that ‘just because we can’t currently do it, doesn’t mean that another species couldn’t have figured out how…’ But that’s not the point. The UFOlogist has just committed the logical fallacy of ‘Begging the Question‘ whereby she has assumed as true the premise that there are intelligent, hyper-advanced alien species in the universe who have used their technology to travel to Earth for inscrutable reasons. You can’t argue that aliens could have developed advanced hyperdrive engines without first showing that aliens, in fact, exist at all. For the record, I believe that intelligent life does exist in the universe, but I cannot prove it, and so I don’t use that belief to justify any other convictions.
Carl Sagan once described our planet as a tiny, insignificant rocky body, orbiting a rather pale and dim star, in an unremarkable region of space on the cusp of the void between galactic arms, in a rather puny galaxy within a local group of galaxies which itself is rather small and out of the way. On whatever scale you wish to choose, our species exists in the hinterlands of our stellar neighborhood; were there aliens capable of interstellar travel, we are situated in one of the last places they’d look.
We’ve been broadcasting radio emissions from our planet for quite some time; since the early twentieth century at least. As our communications technology has increased in complexity and broadcasting power, the signals emitted from our solar system have become ‘louder’ and have spread out roughly fifty light-years from earth. Most of these signals have degraded in the intervening years until it is unlikely that they could be distinguished from the background static of the universe, but a few signals blared out loud and strong, such as the Arecibo Signal sent in 1974. This means that our planetary chatter has only reached a few dozen of the nearest stars in our neighborhood and, not surprisingly, we’ve heard nothing in response. Or maybe a reply has been sent, but we have yet to hear it; it would take just as long to send a response to our signals as those signals took to reach ET’s instruments in the first place, so anything we sent today might not be answered for a century, and we would not hear back from alien scientists for another century. It’s a long, slow game of telephone, and we’re not even sure that we’re connected.
The drake equation tells us that there could be many thousands of advanced alien civilizations out there, waiting to be discovered. But, since we’ve strayed far into the realm of speculation, I’d like to throw out one of my own: what if we’re not one of the youngest intelligent species in the universe; what if we’re the first? What if all of our broadcasts simply fade away into a universe in which we’re the first sentient species to emerge? We might never hear from another intelligent species, because we might be the only ones currently out there? Evolution doesn’t seem to favour intelligence; out of all of the millions of species to evolve on Earth over the past few billion years, we are one of only a tiny few to ever achieve any measure of sentience, and we are the only species to have evolved to the point that we are able to walk on other worlds. Alien life could have evolved elsewhere, but it might not have evolved the capacity to abstractly reason or to invent. It is near impossible for us to draw any scientific conclusions about the possible characteristics of extraterrestrial life, as of all the planets we’ve found, we know of only one that has life. A test sample of one isn’t much of a sampling at all. Maybe all the science fiction tales we’ve spun about ‘Progenitor races’ are really prognostications of our own species’ future. Who knows?