Play Video

Do Aliens Really Exist?

Flying saucers probably aren’t real. Alien life … could be

June 2024

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

For as long as humanity has existed, the night sky has called to us.

When we look out into that vast darkness, what exactly are we looking at?

Is it an endless, lifeless expanse? A reminder that in a sprawling universe, we are, in the end, all alone?

Or is it a gateway to life elsewhere in the universe, to civilizations as yet unknown?

In other words, when we look up at the night sky … is someone out there looking back?

It’s one of the most profound questions that mankind can ask.

And the answer … involves a llama.

A dead llama.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

The year was 1947. The place was Washington State. And the prevailing mood was “holy s***.”

That was the year that the pilot of a small plane reported seeing something unprecedented: nine shiny, unidentifiable objects flying in formation.i And when descriptions of these objects as “flying saucers” started hitting the media … we were off to the races.

In the years since, there have been more than 170,000 sightings of mysterious objects in the sky.ii

By the 1960s there were starting to be reports of alien abductions.iii

(In the first one, by the way, it was reported that the aliens got an authentic welcome to Earth — when the couple in question tried to shoot them.)

And today, belief in aliens is so mainstream as to have become the majority position. As of 2021, 51 percent of Americans told pollsters that they believe reports of UFOs are likely evidence of extraterrestrial visitors.iv

Which … you can kind of understand. After all, we’ve got about 75 years’ worth of these kinds of stories. And, with even government officials admitting in recent years that they can’t explain every incident v it’s no wonder that people are at least open-minded.

Except … you often don’t hear the other part … where the government also reports that there’s never been any evidence to suggest that any of this is aliens.vi

And, sure, maybe this is a topic on which you don’t want to blindly trust what the Feds say, but … they’re not exactly alone.

Those “flying saucers” back in the 1940s? Almost certainly top-secret balloons designed to monitor Soviet weapon activity.vii

All those sightings since? A 2023 study that analyzed nearly 100,000 of them found that they were disproportionally likely to happen in places with a clear view of the night sky … that were near military bases … or airports — which likely means that if we were seeing aliens … they were flying Southwest.viii

Alien corpses, like the two that were supposedly unveiled before the Mexican parliament in 2023? A CT scan revealed that those remains were, in part, the skull of a llama. ix

Though, to be fair … we don’t know for sure what planet the llama was from.

And, more broadly, a lot of the imprecision here seems awfully … convenient. After all, we live in a country where 90 percent of people walk around with a camera in their pocket all the timex — and yet no one has ever gotten a clear shot of a UFO? And what about all those supposedly crashed spacecraft? Do we really think aliens have mastered interstellar travel but their GPS just goes haywire when they hit New Mexico?

But here’s where things get tricky. The question of whether or not flying saucers or alien abductions are real isn’t quite the same as the question as to whether there might be life elsewhere in the universe.

In other words, the truth probably isn’t out there.

But it might be out there.

Here’s what we mean.

The universe is really large. In our galaxy alone, there are at least 100 billion stars,xi most with at least one planet orbiting around them.xii And, by the way, our galaxy is only one of approximately two trillion.xiii Which means there are a lot of places that life could be.

Now, with all due respect to the people who are mummifying llamas or firing pistols at their intergalactic kidnappers, if we really want to wrap our heads around this we ought to ask how likely scientists think it is that there’s life elsewhere in the universe.

And the answer to that question is … well, it’s complicated.

Ever since the 1960s, scientists have had a framework for how to think through this question. It’s called the Drake Equation and it’s pretty straightforward.

You simply multiply the rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life by the fraction of those stars with planetary systems; by the number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life; by the fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears; by the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges; by the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that produces detectable signs of their existence; by the average length of time such civilizations produce such signs and, voila, you get the number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.xiv

See ... simple.

Oh, also, we should mention … of the seven variables that go into this equation … we only know how to calculate one of them.xv And, as a result, the estimates for how many of these civilizations exist run from millions to … it’s just us.xvi

And, for the record, this is not us making fun of the Drake Equation. This is us telling you that even the best scientific thinking on this question … only gets you an educated guess.

And sometimes … it only gets you more questions. That’s the case with the Fermi Paradox, the famous quandary posed by the physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950: given the significant likelihood that there is life out there somewhere and given how old the universe is — which means that aliens would have had more than enough time to travel across it — where is everybody?xvii

And the variety of proposed answers to that question is truly wild.

There’s the zoo hypothesis, in which aliens have decided to treat Earth like a wildlife preserve and are just leaving us alone.xviii

There’s the replacement hypothesis, which supposes that lifeforms in other parts of the universe are so advanced that they’ve already replaced themselves with robots, who, in turn, have no interest in human beings.xix

There’s even one called the dark forest hypothesis, which suggests that the universe is so dangerous that any aliens would intentionally keep quiet because making your presence known would almost certainly lead inhabitants of other planets to destroy you. xx

But we’ve already established that Americans shoot aliens, so we should be in the clear on that one.

Whether we’re alone in the universe is one of the consuming questions of humanity. And we’re getting more places to look all the time.

In just the last 30 years, we’ve discovered over 5,600 planets outside of our solar system.xxi And with new technologies like NASA’s stunning James Webb Space Telescope we’ll be able to study their atmospheres and learn more than we could’ve ever dreamed about whether the building blocks of life exist elsewhere in space.

What does that mean for the future? We don’t yet know.

Maybe we’ll just never discover the answer.

Or maybe there’s really nothing else out there.

Or maybe — just maybe — the universe will reveal that…

[Spaceship appears in frame and cover retracts to reveal it’s being piloted by an alien llama]

OK, we owe those dudes in Mexico an apology.

Source(s)

  1. "1947: Year of the Flying Saucer" (Russell Lee) — National Air and Space Museum
  2. Recent Activity and Highlights — National UFO Reporting Center
  3. "An Alien Abduction? Hardly a Convincing One." (Joe Schwarcz) — McGill Office for Science and Society
  4. "Most Americans Believe in Intelligent Life Beyond Earth; Few See UFOs as a Major National Security Threat" (Courtney Kennedy and Arnold Lau) — Pew Research Center
  5. "U.S. Finds No Evidence of Alien Technology in Flying Objects, but Can’t Rule It Out, Either" (Julian Barnes and Helene Cooper) — New York Times
  6. Report on the Historical Record of U.S. Government Involvement With Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) — U.S. Department of Defense
  7. How We Lost Our Minds About UFOs — New York Magazine 
  8. "An Environmental Analysis of Public UAP Sightings and Sky View Potential" (R. M. Medina, S. C. Brewer, and S. M. Kirkpatrick) — Nature
  9. "Applying CT-Scanning for the Identification of a Skull of an Unknown Archaeological Find in Peru" (José de la Cruz Ríos López, et al.) — International Journal of Biology and Biomedicine
  10. Mobile Fact Sheet — Pew Research Center
  11. "How Many Stars in the Milky Way?" (Maggie Masetti) — NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  12. Where Are Exoplanets? — NASA
  13. New Horizons Spacecraft Answers Question: How Dark Is Space? — NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  14. Drake Equation — SETI Institute
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. The Fermi Paradox — SETI Institute
  18. "If Aliens Existed Elsewhere in the Universe, How Would They Behave?" (James Trefil and Michael Summers) — Smithsonian Magazine
  19. Ibid.
  20. The Fermi Paradox — Higgs Center for Theoretical Physics
  21. How We Find and Classify Exoplanets — NASA

Shownotes

Sound | Musicbed: "Marvel" Ryan Taubert, "The Wonder" Wessman Fade // Premium Beat: "Mozart - Lacrimosa" Leo Symphony Orchestra // Splice SFX Library

Footage | NATURE // Pew Research: Courntey Kennedy & Arnold Lau // Department of Defense: AARO // U.S. Federal Government // ESA/Hubble: NASA,  A. Bellini et al. // Hubblesite: STScI/AURA // NASA: ASA,  ESA,  CSA,  STScI,  and K. Luhman (Penn State University) and C. Alves de Oliveira (European Space Agency), ESA,  A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center),  M.H. Wong (University of California,  Berkeley),  and the OPAL Team, ESA,  CSA,  STScI, ESA,  CSA,  STScI, ESA,  CSA,  STScI,  J. Lee (STScI),  T. Williams (Oxford),  PHANGS Team, ESA/Webb,  CSA,  Tom Ray (Dublin), JPL-Caltech, JPL-Caltech and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. HurtMSFC/David Higginbotham // BBC // CBS NEWS // Chicago Sun (1947) // CNN: CNN // ABC 7: ABC 8 // The New York Times: The New York Times // Greensburg Tribune Review: Greensburg Tribune Review // The Irish Times (1947) // Roswell Daily Record (9147) // NBC News // NewsNation // The Internet Archive: Paul Trent // Amazing Stories (1946) // Amazing Stories (1957) // Science Wonder Stories (1929): Frank R. Paul // Getty: holgs, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal History Archive / Contributor, Viacheslav Peretiatko, Anadolu / Contributor, andresr, Keystone, NASA, Nextrecord Archives, Nextrecord Archives, Nextrecord Archives, Sony Pictures EntertainmentUniversal History Archive / Contributor // Alamy: Science Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo // Artlist: 3DSculpto, Alejandro Campollo, Ami Bornstein, Ami Bornstein, Ami Bornstein, Ami Bornstein, ANBR, Angel Salazar, Animedias, Arthur Cauty, Arthur Cauty, Finn Moeller, Jmg-visuals, Piotrek Naumowicz, Renclif Media, Renclif Media, Renclif Media, Senssorial, Senssorial, DragonImages, dreamypixel, FabrikaPhoto, fokkebok, Great_Bru, Great_Bru, iiMOHAMMEDii, ktsimage, leungchopan, Lifeonwhite, Lifeonwhite, Maciejbledowski, Mint_Images, mrdoomits, pilens, Prostock-studio, Wirestock, WirestockEnvato Elements // Unsplash: Jamie Hagan, Shot by Cerqueira, Alexander Mils // YouTube: One Challenge // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Sources

  1. National Air and Space Museum
    "1947: Year of the Flying Saucer" (Russell Lee)
  2. National UFO Reporting Center
    Recent Activity and Highlights
  3. McGill Office for Science and Society
    "An Alien Abduction? Hardly a Convincing One." (Joe Schwarcz)
  4. Pew Research Center
    "Most Americans Believe in Intelligent Life Beyond Earth; Few See UFOs as a Major National Security Threat" (Courtney Kennedy and Arnold Lau)
  5. New York Times
    "U.S. Finds No Evidence of Alien Technology in Flying Objects, but Can’t Rule It Out, Either" (Julian Barnes and Helene Cooper)
  6. U.S. Department of Defense
    Report on the Historical Record of U.S. Government Involvement With Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP)
  7. New York Magazine 
    How We Lost Our Minds About UFOs
  8. Nature
    "An Environmental Analysis of Public UAP Sightings and Sky View Potential" (R. M. Medina, S. C. Brewer, and S. M. Kirkpatrick)
  9. International Journal of Biology and Biomedicine
    "Applying CT-Scanning for the Identification of a Skull of an Unknown Archaeological Find in Peru" (José de la Cruz Ríos López, et al.)
  10. Pew Research Center
    Mobile Fact Sheet 
  11. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
    "How Many Stars in the Milky Way?" (Maggie Masetti)
  12. NASA
    Where Are Exoplanets? 
  13. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
    New Horizons Spacecraft Answers Question: How Dark Is Space? 
  14. SETI Institute
    Drake Equation 
  15. SETI Institute
    The Fermi Paradox
  16. Smithsonian Magazine
    "If Aliens Existed Elsewhere in the Universe, How Would They Behave?" (James Trefil and Michael Summers)
  17. Higgs Center for Theoretical Physics
    The Fermi Paradox
  18. NASA
    How We Find and Classify Exoplanets

Delve Deeper

Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.

Articles:   

Bonus Content

To download or print the bonus content, click here.

More Videos

July 2024

How the Armed Forces Became a Secret Track to Social Mobility

Americans love their military — which makes it weird that so few of them sign up. Even weirder: One of the biggest benefits of military service … is something almost no one talks about.
Watch Now...

July 2024

How Every Continent’s Population Will Change by the Year 2100

How much will the size of the population change by the year 2100? The answer depends a lot on where you live.
Watch Now...