It's strange convergence time. Just as Oumuamua, the first detected alien visitor from another star system zips through our solar system, the New York Times reveals the existence of the Pentagon's secretive Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program that has been investigating reports of unidentified flying objects since 2007.
Oumuamua, a reddish cigar-shaped body 1,300 feet in length, was detected on October 19 by astronomers associated with the University of Hawaii who are part of the worldwide Near-Earth Object discovery effort. According to the Washington Post, its unusual shape prompted Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, to observe, "The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility."
In an attempt to see if Oumuamua might be an interstellar spaceship, the Breakthrough Listen project funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner turned the Green Bank Telescope toward the object. Breakthrough Listen monitors billions of radio frequencies across the 1 to 12 GHz range in search for evidence of technological life in the universe. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands.
The Breakthrough Listen researchers have detected no signals emanating from Oumuamua.
Much closer to home, the Pentagon has quietly been investigating reports of various unidentified flying objects, including the analysis of video taken by military planes of unexplained aerial phenomena. Luis Elizondo, who resigned as head the Department of Defense's UFO program in October, told CNN, "My personal belief is that there is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone."
How would Americans react to the announcement that alien life had been discovered? Most evidence suggests they would not freak out. A survey commissioned by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in August found that 47 percent of Americans believe in aliens and 39 percent believe that "aliens have visited Earth before." Only 17 percent, however, report having seen UFOs themselves. One of the more tongue-in-cheek questions on the survey asked whom respondents would volunteer to be abducted by aliens. Some 17 percent said that they would volunteer themselves (I would).
A global survey released on December 14 by Dutch researchers involving more than 26,000 people from 24 countries finds:
61 percent of people believe that there is some form of life on other planets. 17 percent rule this out and only 22 percent say that they don't know.
47 percent of people believe in the existence of intelligent alien civilizations in the universe. 26 percent rule this out and 28 percent say that they don't know.
25 percent believe that the first form of life on earth arrived here from another place in the universe. 39 percent do not believe this and 36 percent say they don't know.
Of the 47 percent people who believe that advanced alien civilizations exists, 60 percent say that humans should try to get in contact with these civilizations. 21 percent say that we should not try and seek contact and 19 percent say that they don't know.
Earlier this month, researchers from Arizona State University confirmed in two studies this generally positive attitude among Americans toward the discovery of alien life. In one study, researchers analyzed the language used in various news reports from 1967 to the present suggesting the discovery of alien life. The language used in those reports skewed positive.
The researchers then asked 501 subjects recruited online through Mechanical Turk to write responses to two questions: How would they react to the annoucement of the discovery of alien microbial life and how do they think the public at large would respond? LiveScience reports that most participants "felt they, personally, would respond to the announcement of microbial E.T.s with a little more positivity than the public at large, but they still thought humanity as a whole would be enthused."
In their second study, the researchers asked 256 subjects to read a real New York Times article from 1996 (date removed for the study) reporting the discovery of nanobacteria fossils in a Martian meteorite. (I was riveted by the news at the time.) Again, the ASU researchers report that participants' reactions were overwhelmingly positive. "Taken together, we believe this work strongly suggests that if we do discover life of non-earthly origin, on the whole, human beings and human societies are likely to respond positively," researchers conclude.
Never mind alien microbes; how would folks react to the discovery of intelligent alien life? The ASU researchers note that "the majority of Americans, British, and Germans believe that some form of extraterrestrial life exists, and large percentages of Americans believe that not only does intelligent extraterrestrial life exist, but also that it has already visited us. And yet, in none of these societies have we seen an utter breakdown in social order or panic as a result of these widespread beliefs."
The upshot is that most of us are disappointed that we have not heard any alien greetings out of Oumuamua.
Disclosure: I have never seen a UFO. Please direct any you come across to visit me in Charlottesville, Va.