More than 60 years ago, scientist Enrico Fermi was sitting at lunch in Los Alamos laughing at recent reports of flying saucers and discussing the odds of intelligent alien life when he posed a now-famous query.
“But where is everybody?” he asked three other nuclear physicists, according to accounts of the luncheon.
Amid a resurgence of interest around the topic in anticipation of a U.S. intelligence report on “unidentified aerial phenomena,” many people are asking the same question — and wondering if they’re already here.
This week, unnamed officials who were briefed on the contents of the report told the New York Times and CNN the government did not find evidence the “unidentified flying objects” are alien spacecrafts but it has not reached a definitive conclusion about what these “UFOs” are.
Experts who spoke to USA TODAY agree the aerial phenomena are unlikely to be aliens, but many do believe intelligent alien life exists.
“Most astronomers are of the mind that it (intelligent life) does exist somewhere in the universe,” University of Manchester astrophysicist Christopher Conselice said. “And if it does exist, how common is intelligent life? Or super intelligent life?”
Here’s what experts think, and how they’re searching for intelligent life.
‘Extremely unlikely’ aliens are visiting Earth
Multiple U.S. Navy pilots have reported seeing unidentified aerial phenomena in American airspace in recent years, and top intelligence and military officials are scheduled to release a congressional report this month addressing the topic.
While the reports are often linked in pop culture to a long history of alleged UFO sightings and alien abductions, several astrophysicists said they were skeptical the phenomena have anything to do with extraterrestrial life.
“The report on the unidentified aerial phenomena is really important because these certainly are things people have seen,” Conselice said. “It’s extremely unlikely, I think, that it’s aliens visiting Earth, though that is the most exciting theory of course.”
Conselice said he suspects the reports amount to “strange reflections” or “atmospheric phenomenons.”
According to the Times, officials said the intelligence report could not tie most of the more than 120 incidents of such phenomena over the last two decades to the U.S. military or other advanced government technology. CNN reported the findings leave open the possibility these flying objects were created by other countries, like China or Russia.
Just because these objects are unidentified, it’s “an unwarranted leap” to think that aliens are involved, said Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester.
“There’s nothing going on in these videos (of UFOs) from a scientist’s perspective that’s mind-blowing,” Frank said.
Jack Singal, an astrophysicist and associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond, cautioned scientists to maintain “an appropriate level of skepticism.”
“Now, more than ever, videos and photographs can be deceptively edited, and misinformation can spread through social media like wildfire,” Singal said. “Also just because something in the sky is strange that does not mean it is necessarily from another planet.”
But that doesn’t mean researchers aren’t looking.
‘The most exciting moment in the history of the search for intelligent life’
For decades, researchers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, have used radio telescopes to search for signals from outer space. But over the past five years, a surge in the discovery of exoplanets — planets beyond our own solar system — has revitalized the field.
In the past 25 years, researchers have discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets, including some Earth-like planets that may have the potential to harbor life.
In 2019, researchers using data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope detected water vapor in the atmosphere of another planet with temperatures that could support life.
“There’s a lot going on with looking for Earth-like planets, and people are starting to find these things,” Conselice said. “But even if you find an Earth-like planet, it doesn’t mean there’s life on the planet, or intelligent life.”
That’s where “technosignatures” come in.
Technosignatures are evidence of advanced alien technologies, such as the industrial pollution of atmospheres, satellites, city lights, solar panels and more. Last year, for the first time in more than three decades, research scientists received grant money from NASA to search for intelligent life via these technosignatures.
“Our job is to say, ‘this wavelength band is where you might see certain types of pollutants, this wavelength band is where you would see sunlight reflected off solar panels,'” Frank said at the time. “This way astronomers observing a distant exoplanet will know where and what to look for if they’re searching for technosignatures.”
Researchers believe that although life appears in many forms, the scientific principles — such as evolution and the necessity of water — remain the same, and the technosignatures on Earth will also be identifiable in some fashion outside the solar system, according to a statement last year from one of the grant recipients, the Center for Astrophysics, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory.
“We are in the most exciting moment in the history of the search for intelligent life,” Frank said. “Now we know where and how to look for it.”
Last year, Conselice co-authored a study published in the peer-reviewed Astrophysical Journal estimating there could be 36 intelligent civilizations throughout our Milky Way galaxy — that’s assuming it takes 5 billion years for intelligent life to form on other planets, as on Earth.
These civilizations, however, would be about 17,000 light-years away on average, making finding and speaking with them practically impossible with today’s technology, according to Conselice. A light-year is roughly 6 trillion miles.
“When you have the technology to emit this kind of signal into space, you also have the technology to destroy yourself,” Conselice said.
Conselice’s research suggests the search for extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations not only reveals how life forms but also gives us clues about how long our own civilization will last.
The study said the number of civilizations depends on how long they are sending out signals of their existence into space, such as radio transmissions from satellites and television. If other technological civilizations last as long as ours, which is 100 years old, then there would be as many as 36 intelligent technical civilizations throughout the galaxy.
While some scientists believe we haven’t detected intelligent life yet because it’s rarer than we assume or our methods are flawed, Conselice isn’t so optimistic.
“One way I think you can rule out that aliens visit us is it would definitely mean that an average lifespan of a civilization in the galaxy would be very long, which means there would be so many more of them, and more that would have visited us by now,” he said. “The solution of the Fermi paradox is that you just don’t survive as a species for very long. But ‘very long’ could be a million years. It’s just a flash of time.”
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