Ancient Astronauts

UFOs, Abductions, and Ancient Astronauts

Excerpted from the book, "Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth." Written by Ben Bova, copyright 2004. Some portions have been edited for context. See Interview with Ben Bova

I believe that life exists beyond the Earth. I believe that intelligent life must exist somewhere in the vast universe of stars and galaxies. I recognize that there is, as yet, no evidence to support this belief of mine.

Ben Bova.
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Precisely because I am a "believer," in this sense, I remain guardedly skeptical about claims of UFOs, alien abductions, and ancient astronauts. It is all too easy to fall for unsupported stories that tell us what we want to believe. I would like to see some scrap of hard, palpable evidence; maybe as much as a person would take to traffic court to prove he wasn’t illegally parked when he got a ticket.

I can relate three incidents in my own experience that have shaped my attitude about UFOs: my own UFO sighting, a laboratory analysis of a metal sample purportedly taken from a UFO, and an encounter with the redoubtable Erich Von Daniken, author of "Chariots of the Gods" and similar books.

My UFO sighting. I was having brunch with my family in the restaurant atop the Prudential Tower in Boston. It was a sparkling clear Sunday morning, and from our window-side seat we could see all the way out to the hills of New Hampshire. Suddenly I noticed, off on that distant horizon, a small red aircraft darting back and forth at impossible speeds, making maneuvers no human airplane could make. A UFO! I thought.

Fortunately, there was an observation deck one floor below the restaurant. I raced down and trained one of the telescopes there on the UFO. It turned out to be a child’s kite. With no way to judge its true distance, my mind assumed at first that it was on the horizon. At that distance, its stunts and speeds were phenomenal. At the distance of a few blocks away, it was quite normal.

Star field
In a universe brimming with stars, it is difficult to imagine that life exists nowhere else.
Credit: NASA/ STScI/ ESA

A laboratory analysis. When I was the editor of Omni magazine, we worked hard to track down UFO stories. They always somehow vanished into smoke and air. One day a gentleman came into my office bearing a sliver of metal that, he claimed, had been scraped from the hull of a flying saucer. "It’s unlike any metal on Earth," he kept repeating.

It struck me and the rest of the editorial staff that it might be pretty difficult to scratch off a sliver of such a metal. We suggested that we take it to a reputable metallurgy laboratory for analysis. The visitor was very reluctant to do so. At last, after several hours, we persuaded him to go to Boston with one of our editors and have the sample analyzed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He agreed only after we promised to pay all the expenses for the trip.

The Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope is used by SETI to listen for artificially produced radio signals from outside our solar system.

MIT reported that the metal was ordinary aluminum, the stuff of cooking pots and skillets. It may have come from the hull of a flying saucer; aluminum is a good structural metal for flying vehicles. But it certainly was not "unlike any metal on Earth."

Erich Von Daniken. I was invited to appear on a televised panel discussion with Von Daniken in Toronto. He spoke about certain passages in the Old Testament that showed that Moses may have used a laser weapon against the enemies of the Israelites. And where could he get a laser in those ancient times, except from visiting aliens? Watching his performance, I began to understand the technique of half-truths that he was using. When it came my turn to speak, I said that by using the same technique that Von Daniken used, I could show that Manhattan was built by ancient astronauts.

The show’s host was intrigued and asked me to proceed.

There is plenty of evidence that mysterious Manhattan was built by ancient astronauts, I began. For example, there is a park in the middle of the island that is perfectly rectangular, but you can’t see its rectangular shape from the ground. You must be high in the air, perhaps even in orbit, to see the true shape of Central Park. Then, too, the main thoroughfares of Manhattan run north-south, the same alignment as the Earth’s magnetic field.

What do people call the tallest buildings in Manhattan? Skyscrapers. Where do these towers point? Toward the stars. Moreover, there is a giant copper statue in Manhattan’s harbor that no human being could possibly build (A team of humans could and did, but no individual could raise the Statue of Liberty by himself.)

The show’s host and other panelists guffawed. Von Daniken left and returned to his native Switzerland.

Star field
The first popular science book devoted to the question of extraterrestrial life was written in 1686. In the preface to his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, the French poet and philosopher Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote: "I’ve tried to treat Philosophy in a very unphilosophical manner; I’ve attempted to bring it to the point where it’s neither too dry for men and women of the world nor too playful for scholars."
Credit: David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets

Skepticism is a valuable trait, although it can be carried too far.

Thomas Jefferson did not believe that meteors were bodies of rock and metal that fell to Earth from outer space. When informed that two professors at Yale had claimed so, he said, "I would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than stones fall out of the sky."

The essence of science is measurement and proof. Ideas must be tested before they are accepted as valid. Indeed, this concept of testability is central to scientific understanding. Every idea, every measurement, must be tested to see if it holds up under examination.

Isaac Asimov once said that he had no argument with reports of UFOs. "It’s the IFOs that bother me," he added. Yes, there are unidentified objects seen in the sky. But the conclusion that these unidentified objects are extraterrestrial visitors is unsupported by any solid evidence, even after more than half a century.

Turn the question around. Look at the UFO phenomenon from the viewpoint of the alleged alien visitors. If you had traveled across many light-years of space and found a planet that bears intelligent life, would you confine your activities to stunt flying in the dark of night and abducting random individuals for obscure medical examinations? More likely you would either announce your presence in an unmistakable manner or you would keep yourself hidden from human detection while you study the Earth and its inhabitants without interfering with the subject of your study.

There may be myriads of highly advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. Their representatives may indeed be swarming over our planet. We simply have no credible evidence of it.

During the American Civil War, when reports from the battlefields were often unreliable, many newspapers used a headline that warned their readers that the story they were about to read might not be accurate. The headline was, "Good News, If True."

That is how I feel about UFO reports. It would be wonderful to know that we are being visited by intelligent aliens. But I doubt that it’s true.

This story was originally published in English.