Scientists shouldn’t be afraid to talk about, or even study, these mysterious objects flying in the sky – maybe don’t call them UFOs.
This was one of the conclusions of a round table this weekend in Science writers2023, an annual gathering of hundreds of science journalists and communicators from across the country and abroad. CU Boulder and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus hosted this year’s events.
On Saturday morning, discussions focused solely on unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs — a relatively new name for the strange signals that zoom in on fighter jet instruments or flashing lights among the stars. During a session entitled “Look! High in the sky! It’s not a UFO…it’s a UAP,” a panel of journalists and scientists tackled a thorny question: how serious scientists should approach a subject that, for decades, has been the subject of so many jokes?
CU Boulder’s Iain Boyd, director of Center for National Security Initiatives and professor at Ann and HJ Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciencesparticipated in the panel.
The group quickly dismissed the most obvious topic: “UFOs are almost certainly not extraterrestrial visitors,” said UFO writer and investigator Mick West, who joined the session remotely. Other panelists included moderator Dan Vergano, senior opinion editor for Scientific American; Nadia Drake, physics editor at Quanta magazine; and Thomas Zurbuchen, director of ETH Zurich Space and former chief scientist at NASA.
But that doesn’t mean researchers shouldn’t study them more closely, the speakers agreed.
“Behind all of this, there is a very important contribution to be made from the scientific community and the science communications community,” Boyd said.
In 2022, NASA convened an independent study team to begin the process of exploring UAPs from a scientific perspective. The group’s report, released in Septemberpaves the way for the research community to collect more data on unknown and strange things above Earth.
Shedding light on these observations, whatever the cause, could help governments ensure the safety of military or commercial aircraft, panelists said. UAPs could also lead scientists to discover new natural phenomena that they were previously unaware of.
As Drake, one of the authors of the NASA report, says: “When something is stigmatized, it really hinders data collection, so you don’t get the kind of observations that would be useful.” »
The (alien) elephant in the room
And there are good reasons to collect data on UAPs, Boyd said.
Part of the reason is that there are many man-made objects flying through the sky at any given time, and governments don’t always know what they are. They include drones, high altitude balloons and much more. He cited the case of a Chinese balloon that flew over Alaska and much of the United States in early 2023 before finally being shot down by the US Air Force.
“At a time of heightened international tensions, leaders must make difficult decisions,” Boyd said. “Should we take this thing down?” Should we let it fly over the United States? »
Military pilots must make even quicker and potentially more dangerous choices if they encounter something strange on their path, Boyd said.
The panelists noted that, for decades, scientists have been reluctant to explore UAPs, in part because of their popular association with little green men and flying saucers. But Zurbuchen, at least, hopes researchers can begin to shed that stigma.
“There are a number of things that used to be UAPs that are now well-recognized scientific phenomena because someone said, ‘Wow, these clouds look really weird.’ What happened there?’” Zurbuchen said.
The real science
In many cases, researchers have struggled to study such phenomena because they can’t get their hands on high-quality observations, Drake explained.
In their NASA report, she and her colleagues noted that researchers may already have access to a trove of first-rate data. Scientists, for example, could use the many scientific satellites circling the planet to search for unexplained events in the atmosphere: they just need to better define what they are looking for.
“We also suggested some sort of citizen science campaign,” Drake said. “So you really have to harness the power of all these people with all these smartphones to find a way to create reports, integrate them into a system and include metadata that can be very useful in understanding what something is .”
Boyd, in turn, said he would like to see catalogs of UAP sightings that are more comprehensive and easier to access. This way, if a viewer captures video of strange lights above Earth, researchers can quickly determine whether these lights appear to be a new phenomenon or whether they can be easily explained. He also urged the assembled scientific authors not to give in to sensationalism around UFOs.
“It’s critical that your community makes sure, when there are stories that have a scientific element, that the real science is recorded,” Boyd said.