A lot of people think that aliens have come visiting us and have all sorts of dastardly and/or sexy plans for us. Often, people think this because they reckon they’ve seen these aliens, in the sky, whooshing around in ways that definitely looked like a spaceship and not like anything else. Some skeptics say that these sightings might actually be of birds, aircraft, planets, even the Moon, and that there’s no reason to leap to conclusions about alien spaceships.
But how hard can it be to tell a UFO from a bunch of other stuff? Do a quick Google image search for a duck, then a flying saucer. They look nothing alike. How stupid would you have to be to confuse the two?
Well, you might just be stupid enough to get a PhD in astronomy. Phil Plait, author of the book Bad Astronomy and creator of the website of the same name, talks in his book about a time when he was actually waiting to watch the Space Shuttle take off at Cape Canaveral, and saw a pattern of lights in the sky that briefly unsettled him. There were maybe a dozen of them, in a steady pattern, apparently a few miles away and moving slowly. Planes wouldn’t have been allowed so near the Shuttle, birds wouldn’t have been glowing so visibly, and nothing else man-made could plausibly have been moving in the weaving pattern they were making.
This isn’t just some random being freaked out by the Moon, this is Dr. Philip Plait, Ph.D., a qualified astronomer, watching the Space Shuttle carrying up a camera for the Hubble Space Telescope that he’s just spent two years designing. He knows his shit when it comes to lights in the sky, and although he didn’t leap to any unfounded conclusions, he was actually pretty spooked by what he saw that day, as if a part of him really believed that he might genuinely be witnessing an alien phenomenon.
Until it flew over his head, quacking.
Yeah, it was a bunch of ducks. They were too far away to make out at first, they were glowing because of light from the spotlights on the Shuttle pad being reflected every which way, and they were flying straight towards him in the kind of way that ducks fly, in a fairly constant pattern but wobbling around from time to time. If anybody ought to know a duck from a possible flying saucer, it’s Phil, but at that moment the perceptive ability of his squishy human brain showed its limitations.
My point is only that seeing something weird in the sky and being baffled as to its origins is really, really easy, particularly for uninformed ignoramuses like myself who don’t spend much time looking up there anyway, and really don’t have much of an idea what we should expect to see. The planet Venus is way brighter than any stars (other than the Sun) in the sky, and is sometimes even visible during daylight – but I have no idea where to look for it right now, or what it would look like, so it has the capacity to take me entirely by surprise, wherever it is. And I still wouldn’t recognise it, even if I saw it; if I peered at Venus with my myopic and uninformed eyes, perhaps through some trees or out of a moving car window, it would be a vague light in the sky that I couldn’t distinguish much about. It might look like something a thousand times closer and a thousand times smaller than the Sun’s second planet actually is – how am I supposed to make an accurate judgment on perspective about something that’s basically a distant static dot?
The sky also contains aircraft, balloons, man-made satellites, birds, and a whole lot of other artificial or natural stuff, which is flying, relatively close to the ground, emitting light, making noises, and generally doing the kinds of things people expect from passing UFOs (if they’re the type of people to expect passing UFOs at all). If all they’re seeing is some strange lights in the sky, can anyone really be expected to distinguish between all the possibilities, when they’re just staring up from a great distance and squinting a bit? If even the sight of planets or ducks or the Moon can give an unexpected and seemingly other-worldly experience, wouldn’t any sight in the sky have to be really spectacular before it should convince anyone that it’s definitely not coming from any of the sources already listed? Or even probably not?