Grant Young: UFOs Are Back. Sort Of.

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The fascination with the possibility of alien life has been with us for a very long time. Grant Young says that, literally and figuratively, the truth is very far away.

UFO’s have been in the news a lot lately. The government released imagery and conjecture on numerous fast-moving objects tracked and photographed by military aircraft. Growing up in the 70’s, I fondly remember TV and movies obsessed with the subject. Hard evidence was dubious to nonexistent, but UFO’s were part of our cultural zeitgeist.

Much to my surprise, some of my good friends couldn't care less about these recent UFO images. I get it. We’ve been through a frightening pandemic, wildfires, stressful, polarizing and threatening politics—alien visitors are a stressor we don’t need right now. Our country needs hope and tranquility, not an alien invasion.

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake proposed an imprecise, yet provocative, equation to estimate the number of advanced civilizations in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Here’s the idea: there are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, many of which are surrounded by habitable planets. Using the Drake Equation, astronomers estimate between one and many thousands of intelligent civilizations may have existed in our galaxy. And what about in the whole universe? Easy math, just multiply your chosen Drake Equation results by 125 billion.

In reality, space travel is exceedingly difficult. We’re still years away from getting a person on Mars. Getting to the closest star would take 80 years—travel any faster and weird stuff starts happening with time. The laws of physics make space travel a serious, if not impossible, challenge.

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I then had a realization. The Wright brothers' first flight was in 1903, yet just 66 years later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. SpaceX will soon send their “Starship” on its first orbital flight: a 100-passenger spacecraft designed for interplanetary travel. Technology has come a really long way in 118 years. Some of the intelligent life contemplated by the Drake Equation could have started billions of years ago - there could be thousands of civilizations that are billions of years more advanced than we are. You can develop a lot of technology in a billion years.

While there’s a scintillating abstraction to pondering our alien neighbors, the actual mathematical probability is not abstract at all. In fact, that probability is likely a lot higher than most of us think.

With a Perspective, I’m Grant Young.

Grant Young is an industrial psychologist. He lives in San Francisco.