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Reuben Joe Joseph
Reuben Joe Joseph


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34-Telescopes Giant eyes: Telescopes of the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, US, had detected Fast Radio Bursts earlier | Nrao/Aui/Nsf

Scientific search for life elsewhere in the universe is growing stronger. But could it be that we have already been visited?

  • “The average person is routinely lied to about projects on UFOs and the technology related to them.” - Steven Greer, director, Disclosure Project

  • “There are many frauds in the UFO community, and these are the voices that scientists hear.” - Nick Pope, former official spokesperson, UK UFO files

  • Senior astronomer seth shostak said it is likely that there are advanced beings out there that are mechanical, rather than biological.

The world of science held its collective breath for a moment on August 26, when a group of astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley, picked up a series of pulses from a galaxy far, far away. Fifteen repeating Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). One question: “Could it be from aliens?”

Some scientists, however, said there were no chances of the FRBs being artificially created. But many others, including Dr Vishal Gajjar who led the team in Berkeley, did not think so. “Extraterrestrial intelligence could be one of the reasons for the bursts,” said Gajjar, who hails from Gujarat (see interview). So, are we truly alone in this universe?

For a long time now, humans have been involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and unidentified flying objects (UFOs). On May 9, 2001, actor Jon Cypher introduced some of them at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. There sat, at the news conference table, 21 ex-government, ex-military and corporate “witnesses” led by Steven M. Greer, a former medical doctor. They claimed that alien life forms had visited earth and that governments were hiding the information.

One of them, a former captain of the US Air Force, said he had witnessed a UFO neutralising 10 nuclear missiles at a military base. Another “witness”, a former sergeant of the US Army, said he had recovered crashed UFOs with aliens in them on 12 occasions.

The “witnesses” demanded a Congressional inquiry into covert programmes that were targeting extraterrestrial life and vehicles, studying UFO technology and using it for weaponisation of space. The group said technology derived from reverse-engineering alien spacecraft could replace fossil fuels.

The scientific community is divided on ETs. Some say earth is but an anomaly in the sprawling universe. Others are certain of the existence of alien life, but deny that humans have had any contact with them. But, those who draw the most attention are ufologists, who claim that alien civilisations are visiting earth.

UFO sightings, abductions and alien visitations are considered absurd in most societies. Yet, on that May afternoon, came men and women of high standing to plead that the US intelligence establishment had been preventing scientists, politicians and the media from recording, researching and uncovering ET visitations for over 50 years.

38-Steven-Greer Cover, uncover: Steven Greer with narrator of Unacknowledged, actor Giancarlo Esposito.

As head of the Disclosure Project, which he began in 1993, Greer has been trying to goad the US into releasing all classified information on ETs. “The average person is routinely lied to about the projects on UFOs and the technology related to them,” Greer told THE WEEK. “Trillions of dollars have gone into such related projects in the US alone; lesser amounts in the UK, Canada, Australia and other countries.”

Greer’s latest film, Unacknowledged, which was released in May, is named after the Unacknowledged Special Access Projects that are allegedly run by the US government. Humans, he claims, have shot down UFOs with electromagnetic weapons since World War II. He says the propulsion systems of UFOs have been reverse-engineered. Greer says that the energy of these UFOs can run an entire Indian village with a single generator at zero cost and no pollution.

People who want to end the secrecy do not have access to the projects, he says, citing the example of Hillary Clinton. Her presidential campaign manager, John Podesta, has been campaigning for disclosure. Hillary vowed to make all UFO-related documents public if she became president. But, isn’t Hillary part of the ‘establishment’? Greer says that these projects are not controlled by the ‘visible’ establishment, but by people with economic interests in these projects.

Television show host Jimmy Kimmel asked Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George Bush, on separate occasions, about the secret files. All three brushed it off with wisecracks. Bush gave monosyllabic replies and admitted to there being secrets he could not reveal.

So, why are aliens visiting us and not showing up for all to see? They are waiting for us to develop into a peaceful planet, says Greer. He is certain they will intervene if they see that earthlings are bound for an all-out nuclear war. Greer says he had his first brush with a UFO as a nine-year-old while playing with his friends, and has contact with ETs. “You must be completely one with their consciousness,” he wrote in his autobiography Hidden Truth, Forbidden Knowledge.

38-Mark-McCandlish Mark McCandlish, former conceptual artist for the US Air Force, speaks at the National Press Club event in 2001 as Greer holds up a diagram of a flying saucer.

Leading Canadian researcher and ufologist Stanton T. Friedman calls the Roswell incident the “cosmic Watergate”. An object that looked like a flying saucer crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The Roswell Army Air Field said that it had recovered a “flying disc”. The statement was hurriedly retracted by the Air Force, which said it was just a weather balloon. Friedman reopened the Roswell case 31 years later, as a civilian investigator.

An expert in nuclear physics, Friedman has been researching UFO incidents and been an anti-secrecy campaigner for over 50 years. The jovial and easy-going 82-year-old relishes opportunities to take on “noisy, nasty negativists” who say aliens never came.

“I have worked with the government and I know that it needs to keep secrets for national security reasons. But, I don’t like being lied to when we know they have technology that can help the world,” he told THE WEEK.

“What bothers me most is that every country is taking a nationalistic approach on the UFO issue,” he said. “If we are to represent our world, we need to take a planetary approach and share our findings with each other.”

Project Blue Book of the US Air Force was commissioned in 1952, after frequent “UFO sightings”. It was terminated in 1969 as it was felt there was nothing anomalous about UFOs. The final report said that the three per cent of cases where the object did not fit any known explanation could be passed off as natural phenomena or illusions. Friedman said the report was a lie. Nearly 22 per cent of objects were unexplainable, he said.

“We are dealing with the biggest story of the millennium,” said Friedman. “There are no good arguments against UFOs. Other scientists simply refuse to study the evidence properly. Many documents released by intelligence agencies have blacked out sections. Of course there is a cover up!”

39-senior Seth Shostak

John Schuessler, former international director and founding member of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), told THE WEEK that people who had close encounters were deeply disturbed by such incidents. MUFON was launched after Project Blue Book was terminated.

“Being a UFO sighter is a joke to most people, but to us it is very serious,” he said. “I worked with the US manned space programme for 36 years and I knew a lot of high-calibre astronauts and pilots who were horrified by such sightings.”

“There is nothing much we can do about the government hiding information from us,” he said. “MUFON is here to lend an ear to the public and they can expect not to be laughed at. We have training programmes for investigators and we send volunteers instantly to investigate UFO sightings while the evidence is still fresh.” The MUFON website has a database of UFO reports from around the world. Its latest figures show that in August there were 821 sightings in 43 countries.

Countering ufologists, are scientists who search for life outside, but do not believe we have been visited. One of them, Seth Shostak, told THE WEEK that there was little evidence to support claims of UFO visitations. He said both Greer and Friedman were not qualified to talk about aliens and their technology. “Greer is just a businessman, who claims to commune with aliens and makes stuff up as he goes along,” said Shostak, 74.

“If you question these so-called military witnesses, you’ll see that they either didn’t see the UFOs themselves or have no proper basis for their claims,” Shostak said. He finds it hard to believe that aliens have been here for 70 years and have done nothing to help or harm humans.

“Americans love to think that the government is always hiding things from them. How is it that the aliens only seem to land here and only the US government seems to catch UFOs? Is it the American fast food that is attracting them?” he asked.

40-Nick-Pope Nick Pope

Conspiracy theories are popular topics of discussion—a result of America’s UFO culture, born of science fiction movies and TV shows. It encourages people to come forward and talk about UFO experiences, said Nick Pope, an expert on conspiracy theories.

After Greer’s 2001 conference, 15 governments opened their UFO files to the public, mostly to reveal that they were clueless. Pope worked with the UK’s ministry of defence for 21 years and was on a team that investigated alien sightings and abductions.

Pope is neither a believer nor a debunker of UFOs, but does not rule them out. He was instrumental in the declassification of Britain’s UFO files and was the project’s official spokesperson. He is often called the “real Fox Mulder”, after the protagonist in the TV series The X-Files, which is loosely based on his investigations. He believes that the UFO phenomenon raises important defence, national security and air safety issues.

“The most interesting reports in the files are ones where the witnesses are police officers or military personnel, and cases where visual sightings are corroborated by radar evidence,” he told THE WEEK. “It was striking how few reports from pilots were there, but I discovered that this was because in most cases they decide not to make an official report, fearing adverse consequences for their careers.”

But he does not believe that governments are covering up information about UFOs. “Most governments are defensive about UFOs,” he said. “In some cases this is because governments simply do not like to admit that there may be objects of unknown identity in their airspace.”

The war between the scientific and UFO communities is one of the obstacles to discovering the truth. According to Pope, scientists looking for ET life are sometimes regarded as being engaged on a fringe topic by their peers, so they are reluctant to discuss UFOs.

The UFO community, in turn, accuses some scientists of being involved in a UFO cover-up. “Unfortunately, there are many frauds in the UFO community, and these are the voices that scientists hear, so they are often not aware of high quality and more interesting data,” said Pope. “I would like to see closer ties between ufologists and scientists, but I do not believe this will happen.”

The universe is a pretty big place; if it is just us, seems like an awful waste of space,” astrophysicist Carl Sagan famously said. The line was repeatedly quoted in the 1997 film adaptation of Sagan’s novel, Contact.

Sagan was best known for shaping a generation of wide-eyed youth with his philosophical and scientific arguments in favour of ET intelligence. Shostak was one of them, and he went on to head the research division of Sagan’s SETI Institute in California.

Shostak admits to being as clueless, as you and I are, about aliens. “What we know is that there is an enormous number of habitats for life,” he told me. “It is like finding a new island in the Pacific ocean. The chances are that there is life on it, and the same applies to the universe.”

It has been 57 years since SETI was set in motion by astronomer Frank Drake, but very little has been achieved. One reason is lack of funding for experiments—they rely entirely on private funds.

In India, one of the organisations in the study of alien life is the Indian Astrobiology Research Centre, Mumbai. Astrobiology is the study of evolution and distribution of life in the universe. Unlike NASA, the Indian Space Research Organisation does not have a dedicated astrobiology wing.

The IARC depends on ISRO missions for its SETI research. “When missions like Chandrayaan go to the moon, I don’t need to send another vehicle. I can get all the data I need from ISRO to spot details of foreign objects that may have been overlooked,” said Pushkar Vaidya, head of the IARC.

As Shostak pointed out, it is highly likely that there are advanced intelligence beings out there that are entirely mechanical, rather than biological (think Transformers). No wonder, astrobiologists are studying the possibility of alien ‘life’ inevitably being artificially intelligent.

Dr G. Madhavan Nair, former ISRO chairman, was president of the International Academy of Astronautics from 2005 to 2015. He found that the IAA’s SETI sub-committee was on the verge of shutting down as its researchers had drawn a blank. Nair revived it and made it a permanent standing committee.

“The IAA has been interested in SETI ever since its inception [in 1960],” Nair told THE WEEK. “The sub-committee was launched to guide people who work on SETI activities. Protocols for SETI were devised for both receiving and sending signals to ensure there were checks and balances before an announcement is made. Anybody can say they found a foreign object and create a sensation, but it might be far from facts.”

Nair hopes for humans meeting extraterrestrial intelligence. “This would benefit our planet,” he said, just as the internet helped improve human lifestyle. “If there is a civilisation out there, and we can contact them, we can share knowledge and that will lead to wonders,” he said.

In 1977, NASA sent out two space probes, Voyager 1 and 2, to study the outer solar system. This September, it announced that the two probes still send back data. Both probes carry a ‘Golden Record’—a disc with pictures and sounds from and the location of earth. A message in a bottle, for any civilisation that may come into contact with the Voyagers.

As Stephen Hawking noted, alien invasion is on everybody’s mind. One team of scientists even published a study on September 8 that said nine exoplanets were in ideal positions to spy on earth.

The question is: Will we find “them” before “they” find us?

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