Nobody knows what two Navy pilots and their weapons officers saw while training the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in 2004: It was white and shaped roughly like a Tic Tac. It mirrored their movements, and then it disappeared, a feat neither pilot can explain. Maybe the object was advanced technology, ours or someone else’s. Maybe it was a kind of optical illusion. Maybe — and this is least likely — it was something altogether different, an extraterrestrial visit from an unknown species. Implausible though it is, the possibility excites tremendous interest. 60 Minutes, a venerable media institution, recently dedicated an entire segment to the Nimitz sighting and to other unidentified aerial phenomena. The New Yorker published thousands of words on the subject in April. No longer the province of Ancient Aliens or The X-Files, the UFO has gone mainstream.
Not everyone is pleased by this development. There are real problems to worry about, suggested Emerald Robinson, a correspondent for the far-right Newsmax network. “They want you talking about aliens because they don’t want you talking about Maricopa,” she tweeted, referring to a bizarre recount of presidential ballots there. “They want you talking about UFOs because they don’t want you talking about stagflation, the collapse of the dollar, the crisis on the border, and Biden’s mental health.” The Maricopa recount is “a sham,” as acknowledged by the county’s own board of supervisors. The dollar has not collapsed. Biden’s mental health appears fine. Who knows who “they” might be; the Deep State perhaps, or some other cabal, but whoever they are, they’re unnecessary: Our desire for distraction is organic.
The alien can be a good joke. Whether tentacled and slimy or gray and smooth, they are typically an item of belief for the wilder-eyed among us. Until entities like The New Yorker got in on the game (and to be fair, New York has too), there was something strangely democratic about the flying-saucer phenomenon. They would visit the back roads of Michigan and ace Navy pilots alike. The pursuit of UFO knowledge has existed uneasily within the national security state. Even now, the UFO, or UAP, to use the upcycled term, hardly inspires fears of a real invasion. Each time a new headline drops, the internet seizes upon it with frantic glee.
But I’ll take the subject seriously, just for a moment. The UFO is both satisfaction and salvation, the manifestation of a near-religious impulse to find mystery in everyday life. I want to believe in aliens the same way I want to believe in God. It’s a ratlike, scrabbling feeling; like I am running into a wall that never yields. Reality remains reality. God is silent, and so are the aliens. It’s tempting, though, to imagine otherwise. To think that something more advanced than we visits our small and stupid planet. Even if that power means us ill, it can spell deliverance of a sort. In Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese astrophysicist receives a warning: Don’t respond, the alien tells her, if you do, my people will invade your people. Broken by the violence of the Cultural Revolution, the astrophysicist decides, So what? Come here, and sort us out.
Against the virus-dominated globe, the human race can look doomed. Plague exposes the constraints of our political will; austerity and corruption and partisan squabbling interfere with an appropriate response to the virus, time and time again. Beyond the virus other, increasingly intractable problems await, from climate change to inequality so significant it threatens the world. We long for a rift in the warming sky because we want deliverance, answers, or an ending; for something to sort us out, please.
Consider the alternative. The most likely possibility is potentially a paralyzing one: that we are alone in the infinite dark. It’s an unbearably lonely idea. Maybe the Fermi paradox is right. Either aliens are real, but are so distant from us that they cannot reach us if they even cared to try; or they simply don’t exist, and we are all that may ever be. The universe is ours to explore and consume the way we’ve consumed our origin world. It’s dubious we’ll even survive to settle new worlds, whatever Elon Musk’s pretensions. It’s even more uncertain that this technology, once it existed, would be anything but the proprietary wealth engine for a billionaire or two. If the universe is empty, we can’t outrun ourselves. We’re here on Earth with our problems, and no one is coming to save us. The sky won’t open to admit a new player.
That knowledge may be depressing. But it contains the seeds of hope. If there’s really nothing out there, we are obligated to become our own saviors. There are exceptions to all the bloody truths of Earth. A repressive state will generate violence but it will also produce dissent. There are streets to reclaim, systems to overthrow, and tyrants to bring down low. Why wait? No one’s coming.