The "Drake Equation." Although it sounds like a nerd's way of calculating male ducks, it's actually a chalkboard procedure for estimating the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.
Astronomer Frank Drake's 1961 formula contains a lot of guesswork. The first variable is the rate of star formation in the Milky Way. The second variable is the number of stars that have planets. The third is the average number of planets that can potentially support life, and so on. The final variable is the estimated length of time that an extraterrestrial civilization sends detectable radio signals into space.
Yet it's even debatable that advanced beings would employ a communication technology familiar to 20th-century humans. "To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant," wrote author Terence McKenna in 1983.
Astronomers fiddling with the Drake equation have come up with wildly varying estimates for ET civilizations in our galaxy, from millions to none (Drake himself estimated 100,000). But this month the odds became a bit less rubbery. Working from a miniscule section of the sky, the Kepler Space Observatory has revealed data on 1,235 potential extrasolar planets, with 54 in the life-friendly "Goldilocks Zone" (not too hot, not too cold). There may be up to 50 billion planets in our galaxy alone, astronomers say.
In other words, it could be like Star Trek out there.
There have been some other spacey reports lately. Several videos posted in late January to YouTube reveal a brilliant object hovering momentarily above the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, before departing instantly up into the night sky. The varying clips, said to be from video cameras and cellphones, all match up in imagery and timing.
On Internet forums, it's been like The Jetsons meets the Dead Sea Scrolls, as armchair ufologists dissect the clips with Talmudic overkill. The lack of corroborating testimony from other witnesses is suspicious, however. As the focal point of all three monotheistic religions, this is one of the most heavily visited tourist spots on Earth. If an alien craft showed up in the Holy Land for an interstellar high-five, it should have been seen by dozens, if not hundreds, of gobsmacked witnesses. So was this a hi-tech hoax or an off-world howdy? I'm sure it will be debated for years to come.
I'm more impressed by visual reports of UFOs that predate the digital age, such as a 1964 incident at Vandenberg Air Force Base. First Lt. Robert Jacobs was in charge of photographing missile launches at the base, and one day the Chief Science Officer at Vandenberg, Maj. Florenz J. Mansmann, called the lieutenant to his office. With strangers in civilian clothes present, Mansmann pulled down a screen and played a high-resolution film of a missile flight from a few days earlier. Miles above Earth, a saucer-shaped object came into view, performed a circular motion around the final stage of an Atlas F missile and shot a beam at it, sending the dummy warhead spiraling out of control. The science officer asked for an explanation, and the lieutenant confessed he didn't have one (Mansmann has confirmed the story).
Years later, Jacobs shared this anecdote with the Disclosure Project, a decade-long forum for retired U.S. military, government and aviation officials to break their silence on UFO activity, including violation of airspace over nuclear installations. Last September, CNN's website streamcast a two-hour DP press conference from The National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The whistleblower event was completely ignored by major print media, with the exception of the Washington Post, which dispatched staff humour columnist John Kelly. Like a cross between Dave Barry and Forrest Gump, the Post columnist editorialized that he liked The National Press Club events because they serve good cookies. (The dismissive article's title: UFO visits? Hmmm. Cookies? Yummm.")
A sniggering U.S. newspaper press has virtually ignored five decades of credible UFO reports from solid witnesses, including astronauts Gordon Cooper and Buzz Aldrin. Yet the press genuflects before the government-funded SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Since the 1960s, SETI researchers have scanned the skies with radio telescopes, looking for alien talk shows. All they have found is static.
An unsourced quote from Albert Einstein comes to mind: "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."