How the Search For Aliens Went From Laughable to Scientific

The giggle factor is finally history.

Illustration: Painting by Irshad Salim (May 2008)

Adam Frank at Aeon: After decades on the cultural margins, the question of life in the Universe beyond Earth is having its day in the sun. The next big multibillion-dollar space telescope (the successor to the James Webb) will be tuned to search for signatures of alien life on alien planets and NASA has a robust, well-funded program in astrobiology. Meanwhile, from breathless newspaper articles about unexplained navy pilot sightings to United States congressional testimony with wild claims of government programs hiding crashed saucers, UFOs and UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena) seem to be making their own journey from the fringes.

What are we to make of these twin movements, the scientific search for life on one hand, and the endlessly murky waters of UFO/UAP claims on the other? Looking at history shows that these two very different approaches to the question of extraterrestrial life are, in fact, linked, but not in a good way. For decades, scientists wanting to think seriously about life in the Universe faced what’s been called the ‘giggle factor’, which was directly related to UFOs and their culture. More than once, the giggle factor came close to killing off the field known as SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Now, with new discoveries and new technologies making astrobiology a mainstream frontier of astrophysics, understanding this history has become important for anyone trying to understand what comes next. But for me, as a researcher in the field of technosignatures (signs of advanced alien tech) – the new face of SETI – getting past the giggle factor poses an existential challenge.

I am the principal investigator of NASA’s first ever grant to study signatures of intelligent life from distant exoplanets. My colleagues and I are tasked with developing a library of technosignatures or evidence of technology-wielding life forms on distant planets. Taking on that role has been the culmination of a lifetime fascination with the question of life and the Universe, a fascination that formed when I was a kid in the 1970s, drinking deep from the well of science fiction novels, UFO documentaries and Star Trek reruns. Early on, as a teenager reading both Carl Sagan and Erich von Däniken (the author of Chariots of the Gods), I had to figure out how to separate the wheat from the chaff. This served as a kind of training ground for dealing with questions facing me and my colleagues about proper standards of evidence in astrobiology. It’s also why, as a public-facing scientist, I must work to understand how people not trained in science come to questions surrounding UFOs as aliens. That is what drove me, writing a recent popular-level account of astrobiology’s frontiers called The Little Book of Aliens (2023), to stare hard into the entangled history of UFOs, the scientific search for life beyond Earth, and the all-important question of standards of evidence.

More here.