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Don’t wait up for celestial neighbors

The question of whether we’re alone in the universe has long been a source of fascination, whether it’s H.G. Wells writing about Martians laying waste to London, or the benign and lovable E.T. being lured out of hiding by Reese’s Pieces in the beloved 1982 Steven Spielberg movie.

The odds would suggest we aren’t the only sentient beings floating through the cosmos.

A study published last year in The Astronomical Journal found that there are possibly six billion planets like Earth in our galaxy. And that’s just our galaxy.

Some scientists believe there are as many as two trillion galaxies in the universe. One planet, dubbed Proxima b, just 4.2 light years away from us, might be in that sweet spot to support life, scientists say.

Of course, the life on that planet –or any others “nearby” — might not be complex or, if it is complex, not intelligent.

Sometime this month, the question of whether any celestial neighbors have visited this orb will move out of the fantastical realms of science fiction and into the more prosaic realms of bureaucratic inquiry when the U.S. Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence offer a report to Congress on unidentified flying objects — or unidentified aerial phenomena, to use the favored parlance — that have been picked up by satellites or been seen by Air Force or Navy pilots.

Congress asked for the report as part of the coronavirus relief package approved in December, and there is the possibility it will be delayed.

To further puncture the balloons of die-hard UFO obsessives, officials with the Biden administration have told The New York Times that there’s no evidence in the report that the things pilots have seen and satellites have detected are from another world. They could be drones from China, they could be optical illusions, they could even be the result of instruments not working properly.

If they are not little green men, big green men, or any other kind of being, we should heave a sigh of relief.

As the late physicist Stephen Hawking once warned, when it comes to the rest of the universe, it might be wise for us to keep our heads down. He told a BBC interviewer in 2004 that if extraterrestrials landed, “I think it would be a disaster.”

“The extraterrestrials would probably be far in advance of us,” he added, noting that advanced societies on this planet have a woeful history of brutalizing and subjugating more primitive people, and we’re of the same species, after all.

And who knows what kind of germs or viruses these extraterrestrials could be carrying, even if their intentions are friendly?

If thousands of Native Americans were wiped out by diseases brought to North America by European settlers, imagine the havoc a virus brought by an extraterrestrial or two could unleash. It would make the ordeal of COVID-19 seem like a pleasant weekend picnic followed by a restful nap.

Maybe we’d overcome our considerable differences here on Earth if we had to joust with a horde of extraterrestrials.

Let’s hope we never find out.

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