A belief in aliens has become like a religion for some who transfer their hopes and dreams into their existence, says a US professor who is keeping an open mind on the possibility of intelligent life in other parts of the galaxy.
In the wake of the chaotic American elections and a global pandemic, many people have joked that it’s probably about time aliens landed on Earth. Chris Impey is a Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona and has penned eight popular science books, and he has even taught cosmology to Tibetan monks.
He told The Weekend there is a spiritual aspect to the belief in the existence of aliens.
Modern media - including hit movies such as ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - drew on Biblical stories and director Stephen Spielberg was a clever film-maker who tapped into a need, Professor Impey said.
"We have elevated aliens to this high status of a modern religion and we've invested them as a repository of our hopes and our fears and our dreams and our longings.
"It's a psychological phenomenon, a spiritual phenomenon if you like. So I agree with that. I think he was onto something when he did that and that's why those movies resonate."
He said he is amused by claims aliens are already on Earth but are concealing themselves and describes such claims as part of the conspiracy theories that are prevalent these days.
He agreed that per capita reporting of UFOs in the United States is very high in comparison with other countries. He said this is probably a combination of "psychology, wishful thinking and being slightly deluded by familiar things in the night sky".
These things are well known to astronomers but not to other everyday observers.
"Astronomers are looking for physical evidence - reproducible evidence - and this is really in short supply in this field."
Many US sightings peak at a time of space milestones such as the first space probe to Mars and the first landing in the Moon, Prof Impey said.
The Roswell, New Mexico, incident (in July 1947 a US Army Air Force weather balloon crashed during some top-secret tests the Air Force was conducting) coincided with the start of the space exploration era.
"People are transferring their ideas, their imagination - humans have got very rich imaginations into what they think they see."
He likened the sightings to the unreliability of eyewitness evidence in court trials which are often revealed as wrong when DNA samples are analysed.
Even military pilots can be fooled
Professor Impey said people can be confused by what they see. He cited the example of a US Air Force pilot who, decades ago, described "a shiny, metallic, slender object" which seemed to be tracking his jet and he reported it as a UFO sighting.
"When they were inspecting his plane back on the ground, a clever mechanic noticed that there was a little bubble, an elongated bubble in the canopy glass and that was in his [the pilot's] field of view.
"He was literally looking at that and seeing it projected into the background. So it was an incredibly mundane explanation... it's a pretty good indication of how easy it is to be fooled."
Recent claims by a former Israeli space security chief that there is an agreement between the US government and aliens, which US President Donald Trump is aware of it, is a perfect example of conspiracy theories, Impey said, with no physical evidence produced.
"I'm just not willing to go there basically... look at the spectrum of conspiracy theories that we're inundated with in the modern world and UFOs is just a piece of that tapestry."
He said he recognises the galaxy is a big place, there are inhabitable Earth-like worlds throughout the galaxy and some of them could be a biological experiment and there may be intelligent aliens out there who have the capability to travel through space.
However, evidence is still to emerge on the intelligent aliens and he intends "staying on the fence" until there is proof.
"No video or photo is convincing. No single eyewitness account is convincing. You need corroborated evidence ....physical evidence. Why would it be so hard with tens or hundreds of thousands of sightings of this transitory phenomena to have true repeatable study-in-the-lab-type evidence that you can look at? It's not happened yet."
Prof Impey said astronomers have estimated there are about 30 million Earth-like habitable worlds in the galaxy and each one could potentially be "a biological experiment".
"People are getting ahead of themselves if you like by even talking about the number of intelligent civilisations..."
Some radio and optical astronomers have been monitoring for decades in the hope of picking up signals such as pulsed radio or optical messages and they had yet to pick up signs of an intelligent entity.
"It's been going for over half a century and it hasn't succeeded so far."
As for alien abduction claims, he said many cases have been studied and they make a meaningful contribution to psychological literature rather than scientific knowledge.