The New York Times returned in yesterday’s paper to its coverage of Navy aviators encountering unidentified flying objects. This time, the story coincided, the Times noted, with the upcoming release of “a six-part History Channel series, ‘Unidentified: Inside America’s U.F.O. Investigation.'” It was up to the reader to decide whether the tie-in made alien spaceships seem more plausible or less so.
Unidentified flying objects don’t have to be spaceships. They just have to be flying and unidentified and objects. It was on that last point, their object-hood, that the Times story, almost in passing, raised real doubts:
The pilots began noticing the objects after their 1980s-era radar was upgraded to a more advanced system. As one fighter jet after another got the new radar, pilots began picking up the objects, but ignoring what they thought were false radar tracks […]
Lieutenant Accoin said he interacted twice with the objects. The first time, after picking up the object on his radar, he set his plane to merge with it, flying 1,000 feet below it. He said he should have been able to see it with his helmet camera, but could not, even though his radar told him it was there.
A few days later, Lieutenant Accoin said a training missile on his jet locked on the object and his infrared camera picked it up as well. “I knew I had it, I knew it was not a false hit,” he said. But still, “I could not pick it up visually.”
So this was not a sighting of something flying through the air; it was a sighting of a visualization on a screen. The space where it occurred wasn’t geographical, but technological. It was possible that the new, advanced radar system was able to penetrate some cloaking device that the old radar could not. It was also possible that the new radar system was generating the object itself.
That wouldn’t explain how the missile targeting system and the infrared camera could also have picked up the object. If the object were really there, though, there’s no ready explanation for how it would have been visible to an infrared camera and invisible on ordinary wavelengths.
But if all the evidence fit cleanly together one way or another, it would be an FO story instead of a UFO story. Maybe the pilots were seeing, or quasi-seeing, “part of some classified and extremely advanced drone program,” as the Times put it. High-performance drones, domestic or foreign, would be less exciting, and probably more frightening, than visitors from space. They would represent a plausible and unpleasant technological future, like the Boston Dynamics robot dogs, marching toward deployment and then affordable ubiquity without pausing to consult Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.
What if, however, the real story isn’t The Terminator or Close Encounters of the Third Kind? What if it’s The Matrix? These objects or “objects,” darting their way across displays and cameras and into a six-part television series—they have a sinister irreality to them. One pilot (the Times wrote “pilots began seeing the objects,” but then only described a single sighting) reportedly witnessed something flying “right past the cockpit,” looking “like a sphere encasing a cube.” The story didn’t specify whether the pilot saw it with their naked eye or with a helmet camera. Either way, who by now hasn’t felt their phone ringing in their pocket when it wasn’t ringing, or wasn’t even in their pocket? Reality is what the screens and machines tell us reality is. An unidentifiable craft could be a visitor telling us we exist among a countless number of worlds. Or it could be visitor telling us our number of available worlds is on its way toward zero.