That Pentagon report, which featured two gripping videos of aerial encounters, was just one beat in a recent search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence (or SETI) drumroll: In October, an object passed through our solar system that looked an awful lot like a spaceship; astronomers spent much of 2016 arguing over whether the weird pulses of light coming from a distant star were actually evidence of an “alien megastructure.” An army of Silicon Valley billionaires are racing to make first contact, and our new super powered telescopes are discovering more conceivably habitable planets every year.
Then, a third video emerged, featuring a Navy encounter off the East Coast in 2015, with the group that released it hinting at an additional trove. “Why doesn’t the Pentagon care?” wondered a Washington Post op-ed — surely the first time the newspaper of Katharine Graham was raising a stink about aliens. The next week, President Trump seemed to announce he was creating an entirely new branch of the military: “We’ll call it the Space Force.” You could be forgiven for thinking you’d woken up in a science-fiction novel. At the very least, it is starting to seem non-crazy to believe. A recent study shows half the world already does.
Alien dreams have always been powered by the desire for human importance in a vast, forgetful cosmos: We want to be seen so we know we exist. What’s unusual about the alien fantasy is that, unlike religion, nationalism, or conspiracy theory, it doesn’t place humans at the center of a grand story. In fact, it displaces them: Humans become, briefly, major players in a drama of almost inconceivable scale, the lasting lesson of which is, unfortunately: We’re total nobodies. That’s the lesson, at least, of a visit from aliens, who got here long before we were able to get there, wherever there is; if humans are the ones making the first contact, we’re the advanced ones and the aliens are probably more like productive pond scum, which may be one reason we fantasize about those kinds of encounters a lot less than visits to Earth. Of course, when the aliens are the explorers, we are the pond scum.
But a lot of people in the modern world will take that bargain, which should probably not surprise us given how dizzying, secular, and, um, alienating that world objectively is. Most conspiracy theory is fueled by a desire to see the universe as ultimately intelligible — the bargain being that things can make sense, but only if you believe in pervasive totalitarian malice. Alien conspiracy theory keeps the malice (cover-ups at Roswell, the Men in Black). But rather than benzo comforts like order and intelligibility, it offers the psychedelic drama of total unintelligibility — awe, wonder, a knee-wobblingly deep, mystical experience of existential ignorance.