Ask Glenn

Do UFOs exist, and could my maths teacher be an alien?

UFOs definitely exist – they’re spotted all the time. But none yet have been alien spacecraft. And your Maths teacher is probably just a (weird) human – no matter how alien he seems.

Hang on a minute – you said UFOs do exist?

Yes. Definitely. They’re spotted all the time, all over the world.

Aha! Got you! So there are flying saucers, then! You’re just covering it up, like all the shifty science guys on The X Files...

No, I’m not.

Yeah, right – you would say that. You’re one of them.

Listen – ‘UFO’ just means ‘Unidentified Flying Object’, right? That basically means anything in the sky not clearly identified as something sensible like an aeroplane, glider, helicopter, balloon or bird.

La, la, la... I’m not li-sten-ing... you’re just trying to brainwash me with your evil government conspiracy stuff... la, la, la...

So – look, stoppit, I’m not brainwashing you – that means even a tennis ball or a frisbee can be a UFO, at least temporarily (or until someone says, ‘Hey, wait a minute – that’s just a frisbee!’).

Flying saucer on a string

Yeah, whatever. Some of them are huge, and they glow in the dark. So if they’re not spaceships, then what are they?

Some are just the result of rare atmospheric events, like sprites and ball lightning. Scientists still aren’t completely sure exactly how they are formed, because it’s not like you can study them ‘in the wild’, but it’s thought they happen when lightning strips bits off nitrogen atoms in the air, leaving a glowing ball of coloured plasma behind.

Sprites form in the upper atmosphere, about 13 miles above the ground. Each one lasts less than a second, but when lots of them appear and disappear in a row, they can look like a single, fast-moving object.

Ball lightning can appear nearer to the ground, creating an eerie glowing ball (sometimes with a tail). This can hover and float about for several seconds before disappearing or discharging itself into a nearby object.

What about the UFOs that last longer than a few seconds?

Some sightings have turned out to be unusual but real military aircraft. Their existence may be denied at the time to keep them secret, but we find out later what they are (think how strange a stealth bomber would have looked thirty years ago). Others are just hoaxes, ranging from the very good (using Hollywood-style digital effects) to the very poor (the frisbee-on-string-dangled-before-a-camcorder type).

What about those alien crop circles, then?

A clever but proven hoax, created by two guys with planks and ropes. They even owned up to it and showed how it was done.

What about aliens kidnapping people?

Well, many have been reported, but look at it this way: almost all of them have been in the USA, UK and France. These three countries make up only 6% of the world’s landmass. So either aliens are ignoring the other 94% of the world (and the entire southern hemisphere)... or we’re ignoring the evidence.

In the USA alone, over 5 million people have claimed they were abducted over the last fifty years. That’s 2,470 a day. You’d think maybe someone would notice all that flying-saucer traffic...

So aliens aren’t real, then?

I didn’t say that. There could well be aliens out there – it’s just that we almost certainly haven’t met any of them yet. If you’re looking for evidence, you can join the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project (http://www.seti.org). They haven’t found any aliens yet either, but they have more chance of finding real ones than anyone else on the Internet.

...and my maths teacher isn’t one?

Probably not. I can’t say for sure, but I’m betting he’s more inhuman than non-human. Mine was, at least. Better do what he says, just in case...