I’m still thinking about Leslie Kean’s book on UFOs,1 which cites the testimony of credible people who believe that perhaps as many as 10% of the sightings to date represent real, physical, unexplained objects—perhaps not evidence of little green men, but objects flying under conscious, intelligent control all the same. If this is true, and these objects function as described, then they suggest a technology and energy source unknown to humans. That tells me someone, somewhere in the universe, has different ideas about, perhaps a different take on, the laws of physics. And that intrigues me.
The UFOs as described hover without wings or thrusters, accelerate at rates which would turn any organic occupant into people paste, achieve speeds well above supersonic without creating sonic booms, and appear to control electrical phenomena like cockpit electronics and missile circuitry at a distance. They range in size, from dimensions of a sports car to those of an aircraft carrier. As evidence of intelligent control, they react differently during encounters with commercial and military aircraft. And they seem to be curious about, if not actually studying, us.
To me, the most basic question—aside from concerns about their origins and intentions—is the nature of the energy source these flight dynamics represent. But before we can consider that, we need to think about how humans generate and use energy.
Energy Through the Ages
Here’s my catalog of human energy use, other than our own muscles and those of animals we can persuade to work for us.
Burn something like wood or wax, charcoal or camel dung to create heat for warmth and cooking, and light for protection and for seeing what you’re doing after sunset. All burning involves the breaking and remaking of covalent bonds through oxidation (that is, combining with oxygen) of an organic molecule such as cellulose or fat.2 We also speak of “burning” the fuel in a nuclear reactor, although all we’re doing is bringing fissionable atoms (that is, breakable atomic nuclei) into proximity so that they break more readily, and then we use the resulting heat.3
Boil something like water or naphtha or some other working fluid, using the heat from that burning fuel, or from nuclear fission and focused solar rays. Heat makes the molecules in the fluid move faster and expands the volume they occupy. Push the expanding gases into an enclosed cylinder attached to a connecting rod, or against the vanes of a turbine, and you can create circular motion that will drive a machine or turn a generator. That circular motion spins magnets inside a wire coil to make an electric current, which you can tap for various useful projects.
Explode something like gasoline or ammonium nitrate or ammonium perchlorate. An explosion is really just a notably rapid oxidation, usually involving molecules with unstable, and thus fragile, bonds that release great amounts of energy when they break. Use the resulting explosion of expanding gases to drive a cylinder or turn a turbine. Or use the direct force of the explosion to break up rock in a mine or tunnel, or feed the reaction chamber of a rocket to create thrust.
Capture a flow that already exists in the environment. Use a paddle to turn the flow of a stream into circular motion to drive a grinding mill or other machinery. Use a propeller to turn the flow of wind into circular motion for a generator. Use a sail or shaped foil to create differential pressures in the wind that will provide propulsion for a ship or lift for an airplane. Use the ion instability of a silicon substrate to turn the energy of photons in sunlight into an electric current. Use the flow of electrons from any source to create heat and light through resistance in a wire, or to create motion by spinning magnets inside a wire coil (the generator in reverse), or control other machines and information by chasing through a circuit etched in silicon with bistable (that is, on-off) gates.
Create a flow by using expanding heat energy to move charged particles across an alternating series of north-south magnets and create an electric current—that is, magnetohydrodynamics. Or use an electric current to power a series of alternating magnets and move charged or magnetized objects (everything from the fractured atoms of ions to ferrous-clad payload projectiles) in a straight line—that is, a linear accelerator or rail gun.
Have I missed anything? Burn something, boil something, push something. It all comes down to one of three forces: (1) certain molecular bonds are unstable and break with a useful release of energy, usually through oxidation; (2) hot things have more kinetic energy than cool things and push harder against their environment; (3) spinning magnets create a field that can push against electrons and so induce the flow of an electric current, and vice versa. Oh, yes—and gravity makes things fall down, and you can sometimes catch a ride with it, as falling water turns a paddle wheel, or the resistance of a glider’s wings to the rush of air convert its fall into forward motion and so a source of lift.4
These forces are all controlled by the laws of thermodynamics. They state, first, that energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed, but they can change from one form to another (the law of conservation). As an example of the first law, think of the bonds of gasoline molecules exploding to create motion by pushing against a piston. Second, that while energy cannot be destroyed, it can be lost for useful work as the system progresses from a state of order to one of disorder (the law of entropy). As an example of the second law, think of the waste heat that an internal combustion engine or a light bulb creates, or the kinetic energy lost as a sailboat’s hull pushes water molecules out of its way.5
Implications for UFOs
For anyone moving around the sky, the available energy sources described above imply that, unless you are riding the terrestrial wind with a wing, or the solar wind with a sail, or somehow catching a ride with gravity, you must carry some kind of fuel. This fuel can be a supply of energetic molecules that you break up or combine in a rocket engine, or a supply of charged particles that you accelerate magnetically for thrust in an accelerator (plus an energy source or battery to drive the magnets). The first law of thermodynamics says you can’t make those molecules or particles out of nothing. The second law says you can’t immediately capture and reconstruct the broken molecules, or somehow re-collect the accelerated particles, and so give yourself an inexhaustible supply of energy. So the first implication is that if you need a fuel supply, it will be limited.
For anyone moving at any speed, the laws of thermodynamics imply that the more energetic your actions—making rapid accelerations and reaching high speeds—the more energy you will need to consume over a unit of time. Anyone who drives an automobile knows, or soon learns, that jackrabbit starts and displays of speed are more costly than gradual accelerations and sedate driving. You may save time, but you don’t save fuel. So the second implication is that dazzling aerial performance is going to require you to carry more fuel rather than less.6
For anyone flying through the air, the laws of thermodynamics imply that larger and therefore heavier vehicles—presuming they are made of metal or a similar solid material—require more energy to lift and move than smaller, lighter vehicles. The fuel-based energy sources described above are generally scalable—able to do more work using less fuel through improvements in efficiency—but not infinitely so. Somewhere in the engineering mix is a limit to the optimal vehicle size in terms of its performance and fuel-carrying ability. At some further point, such as trying to lift an aircraft-carrier-sized vehicle by means of chemical rocket engines, you give up and look for another power source. So the third implication is that size matters, and eventually fuel costs in terms of weight and supply will limit your capabilities.
All of this is bad news for the UFOs. They come in all sizes and they expend energy like nobody’s business. Even if the builders had access to pocket-sized reactors fusing hydrogen nuclei or annihilating matter-antimatter particles, it’s still hard to imagine a vehicle performing the feats of lift and acceleration ascribed to the UFOs. And harder still to imagine them doing this while suppressing secondary effects like hard radiation and sonic booms.7
So either the UFOs and their capabilities are a fantasy after all—and even if they have an explanation, they turn out not to be, ahem, real—or the builders know something we don’t. That is, they don’t obtain their energy merely by creating an efficiency advantage with the energy sources we already know about, such as chemical bonds or nuclear forces.
Perhaps the builders are not governed by the laws of physics known to humans, including the principles of thermodynamics, simply because they do not observe them. If you believed, contrary to human observation and numerous equations, that matter and energy can be created, or manipulated without increasing disorder, could you get a free ride?
Perhaps, also, the builders have a deeper understanding of the elementary components of physics, such as space and time, and their interaction through gravity, than humans have been able to achieve. Space, time, and gravity are structures that have assigned quantities in human physics, but we can only describe them without actually explaining them. There are even suggestions in quantum mechanics that space and time are merely outgrowths, secondary aspects, of reality.8
The human mind and its creations—among them the laws of physics, the principles of mathematics, the esthetics of balance and proportion in music and the arts—are among our highest achievements. Without them, we’re hard pressed to explain our superiority over the ants and earthworms. So I don’t lightly suggest that our powers of observation and theory are trivial or worthless.
But maybe, by relying so much on the theoretical structures we’ve created in our physics and chemistry, we might be blinding ourselves to a deeper understanding. It’s possible that untold sources of energy and capability, at the very least, are hovering right outside our awareness, just beyond our mental reach, if only we could look at things in a different way.
1. See More Thoughts on UFOs from May 1, 2011. The fact that I’m still thinking about this subject indicates (1) I don’t take lightly the possibility that something we don’t understand is going on, and (2) Kean’s book has passed the nose test for flagrant and irrational fantasy.
2. There’s also energy to be had in simply making covalent bonds; the commonest example is hydrogen and oxygen coming together as water. This is the vastly exothermic reaction that drove the Space Shuttle and the Atlas rocket engines.
3. You can also create impressive amounts of heat and light by forcing hydrogen nuclei to fuse into helium—and then forcing helium nuclei into heavier atoms, with loss of various particles—all under great pressure. Unfortunately, the necessary pressures for a profitable reaction seem to be unavailable to us humans, outside the intense gravity well existing deep inside a star.
4. There’s also the notion—I hesitate to call it more than that—of a “vacuum energy” or “dark energy” that resides in empty space and is related to the expansion of the universe and the spontaneous creation and annihilation of virtual particles. At present, this seems to me a theoretical concept, driven more by mathematical equations and cosmic recordkeeping than by measurable physical phenomena. How such energy might be used on Earth, amid the swarm of particles and fields we call everyday life, is a matter of conjecture and—so far—fantasy.
5. In addition to the first and second laws quoted here, there is a “zeroth” law, describing the relationships among systems that are in thermal equilibrium—that is, unchanging over time—with respect to each other, and a third law, describing the entropy of a perfect crystal at a temperature of absolute zero. While these laws may be useful in cleaning up a physicist’s calculations, they don’t seem to directly affect the change in energy states that concerns humans.
6. Another implication is that anyone catching a ride with the wind or gravity will experience limits imposed both by the force inherent in the environmental effect and by the efficiency of the vehicle’s capture strategy. For example, a sloop-rigged sailboat can actually move faster than the wind, based on the dynamics of its sail design, but that differential is relatively fixed. The boat’s optimum sail arrangement and angle to the wind might yield a speed differential of two or three times wind speed, but it still won’t go anywhere when the wind dies, and it can’t go 150 mph in a 30-mph gust.
7. They do emit a lot of light—flashing lights, colored lights, focused beams of light—and emit this light when it might be more prudent to remain invisible, such as sneaking around a missile silo. Is that a clue? Could the light be some kind of necessary emission of their propulsion system, as smoke and flame are emissions of a chemical rocket?
8. Consider that, from the perspective of a proton, there is no space or time. No proton has ever been seen to decay, so the particle is virtually immortal. Time does not affect it. And once the proton is safely tucked inside an atom—even one so primitive as a hydrogen nucleus, consisting of a single proton—it is shielded under the energy potential of multiple electron shells. It’s not going anywhere on its own. Space does not affect it. So, in a sense, space and time are effects that only arise through the interactions of collections of particles, as observed from somewhere outside them—the human perspective.