Are we alone in the Universe?

Space enthusiasts are in abundance in northern Arizona as the region is said to have one of the most mystifying night skies in America. In evaluating the age-old question of whether or not we are alone in the universe, northern Arizona fanatics and alleged abductees have made claims which astronomers warn locals to be wary of.

According to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), an organization dedicated to UFO investigation and research, Arizona is home to one of the most prominent alien researchers in America, Melinda Leslie. Leslie claims to have been abducted by aliens on several occasions. She is now a lecturer of “ufology,” as well as a UFO tour guide at the Center for the New Age in Sedona.

In an interview with the Travel Channel, Leslie said she feels that evidence is the backbone of belief, but acknowledged how evidence may look different to a scientist than to members of the general public. Regardless, Leslie said that personal exploration is the best means to discover one’s own beliefs about the age-old question of whether or not aliens exist.

“There’s nothing like having your own personal experience, your own sighting or your own abduction to convince yourself of the reality of the subject,” Leslie said in her interview with the Travel Channel.

Although Leslie’s accounts have received substantial media coverage, local astronomers say they are skeptical of her claims. Freshman Kailey Corral, the secretary of NAU’s Astronomy Club, said because people are naturally drawn to conspiracy theories, the public might be compelled to believe Leslie’s testimony. Corral said she believes it’s unethical for Leslie to profit from her claimed experiences.

Corral also said the widespread knowledge of abductees’ accounts might not be a good thing. She claimed there is no factual evidence for the existence of alien life. Even though some find tales of UFO sightings to be exciting, Corral believes these stories are hard to trust because of the fame that often comes with telling them.

“Everyone wants a taste of fame,” Corral said. “Once they get the opportunity, people tend to run with it. If someone comes out and says, ‘I was abducted by aliens,’ people can look at that and say, ‘whoa, look at the attention this person is getting. I could easily do that.’ It’s hard to figure out who’s actually telling the truth because we don’t actually know what these people are thinking.”

Ethics aside, Nadine Barlow, the chair for NAU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said a lack of evidence behind Leslie’s claims has led Barlow to believe that her testimony is false.

“At this point, scientists don’t have any evidence that there’s life anywhere else in the universe,” Barlow said. “We haven’t detected anything that we can definitely say is alive within our solar system, let alone elsewhere in the universe. That doesn’t stop people from asking, ‘Why would we be alone in the universe?’ That’s always been the big question.”

According to Barlow, the question of alien life has been a driving force for scientific discovery. She said curiosity surrounding alien life even had a role to play in the founding of Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory.

The lack of evidence for alien life within the universe certainly poses some questions regarding Leslie’s abduction accounts. However, sophomore Megan Gialluca, an Astronomy major and public program educator at the Lowell Observatory, said there are many theories which might explain this lack of evidence.

“Just because aliens might exist doesn’t mean they’d ever contact us in any way, shape or form,” Gialluca said.

Despite the lack of scientific proof, believers regard certain phenomena as absolute evidence for alien existence. Sophomore Savanah De Hart said occurrences like the Phoenix lights phenomenon — an event in which strange lights were widely observed above a clear Arizona night sky in 1997 — can only be explained by the presence of extraterrestrials. De Hart said she believes Leslie has not fabricated accounts of abduction.

“There’s just too much weird stuff that happens,” De Hart said. “I definitely feel like the existence of aliens is a possibility that shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.”

Leslie’s abduction stories and the Phoenix lights phenomenon are not the only supposed alien encounters which have occurred in the Southwest. According to Barlow, the region is home to countless tales of UFO sightings and abductions.

“I think part of the reason we see so much of this, especially here in Southwest, is because of our beautiful night skies,” Barlow said. “There are a lot of people who come in from out of state who’ve never seen our nighttime sky. It causes them to ask, ‘Are we alone, or could there be something or somebody else out there?’”

Barlow said many of the strange phenomena witnessed by out-of-state visitors can be scientifically explained.

“Many times, when people who are not familiar with the nighttime sky see something that looks odd to them, they say, ‘Oh my gosh, it must be a UFO,’” Barlow said. “Venus is a really good example of this. It’s an incredibly bright planet, but if you’re not familiar with Venus, you might think it couldn’t be anything other than a UFO. We also have a lot of military bases here in the Southwest. If you look at where a lot of these UFO sightings are reported, they’re typically not too far from military bases.”

Barlow, Gialluca and Corral all agreed that Flagstaff’s municipal lighting restrictions and subsequent darker night skies draw people from all walks of life. Gialluca said the city serves as somewhat of a hub for various kinds of astrotourism. She said the excitement surrounding alien encounters and UFO sightings accounts for much of this tourism, but ultimately, the fact that the Milky Way Galaxy can be seen from virtually anywhere in Flagstaff is what makes the city so magnetic. Despite their disagreements, Gialluca she said that a cooperative union between astronomers and UFO enthusiasts could be beneficial to both parties.

Barlow said curiosity surrounding the possibility of alien life should be applied towards scientific research on the matter, rather than towards wild speculation. Believers like De Hart and NAU senior Dana Kamberg, however, take abduction accounts as evidence enough for the existence of aliens. Kamberg said she feels that humans couldn’t possibly be the only intelligent life in such a vast universe.

“What these people are saying would be a lot to make up,” Kamberg said. “I think that what they’re telling us is real. On Earth, we have intelligent species, so there must be intelligent life outside Earth as well.”

Local astronomers say the best way to engage in personal discovery is through familiarizing oneself with the night sky and cultivating a personal scientific understanding of space. Barlow, Gialluca and Corral all agree that Flagstaff is a prime location for engaging in the personal discovery of the wonders of the stars.