They don’t look like much of anything: fuzzy spheres floating through the sky, or giant Tic Tacs zooming above the sea. Their officially designated names are gibberish to most of us — FLIR, GIMBAL, GOFAST. They create more confusion than clarity.

But these are unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, and so the not knowing is the point.

The Pentagon this week released footage from the Navy of three sightings of “unidentified aerial phenomena” that had already been circulating for years among alien enthusiasts and a few skeptical civilians. The military had already confirmed the existence of the clips, but refused to share the material more broadly. To do so, a spokesperson said at the time, could cause “exceptionally grave damage to the National Security of the United States.”

What changed to make the badgered bureaucrats concede to the extraterrestrial lobby — made up at the moment of characters ranging from former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid to former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge — isn’t entirely apparent. But it seems to have something to do with uncertainty.

The Defense Department said it uncorked the videos this week to dispel “any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real, or whether or not there is more to the videos.” Not a very helpful explanation, given that it seeks to quell a mile of speculation by giving an inch of information. The reason the government can’t or won’t say more may have to do with the risk of divulging secrets nestled deep within our country’s aerospace skunkworks.

Or perhaps the best explanation the authorities have is that they have no explanation at all.

No authority ever wants to admit it is powerless to understand something. Neither do scientists yearn for mystification, which is why the typical response to proliferating UFOs has always been to propose a mundane explanation for each fuzzy, sort-of sphere — sunbeams reflected in clouds, or drones with propulsive capabilities that the public just hasn’t been told about. The alternative is to surrender to total chaos.

For the rest of us, though, that surrender can be sweet. Everything that vexes the know-it-alls should fascinate those unburdened by the need to know. Yes, there could be a logical explanation, but why take it when the alternative is a wide open space for our imaginations to wander? The possibility of aliens is the possibility of annihilation by a hostile species, but it’s also the possibility of whole worlds beyond our own that our minds can populate as our whims move us. And in many ways it is more comforting to contemplate a cosmos that is alive and awake rather than just light-years of cold, sterile emptiness.

This is the loveliest sort of uncertainty, because it exists at a distance that allows us to make it whatever we want, whenever we want — before we retreat back to the stability of our everyday existences here on this planet. So it seems fitting that the Pentagon has chosen a moment of a very different sort of uncertainty to salute material it once portrayed as nonsense from people in tinfoil hats. And it makes sense that many are welcoming the reprieve.

The novel coronavirus isn’t unidentified. We can say what it is, and even what it looks like — not a giant Tic Tac, but a tiny, spiky ball. We can also say that it’s dangerous, and that it’s right here, right now, all the time, everywhere, wreaking death. Yet we can’t say how to rid ourselves of it, or how long it will stay with us, or how many it will kill. This is both the wrong amount and the worst type of uncertainty — because we know too much for any thrilling mystery, and too little to be able to tell ourselves it’s going to be all right. There is nothing exciting about this. Our eyes are trained on something terrible, and it’s not moving much of anywhere.

So welcome, aliens. No, please, come on in. Each of our worlds has suddenly become so much smaller and so much stiller. What better than to wonder about a vast and teeming universe that lies beyond our grasp, but whose inhabitants every now and then take the time to visit?

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