UFO's for Real?

J. Allen Hynek

Newsweek, 10 octobre 1966

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Flying saucers once again have zoomed back into the public eye-or imagination. In the first six months of this year the U.S. Air Force's Project Blue Book, the official registrar of Unidentified Flying Objects, has duly noted 508 UFO "sightings." Saturday Review columnist and UFO believer John Fuller's "Incident at Exeter" has been sharing space on the best-seller lists with former radio announcer Frank Edwards' book "Flying Saucers-Serious Business." And just last week Fuller began a two-part story in Look magazine recounting the terrifying two hours that a New Hampshire couple claim they spent being interrogated aboard a flying saucer

The Air Force has been chasing-and usually shooting down-such stories since the late 1940s. The issue has always seemed clear-cut: on the one side, the excited believers or someone with a story to sell; on the other side, the sober scientific Establishment which explained away alleged sightings as weather balloons, birds, jet aircraft, cloud formations or even ball lightning (NEWSWEEK, Sept. 5, 1966). But last week one of the leading Establishment members seemed to be defecting to the other side. No less a figure than J. Allen Hynek, the Northwestern University astrophysicist and the Air Force's own UFO consultant, believes something's up. "There is a phenomenon here," Hynek says. "I've studied this for eighteen years and it's not all nonsense."

In a letter to the authoritative journal Science, to be published this month, Hynek calls upon reputable scientists to investigate UFO's seriously. "I'm not saying we are being visited by extraterrestrial beings," Hynek told Newsweek's Richard Steele, "but I believe it is one of the possibilities and I think we should hold an open mind about it. It would be provincial to believe we are the only intelligent beings in the universe." UFO's might even be, according to Hynek, "something entirely new to science. Where would you have gotten in 1866," he asks, "if you had talked to a scientists about nuclear energy?"

Unlike the true UFO believers, Hynek does not cry conspiracy. First of all, he dismisses the idea that UFO's are some secret military device. "I just don't think people can keep a secret for eighteen years," he says. Hynek also acknowledges that most UFO reports can be explained as down-to-earth events. At first, Science magazine rejected Hynek's letter, reluctant to lend its reputation to a controversy that has been the property of publicity seekers and circulation-minded editors. But Hynek's arguments persuaded the magazine to publish an abbreviated version.

In his letter Hynek eloquently seeks to win over "scientists who would like to look into the UFO phenomenon but are so vastly afraid of ridicule . . . They don't dare investigate." He presents his argument in charge and rebuttal form:

Search: To turn UFO's into IFO's (Identified Flying Objects) Hynek recommends reliable reports be searched by computer for common features such as the appearance of the object and where and when it was sighted. Then, says Hynek, the investigators could try to be on scene to observe the UFO's.

Hynek claims a pattern 'has already begun to emerge from the "hard-data" cases. They contain, he says, "Frequent allusions to hovering, wobbling and rapid take-off. Other often reported features are oval shapes, flashing lights or brilliant lights whose glare is uncomfortable." This is an apt description of ball lighting-the glowing mass of ionized air molecules that can occur during stormy weather--but Hynek things that relatively few UFO sightings can be explained by ball lighting. Many have been seen, he says, when atmospheric conditions are not right for ball lighting.

If an inquiry is launched (the Air Force is searching for a university to do the job) Hynek wants only an advisory role. "I'm not whipping up a bonfire," he says. "so I can dance around it."

Gullible: How soon, if ever, Hynek's program will be carried out is anyone's guess. Yet the need for a systematic investigation of UFO reports to end the uncertainty is undeniable. The national capacity for gullibility is enormous. Look magazine's story, for example, recounts the adventures of Barney and Betty Hill, as revealed under hypnosis performed by a Boston psychiatrist named Benjamin Simon.

Look insists that he story is a "human document" and not an attempt to convince the public that the Hills actually boarded a flying saucer. But the title of Fuller's series--"Aboard a Flying Saucer" --seems to contradict that and so does the prose: Barney found himself remembering that "The men had rather odd-shaped heads, with a large cranium, diminishing in size as it got toward the chin. And the eyes continued around to the sides of their 'heads'." The Hills have earned $24,000 from their story so far and author Fuller and Dr. Simon will share earning from a projected book and possibly a movie.

Until the U.S. acts on Hynek's proposals, it seems, the public will continue to be taken for a ride aboard UFO's.

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