america's leading ufologist — just back from an international astronomers' conference behind the iron curtain—warns that a new soviet investigative approach could cost us the race to solve the flying -saucer riddle
For years, I have opened The New York Times with the fear skittering around the back of my mind that I might find that quote. In my occasional dreams, the story under the headline explains that the Russians have found some previously unthought-of, unstartling explanation for unidentified flying objects; or, worse, that they have made first contact with an alien civilization conducting reconnaissance missions to our planet. Either story would shake America so hard that the launching of Sputnik in would appear in retrospect as important as a Russian announcement of a particularly large wheat crop.
The possibility of a Russian breakthrough on the UFO problem is unlikely, if we believe official Russian statements that the problem does not exist. At last August's XIII General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Prague, one of the Russian delegates answered my query about Soviet UFO study with a derisive laugh and the rather absurd comment, "If flying saucers really exist, why aren't they buzzing over Prague right now?" The same man, a senior Soviet astronomer , declined to attend a meeting I had organized to discuss the UFO problem, saying that since the UFOs did not exist, there was nothing to discuss. One of his colleagues slipped and said that Russian scientists were not permitted to discuss some unidentified flying objects. Although we have reports of UFO sightings and phenomena from some 70 countries, the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries have not contributed UFO reports.
Judging by past Soviet behavior, this curious silence on a subject of increasing importance to science and governement means only one thing: and, indeed, there are some clues to actual Soviet study of the problem. A Russian astronomer admitted in Prague to an American scientist that he believed a problem existed. Another American scientist recently received a note from the secretary of an official Soviet organization for the study of unidentified flying objects. And the Russians announced at Prague that they would participate in a future international conference on interstellar communication.
Even more significant was the recent publication of the first article in a Russian magazine by a Soviet scientist discussing the strong possibility of the existence of unidentified flying objects. That article, in the youth magazine Cmena, stated that the soviet Union is preparing a book-length study called Inhabited Cosmos, the chief editor of which will be the vice-president of the U. S. S. R. Academy of Sciences, and that a chapter to be written by Felix U. Zigel (author of the Cmena article) will consider the UFO problem. Zigel's article concludes: "There exists almost universally a definite type of phenomenon known as the phenomenon of the UFOs. The nature of this phenomenon is as yet not resolved and none of the existing hypotheses can claim a final solution to the problem. In such a situation, the correct approach appears to be to submit the puzzling phenomenon of the UFOs to a many-sided, careful scientific investigation."
We know enough now about the way the U. S. S. R. announces its scientific advances—the element of surprise the Russians have build into every step of their space program is one example—to guess that a Soviet writer would hardly call for "a many-sided, careful scientific investigation" of a phenomenon unless such an investigation were already going on.
Late last summer, the Chicago Sun-Times ended its story about the discovery—by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist—of very puzzling narrow-band radio signals from space with the sentence, "Reportedly, Soviet scientists have also been active in such searches." Highly directional, single-frequency radio signals, of course, might be remarkable evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Zigel's discussion of UFOs in Cmena considers five theories about their nature. The fifth theory—that UFOs are "flying apparatus of other planets, investigating the earth"—is the only one of the five to which he offers no objections.
In sum, what little "hard" information I have—and my intuition—tells me that the U.S.S.R. may have been studying UFOs with dispassionate thoroughnesss for years. From my own official involvement, I know that the United States is only now beginning to consider treating the problem seriously.
In 1948, I was asked by the U.S. Air Force to serve as a scientific consultant on the increasing number of reports of strange lights in the sky. I was then director of the astronomical observatory of Ohio State University and am now the chairman of the astronomy department at Northwestern. I had scarcely heard of UFOs in 1948 and, like every other scientist I knew, assumed that they were nonsense. For the first few months of my association with what is now Project Blue Book—the name of the very small office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, concerned with UFOs—I had no reason to change this opinion. The reports of sightings that came to our attention then were either identifiable flying objects (IFOs), such as weather balloons, meteors or planes, or they came to us from patently unreliable witnesses. A few others were hoaxes.
But over the years, cases began to accumulate for which I could find no satisfactory physical explanation. In fairness to Project Blue Book, I can say that nearly all of the cases that I consider unsolved have remained so labeled in Air Force files, despite charges by critics that the Project always found an explanation for a report. On the other hand, the Project did acquire the habit of subtly modifying its disposition of particular cases over a period of time. A sighting that the evaluator had said was "possibly" traceable to conventional aircraft at the time it occured would appear in the Project's annual report as "probably" traceable to conventional aircraft. More important than such small distorsions, however, is the fact that the Wright-Patterson group usually consisted only of a captain, who headed the team, one other officer, a sergeant and myself, as occasional consultant. The fact that the commanding officer was a captain indicates the extent of the Air Force's concern for this investigation.
My complaint here is not primarily against the Air Force—which, after all, is not a scientific investigative agency. But, under the aegis of the Air Force or not, there should have been a large, well staffed UFO research group in this country since the first waves of reports.
In the past 20 years, I have analyzed more than 15,000 reports of UFO sightings. About 90 percent of these turned out, on quick inspection, not to have been UFOs at all, but readily identifiable objects. Of the remaining 10 percent, I made a further division in my mind between those that came to me from reasonably reliable observers—about 70 percent—and those that came from oddballs of one stripe or another. What this means is that there are at least 1000 UFO reports that remain completly unresolved in my own mind. As a scientist, 1000 perplexing cases strike me as significant enough to warrant professional and thorough investigation. I frankly do not know why the Government has been so slow in coming to the same conclusion.
The popular attitude among scientists in the late Forties was that UFOs were a product of what some called "post-War nerves." Of course, when reports of the sightings continued well into the Fifties—and began to arrive from many regions of the globe—this theory was out. Unfortunately, the attitude that accompanied the theory was retained. How many UFO reports there might have been if the popular and academic attitude toward UFOs were one of neutral inquiry instead of derision will never be known. Even an Air Force major general does not want to be laughed at by an Ivy League professor.
One reason the professors were so contemptuous of the reports was that UFOs obviously, cannot be studied in the laboratory. Results that can be verified through repeatable, quantitative laboratory experiments are still considered the essence of science. What must be remembered is that much of our accurate, scientific knowledge about the universe was not gathered or verified in laboratories—and cannot be. We know much less about tornadoes that we would if we could whip one up whenever we wanted it; but we certainly accept the fact they exist and, in fact, have some universally accept theories about their formation, composition and behavior. That information is the result of unscheduled observation. Similarly, many accepted finding in zoology—our ideas about social structure among wild lions, for example—could come only from patient observation in the field. With UFOs—as with tornadoes, sunspots, animals in their wild state and a host of other aspects of the world—the scientist must mount an attach to suit the phenomena. To select phenomena that meet the demands of laboratory research leads to error in many fields and is impossible with UFOs.
The existing evidence may indicate a possible connection with extraterrestrial life, the probable existence of which is generally accepted. If such life does exist and if there is any possibility of establishing communication with it, our scientific knowledge of that life might even be critical to our survival. Now let us be clear: The existence of extraterrestrial intelligence and the UFO phenomenon may be two entirely different things. But the latter, in itself, poses an interresting scientific problem. How can it be studied? Do we ignore it simply because the evidence we have does not follow the strict rules of scientific evidence?
The question now it not whether but how to design a truly scientific approach to the UFO problem. When the Air Force last year appointed a special commission to study the UFO problem—the so-called Condon committee, meeting at the University of Colorado and named for its chairman, Dr. Edward Condon—it tacitly recognized the seriousness of the problem. I trust I will not seem to be trespassing on the committee's territory if I outline here a scheme that I think would be a thorough and efficient way to obtain scientific knowledge of UFOs.
Let us suppose we have before us 5000 UFO reports. We appoint two scientific panels, one composed of physical scientists, the other of social scientists. We ask the first panel to examine the reports and assign to each a "strangeness index," Σ, on a scale of 1 to 5. By "strangeness" we shall mean the difficulty in ascribing a simple scientific explanation for the report, taken at face value. An attempt shall be made by the scientific panel to evaluate the strangeness of the report. Given the report as is, how difficult is it to find a natural, normal explanation for it?
Thus, Σ1 and Σ2 would refer to UFO reports that, even though taken at face value, nonetheless find a ready explanation. They can then be excluded from further consideration. They are IFOs rather than UFOs. In May 1953, in a small town in Wisconsin, a group of solid citizens excitedly reported that for several nights running, just before sunrise, a bright object, "much too bright to be a star," appeared in the East and "remained there, getting slowly higher and higher in the sky, even after all the stars had disappeared." The witnesses were so insistent and vocal that this couldn't be anything ordinary that I made a quick trip to the town. I set up a small telescope; followed the object into full daylight and, with the aid of the Nautical Almanac, proved even to their satisfaction that the mysterious object was none other than the planet Venus shortly after inferior conjuction with the sun and so at its greatest brilliancy. (The Air Force can always be assured of several Σ1 reports, either before sunrise or after sunset, whenever Venus is at greatest brilliancy.)
In New Hampshire, four lights in a diamond-shaped formation and later in a T formation were observed to hover and then to travel first in one direction and then in another. The sighting lasted for some minutes. Identification was positive that the object sighted was a KC-97 performing a refueling operation. A Labrador radar station picked up an object traveling at 72 knots at an altitude of 50,000 feet. Two F-102 aircraft were scrambled and picked up the object on their radar. The object was fully observed by several military personnel on their separate radars. Identification was positive that the object tracked was a balloon released from an Air Force base in Maine.
In New Jersey, a flat-shaped object was reported. It had a dome in the middle and was somewhat bigger than a commercial aircraft, with bright yellow lights coming from square windows around the bottom and with green lights on the front. This turned out to be, quite positively, a commercial aircraft with a 39-foot, advertising sign containing 245 flashing electric lights. Apparently, the advertiser was not getting his message across. And, for good measure, in 1962, one of our Navy's ships reported an object traveling southeast that remained visible for 15 minutes but which "air and surface radar could not pick up." It was observed by navigators taking a celestial fix, by the commanding officer and by about 1000 enlisted personnel. This was the satellite Echo I, which calculations showed had traced that identical path at that precise time.
But this is only one part of the story. There are high Σ reports, too. If there weren't, there would be no UFO problem. High Σ ratings, of Σ4 and Σ5, are reserved for reports that, at face value, do not find an explanation in conventional scientific terms. Let us look at some examples from my files.
It was 5:30 P.M. I remember the exact time because our car radio was on. A program change was made and the time was given: I was now driving with my headlights on, the electric windshield wipers were going, as we were in a heavy mist. The highway in this area [of Oklahoma] has many rolling hills and is heavily wooded with native post-oak trees. The visibility is limited to the highway by looking ahead or behind or up overhead. We were driving along, everything in normal condition and operation, when suddenly from above and ahead of us over the top of the hill and trees, at a fantastic speed, came a tremendous bright light. The color or glow was similar to that of a mercury light. I thought for a moment we were going to have a head-on crash with something.
I was looking for an escape route to avoid a collision. We were extremely frightened. My wife had dropped down in the seat and our son had jumped from the back seat and had positioned himself between me and my wife. At the speed of approach, I had little time for a reaction. The light around us was almost blinding as the object approached our car. As it came toward us, the car began to slow down (Note: I was not using brakes) and the whole car came under control of the UFO. The car came to a complete stop. Lights, radio, heater, wipers, all electrically operated, instantly stopped.
Other than being frightened, we had no other sensation than that we were being observed. I rolled down my window and, putting my head out of the window, I looked up and approximately 200 feet directly overhead was a saucer-shaped space vehicle. By this time, my eyes had become adjusted to the light that was emitted from the space vehicle. I could observe the size and shape as well as see the observation windows around the upper deck. The UFO was at least 50 feet in diameter. At the same time, a high-pitched whine could be heard and a very light warm wind was being emitted from the bottom of the vehicle.
The vehicle had in the center a large extended dome. The time factor was not of long duration, no more than two or three minutes. There was no other visible traffic on the highway at this time. After this short period of time, the vehicle, with an increase in intensity of the whine, lifted straight up from its hovering position and, as this occured, the car began to function and make normal movement on the highway. The lights, radio, wipers, heater and motor functioned as if they had never stopped.
I wish to state that this was not a type of any known earthcraft. I have worked in and around aircraft since 1940, when I graduated from the Spartan School of Aeronautics, and I am also a discharged veteran from the U.S. Air Force.
Here is one from an air base in Alaska :
At the time of the sighting I was at work (in the base control tower) and I had an air carrier shortly beginning an approach. As is my custom, I had the lights in the cab turned down low. I got up from the console and looked out the window to make a visual check of the runway. As I looked to the north end of the runway, I saw a light coming down center of the runway. My first thought was, I had an aircraft on approach that I didn't know anything about. The light was moving at about the speed of a large aircraft making a low pass. The light continued down the center line of the runway at about a height of 50 feet. The airport is equipped with high-intensity runway lighting. The lights were on step 3; the lighting control panel is located to the right and just behind me. As the light reached a spot just a little north of my position, I reached around and flicked the light to step 4, hoping to cause a reflection off the body of the object, as I was still unable to see anything other than a light, even though visibility was excellent. When the lights went brighter, the object made a right turn and started to climb, increasing speed extremely fast, clearing the nearby mountain in a second or two. At this time, I lost sight of the object as it seemed to level off and became lost behind the mountains. One other thing that I forgot to point out above. When the light turned and started to climb, it did so sharply, whereas when an airplane turns or climbs, it makes an arc.
And let's take just a short excerpt from another.
As I approached a bedroom window ... the whole yard was bathed in a brilliant orange. Everything looked as something does when it is reflecting fire. I looked up at the sky and there was a big orange light. I woke my husband and told him to come look at the thing in the sky. He got up, came to the window, and as I kept saying, "What can it be?" he just kept repeating, "Oh, my God." It seems like we watched it for about a minute. It was stationary in the sky all that time and seemed to be quite near. The light was more powerful than anything we had ever seen, but still we could look right at it. As we watched, the light finally went out, not slowly, but still not as fast as you would turn off an electric bulb. All that was left was what looked exactly like a star and it began to move. We watched as it moved toward the lights of Los Angeles in the distance.
None of these three sightings (which are merely random samples from my considerable collection of sightings of high strangeness index) leads itself to simple explanation. Not, by definition, do any of the high Σ reports. It will be noted that nothing has yet been said about believing these reports.
As the next step in our proposed program, let us ask a panel of social scientists—psychologists and sociologists—to rate the credibility of the witnesses involved in the high Σ cases, singly and collectively, for any given sighting, without any reference whatever to the report itself. The panel is given dossiers on each of the witnesses. (But it would be best not to let this panel read the UFO reports—it might prejudice them!) The dossiers include medical history, length of time and general standing in the community, psychological and personality traits, a note on the willingness of the witnesses to take lie-detector tests (and the results of these, if administered), the technical backgrounds of the individual witnesses, the independence of the witnesses (were they strangers, blood relatives, friends?) and what has been garnered as to the motivation of making the report in the first place. Was there any overt attempt at publicity, or was the report made guardedly and out of a sense of duty? Was there any possibility of financial gain by having made the report? We shall call this rating the C, or credibility rating.
The "credibility panel" must also be given a full account of the reaction of the witness under interrogation. A skilled investigator soon learns to watch for many clues as to the credibility of the witness. Psychotic or paranoid signals are many. The tendency to repeat certain phrases, the singsong retelling of an experience in a set, stereotyped manner, as though one is hearing a playback of a tape—all these are danger signals. And, of course, at the slightest hint from the UFO reporter of imaginary persecution, one may just as well drop the investigation. I have on occasion been told what seemed to be a straightforward story, when suddenly the witness lapsed into a highly confidential mood and told me that he was sure that his phone was being tapped or that he was being watched, sometimes on a regular schedule, either by "the Government" or by "occupants of the craft."
In my long experience with the UFO phenomenon, I have developed certain practices that quickly bring out these "credibility flaws." For instance, I will patiently listen to the account and then, as if to see that I have things straight, will repeat the highlights of the story, but making sure that in two or three spots I deliberately misstate some of the witness' descriptions (for example, directions, time estimates, etc.), to see whether the witness will quickly catch me up on the misstatement or let it pass. One quickly learns also to gauge the objectivity of the reporter. The most glaring fault on the part of the witness is to substitute interpretation of a fact for a fact. Thus, he may tell me, "The spaceship was patrolling the neighborhood and observing us," when the actual fact is that the witness observed a light meandering in the sky and read into that simple observation his interpretation that intelligent surveillance was being carried on.
One of the most frustrating experiences a UFO investigator can have is to be told, at the end of what seems to be a fairly straightforward story, that the witness has had similar experiences on many occasions in the past. We call these "repeaters." A person with so little understanding of statistics and probability as to think that a person can have dozens of UFO sightings while a great many other people (indeed, the majority) have never in their lives seen anything resembling a UFO, can be identified at once as utterly unreliable. When we get the combination of the repeater with a persecution complex, we really have something. For many months at Project Blue Book, we received frequent letters from an inmate of a mental institution, who exhorted us to do something about the UFOs that visited him regularly and interfered with his sexual functions.
The work of the credibility panel would really be much more difficult than that of the scientific panel. The latter has only to determine whether the contents of the report, as given, are easy or hard to explain in the context of present day science. The credibility panel, however, has to decide not only whether the witnesses, taken together, are trustworthy, honorable and responsible people who can be believed in everyday matters, but also whether they could have been capable of gross errors and misinterpretations in the particular instance of their UFO sighting. Is it possible, for instance, for several people in concert to see a bright star and have it trigger in the brain the impression that what was really seen was a moving spaceship with portholes?
The idea that reports made by policemen and Air Force pilots must be correct is entirely unjustified. A highly technical, trained observer skilled in one area of operation or observation does not necessarily transfer his critical skills to a situation in which he is observing something that is surprising to him. Pilots have been known to swerve their planes violently when they suddenly encounter a very height meteor they think is on a collision course, but which later proves to have been 50 or 100 miles away. And policemen can grossly misinterpret something with which they have no familiarity. Still, on the average, if several pilots and/or policemen concur on the main points of the story, particularly if the duration of their experience was long enough (a matter of minutes rather than seconds) to have brought their judgment into play, it is difficult to brush aside their seemingly hardheaded testimony. And when one gets high Σ reports from scientists, engineers and technicians whose credibility by all common standards is high and whose moral caliber seems to preclude a hoax, one can do no less than hear them out, in all seriousness.
Hoaxes are not as common as depicted in the newspapers. Pranks by college students and everyday practical jokers make good copy and are always good for a laugh, especially if the hoax has succeeded in at least temporarily fooling some respected citizenry. Hoaxes are frequently accompanied by photographs, on the mistaken idea that a photograph is worth ten thousands words. Actually, a photograph is worth nothing unless we know the full circumstances of how it was taken. I simply will not take a photograph seriously unless I can interrogate witnesses who saw the object in question being photographed and unless I can have access to the original negative and the technical data on the camera. So far, I have not been able myself to accept any photographs as representing incontrovertible scientific proof of the existence of truly strange objects.
Any sensible investigation of UFO reports will limit itself to reports that exhibit both a high Σ level and a high C level. It will ask whether there are any apparently meaningful patterns among such reports: patterns of kinematic behavior, of luminescence, of geometry, of geographical distribution or of seasonal distribution. With the aid of the electronic computer, cross-correlations will be sought between these and other factors.
It may come as a surprise that this sort of search for patterns have not been conducted by the Air Force all along. The closest the Governement came in such an investigation was in . A distinguished panel of scientists, under Caltech physicist Howard P. Robertson, was appointed to review the matter, but the panel was given only a limited number of cases to examine and was able to allot only four days to its study. Our Government's approach in all other instances has been to treat each reported sighting as though it were the only in existence. The Air Force has tried to knock down each report as it showed its head, like a duck in a shooting gallery. This "divide and conquer" technique is powerless to detect significant patterns, the very mainstay of the scientific method.
The approach to the study of UFO reports proposed here is designed specifically to reveal patterns if they exist—to extract the scientific gold from the only ore we have (UFO reports), if such gold exists.
There is a more direct approach to the problem: an active rather than a passive attack. The scholarly study of UFO reports is capable of establishing the likelihood that the UFO phenomenon represents something heretofore not recognized in the present-day scientific framework. But no passive methods can prove this to be the case. They can provide only a measure of probability of its being so.
The passive method—painstakingly examining reports and then building a logical set of hypotheses—puts me in mind of the story told about the explorer who had comme back from a dinosaur-egg-hunting expedition in the Gobi desert. In his lecture, the explorer presented many cogent reasons why the eggs they discovered were dinosaur eggs. He pointed out that they were about the size and weight to be expected of dinosaur eggs, allowing for desiccation and the ravages of time, and that they had about the right color, given the effects of weathering—all of this leading to the strong likelihood that the eggs were, indeed, dinosaur eggs. "And furthermore," the lecturer stated at the conclusion of his talk, "when we opened one of the eggs, it had a baby dinosaur in it." What is needed in the UFO problem is for us to find a baby UFO somewhere in the crates of UFO reports.
The next stage in the scientific approach to the UFO problem must clearly be an active one. Once the scientific fraternity is convinced that the UFO problem is worthy of serious attack (and this degree of conviction can come only after it is amply demonstrated that reports really do exist that find no conventional explanation, even after study by competent persons), we arrive at the interesting and challenging stage of the problem.
It is necessary to find out whether, when persons of high repute report a strange apparition, something of a physical nature does, in fact, exist. In short, an all-out effort must be made to obtain photographs. If unimpeachable photographs can be obtained, it follows that the stimulus that gave rise to the report was accompanied by an actual image on the retinas of the witnesses. This may seem a trivial or obvious point; yet should this not be the case, it would throw the problem into a totally different dimension. In any event, the existence of unimpeachable photographs would represent incontrovertible scientific evidence that UFOs, as we have defined them, exist.
Of course, the whole problem could be solved, or at least put on an extremely firm foundation, if tangible physical evidence, "hardware," of unimpeachable character were available. Meteorites were finally admitted to scientific respectability only after there had been a spectacular fall in France in 1803, a fall that not even the most skeptical of scientists could doubt. That was certainly much easier than attacking the problem through a corresponding ΣC diagram for reports of meteorite falls. Similarly, the problem here could be solved should a fleet of UFOs land in the Rose Bowl during half time.
But how can we hunt the wily UFO without gun but with camera? Must we place automatic cameras along every roadside in the country? Well, hardly. A study of geographical distribution of the high ΣC cases, however, reveals (as a cursory inspection already shows) that certain areas of the country seem to remain "UFO hot" often for as long as days or even weeks. When the electronic computer indicates such a "hot" area, let a technical team be dispatched by jet helicopter (several of which we would keep in readiness in various parts of the country), and within hours of the receipt of the original report, cameras, spectrographs and Geiger counters would be there. The expense is trivial if study of the best reports indicates that there is, indeed, valuable scientific pay dirt hidden in the UFO phenomenon.
As a backup to the investigative readiness teams, and as an overall means of garnering improved original data, a central UFO center in the United States should be established. A central telephone exchange (UFO-1000) could be manned 24 hours a day by competent interrogators capable of recognizing a true UFO report from a spankster's report, a simple misidentification by the untutored or the meanderings of an unsteady mind. Calls would be made collect to UFO-1000. Should the nuisance calls become a problem, these could be declared a misdemeanor or even a criminal offense, comparable with tampering with the mailbox or the fire alarm on the corner.
Let us suppose lonely travelers, as in our first UFO case cited, encounter a UFO. As soon as they can get to the roadside telephone, they call UFO-1000. If the report passes preliminary and immediate screening, headquarters notifies the local police and they rush to the scene, already properly equipped with suitable cameras. If the case appears to warrant dispatching the UFO plane, this can be done very shortly thereafter.
Such a concerted effort would accomplish far, far more than the passive receipt and evaluation of reports possibly could. If UFOs as previously defined actually exist, we would have photographs, movies, spectrograms, plaster casts of indentations (if a landing occurs) and detailed measurements and quantitative estimates of brightnesses, speeds, and so on, within a year of the initiation of such a no-nonsense program. But if the UFO-1000 program is sincerely and intensively carried out for a full year and yields nothing, this, in itself, would be of great negative significance. Then we could go back to the "real, common-sense world" of pre-UFO days—shrugging it all off with, "There must have been a virus going around," an outlet successfully used in other fields of human inquiry.
Admittedly, I will be surprised if an intensive, yearlong study yields nothing. To the contrary, I think that mankind may be in for the greatest adventure since dawning human intelligence turned outward to contemplate the universe.