La voix de la confusion

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Hard on the heels of the July 4th reports came the claims and disclaimers of the experts invariably persons who had not seen UFOs, but spoke with some assumed authority for those who had. These so-called experts knew what the witnesses had seen, even if the witnesses themselves did not. Among the more irresponsible statements that appeared on July 5th was the one that originated in the Los Angeles Herald-Express, and was carried widely by AP. The story quoted an "unidentified" scientist, allegedly a nuclear physicist at the California Institute of Technology, who proposed the theory that the discs were the result of "transmutation of atomic energy" experiments that were being conducted at Muroc Air Base, White Sands, and some unspecified location near Portland, Oregon, as well as elsewhere. "These saucers so-called are capable of high speeds but can be controlled from the ground. They are 20 feet in the center and are partially rocket-propelled on the take-off." He maintained that "people are seeing things. Such flying discs actually are in experimental existence." Dr. Harold Urey, in Chicago, immediately threw cold water on this claptrap:  "Transmutation of atomic energy sounds like gibberish. You can transmute metals, not energy." Another disclaimer came almost as soon from Colonel F. J. Clark, commanding officer of the Hanford Engineering Works of the Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington, who said he knew of no connection between atomic energy experiments at Hanford and "flying saucers."

Another "authority" on secret government devices was national commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Louis E. Starr, of Portland, Oregon. AP reports that in Columbus on July 5th, in a speech to Ohio VFW members, Starr stated that he was "momentarily expecting word from Washington" concerning the "fleets of flying saucers," which would "help explain the discs." A telegram containing the information, said Starr, "was due here at three p.m. (EST)" and he promised to read it to his listeners. It seems never to have arrived.  Whatever Starr’s sources were he wasn’t telling, but he did say he felt "too little is being told to the people of this country." AP does not mention how long VFW members waited around for that telegram.

In Detroit, INS quoted another "expert" --  this one an unidentified meteorologist -- who proposed that UFOs were from Mars; not spaceships, but merely "signals." With a freewheeling logic he asked, "why should it not be as logical for Mars to try to contact earth as for earth to contact Mars?"  Admitting that it was an "unusual" theory, he offered no clues as to how these signals were converted into seemingly physical objects, nor did he specify what earthly experiments were currently being carried out in an attempt to contact Mars. His decision to remain anonymous was most judicious.

The Portland Oregonian ("Er -- Quack, Quack") of July 6th quoted several professional men and their various professional theories. Dr. Frederick A. Courts, assistant professor of psychology at Reed College said: "There may be some mass psychological explanation to the sudden rash of 'flying saucer' reports. When people expect to see something they frequently do  . . .  The whole thing could be the result of a general semi-hysteria due to the nervousness of the public over reports of atomic warfare and guided missiles." Disagreeing with his colleague was Dr. A. A. Knowlton, physics professor at the same college, who said:  "In view of the persistence of these reports, we cannot dismiss the 'flying disc' matter as simply another instance of mass hysteria." He went on to cite the impressiveness of the United Air Lines report, and suggested that the objects were "the result of secret experiments with guided missiles, either by our own or by foreign countries."

Colonel E. S. Ellison, head of the Portland Weather Bureau, remarked that a great number of balloons were sent aloft each day by meteorologists and at high altitudes these balloons frequently reflect the rays of the sun like metal; "balloons, however, could not reach the great speed attributed to the 'saucers' because even above the atmosphere, wind currents seldom exceed one hundred miles an hour." Dr. J. Hugh Pruett, Eugene meteorologist, who had earlier suggested that "persistent vision" might explain the objects that Arnold had seen, now observed more prudently that "I don’t know what on earth these mysterious objects can be." He was certain, however, that they were not meteorites, for if they were, "someone would have found traces on the ground by now."

By Sunday, July 6th, a number of other astronomers had made their opinions known. Significantly, not one of their utterances indicated even the slightest degree of scientific curiosity about what this new phenomenon being seen in the sky might be. UFO reports were summarily dismissed by most of these scientists.

At a convention for astronomers held at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, diligent newsman polled the "experts" for their opinions. Dr. Harlow Shapley, director of Harvard College Observatory, said that unless he saw a disc himself, he had absolutely nothing to say. Dr. Charles P. Olivier, president of the American Meteor Society, (who later became a NICAP Board Member), told reporters that none of the astronomical observers with whom he was in touch around the country had seen anything resembling such objects, and added that while reports did not appear to resemble meteors, sightings might be expected to increase toward the end of July, when the Delta Aquarids made their annual appearance. Dr. Roy Marshall, of the Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia, wrote off all reports as "plain hysteria;" unless he saw one himself, he commented, he wouldn’t comment.

In Chicago, 2 of the country’s leading astronomers agreed that the reported discs "couldn’t be meteors." Dr. Gerard Kuiper, head of the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, agreed with Dr. Oliver Lee, head of Northwestern University’s Dearborn Observatory at Evanston, when the latter proposed that the objects were "man-made" and probably "radio-controlled." Lee said that "the Army, Navy and Air Force are working secretly on all sorts of things." He exhorted inquisitive newsmen to "remember the A-bomb, and radar signals to the moon."

Judging from statements such as these, the "spirit of scientific inquiry" had no relevance when it came to UFOs, as far as the scientific fraternity itself was concerned. In twenty years the situation remains much the same, to the discredit of the American scientific community.

U. S. Government scientists and military officials were no less disdainful, according to a July 5th AP dispatch from Washington. Ivan B. Tannehill, chief of the U. S. Weather Bureaus division of synoptic reports and forecasts, said:  "I’d like to see one first before I make a guess." An Atomic Energy Commission scientist echoed his statement:  he’d be glad to guess what the saucers were "if someone will bring one in.

Dr. Newborn Smith, of the National Bureau of Standards, likened flying saucer reports to those of the Loch Ness monster: "Once the report gets around that someone said they saw something, a lot of people think they saw it too." He didn’t think the discs were "natural phenomena," but suggested sightings may have been due to the "reflections of a distant plane." If he saw a good picture of one, "he might be able to tell what it is."

A spokesman at the Naval Observatory in Washington said only that from descriptions given so far, the discs "did not seem to be astronomical phenomena." A CAA spokesman said that all he knows "is what I read in the papers."

In an AP item from Sacramento on July 5th, public relations officer Major Duncan Annam, of McClelland Field, said there was no cause for undue alarm about the objects. "Lots of people are worried to heck about the things," he said, "but there’s nothing to get excited about. If there were anything to them the Army would have notified us." He was inclined to believe they might be some "Army training experiment," but he admitted that this was just a personal opinion. He added that there had been no radar confirmation of reports around the Sacramento area.

And in Circleville, Ohio, residents got in an uproar over a strange device that was found on a farm.  Attached to it were the remains of a balloon, and while it was evident that it was a meteorological device used to measure wind velocities, the seeds of confusion had been sown throughout the land and objectivity was in short supply. But the situation would worsen, and the sightings would increase. 

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