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Science and the UFO phenomenom:

Scientists who do not laugh but study:

This is a book review of J. Allen Hynek's "The UFO Experience, A Scientific Inquiry" by Joachim P. Kuettner, eminent member of the AIAA published in: Astronautics and Aeronautics, November 1973

It indicates that when a scientist takes the time to read what a fellow scientist studied and discovered about the UFO phenomenon, instead of just laughing the subject out, then ... "An unbiased reader should find the wealth of information contained in his book hard to ignore."

A New Start on the Whole UFO Problem?

J. Allen Hynek's "The UFO Experience, A Scientific Inquiry"

"Where they are coming from and why they were here is a matter of conjecture; but the fact that they are here on this planet is beyond a reasonable doubt."


We are used to informing ourselves quickly about any scientific or technical problem we are interested in through text books, professional journals, and library abstracts. Not so if the problem is the UFO issue! It is practically impossible to obtain factual background information on this question without making a most time-consuming effort. The literature contains few objective scientific treatises. It consists mostly of biased, polemic books or qualitative observations published anywhere but in scientific journals.

The author of the book, "The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry," refers to this situation when he states in his preface that "a good book" on UFOs is needed. It "should be honest without prejudgment; it should be factual and as well documented as possible." Obviously he intended to write such a book and he may well have succeeded.

One may ask why Hynek waited so long to say what he knows and thinks. After all, as astronomy professor of Northwestern Univ. he has been directly connected with the U.S. Air Force UFO study as scientific adviser for over 20 years, and there is little doubt that he knows as much about UFOs as any scientist in the world. From his book the reasons become clear: When Hynek originally accepted his advisory role to the Air Force he described his feelings as follows: "Wasn't this a golden opportunity to demonstrate to the public how ... the application of the impersonal and unbiased logic of the scientific method ... could be used to show that flying saucers were figments of the imagination?" His suggestion of "swamp gas" as a possibility for the origin of certain observations may be remembered. The present book, however, concludes with the following sentence: "When the long-awaited solution to the UFO problem comes, I believe that it will prove to be not merely the next small step in the march of science but a mighty and totally unexpected quantum jump." Apparently Hynek was hesitant to write a book representing such complete reversal in scientific assessment, and it may have taken him 20 years of continuous involvement to convince himself that this book needed to be written. Such circumstances give his work added significance.

The book consists of three parts: I. - The UFO Phenomenon, II. - The Data and the Problem, and III. - Where Do We Go from Here? The somewhat dry style of the author and his concern with avoiding sensationalism will no doubt disappoint readers who expect the writer of a UFO book to be a fascinating storyteller. Part I. definitely buries such hopes; and, in my opinion, it could have been shorter. The heart of the book, Part II., in spite of the author's efforts to the contrary, makes fascinating reading. It contains in condensed form the basic information on specific categories of UFO observations. It is this type of material which is hard to come by in the existing literature unless one takes it on oneself to dig through 20,000 scattered reports.

In the first two parts, Hynek wisely avoids entangling himself with the authors of existing quasi-scientific books in the UFO literature. Rather than adding to heated argumentation, he simply ignores most of them and saves his ammunition for some heavy barrages against two targets that he deals with in Part III. - the Air Force UFO project and the Colorado Univ. study.

Hynek gives the following UFO categories: (1) nocturnal lights, (2) daylight disks, (3) radar-visual reports, (4) close encounters of the first kind (no environmental interaction), (5) close encounters of the second kind (physical effects on the environment), and (6) close encounters of the third kind (occupants).

In each category Hynek selects 5-12 cases for detailed description. He was personally involved in the investigations of some of these. The selection criteria Hynek uses rate "strangeness" and "probability," which he plots in a matrix. The strangeness rating (from 1 to 9) is applied after a "physical explanation screening," the highest numbers being given to cases which "outrage common sense."

Far more difficult is an assessment of the probability rating as it involves subjective factors, including the credibility of witnesses. Judgments must be made of a person's reliability and education, behavior under interrogation, etc. Hynek does not assign a rating of more than 3 to any report coming from a single reporter even if he is of very solid reputation. In other words' multiple witnesses are a prerequisite for a high probability rating.

The UFO categories (1) to (5) mentioned above are obviously of increasing strangeness and one should perhaps expect that they correspond to diminishing credibility. Surprisingly, this is not the case; many of the "close encounters" carry the highest probability ratings, a fact noted by Hynek, and a reason for him to treat them as equals among the other categories. Hynek also notes that the "strangeness spread" is small and that there is a pattern of repeatability allowing classification. One may question the subjective assessment of strangeness and probability ratings. In the absence of instrument readings and recordings, however, there is justified doubt that better approaches are conceivable at this time.

After discussing the cases he selects in each category of UFO types, Hynek gives average and medium numbers of observers per case, their professional groupings, and a qualitative description of the "prototypes." Excerpts of the latter may serve as illustrations:

Category (1) - nocturnal lights: "The typical Nocturnal Light is a bright light, generally not a point source, of indeterminate linear size and of varying color ..., which follows a path not ascribable to a balloon, aircraft, or other natural object and which often gives the appearance of intelligent action.... As far as trajectories and kinematic behavior are concerned, despite exceptions that defy normal physical explanations, even when generous allowance is made for exaggeration and error of judgment, the reported motions of the Nocturnal Lights do not seem generally to violate physical laws."

Category (2) - daylight disks: "It generally is shiny or glowing ..., yellowish, white, or metallic. It exhibits in most cases what we would anthropomorphically describe as "purposeful" directed motion, with the ability to accelerate extremely rapidly. No loud sounds ... seem to be associated with the Daylight Discs..."

Category (3) - radar visual reports (This interesting chapter contains many reports of eyewitnesses and simultaneous radar observations as well as quantitative velocity estimates. The prototype is described as follows): "The radar operator observes a blip on his screen that ... is akin to the type of blip given by a large aircraft, is not the result of malfunction, and does not resemble 'weather phenomena.' A visual sighting is characteristically a light, or possibly a formation of lights strikingly unfamiliar to the observer.... The speeds involved are invariably high, but combinations of high speed at one time and hovering at another are not uncommon. Reversals of motion and sharp turns, not abrupt 90-deg turns, are characteristic of Radar-Visual cases."

The selected observations in these first three categories all refer to distant objects and are reported by a relatively high percentage of technically educated observers (40 to 60 %). The average number of witnesses per case ranges from 3.5 to 5.0.

The next three categories ("Close Encounters") concern observations anywhere from 20 to 500 ft away. In the opinion of the author the possibility of misperception is remote in these cases unless the observers suffered "temporary insanity." Hynek devotes almost 80 pages of his book to close encounters; and the reader may well sympathize with the hesitation of the author to present this bizarre material. The case histories illustrate the observers' bewilderment and their difficulty in describing what they experience. Evidently Hynek decided to present all observed aspects of the UFO phenomenon, rather than stop at an arbitrary point where things become too odd. The category of "close encounters without physical effects," shows an average number of observers per case of 3.5, some 35% being technically competent. The prototype is described as follows:

"Brilliant luminescence, relatively small size (of the order of tens rather than hundreds of feet), generally oval shape - sometimes capped with a dome - absence of conventional wings, wheels, or other protuberances, and ability to hover and to accelerate very rapidly to high speeds ... trajectories are largely vertical when speeds are high, takeoffs at 45 degrees or greater seem to be the rule."

The next category concerns close encounters with physical effects. As the most common of these Hynek lists globally observed interference with automobile ignition, headlights, and radio while the object is in close proximity. He describes many examples, one involving seven cases of separate car disablement and subsequent automatic recovery occurring within about two hours. The average number of witnesses per case is 4.0 in this group, but the percentage of technically trained observers is lower than in the previous group (13%).

Finally, Hynek comes to the strangest aspect of the UFO phenomena - to close encounters with "occupants." He defends his decision not to disregard the occupant encounters by two arguments. First, they are too numerous (more than 300); and second, he feels one cannot subdivide the UFO phenomena, accepting some parts and rejecting others. Nevertheless, after a thorough description of this perplexing group of observations, Hynek concludes that he prefers "to rest the UFO problem on the prototypes of the first five categories ... always remembering that it may yet be discovered that the humanoid cases are the key to the whole problem." One has to read this chapter to understand the author's dilemma.

In the third part of the book, Hynek takes severe issue with the Air Force UFO study ("Blue Book") and the Univ. of Colorado (Condon) project, including its endorsement by the National Academy of Sciences. He traces the history and the approaches taken by these studies and holds them responsible for the discredit and ridicule the UFO problem has suffered in the scientific and engineering community. His main charge against the Air Force study is incompetence, that against the Condon study prejudice and lack of a valid scientific concept. Hynek makes the important point that an observation should be defined as a UFO if it remains unexplained after severe technical screening, whereas in his opinion the Condon study only requires that the observer finds it unexplainable - thus causing much wasted effort on worthless cases.

In his end chapter, Hynek suggests making a new start on the whole UFO problem. He recommends a statistical approach to define the parameters of the phenomenon. This implies computerized data processing and an international agreement on formats and coding. He proposes an "institute" for the study of UFO phenomena that would eliminate the now strictly private approach. It would serve as a national or international focal point for the collection of data and reports. The scope of such an institute would depend on the funds and time available to its staff.

"The UFO Experience" no doubt represents the best and most objective introduction to the UFO problem available. Some readers will be disappointed not to find a truly "scientific inquiry," as the title of the book suggests. But such investigation would require multidisciplinary efforts and considerable resources not available to a private scientist. It would have been better, perhaps, if Hynek had omitted this subtitle. Also, the treatment of the probability problem in Chapter 7 appears weak to me. Minor oversights in the book present some problems; for example, the "probability-strangeness table," which carries no legend and seems inconsistent with the text and Appendix 1. These shortcomings can and no doubt will be corrected in future editions.

I see Hynek's book as a courageous work written by a respected scientist who admits that he changed his mind and feels that he presents an important and unresolved scientific problem. Doubtless Hynek will be criticized by those who consider the UFO problem as "nonexisting." An unbiased reader should find the wealth of information contained in his book hard to ignore. The same may hold for the international scientific and engineering community. Hynek's book' by the way, has been translated into several languages.

JOACHIM P. KUETTNER Chairman, AIAA UFO Subcommittee

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This page was last updated on April 4, 2002