The Science of UFOs

An Astronomer Examines the Technology of Alien Spacecraft, How They Travel, and the Aliens Who Pilot

William R. Alschuler, Ph.D.

St. Martin's Press

Science of UFOs
In early December 1998 thousands of people in Jalisco and Aguascalliente States, about 275 miles west of Mexico City, saw "a very bright white light"fly over the Sierra Madre mountains at about 7P.M.
On November 18, 1998 a man in Crosslanes, West Virginia was going into his garage when he happened to look up and spotted a 727 flying overhead: "It was high up enough it left a very clear contrail. Suddenly, at very close range above the plane, a silver-gray disc appeared. It flew directly over the top of the plane and was making a side-to-side swaying motion, almost like a leaf falling. As it moved the Sun glinted off it, and it shone very brightly. Suddenly from the east, a jet (delta shape) came screaming toward the UFO. At that point it had stopped, and the passenger plane had already moved away.
"The UFO glowed very brightly and then shot straight up and was out of sight in seconds. I have an Air Force Intelligence background and what I saw is nothing I am familiar with."
(Reported in UFO Magazine, March/April, 1999.)
In Zanesville, Ohio, a small town not far from the infamous Wright-Patterson Air Force Base of Roswell crash fame, on November 13, 1966, Ralph Ditter took two photographs of a UFO. They show asuburban scene with a house and driveway, several parked cars, a bare tree in the foreground and woods behind. It seems to have been a bright day as there are strong shadows. In each photo there is a mechanical looking object hovering over the landscape. Its shape is like that of a top hat whose top has been cut off about a third of the way up. It glints in the sunlight. It casts no shadow. The craft matches descriptions of a number of 1998 sightings made around Zanesville, of which at least two were made by law enforcement officers. The photos have no negatives as they were made with a Polaroid camera. The ships are seen in silhouette against a bright cloudless sky so there is no easy way to estimate their size or distance. They remain unexplained to this day.
(Reported in Popular Mechanics, July 1998)
Many of the people whose memories of being kidnapped by aliens are recounted in the book Abduction, by Harvard psychologist John Mack, report being taken aboard alien ships and examined with metal instruments in rooms lit from all surfaces. They also recall aliens of varied descriptions, as if of distinct species. Certain details of these accounts are remarkably similar to each other, and the aliens' reported behavior makes these experiences sometimes shockingly invasive of the abductees' personal space, physical bodies, and sense of sanity.
The above examples of extraordinary events fall into three major categories of what might be called "alien contact." The first are accounts of lights or colors or indistinct shapes in the sky that travel at unbelievable speeds, accelerate at unbelievable rates, appear and disappear while standing still, and generally show behavior not achievable by human aircraft or rocket craft. In some cases their performance seems to violate known laws of physics. These sightings often take place at night, and most of the objects are reported to be self-luminous. These phenomena are called UFOs (Unidentified FlyingObjects) precisely because their nature is unknown until and unless someone comes along to identify or explain them. The Mexico and West Virginia sightings mentioned above fall into this category.
The Zanesville sightings and photos are in a second category: the observers see, describe, and sometimes make photos or videos of a definite shape, one that could be classified as a spacecraft or at least a manufactured object. These, too, behave in ways that human technology cannot achieve, and they are most often daytime sightings. (Of course there are exceptions. In some cases lighting onboard or on the ground allows observers to see details of the craft even at night.)
The stories of interactions with aliens, the details of the insides of their spacecraft, and the tools for physical exams of abductees represent a third level of involvement of the witnesses. Often these events take place at night, perhaps because the abduction experiences frequently start while abductees are in a dream state, asleep.
These categories apply reasonably well to reports of strange sightings and interactions from all over the world. The modern era of such reports dates back to World War II, when stories of what we now call UFOs began to trickle in. Allied pilots described seeing "foo-fighters," luminous spheres that darted around Allied aircraft while on bombing missions, sometimes keeping station with the bombers and often undergoing extraordinary changes of course and speed. (We will explore this phenomenon in Chapter 7.)
The number of all types of alien phenomena reports grew rapidly after the widely publicized Kenneth Arnold sighting of UFOs in 1947--the sighting from which the term "flying saucers" was coined. The number of reports continues to grow and is now large enough that significant numbers of people have had an experience in one or another of the above categories.
Common elements of UFO sightings include, for example, certain shapes (cigars, saucers, wedges), certain attributes (silent running, for one) and out-of-this-world movements. Many UFOs move but reveal no details of shape or surface texture. Because they are seen by a wide variety of people and mostly for short periods of time in unforeseen circumstances, they may as a group contain a lower incidence of deliberate fraud than the second category--the sightings of what are claimed to be alien spacecraft.
The photos of alien ships produced in this second category are examined critically by specialists inside the UFO community, and are rejected publicly if found wanting (see, for example, UFO Magazine April/May 1999 or almost any recent issue). It is common for the images of spacecraft to be seen against a blank sky. The craft also generally fit into a few common categories of shape.
Because the third category, interaction with aliens, usually is freighted by heavy psychological baggage, the abduction reports may contain a high percentage of honest reporting, though the reality reported may be greatly at odds with common experience.
We will explore each of these three categories, but we will focus most intently on the first two. The reason is that, except for the reports of people passing directly through walls unscathed or of bloodless and incisionless operations (both of which are interesting as physical puzzles--see Chapter 6), the third category of reports generally omits behavior and technology that requires or defies physical explanation (although it may well require psychological explanation). We will mainly delve into the reports of UFO sightings(category 1) and alien spacecraft (category 2), looking carefully at what the accounts imply or say about what happened, trying to show where conventional science leaves off, and then suggesting what kinds of new physics--alien technology if you will--might explain them.
These three categories are not exhaustive, and within them there is much variation as well as commonalities. Sometimes high-tech equipment is involved in the sightings. For example, on August 13, 1956, British radar operators at Bentwaters, England, observed a set of blips with intensities similar to that of an ordinary jet aircraft (before the age of stealth!). The blips were tracked as traveling at speeds of up to 9,000 mph, way above the capability of any maneuvering craft of human origin, then or now. This fits in the category of UFOs, but it wasn't a visual sighting.
In other cases of radar sightings, fighters have sometimes been scrambled to give chase to blips, and the fighter pilots have reported being unable to keep up with the turns and accelerations of the bogies that sometimes were directly visible to them.
The mass nighttime UFO sighting in Mexico described earlier has been repeated elsewhere. A similar one occurred in Arizona a few years ago. One unusual mass daytime sighting took place in downtown Mexico City and was viewed by thousands. A craft was seen to hover and move slowly above the buildings. I recently saw a video of the event, and the ship looks something like a blimp with hard edges and odd projections, and it appears to glide slowly behind several skyscrapers.
Occasionally, physical evidence is presented along with eyewitness accounts. A few cases of scorched earth have been put forward, in which plants died in patterns and locations coincident with shapes of UFOs, and where they were reported to land or hover. At some of those landing sites, indentations in the ground were seen, as if something heavy had rested there.
A second incident at Bentwaters represents a case with even more unusual physical evidence. Late in December 1980, security guards at a nowclosed U.S. Air Force base saw unusual lights in Rendelsham Woods, just beyond the security perimeter. On the second night of activity, guards entered the forest with flood lights, geiger counters, and two-way radios. There they saw a craft they estimated to be 20 feet wide by 30 feet high. As the craft approached them their counters started to register counts faster than normal and their radios intermittently failed. A return to the site in daylight showed broken tree limbs and 7 one-inch-diameter, 1.5 inch-deep circular depressions. (A recent photo shows that the "dead patch" originally found in the center of the site is now green and the surroundings are brown. This is a curious turn of events for which no solid explanation is currently proposed.) A later British Ministry of Defense memo stated that soil samples taken from the site at the time showed levels of radioactivity 25 times that of the normal background. This is a case of a category 2 sighting with additional physical evidence.
In some abduction accounts, the abductees report that aliens have inserted an implant of some sort into them, their purpose not always known. In at least one of these cases, the "alien implant" was surgically removed andsent to a lab for analysis. The results were inconclusive. This is a category three case, but with a physical trace.
How should we treat these varied phenomena? To answer this question, it is useful to look at earlier examples of how we have thought about categories of unexplained phenomena observed in the natural world.
Many tons of stony and metallic dust fall continuously into Earth's atmosphere every day. It is the debris of comets and the leftovers of asteroid collisions out between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. We are unaware of this cosmic rain, except on annual "meteor shower" nights when it is particularly intense because the Earth is passing through a concentration of debris, much of which is only as large as grains of sand. If it is clear on such nights, we see a lot of "shooting stars." From ancient times up until the 1830s, most astronomers and philosophers thought meteors originated in Earth's atmosphere, along with comets. Western scientists didn't know they actually fell to the surface of the planet. It was only with the spectacular Leonid meteor shower of 1833 that scientists reached consensus that meteors originate from material orbiting the Sun.
You might think that we see inbound meteors more clearly now than in years past, given all our advances in technology. That is not entirely true. Though we now can observe meteors with many new instruments at wavelengths beyond human vision, the ancients' view of meteors and the sky as a whole was a good deal clearer than ours. That's because they had no bright haze from electric city lights, and they had much less air pollution than we have. It is likely that a higher percentage of people in pre-industrial times saw the meteor showers with better clarity than we do and were familiar with their appearance and range of behaviors. Furthermore, the known showers are slowly dying off with time, as their cometary sources continue to evaporate with each solar passage. The falling material also gets used up in the showers here and slowly disperses along its orbital path. Eventually these showers will die away. Even though these factors suggest that reports of impacts by meteorites would have been more common two thousand yearsago than now, there really is little evidence in the historical record. The explanation for this is that such events are truly rare, and overall the population density was much lower than it is now, so the chance of seeing a meteor strike the ground was probably lower. However, a large meteor collected from Greenland by the American Museum of Natural History was known to the natives there before the arrival of Europeans, and the rock known as the Ka' bah in Mecca is a multi-ton meteorite deemed sacred by Muhammed 1400 years ago.
For a chunk of meteorite to strike a person when it crashes to Earth is (fortunately) a rare event that definitely would make the evening news. Yet, rare as this is, we believe meteorites do fall and that a few have even struck people. Why? Because we have, in at least some cases, a continuous chain of evidence about the event and also a model for how it happened. In other cases, we have partial accounts and find fragments in locations consistent with the observed trajectory, speed, and mass of the pieces. In just a handful of cases, the eyewitness was the target, and the damage done was visible on her or his body, as well as (in some cases) to the house, car, or even the bed they were in when it happened. In a number of these events, the remains of the meteorite were placed in the possession of museums and universities where they were analyzed. In many cases, pieces were lent out on demand to others for further examination, and some were eventually put on public display.
Even though the events are rare, there is verifiable evidence, including material evidence, and consistency with our ideas of how the world works.
Other rare events occur that seem consistent with the known world but have no simple explanation. Take the disaster of TWA Flight 800 several years ago. There were sketchy eyewitness accounts from people on the ground who said the plane exploded over Long Island Sound a few minutes after takeoff. A few people thought they saw a luminous streak cross the sky that intersected with the plane just before the explosion. This was never confirmed, and no one was able to prove that any missile-launching aircraft were nearby. The "black box" recorders which held records of the last seconds of the flight, most of the pieces of the wreckage, and bodies were recovered from the plane and carefully examined. The consensus at the FAA is that an electrical spark in a mostly empty fuel tank set off the explosion, but there isno hard evidence to prove it. This is the hypothesis left, consistent with most of the facts, after several others (such as a bomb on board or an impact by an air-to-air missile or meteor) were shown to be wrong.
There are of course also natural phenomena that are not well understood, but they do not seem to violate any known laws of physics. Consider the following example: Ball lightning has been seen by people in many different circumstances. It has the appearance of a luminous blue-white fuzzy sphere that travels along electrical conductors and often generates a spitting-buzzing sound, and it can cause static on nearby radios. From the above circumstances it seems clear that it is electrical in nature. It is probably a selfcontained low-temperature plasma--electrically charged gas--which has an internal magnetic field that helps it to be relatively stable. However, it is not clear how it starts or how it maintains itself. More than one reported UFO sighting has turned out to be an incident of ball lightning.
For another example, consider the seasonal migrations of birds, butterflies, or whales. They travel thousands of miles to return to their breeding grounds with great reliability. How do they do it? In some cases, there is evidence that magnetic particles in their brains work as a compass. In others it seems that star patterns allow a sort of celestial navigation. In the case of the whales, perhaps the patterns of currents and of temperature variations provide the clues. But how do the whales remember these in the required detail? We don't know. These phenomena may be hard to explain but seem unlikely to violate known laws of physics.
All of the cases of unexplained natural phenomena cited above fit into the first category of UFO/ET phenomena. That's because for years they were (or still are) unexplained, and physical evidence was often lacking. They did not obviously violate known physical laws (some UFOs do, however), and later some were explained and fit into the known laws of physics. Perhaps someday UFOs will enter the ranks of the understood.
This is not, however, the end of the story. If it were, science would be a dead discipline. At some point, repeatable observations differ from the predictionsof theory, and then science advances, often by a great leap. At the end of the last century, two observations were made that seemed completely unconnected at the time, though both violated the then-current physical theory. First was the discovery of the change in orientation of the orbit of the planet Mercury. Its orbit is elliptical, like the rest of the planets in our solar system. But this orbit was observed in the 1700s and 1800s to be slowly changing its orientation in space.
Careful calculations by astronomers such as Simon Newcomb showed that Newton's physics did allow for the perceived changes in Mercury's orbit. In effect, Mercury travels an ellipse with a slightly different position in space on each and every orbit, due to the equatorial bulge of the sun that exerts an asymmetrical force on the planet. The calculations based on Newton agree qualitatively with the observations. But the calculated rate is only half of the observed rate. Though the observations and theory were reexamined by a number of prominent astronomers in the late 1800s, no error or explanation could be found for the discrepancy. It would take a revolution in our understanding of the nature of the universe before the puzzle would be solved.
Second, in the early 1880s, Albert A. Michelson developed a technique using light's wave property of being able to interfere with itself, to measure the speed of light to a precision of a few parts per million. He and a colleague, Edward W Morley, expected to find, as Newtonian physics predicted, that the speed of light would depend on the direction from which the light was traveling through the universe.
Up to that time the majority of scientific opinion was that light needed a medium to travel in, as sound waves propagate through air. The supposed medium for light was called the "ether." As light traveled through the ether to Earth, and Earth revolved around the Sun, the direction light waves traveled inside Michelson and Morley's experimental apparatus would change with respect to the ether, if it existed. Thus the speed should change, too, just as the speed of a boat's wake depends on the boat's speed through the water. To their surprise Michelson and Morley found no change in the speed of light at all no matter what season or time of day. This result seemed to say that light did not travel through a medium and, therefore, there was no ether.
The failure to find the ether remained another unsolved puzzle until twenty years later when Albert Einstein used Michelson and Morley's resultas a major foundation of his Special Theory of Relativity: the speed of light in a vacuum is an absolute number, unlike anything else, and is independent of the motion of the source and of the observer who measures it. No matter their own motions, observers will always find the same result. The discrepancy in the observed and predicted rates of change in Mercury's orbit was the first observational result--inexplicable by Newtonian physics--that Einstein could explain with his General Theory of Relativity.
The implications of relativity theory were revolutionary and flew in the face of classical physics in many respects. For some years, many classically trained physicists opposed the theory and its implications. It predicted things that were outside common experience, and it seemed to violate common sense. Yet, it prevailed because it had the key elements of classic, solid science: a self-consistent theory that was able to make predictions of new phenomena; the agreement with established results to a higher precision than any other theory; new observations continued to confirm the theory and every repetition of them with better technology has brought better agreement. These, and some curious predictions of quantum theory about instantaneous communication, will be the subject of Chapter 4.
The implications of relativity theory for space travel in ships include such things as limitations on the ultimate speed of travel and the stretching of time and the slowing of all clocks, including biological ones, as you approach the speed of light. We will look at these areas in Chapter 3 and see how they relate to UFO phenomena. Relativity also holds the theoretical possibility of traveling through enormous distances across the galaxy in very little time, if not instantaneously, via space warps and holes in spacetime.
To date, just about all UFO sightings and stories of alien abductions rest on eyewitness accounts. The other elements of understood phenomena are usually missing. There is no self-consistent model to test against or make predictions from because in most cases the witnesses are not trained scientists, and they have little scholarly basis for generating theories about what they saw. No blame attaches to them because of that, and occasionally technicallytrained personnel see something, too. In some sightings, the witnesses report phenomena that appear obviously (in some cases subtly) to violate known laws of physics and common sense.
There is generally no unambiguous physical evidence nor a real chain of evidence, and no aliens have been produced for scientific and public inspection on demand. Reports by reporters without training and phenomena without precedent resist interpretation, and in some cases these even make speculation difficult. This makes it difficult for the technical community to believe any UFO account. In fact, for just about all knowledgeable scientists these flaws are fatal.
But they need not be fatal for us. We can still ask how much weight to give to eyewitness accounts, and also what we can learn from them, even if what we learn reveals more about human foibles than about alien technology. We can examine how incomplete evidence is generally handled in other human spheres of action and how we can make the most of what information has been reported. We will do this in the remainder of this chapter.
And in following chapters we will also look carefully at how to explain some of the more difficult to understand reports using both accepted scientific theory and leading edge speculation.
First, because eyewitness evidence is most of what we have to work with in examining UFO phenomena, we can certainly ask how eyewitness accounts are treated in other circumstances. There may be lessons to be learned by the group of interested lay people and scientists who collectively comprise what I call the UFO community.
Some lessons have already been learned. Starting in the late 1960s, after years of disorganized publications of annecdotal UFO reports and selfpublished books about contact with aliens, members of the UFO community reacted to the steady hand of astrophysicist Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who consulted on the massive study and compendium of UFO reports by the U.S. Air Force, called Project Blue Book. People in the UFO community began to form organizations to systematize the intake of reports, to try to improve the information garnered in each, and to attempt to analyze them. Project Mufon (Mutual UFO Network) is an early example. Other more recently formed groups include JAHCUS (the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies), UKPRA (United Kingdom Phenomenon Research Association), and thoseinvolved in the research that supports the British publication UFO Magazine, to name a few. In the latter publication the discussion of incidents is reasonably coherent, and controversies within the UFO community are presented as forthrightly as those between UFOers and the technical community. Another example may be found in Bertil Kuhlemann's article, "40 Years of UFOLOGY in Sweden" (MUFON 1987 International UFO Symposium). He showed a set of thirty-five standardized questions for data gathering, and has applied them to about 1,000 cases collected in Sweden over the forty-year period from 1947 to 1987. This is a step in the right direction. Besides the advance in data collection, this project has collected enough samples to allow meaningful statistical analysis to begin. In Chapter 7, I will discuss the history of UFO reports and cover some of the statistical results in more detail.
Let's pick two mundane examples for comparison to the UFO accounts: law enforcement and natural science. Law enforcement agents generally have less control over gathered evidence than scientists do, and in that respect law enforcement is more comparable to the current efforts of the UFO community. Scientists usually enjoy the luxuries of control over observation and experiment, of time to plan and contemplate, and even more important, of repeating an experiment in the same or other ways to allow confirmation or refutation. So far, those studying UFOs have had no such opportunity.
In law enforcement, eyewitness evidence is frequently employed to provide evidence of guilt and, occasionally, innocence. The prosecution will use eyewitnesses to try to prove the guilt of the accused. A single "good" identification is valuable, and "good" multiple identifications are even better. But what is the meaning of "good" in this case? First, the witness must appear to be certain. The ability to give detailed testimony that includes unpublicized details only known to the police is helpful. A witness who has the appearance of reasonable intelligence and coherence under friendly and hostile questioning lends credibility to his or her testimony. A witness is even more creditable when his statements are obviously true, don't violate common sense, can't be shown to violate laws of physics, or aren't refuted by other evidence.
Though perhaps it shouldn't, the social status of the witness (if he or she holds a "good job" or is a "pillar of the community") can positively reinforce the testimony in legal proceedings, and the appearance of unreliability can affect it negatively.
Finally, the witness should demonstrably have no "ax to grind." That is, he or she should have no relation to the victims, to the accused or his associates, or law enforcement officials. He or she should not be prejudiced by an ideological position, nor should he or she be under a threat by the accused. In many cases this last set of criteria is hard to achieve, simply because in the real world eyewitnesses are often directly involved in the circumstances of the crime, and they may have reasons to lie.
The social status of the witnesses who commonly report UFO sightings has, I believe, affected the view of those who are skeptical of such reports in two different ways, the first more obvious than the second. First, if the person reporting was said to be tired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, is a social "drop-out," very poor, homeless, or mentally impaired in any way, their report will almost certainly be discounted. You can see in the serious UFO periodicals (those that attempt to apply screening criteria of a rational sort to the reports they examine) a fairly strong skepticism of such accounts.
The second bias is more subtle and may affect society as a whole. The vast majority of UFO sightings have been recorded outside of cities even though the world's population mostly lives in cities. There are several reasons for this. In most cities the streetscape fully occupies the attention of the inhabitants visually. They have to watch their surroundings as a matter of survival and cities are also visually interesting and complex to most people. As a matter of course most city people don't look up at the sky as they travel from place to place. At night the city lights are mesmerizing and will also blind pedestrians to anything in the sky that is fainter than the brightest stars and planets, so "extra" lights in the sky pass unnoticed unless extraordinarily intense. The noise level in cities is high and masks any unusual noises, such as the passage of a UFO (though most are reported to be soundless). There is also the possibility that, if there are actual alien visitors, they tend to avoid cities for their own reasons (but note the exceptional case of Mexico City cited above).
The net result is that because most UFO accounts are recorded by ruralcitizens, and because there exists a near-universal stereotype that country folk are unsophisticated and thus easily fooled or mistaken compared to urban dwellers, there is likely an unconscious prejudice against their stories. I am probably guilty of this myself.
In thinking about these problems, it should be kept in mind that UFO reports have been made not only by untrained observers of the countryside, such as farmers and "good ol' boys" out in the fields and bayous, but also by engineers, scientists, pilots, technicians, and others who have technical, naturalist, and scientific training, and who are by virtue of that training careful observers. If we consider the anti-country bias on its own, we should admit that by virtue of their living in the country where life is slower and quieter, the horizons unrestricted by buildings and the night sky darker, and also because farmers, lumberjacks, military and country police personnel often closely observe their surroundings as part of their work, they might be better observers than those of us who live in cities.
Of course, though I have been a dweller in cities for many years (Chicago, Boston, New York, and now San Francisco and Los Angeles), I am one exception to the rule in that I have had my own city sightings. I have thought of myself as an astronomer from childhood. I received a doctorate in astronomy, and though I am not currently doing research in astronomy, I teach it and I look at the skies everywhere and often. I enjoy spotting the planets, the Moon and constellations, atmospheric phenomena such as rainbows, sunsets, rings around the Moon and sundogs, and human events such as jet contrails, searchlight beams, and night sightings of illuminated blimps. I observe the sky wherever I go.
I have had two UFO sightings myself, and they both took place in a city. I will describe these here because they are examples of how a trained observer can be unable to explain what he sees.
Both incidents occurred when I was home from college for the summer and held a job at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. At the time, I was an astronomy major with long and varied observing experience with both amateurand professional telescopes. My job at the planetarium included answering questions from the general public about all kinds of things, including exotic cosmologies and flying saucers. I had gone through a stage in grammar school of believing intensely in the existence of flying saucers. By the middle of high school I had read George Adamski's books about Venusian visitations and a lot of science fiction, and had then with my increasing age and knowledge decided that most of the UFO reports to date had been balderdash. I also thought I "knew everything" about the skies.
One evening, however, I walked out of the planetarium to go home just as dusk was falling, and as usual I took a slow look around the horizon and sky. The planetarium is on a beautiful site on the shore of Lake Michigan, next to Meigs Field (for small planes) and just east of the Field Museum of Natural History. From there the lake stretches out to the eastern horizon, but to the west there is a wonderful view of the whole Chicago waterfront, with beautiful parks and spectacular modern skyscrapers. As I looked southeast over the lake, I saw to my surprise a disk, soft white in color, smooth and unshadowed, about the size of the full moon, hanging silently and motionless about 50 degrees above the horizon. I had never seen anything like it, and I stood there for about five minutes mentally running through every explanation I could think of.
I was stumped, and then it hit me that all of Chicago could see it. If experience was any guide, I knew the planetarium switchboard would be lit up about it, and someone on staff would have investigated and found an explanation. Feeling rather sheepish about reporting something that, if I were wrong, would perhaps lower my status in the eyes of the staff astronomers, I went back inside and found I was correct. Calls were coming in and someone had checked and found that the object was an airborne cosmic ray experiment with a detector slung under a large balloon. It was far enough away and the light poor enough that no details of the detector basket or balloon shrouds were visible to the naked eye. All you could see was the plain white balloon. Over a period of several hours the winds shifted and it slowly drifted away. It was recovered days later in Texas.
The second sighting came later the same summer. I was in a park just after dark, about 9 P.M., looking at the Moon with my telescope. It was abalmy, clear night, and my southern horizon was lit up as usual by the scattered lights of Chicago. As I looked across the western sky, out of the corner of my eye I saw to the south an undulating ribbon of white light, which varied slightly and irregularly in brightness as it moved slowly east. Its length was about one quarter of a degree--one half the diameter of the full Moon. With some difficulty I pointed my telescope at it and followed it as it moved. At a magnification of about 50 power, its edges, though sharply defined, wavered like a banner blowing in a breeze. It was silent and left no trail. After a moment's thought, and based partly on my recent experience, I went inside and called the Adler Planetarium. Again they had the answer: it was a flying advertisement being dragged behind a small plane, and it was lettered using many light bulbs. Even with my telescopes, the distance was too great (twenty-five miles away, over Chicago) to see the airplane, and the angle was so low that I viewed the ad nearly edge on, so all sense of the lettering was lost. To this day, I think of this sighting as my personal view of Quetzalcoatl, the "sky serpent" of ancient Mayan religion.
These two experiences were lessons in humility for me. They taught me that not only do I not know everything but I should also have sympathy for untrained observers who are faced with unusual sights they can not explain. Even trained observers can report phenomena accurately, yet have no idea of their exact nature. I also believe that these two cases demonstrate that in some ordinary circumstances there may be no way to deduce from the evidence of an unusual sighting what was actually happening. Only specific "outside" knowledge supplied the answer. With the additional knowledge, these phenomena became easy to understand as part of our ordinary world. Neither required one to believe that aliens were involved. Yet, before the answer to the puzzle was found, one could easily have analyzed these cases for alien capabilities. Because we are missing that outside information in unexplained cases of UFO reports and related phenomena, we will make our best guess as to what physical capabilities and mechanisms might be involved assuming they are alien to Earth, and also try earthly explanations if any suggest themselves.
The issue of who can gain from making UFO reports is of major importance. The question needs to be asked because in the modern world everything can be put up for sale in one way or another. An industry exists in the sale of materials and tourist sites related to UFOs (have you visited Roswell?). UFO believers sometimes claim that accounts must be true because the witnesses have nothing to gain and perhaps a lot to lose by coming forward with what might on the surface seem to be an unlikely or even crazy story. This is a negative proof and one that is hard to refute in some cases. However, there is no published information I have seen that shows what percentage of people who reported their UFO experiences lost their jobs or social status as a result.
Those who sell videos and books may make money and achieve at least limited fame, although there is indeed a downside. Author Whitley Strieber wrote several best-selling books (Communion, et al.) based on his selfconfessed alien abduction experiences. His books not only generated significant cash flow but the incredulity and derision of his peers in the publishing world. He must now either continue to insist that his stories are fact-based, which puts him on the literary fringe to say the least, or confess that they are fiction, which will lose him his fan base.
Having said all of the above, I must say that eyewitness accounts of all sorts are notoriously unreliable even in the best circumstances. Careful observers can be fooled about what they believe they saw. Sometimes, it's a simple and honest error, sometimes it is due to subtle "coaching" created by the mode of questioning by law enforcement officials or others who, in effect, "lead the witness." A particularly sad example of the latter can be found in a number of trials of daycare center workers for child abuse that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. In many of these cases, reviews of the evidence, which was principally videotaped testimony of the children involved, revealed that the questioners, who were often supposedly well-trained child psychologists and juvenile-crime-unit detectives, had "led" the witnesses. They also conducted extremely long sessions that wore the children down. The latter technique is also used against adult crime suspects, and history shows this can and has led to false confessions of guilt.
Prosecution witnesses sometimes make statements that they cannot actuallysupport, though they are "morally certain" that the accused is guilty. Occasionally, the actual perpetrator of a crime and another person look much alike, leading to mistaken identification. In some cases, personal prejudice and ethnic and racial stereotyping play a role in the error.
Any competent defense attorney will attack the prosecution's eyewitness testimony on any of these grounds, if he or she can. The defense will also call alibi eyewitnesses if it can, which the prosecution may attack on all of the same grounds.
In any case, eyewitness testimony gains credibility if there is independent physical evidence that is consistent with the testimony. Even though "good" eyewitness testimony may enable a jury to say they believe in the accused's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," and this is sufficient to convict, in many cases such testimony has proved insufficient in the absence of physical evidence. The highly publicized case of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is an example of the poor use of eyewitness testimony and the importance of physical evidence. In the court of law, cases can be decided on the basis of eyewitness testimony without physical evidence. In the arena of the sciences, however, the criteria are different.
Scientists always want physical evidence to use in any discussion of new phenomena. Let us examine several examples. First, we have already described above the chain of evidence that eventually led to our current understanding of meteors, in spite of the early view that they were of Earth and not from beyond our planet.
Second, consider the narwhal. For centuries, sailors reported seeing a beast with a single straight horn on its head, and sometimes they had the horns themselves to prove it. Sailors sometimes said the beasts looked like unicorns, which the sailors claimed to have spotted on exotic shores. Eventually, live whales with single straight horns on their foreheads were spotted by competent naturalists, and that explained the sailors' eyewitness accounts.
Even stranger was the case of the coelacanth. In 1938 an amateur naturalist visiting India heard rumors of a peculiar fish caught in the IndianOcean near Madagascar. She eventually tracked down one in a market. She described it to a professional paleontologist who tentatively suggested that it belonged to a genus of fish thought to be extinct since before the end of the age of dinosaurs. He was quite skeptical. But it turned out that these fish had been taken sporadically for years. Eventually, several more specimens were bought from fishermen and examined by professionals. They dissected the fish and found the hand- and foot-like fin bones and eye socket details characteristic of the primitive coelacanths, well known from fossils more than 70 million years old.
A few years ago, rumors circulated that a strange species of deer had been spotted in the jungles of Laos. After a number of attempts, and despite serious skepticism about the existence of an unknown species of large animal that had previously escaped detection, it was seen and photographed. These animals are quite shy and clearly rare, are an endangered species and have been given protected status as a result.
Again, in each of the above cases, rare and unexpected observations drew initial scientific skepticism, but they were later shown to be correct and understandable through existing scientific knowledge. We have not yet reached the point of understanding UFOs, but perhaps some day we will.
Based on all these examples and arguments, it might seem that physical evidence and multiple sightings would be key to the acceptance of alien visitations. Of course that is true, but will a simple submission of, say, an alien ice bucket settle the case? Suppose that one day someone steps forward to claim contact with aliens and offers not only an eyewitness account but also physical evidence, including some nonterrestrial tools. How would the world know it was real and not a clever hoax? After all, there are a lot of talented people in the entertainment industry who are masters of makeup and special effects. What sorts of tests might we perform to evaluate the truth and what kinds of evidence would be convincing? That depends on the kind of evidence being offered.
First, there are certain artifacts and accounts from the ancient world that are often associated with aliens and the arrival of UFOs or alien technologies. The materials are there on the ground staring us in the face, but for many people the construction technique seems a total mystery. This class of phenomena includes the Egyptian pyramids, the giant stone fortresses erected by the Inca, and the huge statues on Easter Island, among others. We will look at ancient alien visitation possibilities in Chapter 7.
Second, there are the artifacts made of "substances unknown to human science," often described in classics of the golden age of science fiction. In these stories, authors wrote about unknown alloys of known elements, a clever extrapolation of known science that did not strain the credulity of the reader unduly. How would we identify such an object if it were handed to us? The most obvious way is if it had properties at odds with all known materials. It could have an appearance unlike any seen before. For example, it might be a perfect black substance absorbing light from all directions. Even the best black coatings we have reflect a small amount of light. A perfect isotropic black (black at every angle of view) would have the unfathomable appearance of a black hole.
A space suit material that is completely airtight yet entirely flexible--and thin enough to be used for surgical gloves--would not be duplicable by current terrestrial technology. In fact, space suit gloves and space suit joints in general are the toughest part of human design for space travel at the moment (with the possible exception of zero-g toilets).
A material that has a strength-to-weight-ratio exceeding that of silk or bamboo or steel would be of interest. There is a good likelihood that cylinders of buckminster fullerene, also called buckytubes, exhibit such strength. They are made of a recently discovered form of pure carbon with atoms arranged in a regular polygonal pattern, like the intersections of chicken wire filaments or the pattern on some caned-seat chairs and woven baskets. So far buckytubes are a lab curiosity, and no working examples exist outside the laboratory. All tests have been done with microscopic quantities.
One aspect of the famous Roswell, New Mexico, alien spaceship crash accounts is an often-made claim in precisely this area: that the very thin metallic remains that were recovered at the site were of super strength,beyond any known material made on Earth. The published photographs taken in 1947 show a thin metal foil that has been ripped into pieces smaller than a desk top, so that material did not have infinite strength, and it looks like ordinary aluminum foil. But it has been alleged by eyewitnesses from Roswell that the actual crash-recovered material was not shown to the public or press.
If we could manufacture materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance, we could save about 15 percent of all the electricity we generate that is now lost from the transmission lines. We could perhaps banish forever the possibility of fires from overheated electrical circuits. Such superconductors that could operate at room temperature are a widespread dream. They have been sought after seriously since the discovery in the 1970s of materials that become superconducting at temperatures more than a hundred degrees above the old limit (4 degrees above absolute zero). The consensus is that such materials are at least twenty years away, so a demonstration of one now would be a reasonably convincing sign of non-terrestrial origin. The flip side of superconductors is perfect insulators. Because they don't exist here they would be convincing artifacts of alien technology.
Lubricants that yield zero friction in a conventional bearing or on conventional surfaces would be incredibly useful but don't yet exist. They would extend the life of almost any mechanical device with moving parts.
In all of these scenarios, there is technology humans haven't achieved yet--but they possess no obvious contradiction of known physical law. The elements of their composition might all be known to us, but presumably upon a chemical analysis the combinations would be found to be unique and perhaps even evade some "known rules" of chemistry. In other words, these would be alloys or composite materials unknown to humans.
It is also possible that such non-terrestrial artifacts could be composed of new elements, as yet undiscovered by humans, not just alloys of known ones. The periodic table includes all elements so far discovered in nature, from hydrogen through uranium, plus a large number of unstable isotopes of these and a few heavy elements that are unstable in every isotope. (It was Mendeleev's mid-1800s success at predicting the material properties of elements missing from the periodic table that led to the later adoption of his version.) Many of these isotopes decay radioactively in a fraction of a secondand, even though they may be created by natural processes, disappear so quickly that the only way to discover and study them is to generate them in a subatomic particle accelerator.
There might be a whole family of elements, not yet discovered by humans, that are super heavy. Any object made of an element above atomic number 140 on the periodic table, for example, would gain immediate legitimacy as an artifact of alien technology. All these possibilities will be examined in more detail in Chapter 8.
When we leave the realm of products and materials that do not contradict known physics and therefore could be said to be beyond us at present but are still foreseeable, we're basically entering the realm of science fictional concepts. This doesn't mean the "world of the possible" has been left behind. Many modern marvels, from radar to communications satellites and cell phones, were predicted and first explained to the public in science fiction stories and novels.
Before we head for alien realms, let us consider a recent case in which reputable scientists made a claim that appeared to contradict known physics: The case of cold fusion. Think of the end of that delightful movie Back to the Future, when Doc (Christopher Lloyd) drives up to the house of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and feeds veggies and garbage into a unit that looks like a Cuisinart® and is described as the "fusion generator." High temperature controlled fusion has been the Holy Grail of energy research since the 1950s, and even though there has been large funding for the program in the United States and a number of other countries, a practical reactor is probably decades away.
In the 1980s a scientist at a university in Utah claimed that he had found evidence of nuclear fusion energy generation in what looked like chemical reactions at room temperature. Then a young electrochemist at another Utah university, who was teamed up with a much older and world-renowned electrochemist from England, announced they had seen evidence of fusion in a different reaction, one also at room temperature in a desktop-size apparatus they had designed and built.
No theory existed to explain any fusion that runs at room temperature. A small part of the scientific community both here and abroad rushed to duplicate their results and concoct a theory to explain them. It was announced that the university had submitted patent applications and it anticipated becoming extraordinarily rich by licensing the technology. But the results were nonreproducible, and with the exception of some diehards the idea has now been dropped. The vast majority of scientists were extremely skeptical of cold fusion precisely because it violated known physics.
Now on to even more exotic stuff.
A material or finish that changes its appearance, including texture, color, pattern, or reflectivity, either on command or automatically, depending on internal logic or external sensors, or an object that changes its shape to conform to the hand that holds it, would create a sensation. Physical shapechanging without expenditure of energy would violate what we know about changes between states of matter and conservation of energy.
A material that exhibits antigravity and, even better, switchable antigravity without expenditure of energy, will be convincing as a product of alien technology. Nothing like it exists on Earth. While both Newton and Einstein seem to allow for natural antigravity in their equations, neither predicts it and neither permits switchable gravity or antigravity (no natural antigravitational matter has yet been found). Our understanding of physics would also seem to rule out gravitational shielding, the existence of which would perhaps explain the silent lift-off of spaceships mentioned in many alien craft sightings. However, it should be noted that, though it is not known to the general public, Einstein suggested there might be a gravitomagnetic force of some sort. Because magnetism is the handmaiden of electric current--electricity is controllable, and both magnetism and electricity come in two polarities (north/south, positive/negative)--it is perhaps possible that this concept could someday lead to controllable antigravity.
A trick related to and almost equivalent to the above would be the ability to cancel inertia, a fundamental property of matter. Inertia is the tendency of matter to resist changes in its motion or state of rest. Inertia and conservation of momentum are what press you into your car seat when you put your foot on the gas. They are also what would turn you into a grease stain on your commander's couch if your starship did not have inertia control and you triedto accelerate quickly from rest to light speed. If aliens arrive in a sub-light ship with only one-g acceleration (note: one g for their planet), inertial control is obviously not an issue. For any warp or near-light-speed drive that accelerates at more than 10 g's for more than a few seconds, inertial control becomes a serious issue. All warp speed ships on Star Trek have "inertial dampers" for just this purpose.
A ship or object that operates via a new force, a force other than the four fundamental forces we know of (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces), would be spectacular proof of alien origin. One obvious candidate is the gravitomagnetic force mentioned just above. Combinations of the other forces would also do. (Physicists believe the four forces we know about were combined at the very beginning of the universe, in the first fractions of a second of the Big Bang.)
An alien in possession of alleged wormhole technology could demonstrate its validity first by showing an instant view of the cloud system of Jupiter and the state of volcanic eruptions on its bright moon, Io. This could be a conclusive (and colorful) test because, depending on where the Earth and Jupiter are in their orbits, the light that would show us the state of the clouds and volcanoes at test time would take between about 25 and 50 minutes to reach us, traveling at the usual 186,000 miles per second. We could call the first view "instant preplay!"
A second and more strenuous test would be for the aliens to take some scientists, along with their instruments, to Mars in an instant. Our people would, of course, need to take spacesuits if they wanted to walk around on the planet. A convenient and convincing version of this would take the form of a hole in space that you could simply walk through, stepping onto another planet or even just across the continent on Earth. This was envisioned in the classic novel Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein and visualized on the current TV show Stargate SG.1.
A different version of this ability to jump light seconds or light years is the matter transmitter. Most versions of this in fiction suppose that it is possible to disassemble a thing, living or not, and transmit it instantly, or at least its pattern, in perfect detail to the destination ("Beam me up, Scotty!"). If the equipment were set up at different ends of a lab and say a rabbit were put in one compartment and it disappeared there and reappeared at the other end,that would be a sufficient demonstration of the principle. To demonstrate the instantaneous long distance capability, you could send someone to the surface of Europa, another of Jupiter's moons, equipped with a space suit and a powerful laser. She would point the laser at Earth and let it give out a set of coded flashes. Then she would step back into the transmitter and beam right back. Confirmation would come when earthly observers note the laser flashes about 25 to 50 minutes later.
If you can transmit matter you can also almost certainly synthesize it. Matter synthesizers could be tested by providing objects to be duplicated and test the results for exactness of duplication. It is possible that biological beings could be instantly cloned using a synthesizer and, of course, a DNA test would be able to check this. This would be an easy way to have unlimited chocolate milkshakes on demand, or to overpopulate the world with your own clones. Restraint would be called for!
An even more convincing display of alien technology would be a force that is none of the four known ones--an entirely new spectrum with force laws entirely different. What do the phrases "new spectrum" and "new force law" mean? A new spectrum implies a particle or wave of a new type that has some property other than the usual ones of mass, electric charge, spin, etc. A new force law means that the strength of the force varies with the distance between these new particles at a rate different from the four known forces. Physicists would have to perform experiments to eliminate known possibilities, and these would involve multiple trials with test objects of different types of matter, charged and uncharged, magnetic and not, etc., to establish the facts.
A truly intelligent computer would also be a worthy candidate for an example of alien technology. Many research and development programs are working on creating one, but so far no one has come close. Alan Turing, the British pioneer in computers, invented the principles of stored general programs and helped the Allies crack the German Enigma codes by using machines built on his principles. He proposed a test for machine intelligence generally accepted today: if a human communicates with another "entity" not visible to him, and by communicating cannot tell if the other thing is human ormachine, then if it is a machine it is intelligent. The computer-generated TV character of the 1970s, Max Headroom, was a clever and convincing portrayal of such a thing. The character HAL, the sentient computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, was another. The Forbin Project computers, Colossus and Guardian, were able to hold an intelligent conversation and would probably also qualify.
There is still a great deal of controversy over whether a truly intelligent machine is possible. Roger Penrose, one of the twentieth century's leading mathematicians and cosmologists and a colleague of Stephen Hawking's, in his book The Emperor's New Mind, argues that it is impossible. He suggests that the human mind, and perhaps all organic minds, are by nature quantum mechanical, and that no artificial mind can have this property, thus none will ever be intelligent. I do not agree. I believe that quantum mechanics plays a role only in the behavior of molecules and atoms in the brain, and that the brain's processing capabilities arise out of the group or system behavior of all the neurons, and thus the numbers of them and the numbers and types of their interconnections are what determine their abilities. The evolutionary development of this behavior is not yet understood, but there is a name for it: emergent behavior. So I believe it is only a matter of time before we succeed in making intelligent machines, perhaps simply by making an electronic version of the brain with a lot more interconnections than exists now. A candidate alien who could present a lively artificial conversationalist, or who was one himself, would be convincing.
A device that stores more information by a factor of say ten thousand than any of our current devices, or allows instant access to a "galactic library" that is the sum of all known knowledge from intelligent space, with full color and motion views of other worlds, and of live events anywhere on Earth, would be beyond us and thus alien in origin.
It is easy from here to hop over to biology. The possibilities for the biology of the aliens themselves, and any plants or animals they might bring along (either as food or living examples), are legion. But if their flesh or circulatoryfluid can be sampled and tested, their unique biological code should be easy to find, with one exception. That is the one in which the aliens are identical to us, for whatever reason. However, even if we are identical, I believe it unlikely the aliens' plants and other animals would be, too. The first reason is the workings of evolution. If aliens "planted" our forebears on Earth, it is almost certainly a minimum of 30,000 years since that event, based on the current oldest archeological evidence. Let us assume that this happened either via starship or matter transmitter. The intervening time, though it is short on a geological time scale, is still long enough for the plants, animals and especially any bacteria and viruses to have evolved away from one another on the two planets. This would happen because the conditions on Earth would have been significantly different from the aliens' (and therefore our) "home planet" for that whole time. Different ecologies breed different species. And simpler organisms breed faster and evolve faster than complex ones. The second reason is that if the aliens have star travel they also almost certainly will have genetic engineering far in advance of ours, and they will have used it to make new species. Again, these side dishes will be different from ours.
These "identical" aliens might demonstrate their off-planet origin by eating foods we don't have, breathing an atmosphere we find poisonous, or showing that ours is deadly or damaging to them. (Think of the chlorine breathing aliens of many sci-fi stories.) If they are akin to us, it is most likely they will breathe oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide, and have a carbon-based chemistry. It is unlikely they will be based on anything other than carbon. Silicon, the most likely substitute, is more plentiful than carbon on Earth, yet not one documented silicon-based organism has ever been discovered here.
If our extraterrestrial visitors are truly alien, they will not look like us. The most obvious difference will be morphological: the aliens will likely look like no known species. (Keep in mind the limits to our knowledge of terrestrial species discussed above and the estimate that there are still about 6 million uncataloged species of insects here on Earth.) They will likely be bilaterally symmetrical; evolution here has favored that as a general, though by no means inviolable, principle in the phyla of complex organisms. The aliens might be hive creatures, colonial organisms like some earthly invertebrates, or evensingle-celled. The latter is less likely because it is hard to see how organisms with complex capabilities can evolve as single cells. But please note that there is a giant single-celled plant, which looks like some types of algae, that was recently found in wetlands in the forests of the United States--Canada border in the midwest. It is now about 100 miles long and several miles wide, the largest known single-celled organism. It is possible that new types of specialized in-cell organelles, similar to our cells' nuclei and mitochondria, could evolve and provide brain function, for example. Biologists now think that our mitochondria are the result of an ancient bacterial infection at the beginning of cellular life, that proved beneficial to both cell and invader. Such a symbiosis could take other and more complex forms.
In any case, a microscopic and biochemical examination would reveal many differences. These could range from different DNA of our type, to DNA based on other than our four base units, non-DNA genetic molecules, and probably a number of possibilities currently inconceivable. Aliens both biological and mechanical will be taken up in Chapter 9.
We have described above a number of straightforward tests that could be applied in a range of possible cases of the examination of alleged alien artifacts. And we have said that as a first step we would also consider what we observe about them in terms of established physical law. If two alternate explanations of what we observe seem equally correct, we should apply Occam's Razor: choose the simpler one.
"Simpler" does not always mean simple. In some situations it may be a matter of modest degree: if we have no physical evidence to assess, only eyewitness stories, and there is only a complex earthly explanation or there is no clear one, then we are free to examine the possibility of assuming an alien origin. We can see then where that leads.
The first time a walking, talking alien arrives, hands out tissue, blood samples, and food from its planet, displays its pets, demonstrates its faster-than-lightship and its power source, speaks to the United Nations and visits local schools, the simple explanation will be, regardless of our abilities to comprehend non-terrestrial technology and biology, that the aliens have landed.
THE SCIENCE OF UFOS. Copyright © 2001 by Byron Preiss Visual Productions, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.