Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The 20 Percent

It's generally accepted that even when the U.S. Air Force was trying it's darndest to explain away UFO sightings between 1947 and 1969, they were consistently unable to come up with any explanation for about 20 percent of the reports. Sure, the numbers vary depending on the source; in the course of my research on my J. Allen Hynek bio I've come across everything from 3% to 10% to 30%, but in the 1948 final report for Project Sign/Project Grudge, Hynek put the unsolved percentage at 20% and he stuck with it over time.

The other day I got to thinking about those 20%. After all, these unsolved cases are where the whole concept of "High Strangeness" began... What made them unsolvable? How weird could they have been?

Pretty weird, it turns out.

There were 48 unsolved UFO reports in the Sign/Grudge final report. "Evidence offered suggests no explanation" was the official notation on the report (this doesn't include the 10% or so of reports that fell into the category of "Lack of evidence precludes explanation").

For many of the 48 cases, Hynek simply wrote:

"No astronomical explanation seems possible for the unusual object cited in this incident."
But for some special cases, the really weird ones, he wrote much, much more. 

Take Incident #71, which took place in Las Vegas, NV on October 8 or 9, 1947.  A retired Air Force pilot was out for a drive, watching what he thought was a “skywriter,” then realized there was no airplane creating the trail of white smoke in the sky; in fact, there didn't seem to be anything there at all. The object, whatever it was, too small to see but moving approximately 800 mph, performed a 180 degree + turn before disappearing behind a mountain.

Hynek struggled a bit with this one: 
"In everything but the course flown, the description given here answers to that of a fireball. The course indicated in this incident, however, appears almost fatal to such a hypothesis. No fireball on record, to this investigator’s knowledge, has been known to turn back on itself… To execute a curved trajectory would require highly extraordinary circumstances indeed, and a meteoric explanation for this incident must be regarded as most improbable."
Incident #40 was another puzzler. This one took place in Phoenix, Arizona on July 7, 1947, when a private citizen witnessed a 20-30 ft elliptical gray object with a distinct “cockpit” that descended at 400 mph, spiraled twice and then quickly ascends and disappears. In an apparent first, the witness had a camera close at hand, and the two resulting photos proved to be quite problematic to Hynek.

"This case is especially important because of the photographic evidence and because of the similarity of these photographs to the drawings by Kenneth Arnold (Incident #17)…
The present investigator would like to suggest that this incident, #40, being one of the most crucial in the history of these objects, be reopened for investigation. The actual camera used by Mr. Rhodes should be examined, and the original negatives preserved…
"(It is unfortunate that a competent investigator was not dispatched at once to ‘reenact the crime’ with Mr. Rhodes and to obtain sketches of the trajectory, etc., before details faded from his memory). It would be important to know at least the altitude and azimuth Mr. Rhodes’ camera was pointed at the time of his two exposures and the approximate time interval betrween exposures. Physical data like these are absolutely essential if we are to get anywhere in any basic physical explanation of these incidents.
"There remains the strong possibility that the entire incident is spurious, and the invention of an excitable mind. This strengthens the need for re-investigating; if spurious, this fact should be highlighted and even publicized, to quench enthusiasm for the irresponsible reporting of “saucers" and like objects."
First of all, never lend your camera to a military intelligence officer. Second of all, get a real camera.
What Hynek didn't seem to know was that, according to the Sign/Grudge report, the witness had, in fact, lent his camera, prints and negatives to Air Force Intelligence, after which, you may be shocked to learn, he had some troubles getting them back... The file is full of hilarious letters and memos from one Air Force officer to another asking where on earth the man's negatives could have disappeared to, and sometimes even accusing the witness of lying about having lent the negatives to the Air Force at all, in hopes of suing the government. It makes for some interesting reading, and teaches an important lesson: When you lend photographic evidence of a UFO sighting to a military intelligence officer, get a receipt.

My favorite of the unsolved cases, however, is Incident #122, which occurred at Holloman Air Force Base on April 5th, 1948. In this incident, three civilian scientists, all trained observers searching the sky for an experimental balloon, saw an indistinct circular object that carried out “violent maneuvers,” including a loop-the-loop, at a high rate of speed then disappeared before their eyes.

Completely, profoundly, abysmally stumped, Hynek simply wrote:
At the moment there appears to be no logical explanation for this incident.
"At the moment."

Well, that moment never passed, apparently, because the case remains unexplained today.

You might think that the accumulated weirdness of those 48 cases would have given Hynek something to think about, like maybe wondering if there really was something strange going on. But, no, this was 1948, and in 1948 that was simply impossible. As the Air Force said, "It can't be, so it isn't."

"As an astronomer and a physicist, I simply felt a priori that everything had to have a natural explanation in this world," Hynek wrote of his Project Sign mindset in his book "The UFO Report." "There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. The ones I couldn't solve, I thought if we just tried harder, had a really proper investigation, that we would probably find an answer."
  
See? We just have to try harder.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Saucer Crash a/k/a Gas Grill Go BOOM

I've been trying to decide if this UFO news item I came across today is real or a clever put-on, but either way it gave me a chuckle.

I was just browsing the UFO news, as I do from time to time, and I saw an article at OpenMinds.com that said something about the Air Force investigating a "crashed UFO" in the Arizona desert. I did a double-take, not because I thought it was an exciting story but because it created the cognitive dissonance that UFO stories like this so often arouse... At first glance it seems to be the kind of earth-shaking incident that should be making headlines all around the world, and yet it's not, so there's clearly something amiss... Then a closer look revealed that the story ran two months ago, so it is definitely bogus. Sadly, most UFO news stories seem to play out in this exact manner: exciting tease leads to enticing set-up leads to disappointing denouement and, quite often, an "oh, well, maybe next time" close.

But this time I started reading the story and the old familiar sense of cognitive dissonance appeared almost immediately...

Air Force investigates ‘crashed UFO’ in Arizona desert (exciting tease)

 ...a “crashed UFO” in the Arizona desert just outside of Phoenix October 23, 2014, caused two F16 fighter jets to scramble to that location for a closer look, according to Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) field investigators conducting a training boot camp (enticing set-up).

The UFO was actually a model created for the boot camp for use training the 25 field investigators who signed up (disappointing deouement).
But then, in the unexpected twist, the story seems to be a complete put-on. Look at the photo of the "crashed saucer," a/k/a the kitchen collander of completely indeterminate size...

To be fair, it's not supposed to look "real," however, I don't think it's supposed to look silly, either.
The article would have us believe that a private pilot saw this thing, which looks as thought it might be about a yard across (but we don't know, because the story doesn't say), in the desert, and that was followed up by two scrambling F16s and a sheriff's helicopter investigating. (You can read the whole piece here, but don't get all excited; this really isn't The Big One). Maybe all that really did happen; maybe the military and the local law enforcement in this remote corner of the Arizona desert really are that bored.

As MUFON head Jan Harzan says in the article, "If you think the federal government does not investigate UFOs – think twice. Imagine how the original report on our model would have been radioed in by that pilot. The Air Force did not hesitate. I don’t think having two F16s at our crash site was a coincidence. They were sent out to observe and report back on the situation.”

But here's what really puzzles me: when an attendee of the MUFON Boot Camp reported on the experience at the MUFON website, she reported pretty much every little thing that happened over the four days, including the host's gas grill exploding -- "Chuck Modlin suffered first and second-degree burns on his lower legs when the gas tank on his grill exploded (BOOM!) as he was firing it up to grill hamburgers for our dinner prior to Thursday night's SKY WATCH" -- but she never mentioned the fact that two Air Force F16s and a Sheriff's helicopter came to investigate the phony crashed saucer that had been created for the training exercise. That seems like a significant oversight to me.

So, in the end, the article disappoints, like so many others. Come to think of it, I bet the F16s and the chopper were sent out to investigate the gas grill going BOOM...


Friday, December 12, 2014

To Boldly Go...

Holy shit! Just when I thought life couldn't possibly get any better, the new issue of Playboy comes out!

Wait, I didn't mean it that way. Not completely. What I mean is, just a few months after I achieved Hollywood immortality by having one of my Star Trek episodes ranked #72 in a list of science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders' "Top 100 Star Trek Episodes of All Time" on geek website io9.com, I have once again landed on a list of the best Star Trek Episodes of All Time at playboy.com !! And this time, all five of my episodes made the list!!!!
"Let's get the hell out of here"

I guess I should point out that the Playboy list actually ranks all 695 Star Trek episodes ever made, so if you want to get technical about it, every Star Trek episode ever made, including every one of the five I wrote, is one of the Best Star Trek Episodes Ever...

Still.

I didn't quite reach the dizzying heights of #72 this time around, but I'm pleased with my results, mostly. Might as well get the bad news out of the way first:

#670: "Second Sight" -- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
I love this episode, especially the over-the-top performance by guest star Richard Kiley, but the reviewer does not mince words: "Quite poor" is his final judgement.
(Remember, though, this is just one person's opinion, and his regular job at Playboy is writing the centerfolds' "Turn-Ons" and "Turn-Offs")

#664: "Meridian" -- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
I was not happy with the final product, to be honest. I was hired to write a script from someone else's lame-ass story treatment: Brigadoon in Outer Space, only without Fred Astaire and the musical numbers. The producers bought the story from an intern, which I never understood because they all hated it. No one wanted to write the script, so they assigned it to me, as a test or punishment or something. Thanks, guys.
(Fun Factoid: I actually was proud of the script I turned in, but the show runner hated it and had the whole damn thing rewritten -- so in the end I'm blameless, which is actually very cool!)

So much for the bad news. After this things start looking up considerably:

#393: "For the Cause" -- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
I'm pretty pleased with this one. The great Ron Moore of "Battlestar Galactica" fame wrote the script from my story. I had fun putting Cmdr. Sisko in a tight personal/professional bind in the Federation's conflict with the Maquis, and Ron added a whole lot more tension. 
(Fun Factoid: Ron's scene with Sisko trying to talk his girlfriend out of breaking the law to aid the Maquis, knowing all the while he's going to fail, is my favorite moment in the episode)

All the way up to 393! Not bad, eh? Then things get even more amazingly cool:

#176: "Timescape" -- Star Trek: The Next Generation
 "Maybe the most far-out TNG episode of all," wrote the reviewer, who I now suddenly love!
This was my first sale to Trek, and the only one where I didn't get my name in the credits. All they bought from me was a "story concept," because they needed a new script in 6 days or some absurd timeframe, and only producer Brannon Braga could kick out a script that fast. 
(Fun Factoid: The Writers Guild doesn't have rules for "story concepts," so Paramount didn't have to give me credit. Whatever -- they paid me a pretty dandy fee for one sentence. Good work if you can get it!)

#158: "Who Mourns for Morn?" -- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"A gift to fans, celebrating the doofy lookin' guy in the bar who never speaks," the brilliant reviewer wrote.
What can I say? This episode hit #72 on Anders' list, and it's pretty damn high here among 694 other episodes. It was nearly impossible for an outside writer to successfully pitch a comedy episode, but I was determined and after several attempts I finally scored.
(Fun Factoid: Everybody wanted to do an episode about the silent alien barfly Morn, but nobody could figure out how. "Morn's" alien makeup was an unarticulated mask, and there was no way Paramount would pay for a new mask, or pay to have the actor, Mark Shepard, say any dialog. My solution? Kill off Morn before the episode even starts, then do the story as "Citizen Kane" in space, with Quark trying to figure out what Morn's personal "Rosebud" means)

All in all, Playboy's list is a nice little kick in the head :) I even agree with the reviewer's choice of #1, the classic Original Series episode "City on the Edge of Forever." But, I will commit blasphemy here by disagreeing with #2, the Next Generation episode in which Capt. Picard saves the day by learning to play "Frere Jacque" on the flute and make vegetable stew. This is good drama? It's not even a flute, for Christ's sake, it's a Goddamn recorder, like we all were forced to learn to play in third grade.

Anyway... I don't know why it's suddenly become so popular to rate Star Trek episodes, but I heartily encourage it. Can't wait to see where I place on the next list!!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Death Star Over Hudson Bay!

I was going over my book notes today and reread the transcript of the entertaining interview I conducted early on with William Powers a few months before he passed on. Bill had worked closely with Dr. J. Allen Hynek at the Dearborn Observatory at Northwestern University in the 1960s, and became such a trusted confidant that Hynek sometimes sent him out in his stead to investigate UFO sightings for "Project Blue Book." Most notably, Bill investigated the Lonnie Zamora case in Socorro, New Mexico, for Hynek, and he still had serious doubts about what Zamora had seen.

I asked Bill how Dr. Hynek reconciled his ideal of the "perfect" trained observer UFO witness with the reality of the flawed humans who filed most UFO reports, and Bill told me a fascinating story of a strange object sighted in the skies of the Upper Midwest:

"We started getting telephone reports of an object appearing in the northern sky. It grew in size until it was rather large, and then it moved around and then it faded away. But, half of the people reported it was rushing at them; not just that it got bigger, but that it was rushing towards them. Which is a natural interpretation, if you see a round thing that gets bigger. We got reports from Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan and Indiana. My immediate thought was that there’s something actually there, and it’s pretty far away. And it must be pretty big. What have we got here? The Death Star?"
Whatever it was, the witnesses who called in reports to the Air Force felt that they were in imminent danger from an object that was in very close range. When Bill interviewed those witnesses, however, he made a startling discovery:

"I started calling them back, and just started writing things down and plotting it all on a map. And, sure enough, all the lines of sight they reported converged, and they converged somewhere over Hudson Bay. Oh, that’s a long way away! Of course the baselines were pretty long, too; they were hundreds of miles apart, so we had a pretty good triangulation on this thing."

A terrifying sight over Hudson Bay... Good luck, Canada!
Yeah, Hudson Bay is a bit north of Wisconsin, and I know that for a fact because I live in Wisconsin and I can't see Hudson Bay from my back steps. So how do you explain that an airline pilot, one of Hynek' "ideal" witnesses, thought that this object that was hundreds of miles away was about to collide with his plane? Bill found it pretty puzzling: 
"In that particular case the expert was the guy who was wrong. He thought it was something on a collision course with them and he took evasive action, and he was the pilot of a commercial airliner. He took evasive action, and it was 200 miles away from him! So, it turned the whole prejudice thing upside down. The guy who was driving home drunk from the bar gave a pretty good report of it: he got the direction, the time, the appearance. He was pretty much in agreement with everyone else."
That's something to think about... I'd say we need to give more weight to the testimony of drunk UFO witnesses, and less to the testimony of airline pilots.

But wait! We still don't know what the Death Star over Hudson Bay actually turned out to be! Did Bill ever crack the case? You bet he did. 

"It was obviously something big, something high. It had to be high enough to be in space, because over the curve of the earth, something that appeared at that angle in the sky, 30 degrees up, had to be out of the atmosphere. Through the Air Force I was able to get the information; yes, there was a test. They were sending up a sounding rocket with a payload which was a load of heated barium which was released into space. They wanted to see how it would be excited by the electrons of the Van Allen Belt out in space. That would give them some indication how strong the radiation was up there. It was a valid scientific experiment."

Yep, that's right. Not only was the Death Star over 200 miles away to the north, it was also at least 600 miles above seal level! And it was a slow-moving cloud! And still people in Wisconsin thought it was about to smack them!

Epic fail, right? Not to Bill, bless his heart. True to form, he saw only the positive:

"So now we had a case where people were reporting something that we knew had happened! We knew where it was, and we knew what it was. This was “an unusual thing seen under ordinary circumstances.” And, by golly, the observers came through that with flying colors. We were able to get data together that made sense; the correlations between the data from the different observers were what they should have been, and the observers were all ages and all occupations."
 Something for every UFO investigator to keep in mind, eh?