Friday, September 19, 2014

Arthritic Neanderthal!

Once again, there's some funny business been going on in the comments section, and I feel the need to comment myself.

Let me start with a BIG thank you to Arthritic Neanderthal for chiming in! It's an honor and a pleasure to have you as a reader, AN. Don't be a stranger!

The other commenter making things interesting has chosen to remain anonymous, as is his or her right. This person has taken it upon himself or herself to "recommend" certain people I should interview for my J. Allen Hynek book and to subtly critique my interview selections. This is all good fun, and I do appreciate reader suggestions, but these recent conversations with Anon have been, well, odd...

Anonymous: Any luck contacting (Allen) Hendry?
Me:  None yet, but I haven't been looking too hard lately. The Hynek story becomes very complex when it reaches the CUFOS period, and when the time comes I will be doing extensive research on the parties involved, including Hendry. 

Then on the same day, this...

Anonymous (presumably the same person): Did you interview Ted Phillips for your Hynek book?
Me: Not yet, but I plan to when the time is right.

Followed by this delight...

Anonymous (presumably still the same person): No Hendry and no Phillips... hmmm.
Me: Yes? And your comment is...?
Anonymous: *Crickets*

I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail about Hendry or Phillips, except to point out that Hendry seems to be a hermit who no longer talks to anyone about UFOs, and Phillips has a very scary website that attacks you relentlessly with virus alerts and pop-up ads -- it's so nasty I'm not even posting the link, because I care so much about you, my readers... So, yeah, those are things I take into consideration when I decide who to interview for my book -- or who not to interview.
I won't settle for the usual suspects. Neither should you.

I'm about to come up on the two-year anniversary of starting this book project, and in two years I've learned that there are two ways to decide who to interview for a book: you can rely on trusted "authorities" to steer you in the direction of who you "should" interview, or you can let your own research and instincts guide you. Two years ago I leaned more towards the former, mostly out of ignorance and necessity, but now, two years in, I'm much more liable to go with the latter.

The last time I attempted to interview someone who was recommended to me by an expert, it was a complete waste of time. I knew 90 seconds into the talk that this person had absolutely nothing of value to tell me about Dr. Hynek, and when he finally wound up his lecture 45 minutes later I hadn't taken down a single note. It was that worthless. Strangely illuminating and entertaining, yes, but of no value whatsoever for my book.

Letting my research and instincts guide me, however, has been amazingly effective, especially over the past six months or so. I've gotten some truly unique material about Hynek's life and work, and the bottom line is that it's way more fun and satisfying to dig up your own interview subjects, or to come across them by sheer dumb luck, than it is to have them suggested to you. Or pushed on you, as the case may be. I'm looking at you, Anonymous.

Besides, if I wasn't going to look for new and unexpected people to interview -- people who have new and unexpected stories to tell about Hynek's life -- there wouldn't be much point in writing the book. I want my book to tell stories and consider opinions that no one has ever heard before, and for that I have to bring as many new voices into the book as I can. And I am happy to say that this strategy is succeeding beyond my wildest dreams...

This doesn't mean there won't be familiar old voices in the book. It just means that, any chance I get, I'll be challenging the conventional wisdom that those old voices so often represent. At the same time, I have to admit that those old voices can sometimes surprise the hell out of you with some totally off-the-wall insights, as I have now discovered on more than one occasion.

So, Anonymous, I repeat my invitation to reveal to the world why you are so concerned that Hendry and Phillips be represented in my book. In the meantime, trust me when I say that my interview choices will be sound. In fact, in the "beyond my wildest dreams" department, I've just lined up an interview that is a pretty incredible coup, in my humble IMHO... with someone deep, deep within the Hynek camp whom I believe has never ever been interviewed on this subject ever before.

Stay tuned for more fun...

Oh, and if it turns out there actually are three of you Anonymous-es out there posting comments, my apologies! You all look the same to me! But, hey, you are really good at coordinating your efforts.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

UFOs & Couples

How many witnesses is the ideal number of witnesses in a UFO sighting? One? Two? Five?

Back in 1952, in an address to the American Optical Society, Dr. J. Allen Hynek declared that the ideal UFO sighting was:
  • one that had not yet been explained; 
  • one with more than one witness, at least one of whom was a trained, practiced observer; 
  • and one that lasted more than one minute. 
All well and good, but in the case of the "more than one witness" thing, it better be more than two, and they better be complete strangers..

Why do I say this? Because the famed Ballester-Guasp "Report Evaluator" (or the BGE, as we pros call it) that my bosses at MUFON use for determining the "Strangeness Index" for a UFO sighting gets a little weird where two witnesses are concerned. For instance, under the category "Familial/Social Relationship between witnesses," your choices are 1) Unknown, 2) Professional/Co-workers, 3) Friends, 4) No Relationship, and 5) Family or Single Witness.

Get that? If you have 53 UFO witnesses, that's a lot of witnesses. But if they're all related, they count as one witness on the BGE. Thank God I have never had to investigate a case that took place at a family reunion...

Further down the Evaluation form, the category titled "Geographical Relationship at time of sighting" you have these choices: 1) Unknown, 2) Together/Single Witness, and 3) Independent/Separate. So this time your 53 witnesses aren't family members, so they count separately, which is great! Unless they're all "Together," say, attending a UFO conference, in which case, once again, they become a single witness.

Very strange.

This has become an issue over the past few months as I've investigated a rash of UFO sightings in my small town in southern Wisconsin. We have been in the middle of a genuine UFO flap all summer long, and every time a new case has been reported to MUFON, I'm the guy who gets the case.

Here's the weird thing. All four of the sightings I've investigated here in my town have had odd similarities. Not enough to qualify as a pattern, not enough to creep me out, but enough to have me scratching my head a lot...

First of all, the four cases all involved married couples as witnesses, so you know right away that the BGE is going to make them all single-witnesses cases, which is stupid. But then there's this: in all four cases, the witnesses observed fairly similar objects at about the same time at night that all appeared at approximately the same altitude and distance, and all behaved in remarkably similar fashion. In two of the cases, the witnesses reached a point when they "freaked out" and thought the objects were watching them. In all of the cases, the objects were discovered in essentially the same manner and all disappeared from view not so much by flying away but by more or less fading out of the witnesses' awareness.

Then it gets weirder: In three out of the four cases, the husband worked in the IT field and the wife was a licensed or certified healthcare professional. How the hell do you explain that? There's no setting for that on the BGE. Believe me, I checked.

There's a great old saying that I'm sure was said by someone very wise but that I remember from the James Bond novel "Goldfinger." When the secret agent and the super criminal cross paths for the third time, Goldfinger declares that: "Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action."

If three times is enemy action, what is four times?
Is that what's going on here? Is there some kind of enemy action taking place? Does it, like so many things in life, revolve around me?

I for one, would like to find out. My problem is, I have no way of doing so. As I pointed out earlier, the Ballester-Guasp Report Evaluator doesn't come close to helping me with this, and in fact makes the situation harder for me to deal with because it arbitrarily cuts my witness pool in half!

This is serious. What I'm confronting is the fact that there really are no evaluation tools available to the UFO investigator that can adequately address the manifold weirdness of the phenomenon. The BGE is held up to be the ultimate strange-o-meter, but it simply can't explain what I've been encountering this summer... There must be an answer: either I need to invent an expansive new evaluation tool or come up with a way of investigating a UFO sighting that just accepts as default that the weirdness factor is going to be off the charts all the time, every time. I'll let you know what I decide...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Alien Contact: Getting it Right the First Time

A few days ago my friend Lxxxx Lxxx sent me a link to where I could download free science eBooks in honor of World Literacy Day. I was deeply flattered; first, that she considered me literate, and, second, that she thought of me when she saw the first item on the list:

NASA Releases Free eBook About Communicating With Aliens


Whoa... Seriously!?? A free eBook from NASA about communicating with aliens?? Does this mean that NASA is already getting ready for... DISCLOSURE??? Does this mean the book is really FREE??

The answers are "Yes" and "Yes."

At first I wasn't sure what to expect from this book... Was NASA going to brief me on what to say if I meet an extraterrestrial life form? Would there be more to it than "Take me to your leader?" and "Okay"?

Turns out there's waaaaaay more than that. The book, with the very not-catchy title "Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication," was edited by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute's Director of Interstellar Message Composition, Douglas Vakoch, and is intended, in Vakoch's words, to prepare us “for contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, should that day ever come.”

I've got a tip for you Vakoch: it's coming... it's coming.

The big surprise of the book for me was not so much that NASA has been actively involved in searching for extraterrestrial life since the 1960s, but rather that so many brilliant minds at NASA and universities and space agencies around the globe have already put so much thought into the societal consequences of alien contact. These men and women were losing sleep over "Disclosure" when Richard Dolan was still in nursery school.
As the "Twilight Zone" episode "To Serve Man" taught us, we better get this contact thing right. (R.I.P. Richard Kiel)

Take a look at Mr. Vakoch's title: "Director of Interstellar Message Composition." That's really a thing. Someone's job, for which he gets paid, is to compose messages to send out into interstellar space... The mind boggles.

Why is the messaging so important? One of the book's chapters, "Constraints on Message Construction for Communications with Extraterrestrial Intelligence," points out that messages sent to us from the past -- everything from cave paintings to 16th-century manuscripts -- may be recognizable to us as messages and yet the meaning of the message might remain completely opaque to us. The same may be true for messages we send into space. For example, just because we can send old "Happy Days" reruns out into space and an alien world might recognize that there is information about another culture contained in those transmissions, they may never be able to truly work out what makes The Fonz so incredibly funny, or what he really means when he gives two thumbs up and says, "Eeeeeeeeeeeeh."

The simple question of whether our messages sent in to space should be delivered by audio signal or video signal is a truly huge deal. The author of this chapter argues that "the factors affecting the propagation of sounds could vary so much from planet to planet as to make audition an unlikely universal," and that visual communication is the only way to go... If that's true, then the gold record albums of earth sounds sent into deep space on the Voyager missions were a wasted effort. Which, if you think about it, means that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" never could have happened!

And yes, there are chapters devoted to "Disclosure." Just look at this TOC:
  • Culture and Communications with Extraterrestrial Intelligence;
  • Inferring Intelligence: Prehistoric and Extraterrestrial;
  • The Evolution of Extraterrestrials: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Estimates of the Prevalence of Intelligence Beyond Earth; 
  • Contact Considerations: A Cross-Cultural Perspective; 
  • Speaking for Earth: Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time; 
  • Learning To Read: Interstellar Message Decipherment from Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives;
  • Mirrors of Our Assumptions: Lessons from an Arthritic Neanderthal.
This book is deep and dense, my friends, and I will be spending many late nights reading it so you don't have to (I, for one, am dying to learn about the arthritic neanderthal!). I will continue to report what I find in the hope that when -- not if -- we make contact, we'll all be suitably prepared...

Friday, September 5, 2014

UFO Dude Ranch

I am afraid of boot camps. Every movie I've ever seen that has a boot camp scene only deepens my fear, because I always imagine I'm the poor piece of scum who's being told by my screaming psychopathic CO that I'm a piece of scum. It might be better if I imagined myself as the screaming psycho CO, but probably not much better.

I'm not real fond of the new trend in fitness boot camps, either. Exercising is unpleasant enough without summoning up images of scumbag Army privates and psycho COs.
Even the "Stripes" boot camp scenes scared me! I was glad when Sgt. Hulka turned out to be a softy.

So you can imagine my feelings when I got an email inviting me to MUFON's "Field Investigator Boot Camp" next month in Nowheresville, Arizona.

Pure dread.

Not that they don't try to make the invitation appealing:
MUFON is hosting a Field Investigator's Boot Camp in Wickenburg, AZ.
Are you interested in hands-on training with the best team? Sign up now! Participants will pay for their own travel, hotel and food (except lunch which will be provided). Please book your stay directly with the HOTEL LOS VIAJEROS at www.losviajerosinn.com

Training dates: October 20-24, 2014
Trining site: Cxxxx Mxxxxx Desert Ranch
FREE Transportation from and to the airport

Class is limited to 30 MUFON Certified Field Investigators

Please note: Cancellation in less than 15 days prior to Camp starting will result in NO REFUND. Thank you for understanding.


Lunch will be provided.
Two completely irrelevant things are worth noting here: 1) since the 1940s, Wickenburg has been known as "The Dude Ranch Capital of the U.S."; and 2) Wickenburg is near the Hassayampa River, which figured significantly in "Blood Sport," a bizarre science-fictiony adventure novel that was one of my favorite reads back in high school, and which seems to have developed a cult following over the years. I recommend it.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, boot camp! For only $350 bucks I can spend three days in Arizona getting kicked out of bed at zero dark thirty only to be screamed at and belittled by Sergeant Hulka wannabee MUFON investigators. This is going to help me how? Am I supposed to learn discipline? Am I supposed to lose weight and get in tip-top shape? Am I supposed to have my soul crushed?

How different my reaction might have been had MUFON chosen a different descriptor. If, for instance, I had gotten an email inviting me to a MUFON Field Investigator Retreat, I might consider going. If I had been invited to a MUFON Field Investigator Spa Weekend, I'd already be checking air fares. If I had been invited to a MUFON Field Investigator Burning Man Dude Ranch SXSW Demolition Derby Body Painting Hassayampa River-Diving Reggae Festival ComicCon and Shoot Down a UFO in the Desert Party, I would have landed in Phoenix this morning and would at this moment be off-roading to Wickenburg in a rental Jeep. With my wife at my side. Knowing full well that we were 6 weeks early.

Sometimes it seems I'm the only person in MUFON who can really think big.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

UFO Treadmill

I haven't been able to blog much this week for various reasons, and while I often miss checking in with UFO world, I often don't miss it. Because sometimes when I do check in, I find that everyone is still stuck on the same old UFO treadmill...

Today, and I have only myself to blame for this, I checked in on The UFO Iconoclast(s) here and here, only to find that there was yet another Roswell kerfuffle brewing... Seems someone's an idiot for believing that ranch foreman Mac Brazel found balloon wreckage back in 1947, while someone else is a moron for believing that Brazel found genuine UFO wreckage.

Know what I think?

Really, you shouldn't care what I think. I don't even care what I think. Too many people are already thinking too many things about too many ancient, sketchy UFO cases that can never be proven one way or another, and the last thing I want to do is add to the wasteland of squandered, pointless thinking.
Someone out there knows every damn thing there is to know about this balloon.

Well, I will think this much:

Do you know there are people out there who can quote chapter and verse about every last high-altitude balloon project ever undertaken in US skies throughout eternity? Names, dates, launch coordinates, payloads, maximum altitudes and velocities; you ask, they'll answer.

Not that I think there's anything wrong with that, mind you -- my personal trivia specialties are classic cars and movies & TV shows -- but just because I know a lot about old cars doesn't mean I know everything about old cars, and just because some dude knows a lot about balloons that doesn't mean he knows for an absolute fact that there were no balloons over Roswell in July, 1947. That's just stupid. And insulting. Nobody really knows what was or wasn't in the sky that night, so either everything should be considered or nothing should be considered. Either no one's an idiot or everyone's an idiot. Except me.

So, kinda sorry I checked in. Things are exactly as they were last week. And last month. And last year.

Oh, one good thing did come out of it: Mr. RRR at UFO Iconoclast(s) had a pretty funny line. See below...
RRR: Mac Brazel was a dolt, and his "debris" was balloon scrap, just as the Army said.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

UFO Cookbook

I had a strange experience with UFO-related synchronicity yesterday that I'm still scratching my head over...

My wife and I were doing some shopping and antiquing in Evanston, IL, where the subject of my book, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, lived and worked for years. We spend a lot of time in this area, and I've gotten used to meeting random people who have some random connection to Hynek or finding myself at some business or building with some Hynek connection; it happens with surprising regularity and it makes me feel very fortunate to be so close to the world I'm writing about.

Recently I have done some research on a historical moment in astronomy that involved Hynek and that led to yesterday's odd happenings. In the summer of 1933, Hynek was working on his Ph.D. at the beautiful Yerkes Observatory on the shores of Lake Geneva, WI, and at that time the "Century of Progress" World's Fair was gearing up to open 100 miles away in Chicago. The retiring head of Yerkes, Dr. Edwin Frost, had convinced the Fair's organizers to light up the Fair on its opening night with a little help from the Observatory.

On May 27, the opening night of the Fair, the staff at Yerkes -- Hynek among them -- aimed their 40" refracting telescope at Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, and focused its brilliant light on a photoelectric cell. The cell converted the light of Arcturus to an electrical impulse that was sent to the Chicago lakeshore over telegraph lines, and at precisely 8:15 p.m. that impulse activated the switch that lit up the World's Fair, to the roaring approval of over 30,000 fairgoers. It was an especially magical moment to Chicagoans in that the "Star Beam" that reached the telescope that night was believed to have been created by Arcturus 40 years earlier, in 1893, when the last Chicago World's Fair had been held (it was discovered later that Arcturus is only 36 light years from earth, but whatever).
The 1933 Chicago World's Fair, lit up by the star Arcturus

So yesterday on a whim we decide to explore the shops on a little side street in Evanston, and we find two absolute gems, the Chicago Rare Book Center and Eureka! Antiques and Collectibles, side by side! We go into Eureka! first and the first thing I see is a framed jigsaw puzzle depicting the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair, and I start to feel a strange tingling... My wife, meanwhile, is in heaven because the place is filled with vintage cookbooks, so after I look around a bit more I leave her to her explorations and follow my tingling next door to the book store. Naturally, there's a section on Chicago history, and naturally, some of the books are about Chicago's World's Fairs (even after all these years, the two Fairs are still huge cultural icons in the city), so I start up a conversation with one of the owners, Tom, and he helps me find some material about the 1933 Fair. As we're talking, he asks if I know a woman named Abigail Foerstner, which I don't, then he explains to me that she wrote a biography of famed astrophysicist James Van Allen, discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belt...

Eureka!

"I would imagine Van Allen and Hynek must have crossed paths at some time or another," says Tom. "Yes they did," I reply. In fact, their paths crossed at least twice: once, during WWII, while developing the proximity fuze for the U.S. Army, and then a few years after the war, on project that launched astronomical instruments into space inside captured Nazi V-2 rockets. They're little-known, but fascinating chapters in Hynek's career, and I am glad to be able to learn more about them. So, Tom gives me Ms. Foerstner's contact info and promises to get in touch if he comes across any Hynek-related material. Cool.

Then my wife and I regroup, and I can tell she's excited about something. She shows me a tiny little vintage cookbook she just found at Eureka! And I mean tiny: it's no bigger than 5"x5", no thicker than 1/8". It has a beautiful full-color illustration on the cover that I immediately recognize as being from the 1933 World's Fair, but the title of the book is "Durkee Famous Food Recipes." Huh?

Turns out, the cookbook was a free souvenir created for "the busy American housewife" and given out to anyone who visited the Durkee Foods exhibit at the World's Fair. To keep with the theme, the recipes all have goofy World's Fair-related names, so you'll find items such as "Planetarium Tapioca Royal," "World's Fair Ham Loaf," and "Canapes a la Midway." All pretty funny, but then my wife shows me the jaw-dropper:

There, on the page promoting Durkee's margarine products, is a recipe for "Arcturus Rolls."

Eureka!


Thursday, August 28, 2014

You Don't Tug on Superman's Cape

I hate to quote a Jim Croce song, but it fits today's post.

You don't tug on Superman's cape,
You don't spit into the wind,
You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
and you don't mess around with Jim.

What has brought me to such a state that I'm quoting corny 1970's story songs?

Well... I've written it before and I'll write it again: One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the biography of famed UFO researcher Dr. J. Allen Hynek is that I keep finding more evidence that contradicts the popularly-held belief that he was a timid, weak coward. He was, in fact, a cape-tugger, a wind-spitter-intoer, a mask-puller, and a Jim-messer-around-wither.

One striking example came to light shortly after Hynek's passing in 1986, at the memorial services held for him at the University of Chicago. Now, Hynek is not often associated with the University of Chicago, since he spent most of his career at Ohio State, Harvard and Northwestern, but U of C was Hynek's alma mater. He earned his bachelor's degree there, and then earned his Ph.D. at U of C's Yerkes Observatory on the shoes of Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

His thesis work at Yerkes "was concerned with the spectra of certain bright F-type stars," explained Dr. William W. Morgan in his eulogy to Hynek. "He revealed a delicate sensitivity to the varied appearances of the spectra of differing F stars," Morgan went on, "and a sense of morphological form as the thesis developed. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1935; the thesis was published in the November 1935 Astrophysical Journal."

That's all well and good, but then Morgan went on to describe a certain awkward incident involving Hynek's thesis work that reveals a striking aspect of Hynek's nature:

"Perhaps the most important result in the thesis," Morgan said, "was Hynek’s demonstration that the Mount Wilson classifications of many bright F0 stars from the Henry Draper Catalogue were seriously in error. These are HD F0 stars showing the broadest spectral lines, due to rapid stellar rotation. Such stellar spectra were classified too early, as A stars, by the Mount Wilson observers."
 
This was a common get-up for astronomers in the 1930s
Morgan is referring to the Mt. Wilson Observatory in southern California, which, at the time Hynek was writing Doctoral thesis in the early 1930s, was pretty much the planet Krypton of astronomy. It was another world, and the scientists who lived there were astronomy Supermen, with X-ray vision, the ability to fly and outrun locomotives, and, yes, capes.

You didn't fuck with the men of Mt. Wilson, especially if you were a lowly graduate student working in complete and deserved obscurity in a backwater like Williams Bay, Wisconsin. But that's just what Hynek did. He found an error in the work of the Mt. Wilson astronomers and then he proved they were wrong in his thesis.

What's more, he crowed about it... There is a very entertaining and illuminating correspondence in the Yerkes Observatory archives between Hynek and his boss at Yerkes, Dr. Otto Struve, in which the political ramifications of Hynek's discovery are embarrassingly apparent... Struve, who also published the Astrophysical Journal, was distressed that Hynek's paper would cause a row when it appeared in the Journal...

In a letter to Hynek, Struve gently, subtly, timidly suggested that Hynek might want to think about revising the passages in his paper in which he describes the Mt. Wilson astronomers as dummies and amateurs. Struve delicately requests that Hynek could... perhaps... choose gentler words to describe these people who are, after all, soon to be his professional colleagues...

Hynek responded with...

You didn't think I was really going to spill, did you? I'm saving the good stuff for the book!