High Strangeness: The Johannes Kepler of the UFO Game

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Johannes Kepler of the UFO Game

One of the best quotes I've come across while researching my book about Dr. J. Allen Hynek appears in a magazine article profiling the Northwestern University astronomer and UFO researcher. The article, which appeared in the May 17, 1973 issue of New Scientist magazine, was entitled "The Man Who Spoke Out on UFOs," and it's one of the best interviews with Hynek that I've come across. Hats off to writer Ian Ridpath for his thoughtful and respectful approach to the interview, and for getting out of the way and letting the man tell his story in his own words.

The prize quote comes when the then 63 year-old Hynek describes his problematic relationship with the U.S. Air Force, for whom he worked as a consultant for many years. The Air Force had hired Hynek to explain as many UFO reports as possible as misidentifications of natural astronomical phenomenon--like meteors, comets or the planet Venus. Hynek delivered the goods quite reliably, but over time he realized that about 20 percent of the reports simply couldn't be explained... And he began to criticize the Air Force for ignoring these cases.

So when Ridpath asked Hynek why he didn't raise hell about this, Hynek responded that if he had, he would have lost access to all the UFO data the Air Force had accumulated over the years. Hynek then explained that he "played Kepler to the Air Force's Tycho Brahe."

Now, Kepler and Brahe were both 16th Century astronomers who did not like each other, but couldn't have accomplished anything without each other, which is why Hynek's quote is so wonderful. Brahe had amassed a huge body of astronomical observations over many years, but he needed Kepler to interpret the data, much as the Air Force needed Hynek to make sense of its reams of UFO data. And just as Kepler could never have devised his famous laws of planetary motion without Brahe's data, Hynek could never have developed his "Close Encounters" categorization system without the Air Force's decades of UFO reports.
Johannes Kepler, man of the world(s)
I had kind of forgotten this quote last week when I went to spend more time in the Northwestern University archives digging for gold in the Hynek archives. I was working on the first chapter of the book, covering Hynek's youth, and knew that the archives had some examples of Hynek's early fiction writing, from when he was a regular contributor to his high school's literary journal. The short stories didn't disappoint, but as I looked further through the files I came across a paper Hynek had written for an English class while he was an undergrad at the University of Chicago.

Hynek got an "A" on the paper, entitled “The Development of the Heliocentric Conception of the Universe,” and it's not hard to see why. The guy could write. In fact, in some ways he was much a better writer than speaker, and there were times in his career when he might have been much better off writing a letter instead of speaking in public... 

But I digress. I found some nice passages from the English paper and started to go home. Then I realized that I hadn't jotted down the date on the paper. I walked back to the archives and got out the file again. I got the date: November 12, 1928. But then I got something even better. Something caught my eye and I started reading the paper again. 

My God, how did I miss this the first time? Hynek was writing about Kepler in college!

In a remarkable passage describing Johannes Kepler’s 16th-Century discovery of his Laws of Planetary Motion, the 18 year-old Hynek seemed to have a dawning awareness of a deep kinship with the scientist. “Perhaps it seems strange that a man should have become so absorbed in one subject that he gave his entire life to the formulation of three laws,” Hynek wrote. “But Kepler was a mystic. He lived in poverty all his life, and he cared for nothing but the search for Truth. He held many mystical ideas about the stars such as that they influence the lives of man, and that each planet has a guiding angel that keeps it from straying off in space, but he never lost his clear reasoning powers in metaphysical speculation.”


I was stunned. So much in this paragraph written by Hynek at 18 could describe Hynek at 63 and beyond... Hynek was Kepler!

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