High Strangeness: The 20 Percent

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.

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