High Strangeness: May 2017

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Money Isn't Everything

I've been reading about the interview with hotel entrepreneur, aerospace pioneer and UFO enthusiast Robert Bigelow that was aired on CBS's 60 Minutes the other night, and it's got me thinking.

I love the fact that when the question of the existence of intelligent alien life forms came up in the interview, Bigelow was very straightforward and unapologetic: When reporter Lara Logan asked, "Do you believe in aliens?" Bigelow responded, "I'm absolutely convinced. That's all there is to it."

It should always be this simple. Despite Logan's sometimes clumsy and sarcastic questions about aliens and UFOs, Bigelow's answers were short and unambiguous, giving her very little room to ridicule his beliefs. I appreciated that.

But here's my big takeaway from the interview: Bigelow claims to be worth close to $290 million. If a guy who's richer than God can't get anywhere with his UFO research, what hope do any of us have? Who knows how much of his personal fortune Bigelow pumped into his "National Institute of Discovery Sciences," with nothing to show for his efforts (at least nothing that we know of)?

Part of me suspects that he has failed to learn anything new about UFOs after investing many millions of dollars because he has relied on outmoded research models, and actually purchased UFO case files from amateur UFO research organizations. Why would you rely on sloppy, superficial, unscientific case reports filed by bungling wannabe "investigators" when you have the money to completely transform UFO research single-handedly? I don't get it. If you're not worried about what people think about you, which Bigelow clearly isn't, then what's holding you back?

In the 60 Minutes interview, Bigelow claims that private industry will be the key driver in space exploration, which seems to make a lot of sense. But then wouldn't that same logic apply to UFO research? Bigelow must realize that one of the best ways -- maybe the only way in this day and age -- for UFO research to get anywhere is if guys like him start putting serious money into it, and use the leverage that would give them to transform the way UFO sightings are investigated and reported.

Friday, May 26, 2017

UFO Fever

Has the world suddenly gotten UFO fever? Or even J. Allen Hynek fever??

That seems to be the case, as the History Channel has just announced a new dramatic TV series based on the U. S. Air Force's controversial Project Blue Book UFO study that lasted from 1952 to 1969. The new show, tentatively titled Blue Book, "chronicles the real top secret United States Air Force-sponsored investigations into UFO-related phenomena in the 1950s and ’60s," according to the report in yesterday's Variety.

Unfortunately, the article then says, "It will focus on college professor Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who is recruited by the military to spearhead the project."

Uh... Hynek spearheaded Project Blue Book? Seriously? That's about as wrong as you can get. I know this is just PR copy designed to make the TV show sound dramatic and exciting, and most people reading the article wouldn't know the difference, but Hynek was hired as a consultant and nothing more. For his entire 17-year tenure with Project Blue Book (and for a time with one of Blue Book's predecessors, Project Sign), Hynek was under the command of a series of Air Force officers. He didn't "spearhead" anything.

1978's "Project U.F.O." was also based on Project Blue Book, and it was pretty bad, mostly because the UFOs always turned out to be airplanes and comets and other stupid, boring stuff. On the other hand, it did star M*A*S*H's Colonel Flagg, so it had that going for it.
Meanwhile, I've been getting some nice comments today from friends saying the producers of this new show should hire me as a writer and/or consultant. That's really flattering, and it would be great if it happened, if only so I can inform the producers that Hynek didn't spearhead Project Blue Book.

On another matter, someone pointed out to me today how cool it is that the Library Journal recommended The Close Encounters Man to school science programs! Is this possibly the first time that a "pro-UFO" book has been recommended by librarians to school science programs? If so, that would be quite feather in the ol' cap.

And on yet another matter, there's been some weird stuff going on with MUFON lately. Weirder than usual, I mean. As far as I can tell, it started a few weeks ago when one of MUFON's more visible officers, John Ventre, wrote a racist rant on Facebook. Many who read it commented on it, and some demanded that MUFON Executive Director Jan Harzan reprimand Mr. Ventre and remove him from his leadership position at the organization. Mr. Harzan issued a statement that defended Ventre's right to voice his opinions, pointed out that those statements were not related at all to Ventre's MUFON work, and then criticized the "haters" for hating on Ventre and MUFON.

I had already been distancing myself from MUFON after my experience last winter with my new State Director who kept changing all my case reports to show that an orb had been sighted, regardless of the evidence. It was getting harder and harder to pretend that there was anything remotely scientific about MUFON's work, but then when I heard about Ventre's comments I decided I had had enough. I had been in conversation with Jan Harzan about selling my book on MUFON's online store, but the other day I sent this letter to Mr. Harzan:

Hi Jan,
I regret to say that I will not be doing business with MUFON in light of the recent racist comments of John Ventre, and your subsequent defense of Mr. Ventre. I am part of one of those interracial couples who Mr. Ventre claims are "attacking" him, so I take his remarks rather personally.

I don't believe MUFON is at heart a racist organization, and I recognize that Mr. Ventre has made many contributions to UFOlogy, but because he is such a prominent "public face" of your organization his repulsive public comments about "F'ing blacks" plotting "white genocide" should not be tolerated by anyone associated with an organization such as MUFON that claims to embrace the wonder of diverse life forms. For this reason I will not be selling my book through your online store, or at your events.

Mark O'Connell

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I Heart Librarians!

Got a new review of my book today. This one is from the Library Journal:

O’Connell, Mark.
The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs.
Dey St: HarperCollins. Jun. 2017. 416p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780062484178. pap. $17.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062484185. SCI
O’Connell examines astrophysicist and forensic investigator J. Allen Hynek’s trajectory from UFO skeptic to believer. In 1949, Hynek was given a contract with the U.S. Air Force to work with Project Sign, the first of three UFO studies, and to distinguish which unidentified flying objects were simply of natural causation. Hynek separated the science from fiction, slowly providing a more socially acceptable platform for discussing the subject. Among his greatest achievements were the founding of the Center for UFO Studies in 1973 and the invention of the cataloging tool named the “Close Encounters Scale,” after which the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was named. O’Connell succeeds in bringing Hynek to the forefront of the field of astronomy and analyzing his life’s work. Unlike Hynek’s The Hynek UFO Report, O’Connell’s more vibrant title doesn’t stop at dry scientific facts but also explores the social impact of Hynek’s studies. VERDICT Scholastic and casual readers will find this fact-packed biography informative and enjoyable; highly recommended for school science departments.Bonnie Parker, Southern Crescent Technical Coll., GA

Thursday, May 18, 2017

UFO Book Review

A couple months ago I received a box full of galleys of my J. Allen Hynek bio, The Close Encounters Man, with instructions from my editor to get them in the hands of people whose opinions are  important to me. So, I did, and since it was a very big box with a very large number of galleys I sent out a lot.

One of the people I sent a galley to had given me permission to use her late brother Anthony Ranfone's artwork in the book. The artwork in question was a fantastic drawing of one of the Pascagoula, Mississippi "crabmen" reported to have taken Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker aboard their UFO in October, 1973. The Pascagoula abduction has always been one of my favorite cases, and I'm trilled to have Mr. Ranfone's work in my book, and eternally grateful that his sister has given me permission to use the drawing.
You can find this critter on P. 270 of my book

What's equally thrilling is the letter I received from her the other day...

Hello Mark,

I have just finished your book.  Very interesting to say the least. I learned a lot, was surprised more than expected, disappointed often (in what you report, not in the book), and in awe of Hynek’s work and integrity.  You laid out a solid account of the development of the study of UFOs, those who pioneered it and the battles they faced, with Hynek in the forefront of course.
As I previously noted, my position regarding UFO/Extraterrestrials is open to the possibilities and leans more towards the probabilities.  There has just been too much evidence to ignore, once the “noise” is sifted out.

I am impressed by Hynek the scientist and Hynek the man.  He presented a true, honest scientist with depths of integrity that, against the odds, blazed his trail towards the truth of the unknown.  It is certainly risky to be that public and stick to what you believe regardless of repressors.  He did not state emphatically one way or the other but only impressed that the questions be asked without prejudice. So much credible evidence to understand.

I knew of Project Blue Book but not of the reality of its mission.  I always understood it to be a credible investigative entity using sold scientific methods.  How enlightening to now know that it’s intent was to dismiss and downplay. Also, I did not know of its predecessors with the same mission.   I applaud Hyneks attempt to steer the work forward, without a bias hypothesis or predetermined theory, assessing the evidence as presented and reaching a solid scientific conclusion (even though most scientific investigations propagate more questions.  It’s what moves investigation forward).

Questions it prompts:  was this the governments true intent or were the efforts a cover for a sincere covert investigation into the phenomenon?  If so, was this done to save us from the fear of knowing the reality?

I knew about the Betty and Barney Hill incident.  Being from New Hampshire, I am also familiar with the locale.  I read and watched all that I could about what they knew they experienced.  Fascinating.  I found all accounts presented them to be very credible.

I’ve also been aware of some of the other incidents you recount and well as others reported in various documentaries.  Again, if we can dismiss the “noise” and focus on the valid reports, I can’t imagine that all of these witnesses, through the ages and worldwide, were/are hysterical.  There are just too many credible reports.

I was terribly disappointed with the report regarding Carl Sagan.  As a true scientist, I can’t believe that he could be so dismissive of Hynek and his work to the point of applying public humiliation.  On the other hand, he was a founder of SETI.  A bit hypocritical. If you’re searching for intelligent life you must have a hypothesis that it might exist.  If intelligent, doesn’t that leave the door open for their ability to reach us?  After all, we’ve been in space.  Then again, he was also founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.  I just can’t equate the two, unless of course he wanted to be the “Hynek”.  Professional jealousy?

For me, your book and Hynek’s work lent more credence to the topic.  It was a pleasure to read.

Friday, May 12, 2017

UFO Feuds and Facts

With just one month to go before my biography of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, The Close Encounters Man, hits the bookstores, I've been thinking a lot about the kind of impact the book might have...

Will mainstream audiences respond to the book's open-minded approach to the story, and to its themes of belief and faith? I hope so.

Will UFO buffs respond to its honest, no-nonsense presentation of Dr. Hynek's UFO work? I hope that, too.

Will UFO experts find fault with my research and my findings? Undoubtedly.

Will I care about the last point? Not so much.

Why do I say this? Well, when I started to research Dr. Hynek's life and work almost five years ago, I discovered that UFO experts can be a prickly, contentious lot, perpetually prone to fussin', fightin' and feudin'. Let's go through some examples, shall we?

  • When I started posting here about my research on the book I started getting messages from readers warning me that "If you don't interview (insert name here), your book is going to be crap," or, "If you DO interview (insert name here), your book is going to be crap." (I quickly learned to ignore both kinds of warnings and just interview whoever the hell I wanted).
  • There were the experts who contacted me and insisted that if I didn't interview them my book would be crap. I fell for this line exactly once, and suffered through an hour-long interview with a guy who had absolutely nothing of value to tell me about Dr. Hynek. Never again.
  • When I started out, I naively assumed that since I was writing the book with the blessing of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, every UFO expert would want to talk to me. Wrong. Turned out that the mere mention of CUFOS got a lot of doors figuratively slammed in my face. That was educational.
  • Then there were the UFO "experts" who deliberately fed me false information or interfered with interviews, apparently in the hopes that they could sabotage the credibility of my book. Really, guys, you have nothing better to do?
  • There were several UFO experts who refused to talk to me at all, regardless of my ties to CUFOS, apparently because they simply wanted to leave their UFO work in the past. This was disappointing, but for the most part understandable. Only one of these people actually hung up on me, but that one time came as a surprise!

Of course, I have brought some hostility upon myself, and knowingly at that. Over the years I have had great fun here in my blog mocking the Atacama Humanoid, the Citizen's Hearing on Disclosure, the Roswell Slides, and other "big UFO events" designed to "prove" one thing or another but all of which proved in the end to be humiliating stains on the already stained reputation of UFOlogy. This has, apparently, rankled some people.
If only Sergeant Joe Friday was in charge of all UFO investigations!

Also, I made the very deliberate decision to ignore conventional wisdom and take a fresh look at famous UFO cases, rather than just re-report what every other UFO researcher and writer has said before me. This has led to some interesting discoveries, many of which will surprise and possibly infuriate UFO experts. In fact, when my editor at Dey Street Books recently asked me to compile a list of statements and stories in The Close Encounters Man that would be controversial to readers, it came out to be a pretty long list.

I had a sneak preview of what I have in store in March, 2016, when I gave a talk commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Dexter-Hillsdale, Michigan "Swamp Gas" case at an event put on by Michigan MUFON. When it was my turn to present, I started out by pointing out aspects of the case that have been misreported for 50 years, and I set the record straight with correct dates and timelines. Then I went through the sequence of events surrounding that case and came to the conclusion that Dr. Hynek said exactly the right thing when he told reporters that what the witnesses described seeing fit the description of swamp gas. People in the audience were nice about the whole thing, but I had clearly not told the story they expected to hear.  They wanted to hear that the Dexter-Hillsdale sightings had been real encounters with spaceships from another world, and that Hynek had lied to the public to help the Air Force with their cover-up. But this story does not fit the facts.

So, yeah, this could be fun!

NOTE: Astute readers will be aware that Jack Webb, shown above as Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet, once produced Project U.F.O.,  a TV series based on the activities of the U.S. Air Force's Project Blue Book. The series, which lasted only from 1978 to 1979, took a very skeptical view of the UFO phenomenon.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The UFO Next Door

An interesting thing happened the other night. My friend Jxxx, who has had a whole lifetime of UFO experiences, asked me out to dinner to tell me about a book he wants to write, so we went to a local restaurant to talk. His book idea surprised me; I had expected it to be about his UFO encounters--and it was--but he revealed that he is planning to tell a much bigger story about a number of odd and magical things that have occurred in his life. It's a very ambitious, very fun idea, and we had a good talk about how he could tell his story in an engaging way.

You never know what lurks in the woods after dark...
But that's not the part of the evening that I'm talking about. The thing I want to talk about happened about halfway through my conversation with my friend Jxxx. While were talking, another friend, Dxxxxx, who happens to work at the restaurant, kept stopping and listening when he would pass our table.

In time, Dxxxxx decided to join the conversation, and when he finally spoke it was obvious something was up. His face got a little flushed, he seemed agitated, and he said something that he had obviously wanted to say to somebody for a long time but never felt he could: he told us that he and some local friends had had a terrifying UFO experience when they were kids.

"We were camping down at the River Park, which was not as built-up back them. The back part of the park was just woods, and that's where we were camping.

"Me and my friend had to pee, so we got out of the tent to take a leak. As we were standing there, we saw three bright lights in a triangle shape in the sky. They just came down lower and lower to the ground as we watched, and then we just dove back into our tent and into our sleeping bags."

It was obvious that Dxxxxx was pretty worked up about it. I asked him what happened next, and he hesitated for a moment, looked a little bewildered and said, "We fell asleep and in the morning it was gone."

That, to me, is a telling detail. I have heard so many UFO stories where the witness was scared out of his or her wits during the encounter, then immediately fell fast asleep and didn't wake up until morning, that his story didn't surprise me a bit. It makes absolutely no sense that a person would fall fast asleep immediately after having a terrifying experience, and yet witness after witness describes just that. Because of that odd detail, and the obvious agitation Dxxxxx was experiencing while telling his story, I believed him.

One more thing. The house where my wife and I live, our property butts up against that very same park where Dxxxxx had his UFO experience all those years ago. We can't be more that a quarter mile from where he and his friend saw their UFO.

Dxxxxx has promised me that he's going to try to get in touch with that old friend so that I can talk to him. In the meantime, I'm a little more careful about walking in the park after dark these days...