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What we saw in Roswell

Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.

Noam Chomsky

“Pull over,” said Miki. “Here, please.” I pulled in as quickly as I could, checking my mirrors. US285 was near empty, but you have to take extra care driving in another country.

Highway, New Mexico

I had expected a lot of this. We had left San Francisco some days before, heading for New Orleans largely on state and county roads. The previous day we had visited the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. Miki is a photographer, so I thought she would call frequent picture stops. Instead she learned to take pictures from the moving car. But not here. She climbed out to photograph a derelict motel, tumbleweed snagged in the doorway. Across the road a gas station and convenience store offered coffee. I left her taking pictures.

Encino Motel
Derelict motel, Encino, NM © 2016 Miki Yamanouchi

It was still early in the day and chilly outside. A kerosene stove warmed the store. The woman behind the counter told me they did not see many tourists there, and asked me where we were headed. “Marfa, Texas,” I said, “Stop in Roswell for lunch, probably see the UFO museum there.”

She got a far-away look. “Really? That’ll be interesting,” she said pleasantly. “You know, Mac Brazel was my grandma’s neighbour. Didn’t have the phone, so he drove over to her place to call it in.”

And something huge from my boyhood stepped out from wherever it had been hiding for the last half century.

As a new reader in the 1950s, exploring the Boscombe public library, I had found and devoured a couple of books on UFOs. Starting in the late 1940s, experienced pilots had reported encounters with flying vehicles they could not recognise. The strange craft had no apparent wings, and accelerated and manoeuvered in ways no aircraft the pilots knew of could do. The U.S. Air Force lost a fighter that tried to engage one craft. These early reports were not of fleeting encounters. Some lasted twenty minutes. The reporters were experienced military and commercial pilots, who were able to estimate speed and climb rates. U.S. newspapers were full of stories, and demands that the Air Force explain what was going on in the skies they were supposed to keep safe.

Mac Brazel ran a ranch near Roswell, NM. On 6 July 1947 he reported to the Roswell sheriff he had found aircraft debris. On 8 July 1947, Roswell Army Air Field announced it had captured a “flying disc”.

Roswell Daily Record, 1947-07-08

What followed has led to a world of speculation, claims and counter claims, and allegations of cover-ups.

UFO Museum, Roswell, NM
In the UFO Museum

The UFO Museum in Roswell doesn’t have a “flying disc” to show, or even any of the debris. Most of what there is to see consists of newspaper reports from the 1940s and 1950s, plus affidavits from witnesses interviewed in the 1990s. the majority of what has been claimed or attested to is contended, so let’s review only what is not in dispute.

  • Something crashed and left debris near Brazel’s ranch in New Mexico in late June or early July 1947.
  • Multiple witnesses reported debris fragments as being of remarkable lightness and strength: thin and shiny as the lining of a cigarette packet, but could not be hammered out of shape.
  • The military sealed the site and removed every scrap of the debris.
  • On 11 July 1947 a press conference at Fort Worth Army Air Field displayed debris, which it identified as from a weather balloon that had crashed in Roswell
  • Mac Brazel was held on the Roswell base for a week. After his release he would never again discuss the subject.
  • Multiple affidavits in the museum from witnesses testify to threats to their and their families’ safety should they discuss their experience.

Eighty years after the incident, only three theories about the debris remain standing.

  1. It was a weather balloon. (This remains the official explanation.)
  2. It was a classified U.S. experimental aircraft.
  3. It was an alien vehicle.

All three theories have problems.

Weather balloons are common. If the debris was that of a weather balloon, why was every scrap retrieved and flown away? Why was Brazel detained at RAAF for a week – even after the press conference announcing it was nothing but a balloon?

The late 1940s saw many experimental aircraft tested, as U.S. engineers explored what had been captured in Germany. But the story that the debris came from such a craft has a serious problem. A failed test flight would be followed immediately by a search for the aircraft. That part of New Mexico is gently rolling plain. An aerial search would have found the crash quickly. Clearly no one was looking for it.

The weather-balloon story has a variant that accounts for the secrecy. In this version, it was not a weather balloon, but a balloon launched from Alamogordo Army Air Field with classified equipment to monitor nuclear testing. This variant has the same problem as the experimental-aircraft story. If the mission and the equipment were secret enough to justify recovering every scrap of debris and detaining Brazel for a week, how had its owners lost track of it?

The alien-vehicle theory’s biggest problem is Occam’s Razor. It introduces extraterrestials. But how implausible do you think that is? More specifically, is it less plausible than the other two stories?

Are UFOs real?

The U.S. Air Force coined the term unidentified flying object as a category for the many reports it received, and UFO caught on with the public.

A substantial minority of UFO reports were hoaxes. Many more admitted of alternative explanations: weather balloons, rare but known atmospheric phenomena, optical illusions, and so on.

Let’s use Occam’s Razor here. If a report even admits of a possible explanation of that kind, let’s recategorise it. It will no longer be a report of a UFO, but of a potentially identifiable aerial phenomenon – a PIAP, if you like.

UFO classification chart
UFO classification chart

That leaves us, as the Air Force concedes, hundreds of reports that defy such explanation.

So, are UFOs real? The answer turns out to be a solid and simple yes. There are flying objects that the Air Force cannot identify even speculatively. So, yes, there are unidentified flying objects. UFOs are real.

The answer, of course, does not satisfy, because it is not what we really want to know. The question we really want answered is – are any of these UFOs flown by extraterrestials?

Do extraterrestials visit us?

A vast universe, billions of years old, makes it difficult to argue a priori that no one ever comes calling.

To say that, you would have to hold either that for some reason intelligent life has not appeared anywhere else in the universe, and explain what is so special about Earth or us; or you would have to say that it has, and explain why it doesn’t visit. (Our science does not tell us interstellar travel is impossible. It tells us only we have no clues how it might be done.)

A reasonable position would have to make it an empirical question. Maybe aliens travel between the stars. If so, maybe they come here. Or maybe they don’t. What does the evidence look like?

UFO enthusiasts have been saying for some time that the evidence is compelling. If aliens were to come calling, they would have vehicles we don’t know how to build. Those vehicles would do things our vehicles can’t. Many reported UFOs would qualify.

For example, 5g is pretty much the limit for aircraft that carry humans. 5g is five times the force of gravity. Think of how you are pressed against your seat back when your flight takes off. Your circulatory system has evolved to move blood round your body against 1g. Not against 5g. At five times the force of gravity you would pass out.

It would take huge engines to accelerate a plane at 5g, but warplanes can routinely produce 5g accelerations in a tight turn. The plane does not even have to be travelling particularly fast. So fighter pilots wear special flight suits to keep them conscious through the punishing acceleration.

Much higher acceleration is common in UFO reports. A slow or stationary flying object suddenly moves off at high speed. Those high speeds are sometimes remarkable in themselves. An object that skips away over your horizon in a few seconds has clearly just gone supersonic. UFOs do this without the tell-tale bang that our supersonic craft make.

The real anomaly however is not the speed but the acceleration. The only flying objects we accelerate that fast are ammunition: bullets and shells. Jules Verne fantasised about men travelling to the moon in a vehicle fired from a vast gun, but that’s a dumb idea. Anyone inside the vehicle would be turned into instant soup. It would be like being hit by an artillery round.

If we could build a vehicle that accelerates like a UFO we still could not ride in it. The acceleration would kill anyone inside.

So it would be a big deal if, after having excluded all the PIAPs, credible UFO reports remain. That would support the view that aliens visit us.

Official positions

The ‘canonical’ UFO sighting of modern times was Kenneth Arnold’s 26 June 1947 report from Mt Rainier. That would have inspired Brazel just days later to wonder if the crash debris came from an alien craft. It might also have inspired the RAAF press officer to announce the “capture” of a “flying saucer”.

It was a sensitive time for the U.S. Army Air Force. It was to become the United States Air Force in September that year. The Israeli Air Force, founded in May of the following year, has a famously simple two-word mission statement: “Clear skies”. Fast unidentified craft in American skies would not be an auspicious beginning for the newest branch of the U.S. armed services.

Whatever the USAAF thought it had from Roswell, it reversed its story fast. It was not a flying saucer. It was a weather balloon. And for decades the Air Force continued to play down the significance of UFO reports.

In 1952 it opened Project Blue Book, which until 1969 collated and studied 12,618 UFO reports. It concluded:

  • No UFO reported, investigated, and evaluated by the Air Force was ever an indication of threat to our national security;
  • There was no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as “unidentified” represented technological developments or principles beyond the range of modern scientific knowledge; and
  • There was no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as “unidentified” were extraterrestrial vehicles.

Nothing to see here, then: move along. These trenchant conclusions masked the disarming admission that, even after stringent analysis, 701 reports were classified as unexplained.

As Tim McMillan, a retired police lieutenant who writes about U.F.O.s and national defense, put it to me, “You didn’t even need the other seven hundred cases. You only needed one like that to say, ‘Hey, we should look into this.’

— “How the Pentagon started taking U.F.O.s seriously”, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, The New Yorker, 30 April 2021

Over 90% of Blue Book UFO cases had become PIAP cases. Although the rump of 701 UFO sightings represent a sizeable body of evidence, the preponderance of PIAPs outweighed it in the public mind.

A vague sense of unease remained. The matter was not quite closed. It had been investigated, perhaps was still being investigated by someone, somewhere. But nothing solid had been found. Yet.

This was approximately the situation of Agent Mulder in “The X Files” television series.

The X Files

If you had wanted to kick the whole matter into the long grass, it would have been hard to do better than to follow Blue Book with “The X Files”. Attractive, intense, and slightly weird FBI Agent Fox Mulder has a compendious knowledge of the paranormal and believes his sister was abducted by aliens. His investigations lead him mostly to various magical and supernatural phenomena. The stories blend UFOs and aliens into a mix of vampires, psychics, telekineticists and monsters – the tradional archive of human horror stories.

An expressed interest in UFOs and aliens came to mark an absence of intellectual seriousness. Reports of UFOs were no more credible than reports of werewolves.

xkcd cartoon

U.S. newspapers in 1947 speculated about UFOs and aliens and asked questions that were hard to answer. First “weather balloons” then Blue Book put those question on a back burner for fifteen years. Finally, “The X Files” made the questions impossible to ask.

If you had wanted this result, you could not have spent money better than by funding the TV series.

And that’s where I found myself in Encino, NM, in 2016, remembering the seriousness of the early reports and contemplating the frivolity now associated with the subject. How had that happened?

The U.F.O. Papers

Now The New Yorker tells how the U.S. military has at last relaxed its grip on the topic.

For decades, flying saucers were a punch line. Then the U.S. government got over the taboo. In the past three years, high-level officials have publicly conceded their bewilderment about unidentified aerial phenomena.

What will the consequences be? The corpus of evidence from the last half century supports the proposition that extraterrestials visit us. Absent some explanation that has eluded the sceptics and debunkers for half a century, that evidence base is not going to shrink, and will more likely grow as the stigma evaporates from the subject.

We have had such epistemic shocks before: the heliocentric solar system; the evolution of species; tectonic plate theory. But they do not arrive overnight. It takes us some time to digest them and some of us never do. As Kuhn & Nagel observed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the new view eventually outlives the holders of the old theory.

The smart money is that we are not alone. That will change the way we see ourselves. Forever.

And now this

2021-05-29: ‘From hearsay to hard evidence’: are UFOs about to go mainstream?

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