It is difficult to summarize adequately the very complex set of problems posed by the UFO reports. I think that Dr. McDonald is performing a service to science and the country in attempting to raise the standards of reporting and analysis; but I would differ with him on several points of emphasis.
My own involvement with UFO reports dates back to 1947 when they first became popular. I was then Director of the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory in Southern Wisconsin, and the Chicago Daily News and other newspapers contacted me frequently for my evaluation as reports were received from the wire services. I was also intermittently teaching at Chicago on Campus and approached by students who had made puzzling observations of their own. The latter reports were usually disposed of rather easily. Several of them were related to observations of the planet Jupiter seen around 4 AM between passing clouds. I also made a UFO observation of my own! It occurred at the McDonald Observatory, in daytime, while I was observing the planet Venus with the 82-inch telescope. I was amazed to see in the daytime sky a number of objects, almost stellar in appearance, with the approximate brightness of Venus. Quick focal measurements with the telescope's finders established that these objects were a few hundred feet above the observatory and moved approximately with the direction and velocity of the wind. They turned out to be spiders floating over the Rocky Mountains on their
webs, causing bright star-like diffraction images when seen almost in the direction of the sun.
I also learned first hand of reports circulating in Southern California during visits to Mt. Palomar. In that area there was a cult which organized sunset or sunrise meetings for the observation of UFO's, the details of which were truly astounding. The Palomar astronomers were accused by members of the cult of keeping their secrets on the UFO's seen and captured (one of which was the 18-foot diameter bowl-shaped Hartmann diaphragm used in testing the 200-inch Hale telescope!). I became acquainted with the role of Mr. Adamski who lived at the foot of Palomar Mt. and who teamed up with an Englishman who was a writer. Together they produced a book, "Flying Saucers Have Landed," that became a best seller. The lore concerning authors of this book who frequently visited Mt. Palomar, was the subject of much conversation among the Palomar and Mt. Wilson service staffs, and revealed much on the reliability or lack thereof in the material presented.
I should correct a statement that has been made that scientists have shied away from UFO reports for fear of ridicule. As a practicing scientist, I want to state categorically that this is nonsense. A scientist's research is self-directed. He knows how limited and cut-up is the time he can devote to research, between his numerous other duties. He selects his area of investigation not because of pressures but because he sees the possibility of making some significant scientific advance. We are living in a period of explosive growth of science, and the scientist has dozens of choices. He selects in much the same manner in which a hiker selects a path over a dangerous mountain slope or through a jungle. At all times he fights against time and he knows that his scientific reputation is at stake. If his judgment was right, he will get results and be praised by his peers. A scientist would consider the discovery of evidence of life on another planet as perhaps the greatest contribution he could make and one that might earn him the nobel Prize. But this is no reason for him to chase every will-o'-the-wisp. A scientist chooses
his field of inquiry because he believes it holds real promise. If later his choice proves wrong, he will feel very badly and try to sharpen his criteria before he sets out again. Thus, if society finds that most scientists have not been attracted to the UFO problem, the explanation must be that they have not been impressed with the UFO reports. In my own case, after having examined several dozen of them during the past twenty years, I have found nothing that was worthy of further attention. Each scientist must, of course, make this kind of decision for himself. Anyone who is curious or impressed has the privilege to follow them up and is free to solicit the interest of others.
The subject of the UFO reports may be put in perspective by looking at two somewhat analogous cases:
Most people, even scientists, have little appreciation for the extreme hostility to life of outer space; and most of us, through education or cultural tradition, would like to believe that life on earth is not alone. Every straw in the wind that might point toward the existence of life elsewhere is seized upon and made an object of veneration, if not of a new cult.
In both the detection of organisms in meteorite falls and in establishing that some UFO's may come from outer space, we have the difficulty that our test areas, the earth and its atmosphere, are literally crowded with organisms and gadgets; and that the atmosphere itself exhibits ever-changing meteorological and electrical phenomena. The problem is more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack; it is finding a piece of extra-terrestrial hay in a terrestrial haystack, often on the basis of reports of believers in extra-terrestrial hay. The initially enthusiastic reports of finds of extra-terrestrial organisms in meteorites are now attributed to terrestrial contaminations. The "unpopular" scientist who at the outset discounted this "evidence" as preposterous has been vindicated; but society has suffered "the loss of a dream," and some of its members may bear a grudge
to those who destroyed the dream.
The canals of Mars were reported by Schiaparelli, a well-known Italian scientist of the last century, who made them the basis of major speculation on the presence of intelligent life on Mars. These ideas were taken over by enthusiastic persons with literary interest in the U. S. and further developed. The careful observers with better telescopes who continued to denounce the "canals" as optical illusions were castigated. This controversy brought disrepute to planetary science and weakened its status in universities. To this day the effects have not been overcome and affect even the NASA programs adversely through inadequate academic scientific support. Mariner IV seems to have done what these careful observers of the past half century were unable to do, namely, to destroy in the public mind the myth of the canals of Mars and all that it implied. This indicates, if such were necessary, that even reports by scientists may at times be found to be premature or foolish and that no subject is so well established that continued and more careful scientific investigation is superfluous.
Before leaving the subject of the Martian canals it is instructive to see how the cult was perpetuated in the semi-professional literature for decades. For many years W. H. Pickering, the brother of the famous Harvard astronomer E. C. Pickering, collected amateur observations of Martian canals and published the results in 44 reports in Popular Astronomy. The amateur observers were "rated" by the number of "canals" they had noted. Thus, there was a premium on reporting many canals. Pickering himself compared them in one of these Popular Astronomy reports with the hedges he had seen while flying over the Azores, speculating that the Martian canals were hedges designed to prevent dust and vegetation from blowing from one area to another (the "hedges" were often hundreds of miles long and 25-100 miles wide).
What then, may be regarded as scientific "truth" and a proper standard of finding this truth? How does this affect the scientist's position to the UFO's? I believe that most scientists hold one or two of their senior colleagues in such
high regard that they limit their standard of reference largely to them. In physics, in the 1920's and 30's, Niels Bohr had this distinction in Europe, and later Fermi in the U. S.
To a person seriously proposing that 100 or more of the 10,000 UFO's recorded arrived on earth from outer space, a few questions should be put. One is that of the planets in our solar system (other than earth) only Mars appears to have a remote possibility of harboring life. The very tenuous atmosphere (ground pressure about 1% of the terrestrial atmosphere) and the absence of free oxygen, coupled with the extremely low water-vapor content and the penetration of near-ultraviolet radiation to the Martian surface, combine almost certainly to exclude Mars as a suitable breeding ground for energetic "beings" such as would build and man "space vehicles." If it is assumed instead that the UFO's come from outside the solar system, one finds that the nearest possible location would be planets accompanying stars more than 4-10 light years away. Since it is impossible to exceed the velocity of light and or even approach it with finite energies, one must assume that the space voyages would last decades or centuries. Then it is hard to see how there could have been a sudden increase in a few years; also, how any civilization could afford so many missions per year, all to one distant planet This is certainly entirely inconceivable here. Further, why intelligent beings would wish to investigate remote deserts (such as in New Mexico) instead of obvious evidence of intelligence on earth, such as large cities. Also, why this remote development would occur just as our own development of aircraft and space vehicles took place in a total life span of the universe of over 10 billion years. Further, why have no UFO's been observed by groups of competent observers working over many years in such countries as England (Members of the British Astronomical Association).
Finally, it has been stated at this meeting that the Robertson Report was unfortunate and was used to suppress evidence. Since it is admitted even by UFO advocates .that some 99% are terrestrial and based on faulty interpretation, it must have seemed proper for a responsible group advising the Government to caution against hysteria at the time when our military forces were experimenting with new
equipment, scientists were using new types of balloons and other atmospheric devices, and international tensions were high. Since it is the Department of Defense that has the duty to guard against unwanted aerial invasion, it is logical and proper that they have the responsibility for watching for unexpected aircraft and other aerial devices; and it would seem proper for the Robertson Report to contain a statement that no hostile craft had so far been sighted.
It is reiterated that no greater progress in science can be made than through discovery of a totally new phenomenon. However, only when UFO observations are made that convince a number of competent scientists that something really significant may have occurred, will they drop their active programs and redirect their efforts. The near absence of present scientific participation can only reflect that the reports have been found wanting.
Again,if one proposes that UFO reports merit scientific inquiry, one must also admit that in no other field of inquiry the scientist is so handicapped by an odd and discouraging assemblage of "data." More than 90%. of these reports are found to be hoaxes or poor accounts of well-known or trivial events. Under those circumstances an unexplained residue of perhaps 10% is no basis to believe in miracles. It is more reasonable to assume that this residue is so distorted or incomplete as to defy all analysis.
If this were a period in science of exceptional dullness, it might be still possible to arouse interest; but with the incredible progress currently being made in all fields of the natural and biological sciences, few professional scientists will feel called upon to enter the jungle.
Since the Department of Defense has both the obligation and the means to observe foreign spacecraft and similar devices, and since this Department also has access to information on experimental "aircraft," this channel appears to be the only logical one to bring a measure of reliability and sanity into this subject. Until not 100 but one case is established to be of scientific interest, the
entire subject will remain fanciful to most practicing scientists. They may quote Einstein, whose opinion was asked on UFO reports: "I am sure they saw something."
In assessing the UFO reports one must make allowances for the lack of experience of most observers in reporting precisely and objectively on natural phenomena. Thus in the reports, the observations themselves may be buried beneath interpretations that reflect the mental reference frame of the reporters. Much of the present generation has been weaned on science fiction, and the UFO reports reflect not only the images thus acquired but its cavalier disregard of natural law. Earlier generations had different backgrounds and believed in and reported seeing mermaids on rocks, miracles, and more recently, sea serpents.
It is surprisingly difficult to devise adequate scientific surveys of very rare natural phenomena. The experience of the Smithsonian Prairie Meteorite Network, organized through numerous stations equipped with the most modern cameras and supporting electronic equipment, illustrates this point: No meteorites have so far been recovered from the mass of excellent photographic trajectories obtained over a period of about 3 years. Similarly, no adequate data yet exist of ball lightning (a phenomenon known for at least a century) and other atmospheric plasma phenomena. Nevertheless, a special effort could be made in the Department of Defense or the Federal Aviation Agency, largely with existing facilities, to obtain reliable records of any unexpected objects or phenomena that may occur in our atmosphere. This would clear away the present jungle of uncertainty, hopes, disillusionment, and frustration; and would probably lead to new discoveries about our environment.