The podcast “Somewhere in the Skies” is a project of ufologist/UFO journalist Ryan Sprague. The latest episode features an interview he conducted with me a short while ago. Among other things, we discuss how I became interested in the history of UFOs, how science and ufology have related to one another, and what I am working on these days.
To my thinking, conversations like these are an essential part of the work of historians. As I have said before, I make no claims to being a ufologist. I am decidedly an outsider looking in (with all the advantages and shortcomings that come with that). But, from my perspective at least, sharing ideas, interests, and findings with those active in the field can only enhance and help refine all our research ventures.
For those of you living in or visiting London in early May, I will be there to give a series of talks on the history of the UFO and alien contact phenomenon. My talk “Belief in the Age of Suspense: The Changing Emotional Landscape of the UFO” is a public event that will be held on May 4 at 6:30 pm at The Horse Hospital. The event is sponsored by the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotion. Do join us, if you can!
In 1966, the University of Colorado became the home for an expert commission, headed by American physicist Edward Condon, to scientifically study UFOs. Already before the release of its report in 1968, the group’s work was being greeted by many with skepticism.
I have just published a new article on the history of the UFO phenomenon. The journal Public Understanding of Science has released the early online version of my piece, which is entitled “Making UFOs Make Sense: Ufology, Science, and the History of Their Mutual Mistrust.”
The focus and general argument of the article is summarized in the abstract below.
Reports of unidentified flying objects and alien encounters have sparked amateur research (ufology), government investigations, and popular interest in the subject. Historically, however, scientists have generally greeted the topic with skepticism, most often dismissing ufology as pseudoscience and believers in unidentified flying objects and aliens as irrational or abnormal. Believers, in turn, have expressed doubts about the accuracy of academic science. This study examines the historical sources of the mutual mistrust between ufologists and scientists. It demonstrates that any science doubt surrounding unidentified flying objects and aliens was not primarily due to the ignorance of ufologists about science, but rather a product of the respective research practices of and relations between ufology, the sciences, and government investigative bodies.
While copyright does not allow me to post the article here, I am happy to share it with those interested. Simply contact me via the email address listed in the “About” section of this blog.
One of the more striking features of the UFO phenomenon has been the emergence of voices from within the ufology community – particularly those of veteran investigators – claiming that organized interest in UFOs has been on the decline for some time now (for an interesting discussion of the subject, see Dr. David Clarke’s post from 2012, “Ufology: Dead Again?”). To be sure, this assessment is certainly not shared by all enthusiasts and researchers. But there is enough evidence out there (e.g., the cancellation of conferences, declining membership in organizations, etc.) to justify examining the question more carefully.
I recently decided to look at one small piece of this larger sociological question, namely: Is there evidence of a decline in newspaper coverage of UFOs? The chart below shows the results of my examination of coverage among 25 U.S. newspapers from 1985 to 2014. The newspapers were selected on the basis of (1) their being indexed by NewsBank with records dating back to at least 1985 and (2) their geographical and market diversity.
Articles with headlines about UFOs or flying saucers in 25 U.S. newspapers, 1985-2014
The results are interesting, I think. They do, in fact, indicate a general decline in coverage. That said, there were three large spikes in interest – in 1987, 1997, and 2007 – that interrupted the overall pattern. Results like this raise as many questions as they provide answers. How do we account for the spikes (I have some answers, but feel free to chime in)? Is there anything behind the 10-year cycles? Why do newspapers appear to have lost interest in the subject since the late-1990s? What’s the relationship between this decline and the apparent setbacks being experienced by many UFO organizations?
I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of readers.
Since the beginnings of ufology as a field of investigation in the 1950s, many of those conducting research into the UFO phenomenon have sought to find a means to go about this work in a rigorous manner, such that any findings might prove compelling to the general public and especially the scientific community as a whole. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, ufologists like David Saunders (USA) and Louis Schönherr (Austria) turned to computer technology and developed codes for recording information on sightings that then could be entered into a computer database. The hope was that this would make it possible to detect patterns across the tens of thousands of reports out there. By the 1990s, however, many academic and amateur researchers remained unconvinced that these efforts had borne any fruitful results.
A team of international researchers is now pursuing a new angle. The UFO Detection and Tracking (UFODATA) Project emerged out of conversations between Mark Rodeghier (Scientific Director and President of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies) and Alexander Wendt (Professor of Political Science at the Ohio State University). As the organizers state on their website:
Our goal is to….[build] a large network of automated surveillance stations with sophisticated sensors that will monitor the skies 24/7 looking for aerial anomalies. After over two years of developing our ideas, making plans, and testing relevant technologies we are now ready to move into the next phase – a ‘proof of concept’ by developing our first working prototype of a fully functioning monitoring station. This station will have a core optical unit with cameras capable of detecting and recording both an image and spectra, a magnetic sensing unit, instrumentation to detect microwave and other radiation, and other sensors to record atmospheric and local environmental data. Alarm triggers will initiate recording by all the equipment, permitting capture of a broad range of physical data that can then be analyzed by experts.
The basic idea here is to take advantage of the “unprecedented convergence of high resolution digital camera technologies, off-the shelf scientific instrumentation, powerful low-cost computing platforms, and ubiquitous high-speed internet access” to study the UFO phenomenon in a more systematic fashion.
As has been the case throughout the history of ufology, the project is relying on volunteers (instructions on how to get involved can be found on the website) and is seeking to finance itself through crowd-funding.
For an article on the project written by a journalist involved in it, see this piece by Leslie Kean.
Marco Malaspina for Media INAF has just published details about the 69 sightings reported to the Italian Air Force during the years 2010-2014. According to the Air Force’s records, the UFOs reported were most commonly orange in color (36% of the cases), spherical in form (46%), spotted during the month of June (22%) between 9 pm and midnight (50%). The article includes an interactive map, showing the specific locations of the sightings reported.
(Thanks to Philippe Ailleris and his UAP Observations Reporting Scheme project for the tip)