Researchers watching the skies

By Tara Bannow

Researchers watching the skies

Raymond Duvall wants to make it absolutely clear: He doesn’t know whether aliens exist.

It’s a common misconception. Just because Duvall, chairman of U. Minnesota’s political science department, has written professional literature advocating the study of unidentified flying objects doesn’t mean he believes in little green men from outer space.

“As chair of this department, I am fearful of coming off looking wacky,” he said from his sizable office towering 14 stories above the Mississippi River.

He knew it was a risky subject to take on, one that had ruined the careers of academics before him. Regardless, it’s one he feels strongly about. And it didn’t hurt that he was already tenured.

According to Duvall’s work, more than 100,000 UFO sightings have been reported worldwide since 1947. While some estimates claim that about 90 percent have been explained as a plane, satellite or some other Earthly object, the rest haven’t. Academics have tried for more than 60 years to study the latter and find out whether they’re extraterrestrial visitors. But getting university funding and the administrative green light to do so is virtually impossible. Most who’ve tried have been ignored. Some ridiculed. Others have been met with aggressive hostility, even being denied promotions and having their classes cut.

Many look to the Sept. 29 announcement that astronomers discovered Gliese 581g, the first “habitable” planet in another solar system as the dawn of a new acceptance to the search for extraterrestrial life.

Discoveries like the new planet give hope to UFO enthusiasts, including researchers who’ve struggled for funding and credibility for decades.

“It really is a scientific scandal,” said David Jacobs, who teaches a history course on UFOs at Temple University. “It’s kind of horrifying that this has been going on for so long.”

‘An ingrained prejudice’

Driving home from Denver in 1956 with his wife in the passenger seat, Leo Sprinkle gazed into the horizon and caught sight of a tiny light in the distance.

At first he thought it was a star or a planet, but then it moved closer. Closer and closer until he could tell it was “as big as a university building.” It moved around completely silently in a stop-start motion, then disappeared over the Rocky Mountain foothills.

The next morning, Sprinkle hurried out of bed to pick up a newspaper and find out what the strange thing was.

“No mention of it,” he said. “I had a sinking feeling. I thought, ‘This is something I have to study, and it’s going to be lonely business.’”

Sprinkle joined U. Wyoming in 1964 and would stay for 25 years in various psychology and counseling capacities. Despite being well-liked among students and well-rated as a counselor, Sprinkle said he found he could never move into a full professor position — mainly because he didn’t publish in the “real” scientific journals.

In 1985, he was told not to talk to students about UFOs during office hours. Not long after, he had to go home and tell his wife that his 13-year-running self-hypnosis course had been canceled. By 1989, he knew it was time to leave. “In the last few years, I realized it didn’t matter what I did,” he said. “I was being pushed out.”

Sprinkle’s experience is similar to what other academics have run into in their attempts to study UFOs. There were more like him decades ago, but nowadays, it’s become even more difficult to venture into UFO territory, said Jacobs. He would know. He’s one of a handful who still research UFOs at a major university.

Since 1977, Jacobs has taught a course called “UFOs in American Society,” which he believes is the only regularly scheduled, upper-level UFO course in the United States. Persecution surrounding those who study — or even talk about — UFOs has always existed, said Eddie Bullard, a UFO researcher and author who received his Ph. D. in folklore from Indiana U.

“It’s kind of an ingrained prejudice,” he said. “You don’t even have to think about it. It’s just not acceptable.”

Duvall co-wrote a chapter in a bestselling book released in August compiling UFO accounts from esteemed military personnel. In his writing, Duvall has argued that the “UFO taboo” is deeply entrenched in our society. It’s perpetuated, he writes, by the mainstream media, the scientific community and the government, which retains its power from the notion that humans make the rules.

Those who approach the subject as a social or cultural phenomenon tend to get less flack because they can remain negative or neutral toward the existence of UFOs, Bullard said.

“If I were to take a sociological or psychological approach, I would be on firm ground,” Jacobs said. “In fact, I’d be hoisted on the shoulders of my colleagues as a hero.”

Getting funding is a whole new can of worms. There’s a peer-review process for grant applications, and a committee decides whether the $6 million for research goes to “you, or the rival university across town,” said Don Donderi, professor emeritus at McGill U. and a UFO researcher.

“You have to fight for this money and propose things you know will be acceptable to the people who read them,” Donderi, who still teaches a lecture on UFOs at McGill through its “Freaky Friday” series, said.

In this setup, “no one’s going to give a damn” about an idea related to a phenomenon, Donderi said. Today’s science community is a “different world entirely,” he said, one that’s dictated by administrative paradigms.

Jacobs gives three reasons for academia’s increasing hostility toward UFO research. The first: the rise of conspiracy theories. When UFO sightings are connected to government cover-ups, it makes the subject less applicable to scientific inquiry. Then there’s the Roswell case, in which some believe aliens crashed in New Mexico. Not only does this require belief in a conspiracy, but also that alien corpses are still being studied. Finally, there are abduction stories, which can seem pretty far-fetched. Together, those things encourage people to dismiss the whole subject as “nuts,” he said. Before all that, scientists could simply study the phenomenon.

“It was pure,” Jacobs said. “Now, you have all this other popular culture stuff getting in the way, and people think this is popular culture.”

Having published four books and countless journal articles on UFOs, retained his teaching position and gained tenure, he’s somewhat of a success story — but he doesn’t see it that way.

“I’ve tried to be full professor many times,” he said. “I’m 68 years old. It’s not going to happen.”

‘Fundamentally unscientific’

Skeptics point to the fact that there’s just not a lot of physical evidence to warrant study.

“Can somebody hold up a steering wheel and say ‘This is from a UFO?’” Terry Jones, an astronomy professor at U. Minnesota, said.

“How about a spare part from an alien craft? An alien cigarette lighter?” Harvard U. professor Paul Horowitz said. “What you get instead are stories.”

But there are a lot more than stories, Jacobs insists. There’s an ever-increasing collection of photographs, videos, radar images, markings on the ground and other physical traces of alien presence that most skeptics won’t even look at.

For scientists to ignore that evidence is “fundamentally unscientific,” Jacobs said. “They revert to being unscientific almost immediately when you go into the subject.”

Alexander Wendt, an Ohio State U. professor and Duvall’s co-author, said the radar images were what ultimately convinced him UFOs must be studied.

According to Wendt, there are images that show objects moving impossibly fast and taking right turns at 1,000 mph, a speed that would impose enough g-forces to kill a human. That’s a physical phenomenon that must be explained.

“It’s not just a product of our imagination,” Wednt said.

In their work, Wendt and Duvall point out that UFO skeptics maintain an authoritative belief — upheld as a scientific fact — that UFOs are not extraterrestrial and therefore can be ignored.

Further, they argue, modern science and government are deeply connected. Modern governments are made possible through modern science, and modern science is sustained through modern governments.

The idea that UFOs aren’t researched due to a fear of humans losing their sense of control over their destinies doesn’t sit well with Lawrence Rudnick, an astronomy professor at the University.

As someone who’s spent his life studying stars, planets and galaxies, Rudnick — who made international headlines in 2007 when he discovered a giant void in the universe 6 billion trillion miles wide — said scientists know humans lost their dominance long ago.

It all started with the realization that Earth wasn’t at the center of the universe. Then Earth became one of several planets going around the sun. Humans were certainly dethroned when science revealed countless stars, planets and galaxies in the universe, Rudnick said.

“To search for existence of alien life would not diminish us further, but in fact would enrich our relationship with the universe to know there were others like us,” he said.

Still, there are too many other things worth studying that are of higher value, Rudnick said. It boils down to funding and — more importantly — time, he said.

In order to be worthy of scientific study, a subject needs to be measureable, and observable and it must be able to yield an answer worth having and there must be a reasonable chance of finding a meaningful answer. UFOs meet the first two criteria, but not the third, Rudnick said.

As an astronomer, Rudnick often gets questions about 2012 doomsday prophecies, astrology and intelligent design — and puts them in the same category as UFOs in that the evidence is too small to justify studying them.

“Is it possible that some UFOs represent visits from extraterrestrial beings? My judgment as a scientist is ‘Perhaps,’” he said. “But the probability of that being true is so low, it’s not worth my time.”

‘The end of our isolation’

From his lab on the Harvard campus, Paul Horowitz has spent the better part of his career feeding an insatiable desire to be the first to discover signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

“It would be the end of our isolation in the galaxy,” the physics and electrical engineering professor said excitedly. “You can’t find adjectives wonderful enough to describe it.”

For two decades, Horowitz has been monitoring a collection of optical and radio telescopes scanning tiny patches of the galaxy. He hasn’t found anything yet, but doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon.

While some people might think spending all day scanning outer space for signs of life sounds crazy, Horowitz’s research is much “safer” than UFO research.

In fact, in 1975, NASA began devoting small portions of its budget to search for extraterrestrial intelligence out of the Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in California.

The funding was temporarily cut off in 1981 after former Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis. , who gave it his “Golden Fleece” award for being a waste of taxpayer money. Astronomer Carl Sagan eventually convinced Proxmire of the merits of the research, and funding was reinstated in 1983.

In 1984, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute was created to increase the efficiency of NASA’s SETI program.

Beginning in 1992, NASA strengthened its existing commitment to the field by embarking on an ambitious, 10-year, $100-million extraterrestrial search program.

But Congress wasn’t enthused. Less than a year later, Sen. Richard Bryan, D- Nev. , cut off NASA’s extraterrestrial research funding, or what he called “the Great Martian Chase.”

At the height of its support in 1992, NASA spent $12. 2 million on SETI research, which was only 0. 1 percent of its total budget. Over 18 years, NASA spent nearly $57 million on the cause.

The end of NASA funding didn’t mean the end of SETI. The nonprofit SETI institute is still going strong, with an operating budget for its SETI research of about $3 million that comes entirely from private donors. About 40 researchers who work in the institute’s astrobiology unit are funded by grants from various organizations, primarily NASA.

Today, much of the institute’s research centers on the Allen Telescope Array in California’s Cascade Mountains. The telescope, composed of 42 separate antennas connected by a single operating system, was funded in part by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.

The telescope monitors radio waves in the universe, which SETI astronomers analyze using computers, Seth Shostak, the institute’s senior astronomer, said.

“There may be some extraterrestrials that are deliberately sending signals our way,” Shostak said. “That’s a way to determine whether someone’s there without having to go anywhere, except to a local computer terminal.”

When asked about the UFO people, SETI people say they’re a bunch of kooks. When asked about the SETI people, UFO people say they’re nuts.

“We try to stay at arm’s length,” Horowitz said of his relationship with UFO researchers. “Actually, we run in the opposite direction.”

The SETI researchers feel a need to differentiate themselves from the UFO researchers because they’re on the edge of being considered within the astronomy and astrophysics paradigm, Temple’s David Jacobs said.

SETI runs on the assumption that just because human technology doesn’t match that of another life form, there’s no way it could have come to Earth, he said.

Further, they’re making a big assumption that human civilization — just beginning with respect to light-year time — is at the same point in technological development as another civilization in a couple hundred years, Jacobs said.

“They’re banking on the fact that this is still the kind of technology they’re using to communicate,” he said. “It’s a really big assumption — and here we are, swimming in evidence. The evidence found by SETI is virtually nothing.”

Although he makes sure to distinguish it from his “scientist” hat, Rudnick “the person” contributes to the SETI Institute each year. While he wouldn’t usually advocate for government funding to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI is the exception because it could yield other information of scientific value.

“There’s going to be a wealth of interesting data which is produced as a byproduct of these searches,” he said, “so that creates

additional value.”

“‘Flying saucers’ mystify experts”

The modern UFO era kicked off in June 1947 when Kenneth Arnold, a pilot and University alumnus, said he spotted nine half-moon shaped disks flying in a row near Mount Rainier. Arnold’s sighting, from which the term “flying saucer” was born, became a source of major controversy when the Air Force dismissed it as a mirage.

When most people think of UFOs, they’re reminded of the infamous Roswell case, which happened about a week after Arnold’s. The two events created a buzz in newspapers nationwide.

Many believe the U. S. military recovered a crashed extraterrestrial spacecraft and alien corpses in a desert just outside of Roswell, N. M. The military maintains that it was debris from a high-altitude surveillance balloon being used in a classified mission to detect atomic bomb tests.

The U. S. Air Force established Project Blue Book in 1952 to study UFOs as a potential threat to national security. By the time it was shut down in 1970, it had studied 12,618 reports, most of which were classified as natural phenomena and all of which are now

publicly available.

In 1966, the U. S. Air Force commissioned a team at the University of Colorado, led by physics professor Edward Condon, to analyze UFO phenomena. Four years later, the group released the Condon Report, concluding that further study of UFOs wasn’t likely to yield valuable scientific discovery and calling for an end to Project Blue Book, which was shut down shortly after.

Many criticized the report, arguing that it was biased. Peter Sturrock, then an applied physics professor at Stanford University, reviewed the Condon proceedings and concluded that the resulting report “completely misrepresented” the findings. He would later form his own investigation at the request of the late venture capitalist Laurance Rockefeller. The nine-person team of scientists convened at Rockefeller’s New York estate for three days. It emerged with the conclusion that more research is necessary and the Condon report shouldn’t guide current policy.

Over the course of his nearly four-decade tenure at Stanford, Sturrock, who currently performs astrophysics research at the university, analyzed nearly 12,000 UFO reports. He said he was surprised to find that they varied significantly with respect to “local sidereal time,” a measure of which part of the night sky is overhead.

“There’s a lot of work that could be done, but one person is not going to achieve much,” he said. “It needs to be opened up to the scientific community in general.”

In the United States, that hasn’t been easy. No source of public funding exists and the research that does happen is carried out primarily by privately funded groups such as the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), the Center for UFO Studies and the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.

The French government released its classified UFO files to the public in 2007 after citizens accused it of hiding information. Its space agency had been conducting UFO investigations since 1977, 75 percent of which had been explained. In 2008, the British government did the same.

In December 2009, the United Kingdom closed the office it had established in 1950 to study UFO sightings. After investigating more than 12,000 reports, the Ministry of Defense shut down its UFO hotline and released a statement that no UFO report had ever posed a threat to the United Kingdom.

‘What more do people need?’

Self-proclaimed psychic Theresa Pierce, an animated woman with hot pink-streaked platinum blonde hair, stood before a primarily gray-haired audience.

She was the keynote speaker for the October meeting of the Minnesota MUFON chapter, a group dedicated to analyzing all UFO reports with the goal of learning their true origin.

“What more do people need — one to land on their front lawn?” Pierce, who claims she’s Bonnie Parker reincarnate, shouted to a mixture of enthusiastic nods and verbal agreements.

The meeting drew a crowd of about 35 people — all middle-aged and older — which is about average.

When Craig Lang, a software engineer for Boston Scientific who also provides hypnotherapy for abductees, took the stage, he described a spike in calls in recent weeks. His psychic friends describe a mysterious, yet major change going on.

“This month the aliens have been very busy,” he said, sending a wave of excited chatter through the crowd.

A woman near the back said “The world is coming to an end,” to no one in particular.

MUFON is a serious bunch. Whenever a report comes in to their office, the team assigns it to a specially trained field investigator who goes to the scene, meets with the witness, takes notes and searches for physical evidence. All told, the Minnesota chapter gets about five calls per month.

When Executive Director Lorna Hunter started in her position four years ago, Minnesota would only have about 25 sightings per year. Now, it gets about 60 reports a year in the state, she said, and about 500 stream into MUFON’s national headquarters every day.

Of all the investigations, about 90 percent turn out to have a reasonable explanation. A satellite. A space station. A distant planet. But that remaining 10 percent remain unidentified.

“Our unknowns are a big category,” Hunter said.

Many don’t report their sightings until 30 years later because they didn’t want it to affect their job or family, Hunter said. Once they’re retired, they feel safer doing so.

Some people are more “susceptible” to UFO sightings, she said. It has a lot to do with intuition. People have been conditioned not to believe in aliens, Hunter said, so if someone sees a UFO, they automatically think it was just a bird or a plane.

“Your brain filters it out and doesn’t acknowledge that it was an unknown,” she said. “People who are more open to the universe let more information through. They think, ‘That’s definitely not a plane. I don’t know what it is,’ and they’re curious.”

Shortly after U.S. astronomers unveiled Gliese 581g, an announcement 11 years in the making, their peers around the world began checking into the monumental discovery. The fanfare was short-lived. Monday, a group of astronomers from Switzerland said they checked out the area but couldn’t find any evidence of the new planet.

One of the American scientists involved in the initial discovery said more observation would be necessary.

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