No evidence of ET: Panel calls for more scientific UFO research
BY DAVID F. SALISBURY
Sorry, X-filers. A panel of scientists has reviewed the physical evidence associated with UFO reports for the first time in nearly 30 years, and found nothing to convince them that Earth is being visited by alien astronauts. Nor did the panel find credible evidence that known natural laws are being violated.
On the other hand, the scientists were convinced that something mysterious is going on. They agreed that some reports are accompanied by physical evidence that cannot be readily explained and suggested that "it may be valuable to carefully evaluate UFO reports to extract information about unusual phenomena currently unknown to science."
Despite the panel's failure to find evidence for aliens, the enduring public interest in the topic was manifest in the flood of media interest that materialized on Monday, June 29, when the report was released. "Good Morning America" featured the report first thing in the morning, CNN aired a story about it a few hours later, and all the network evening news programs announced its basic conclusions. The review prompted ABC News to conduct an unscientific poll, and 91 percent of those questioned answered "yes" to the question "Should scientists be encouraged to study UFOs?"
The review was organized and directed by Peter Sturrock, professor of applied physics at Stanford, and supported administratively by the Society for Scientific Exploration, which provides a forum for research into unexplained phenomena. The international review panel of nine physical scientists responded to presentations by eight investigators of UFO reports, who were asked to present their strongest data.
The panel points out that much has changed since the last scientific review of the controversial subject. Advances in scientific knowledge and technical capabilities make it more likely that studying UFO reports can produce important new insights, the report's executive summary states. People around the world have continued to report encounters with unidentified flying objects, and France has set up an official program to investigate such reports in a systematic fashion. Despite these developments, the subject has continued to receive very little scientific scrutiny.
In 1996, Laurance S. Rockefeller, chairman of the LSR Fund, invited Sturrock to give him an update on how much is actually known about the causes of UFO sightings. "We agreed that the problem is in a very unsatisfactory state of confusion," Sturrock says. To encourage the extensive and open scientific scrutiny that Sturrock believes is necessary to figure out what is really going on, the two hit on the idea of holding a workshop where prominent UFO investigators would meet with a panel of scientists with wide-ranging interests and expertise.
Sturrock recruited a group of scientists that he describes as "open-minded but hard-nosed." The panel was co-chaired by Von R. Eshleman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford, and Thomas Holzer of the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colo. The other members were Randy Jokipii, professor of planetary science, University of Arizona-Tucson; Francois Louange, managing director of Fleximage, Paris, France; H. J. Melosh, professor of planetary science, University of Arizona-Tucson; James J. Papike, professor of earth and planetary sciences, University of New Mexico-Albuquerque; Guenther Reitz, German Aerospace Center, Institute for Aerospace Medicine, Cologne, Germany; Charles Tolbert, professor of astronomy, University of Virginia-Charlottesville; and Bernard Veyret, Bioelectromagnetics Laboratory, University of Bordeaux, France.
Eight experienced UFO investigators were asked to review specific categories of evidence, including photographic, radar, interference with vehicle and aircraft equipment, apparent gravitational and/or inertial effects, ground traces, biochemical effects on vegetation and physiological effects on witnesses, and analysis of debris. The investigators were Richard Haines, Los Altos, Calif.; Illobrand von Ludwiger, Germany; Mark Rodeghier, Center for UFO Studies, Chicago; John Schuessler, Houston; Erling Strand, Ostfold College, Skjeberg, Norway; Michael Swords, professor of natural science, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo; Jacques Vallee, San Francisco; and Jean-Jacques Velasco, CNES, Toulose, France.
This group assembled in a closed workshop in Tarrytown, N.Y., that lasted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 4, 1997.
Among the cases presented to the scientists were:
- A black-and-white photograph taken
in British Columbia in 1981 that appears to show a hovering disk.
The scientists expressed concern that modern digital techniques may
make it impossible to rely on photographic evidence without
convincing, corroborative eyewitness accounts.
- The 1976 report of the director of
a scientific laboratory in France who saw a luminous disk in the
sky as he was driving and estimated that the object glowed more
brightly than the moon. The scientists noted that the eye was a
very poor device for estimating absolute brightness and the witness
may have been fooled by a highly focused light source like an
airplane landing light.
- A disk-shaped object flying at an
altitude of about 10,000 meters in the vicinity of Paris reported
by two members of an airline crew in 1994. Military air traffic
radar also tracked the object for almost a minute. The scientists
characterized this and another radar case that was presented as
- Reports from the Hessdalen Project, an effort by five individuals that has received support from the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the University of Oslo and the University of Bergen to investigate mysterious lights that inhabitants of a small valley in Norway have been reporting since 1981. The scientists noted that in cases involving repeated, semi-regular sightings of lights "it is difficult to understand why no rational explanation has been discovered, and it would seem that a small investment in equipment and time should produce useful results."
The review was a modest effort compared to the three-year Colorado Project, supported by the U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency and headed by Dr. Edward U. Condon, which concluded in 1968 that "further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby."
Still, the scientists were able to explain some of the reported incidents by rare natural phenomena that have only recently been discovered. One example is the large but extremely brief flashes of light called sprites that are caused by electrical activity high above large thunderstorms. Another new explanation for some of the previously unexplained radar sightings is a phenomenon called radar ducting (the trapping and conducting of radar waves by atmospheric channels).
The panel was particularly impressed with an official French program for investigating UFO reports that has been operating since 1977. Operated by the National Center for Space Research (CNES) in France, the program provides an official channel for reporting sightings, sorts out the hoaxes and hallucinations, and conducts expert investigations of any physical evidence.
"Just recently Chile adopted a similar program," Sturrock says. "It is my view that if several more countries establish modest programs like this, in a few years we would have at least a skeleton solution for this problem." Currently, there is no official channel for reporting UFO sightings in the United States.
Without collecting additional data using scientific methods, it is unlikely that the mystery of UFOs will be solved, panel members agreed. Further analysis of the evidence presented to the panel is unlikely to shed added light on the situation because most current UFO investigations lack the level of rigor required by the scientific community, despite the initiative and dedication of the investigators involved. But new data, scientifically acquired and analyzed, could yield useful information and advance our understanding of the UFO problem, the panel said.
The reviewers also made the following observations:
- The UFO problem is not a simple
one, and it is unlikely that there is any simple, universal
- Whenever there are unexplained
observations, there is the possibility that scientists will learn
something new by studying them.
- Studies should concentrate on cases
that include as much independent physical evidence as possible.
- Continuing contact between the UFO
community and physical scientists could be productive.
- Institutional support for research in this area is desirable.
Sturrock's involvement in the controversial subject dates back to the 1970s, when he hired a French astronomer and computer scientist named Jacques Vallee to help him with his research on pulsars. Vallee, who had written several books on UFOs, got him interested enough in the subject to read the Condon report.
"I read it during a Hawaiian vacation, when I could have been on the beach," Sturrock says. "The upshot of this was that, far from supporting Condon's conclusions, I thought the evidence presented in the report suggested that something was going on that needed study."
This prompted Sturrock to survey scientists to learn their viewpoints on UFOs. He discovered that they were surprisingly open minded about the matter when asked to respond anonymously, and many said that UFO reports should be studied scientifically.
Many of the scientists said they would like to see articles about UFOs in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Sturrock says. "The only problem is that no established scientific journal would publish articles on this subject." He discovered that parapsychology research was in a similar fix.
As a result, Sturrock decided to found a new scientific society, the Society for Scientific Exploration, and a journal, The Journal of Scientific Exploration, to provide a scientific forum for rigorous reports on subjects that are considered taboo by mainstream scientific publications.
Today, the Society has about 300
members and the journal, which is published quarterly, has a
readership of about 1,200. SR