Summary: Some supposed UFO sightings have been accompanied by unexplained physical evidence that deserves serious scientific study, an international panel of scientists has concluded.
Some supposed UFO sightings have been accompanied by unexplained physical evidence that deserves serious scientific study, an international panel of scientists has concluded.
In the first independent scientific review of the controversial topic in almost 30 years, directed by physicist Peter Sturrock of Stanford University, the panel emphasized that it had found no convincing evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence or any violation of natural laws.
But the panel cited cases that included intriguing and inexplicable details, such as burns to witnesses, radar detections of mysterious objects, strange lights appearing repeatedly in the skies over certain locales, aberrations in the workings of automobiles, and radiation and other damage found in vegetation.
The 50-page review, being released today, asserts that the scientific community might learn something worthwhile if it can overcome the fear of ridicule associated with the topic and get some funding for targeted research to try to explain these occurrences.
"It may be valuable to carefully evaluate UFO reports to extract information about unusual phenomena currently unknown to science," the report stated, adding that such research could also improve understanding of, and in some cases debunk, supposed UFO events.
For example, Earth science researchers have eventually accepted several phenomena "originally dismissed as folk tales," including meteorites and certain types of lightning, the panel noted.
The findings are from a four-day workshop held in Tarrytown, N.Y., followed by a second three-day meeting in San Francisco, both last fall. The results are published in the current issue of the Society for Scientific Exploration, which was established by Sturrock.
The inquiry involved scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell and Princeton universities, the universities of Arizona and Virginia, and institutions in France and Germany, among others. A panel of nine physical scientists analyzed presentations by eight UFO investigators, who were encouraged to present their strongest evidence. The project was funded by Laurance S. Rockefeller through his LSR Fund because of a belief, the report said, that "the problem is in a very unsatisfactory state of ignorance and confusion."
The panel suggests the scientific community has suffered a failure of curiosity regarding UFOs. Despite an abundance of reports over the last 50 years, "and despite great public interest, the scientific community has shown remarkably little interest in this topic."
Asked about the conclusions, a sampling of scientists and officials outside the panel expressed surprise that a topic with such a high "giggle factor" might be reincarnated for serious study, possibly further blurring the lines between legitimate research and the "lunatic fringe." Some said they would never comment on the touchy topic, and some said they would reserve judgment until they had read the report.
In a telephone interview, Sturrock said that he hopes at least some scientists "will read the report and become curious. . . . The challenge is to do good science on this issue. It's difficult."
Some reported UFO incidents could have been caused by rare natural phenomena, such as electrical activity high above thunderstorms, or other known physical effects, the panel found. But there were some phenomena they could not easily explain.
The existing evidence from past cases is unlikely to produce either a solid debunking or other satisfactory explanation of the reports, the panel found. But "new data, scientifically acquired and analyzed (especially of well-documented, recurrent events) could yield useful information," it said.
To be credible to the scientific community, future UFO "evaluations must take place with a spirit of objectivity and a willingness to evaluate rival hypotheses" that so far has been lacking, the report said.
Among the potentially fruitful areas of investigation the panel cites are:
Physical effects on witnesses. Burns, or sensations of heat, and eye problems are the most frequently reported forms. The available evidence, though sparse, suggests microwave, infrared, visible and ultraviolet radiation, although "a few cases seem to point toward high doses of ionizing radiation, such as X-rays or gamma rays."
Radar detections of UFOs. Scientific study would require the cooperation of military authorities. An example occurred in January 1994, in the skies above Paris, when an airborne crew saw "a gigantic disk" more than 3,000 feet in diameter. The disk was detected on military radar for 50 seconds, slowed abruptly from 110 knots to zero, then disappeared.
Semi-regular sightings of strange lights (such as those in Hessdalen, Norway, and Marfa, Tex.), in some cases associated with measured magnetic disturbances.
Apparent gravitational and/or inertial effects, as in a case that occurred in Ohio in 1973. A number of witnesses, both on the ground and in an Army Reserve helicopter, saw lights, including a powerful green glow, and a "cigar-shaped gray metallic object," during which time the helicopter ascended although its controls were set for descent. Scientists apparently failed to investigate the one item of physical evidence -- a magnetic compass that had begun to spin during the event and was subsequently removed because it was unserviceable.
Injuries to vegetation and other ground traces. In a 1981 case in Trans-en-Provence, France, a witness reported an ovoid object emiting a low whistle as it flew in for a landing. Police and special UFO researchers found two concentric circles and other traces that, when subjected to laboratory analysis, showed the soil had been heavily compacted, though without major heating, and there were symptoms of aging in the plants there. A toxicologist concluded that some, though not all, of the effects could have been caused by powerful microwave radiation.
The Sturrock group said that because of advances in knowledge and technical capability, chances of significant learning are greater now than 30 years ago when the Air Force and the CIA supported a two-year investigation by the Colorado Project, directed by Edward U. Condon. That 1968 report concluded that "further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced."
The Air Force last year made public its latest report on the infamous 1947 incident near the town of Roswell, N.M., which gave rise to a whole flying-saucer culture of paranoia, up to and including the fictional television program "The X-Files." Titled "The Roswell Report: Case Closed," that report, like the Sturrock panel, reiterated earlier conclusions that there is no evidence of aliens or their spaceships.