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Review of Peter Sturrock's 'The UFO Enigma'

John Alexander, Ph.D., NIDS (National Institute for Discovery Science), Las Vegas, Nevada

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: In late September 1997 a multidisciplinary group of scientists convened at the picturesque Pocantico Conference Center near Tarrytown, New York to attempt to reevaluate the evidence pertaining to UFOs. Financially supported by Laurance Rockefeller, it was the author, Peter Sturrock, who brought the two disparate groups of scientists together.

John B. Alexander ,  Ph.D.

author's bio

The UFO Enigma: A New Review of the Physical Evidence, Peter A. Sturrock, New York: Time Warner, 1999

In late September 1997 a multidisciplinary group of scientists convened at the picturesque Pocantico Conference Center near Tarrytown, New York to attempt to reevaluate the evidence pertaining to UFOs. Financially supported by Laurance Rockefeller, it was the author, Peter Sturrock, who brought the two disparate groups of scientists together. As president of the Society for Scientific Exploration, Sturrock had support from an organization dedicated to rigorously researching controversial issues. One group attending this meeting had been involved in research regarding the sensitive topic of aerial phenomena. The other group was comprised of individuals with esteemed scientific credentials but who had limited exposure to the UFO topic. They came agreeing to listen to the evidence with an open mind. This book describes in detail both the process by which they made their evaluation and the evidence supporting the case for further scientific study of UFOs.

While relying primarily on fairly well known UFO reports, this book constitutes an important contribution to a popular field infested with misinformation, misunderstandings, and tripe. The UFO Enigma will become one of the few books that scholars searching for more information about a controversial subject can turn to for reliable information.

The book represents a reasonable overview of the core topic — the physical realities of UFOs. It is not encumbered by the equally popular but more controversial aspects of phenomena, such as alien abductions, that may or may not be related to UFOs. Given the group of scientists they were attempting to influence, Sturrock and his cohorts were well advised to stick to the primary subject.

While Sturrock thoroughly outlines the entire process that the committee employed in receiving and evaluating data, the cover statements could be misleading. Specifically, the cover includes the following statement: "The First Major Scientific Inquiry Since The Condon Report." In fact the initial meeting at Pocantico lasted from late afternoon on Monday 29 September and closed that Friday. That means there were only three full days for presentation plus a few hours for discussion by the nine-man panel. Because of substantial disagreements among committee members they could not concur on recommendations and conclusions in that session. A second meeting was conducted for two days in November followed by mailed correspondence. In my estimation, this level of effort falls well short of a major scientific study. Having dealt with publishers, I find it likely that they, not Sturrock, added this statement as a marketing ploy.

The book opens with a review of the historically important Condon Report. This is the famous report done for the U.S. Air Force in the late 1960s and published in 1969. This report has clouded all attempts at legitimate UFO research since its release. Much of the public, including the scientific community and the press, erroneously assumes that this project represents a serious, in-depth look into the issues. Sturrock assiduously dissects the Condon Report and makes it clear that the study is scientifically flawed. In fact, anyone who actually reads the report carefully will be surprised to find that Edward Condon, who personally wrote the Summary and Conclusions, did not investigate any of the cases. Rather it was his staff that did the legwork. That is why the report is internally inconsistent with the body of the document supporting some UFO cases, while the summary does not.

This section alone is a valuable contribution. The damage done to all UFO studies by the Condon Report cannot be underestimated. In fact, it has in a small way led to the undermining of confidence in scientists by many people in the general public. As the Sturrock book goes on to show, credible witnesses have continued to report sightings. They are tired of being dismissed out of hand by scientists who reference the Condon Report.

Part Two of The UFO Enigma addresses the presentations given at Pocantico by people who have spent years researching the UFO topic. While all presentations were based on substantial evidence, they were not necessarily well received by the independent panel. These committee members turned out not quite as open-minded as originally hoped for. Further, because of their elevated positions, most had served on many science panels and had established expectations about the appropriate quality for presentation to such groups. The early presentations failed to meet those expectations. The result was so damaging that Sturrock indicated he was concerned that the panel might walk out. After all, they were already nervous about being associated in any way with this topic. (Again, this was largely due to the impact of the Condon report.)

Rebellion was averted and Sturrock moves to outlining some of the most important material in the book—the hard evidence. Starting with photographic evidence, Sturrock makes it clear that there are far more good photographs than most people realize. However, the panel countered that it is unlikely that any photographs alone will be sufficient to convince a neutral scientist of authenticity. All agree that photos must be correlated with high quality eyewitness testimony.

Frequently UFO witnesses report very bright lights. Many make statements like, "It lit up the whole landscape." The question this raises is just how bright are these events. If luminosity can be determined, then the power requirements can be reasonably estimated. As shown by Sturrock through scientific evaluation of several reports, sometimes the power would have to have been several megawatts. These reports tend to support the notion that what is being observed is not a known natural phenomenon.

Interference with vehicles is well-known to UFO researchers. Who can forget the incident depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when Richard Dreyfus is stopped at the railroad crossing when his radio goes out and his truck stops? As reported in this book, the same thing happened to a Haines City, Florida police officer in 1992. The reports of vehicle interference come from around the world. It is not just cars and trucks that experience problems. Sturrock addresses reports from Dick Haines, a retired NASA scientist who has studied over 3,000 UFO cases reported by aircraft pilots. Several of those key cases indicate that their navigational equipment and radios have malfunctioned during some of these sightings.

More controversial are apparent gravitational and/or inertial effects in some sightings. These include rapid acceleration or change in direction that seem difficult to understand with conventional physics.

Sturrock also addresses trace evidence following reported landings of UFOs. GEPAN, a French organization assigned to formally study UFO cases, has done extensive analysis of both soil samples and effects on vegetation. These are covered in small detail in this book.

Additionally, American researchers reported on physiological effects on humans reporting close encounters and sample analysis of debris reportedly left behind. The panel heard from John Schuessler, a skilled researcher, who conducted an in-depth study of the famous Cash-Landrum case. In fact, he wrote a book about the case called The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident. The case is significant as it is very well documented. Based on extensive medical tests there is no doubt that the witnesses were exposed to some form of intense radiation. The case serves as an undeniable warning to investigators that there is a real potential for danger from close encounters with UFOs.

Part Three of Sturrock's book contains the panel's response. One of his concerns was that the panel might become inexorably split leading to separate majority and minority reports. He felt that such division would defeat the mission and it took great effort on his part to end up with a report that reached consensus.

Predictably the panel gravitated towards hard physical evidence versus eyewitness testimony. Although necessary to support physical evidence, eyewitness accounts are invariably suspect. As has been repeatedly proven in psychological tests, as well as in our court systems, eyewitness testimony often is not very accurate. However, in UFO studies, hard scientists have a propensity for disregarding any statements that do not concur with accepted norms.

Even though they had all heard the same material, the panel members were initially widely split about the meaning. As Sturrock recounted, each sentence was debated. Conservative by nature, as very concerned about their names being attached to the report on this topic, no ground was given by participants during the first attempt at report writing and the second session was scheduled. After the second meeting, followed by months of rewriting, the panel released the report. They appear in more detail in the book but are summarized as follows:

The UFO problem is not simple with a single answer
Scientists might learn by studying observations
Studies should concentrate on cases with physical evidence
Regular contact between the UFO community and physical scientists could be productive
GEPAN/SEPRA (of the French Government) could serve as a model
The medical community should be made aware of health risks
There were general comments made by the review committee that were less kind. They noted that the evidence presented did not meet the scientific rigor they expected. As mentioned earlier, they were not happy with the quality of the presentations, and in some instances the qualifications of the presenters. In defense it was pointed out that funding of UFO research is nearly non-existent. Most of those in attendance had other occupations and were forced to conduct UFO research as an avocation because one could not make a living at it. In general, technical support must be bootlegged from scientific institutions that do not necessarily want their names attached to the product. The multidisciplinary nature of the problem often took people into areas of research that were other than their primary fields. All of which added up to the notion that they do the best they can, given the paucity of resources. In fact, it was one objective of this meeting to make research better. Still, some felt that UFO research would likely remain "Beyond the pale of respectable science."

Part Four of The UFO Enigma addresses the material derived after the meeting a Pocantico. A useful chapter for most Americans will be the description of the French organization initially called by the acronym GEPAN and later changing its name SERPA. It was developed under the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) or the French equivalent of NASA. For more than twenty years they have conducted in-depth studies of carefully selected case. The difference is that, although relatively small, they have official support from the French government.

Other chapters in this section provide information about how photographic analysis should be done in order to be able to make the best statement possible about the authenticity of pictures. Anyone engaging in such analysis will be well served to read these pages. One of the panel members presented material about atmospheric phenomena that might impact UFO research. These included anomalies that could effect radar returns as well as the recently discovered sprites that occur above storms. Comparisons between UFO research and the more respected SETI observations are addressed. There is disagreement about whether or not they are related.

Sturrock then looks at the next fifty years. He notes the disparity between "enormous public interest" and the miniscule attention paid to the field by the scientific community in general. He talks to the factors that have caused this situation to endure. The panel noted that there were data worth studying and rejected the notion that the Condon Report settled the issue—clearly it has not. Sturrock draws poignant contrasts between the research done into pulsars and quasars demonstrating how much can be learned about relatively obscure topics when science gets behind the project. Supported by the government, astronomers have made enormous progress in our understanding of the universe studying objects first discovered in 1967. He suggests that even a small amount of consistent funding for UFOs is both appropriate and likely to yield scientific results. Certainly they have been reported for a longer period of time and by many credible sources.

Sturrock is cognizant of the infamous Golden Fleece Award initiated by Senator Proxmire to showcase inappropriate Government spending. Unfortunately, those who would suppress research into areas they did not understand or agree with also used it. As Sturrock notes too many have reduced this line of reasoning to "It cannot happen, therefore it does not happen." He also suggests that the laws of physics are really more like the by-laws of physics meaning they are amended based on new data.

In discussing political considerations, Sturrock underestimates the influence they have on scientific study. His position is that scientists are an irreverent lot and through curiosity will pursue truth. The reality is that the Golden Rule applies and most scientists will not do things that could adversely affect funding.

There is an interesting section discussing the theoretical approaches to studying UFOs. In it Sturrock lists possible explanations for the reported observations. First on the list is Hoax, followed by a series of other possibilities. In what fields other that the study of phenomena such as UFOs would hoax rank number one in thinking?

He ends the section by revisiting two observations by the scientific review panel:

The UFO problem is not a simple one, and it is unlikely that there is any simple universal answer.
Whenever there are unexplained observations, there is the possibility that scientists will learn something new by studying those observations.
Of importance to researchers are the final one hundred plus pages of case material that has been provide by some of the top investigators in the field such as Jacques Vallee, Richard Haines, Jean-Jacques Velasco, and Michael Swords. Several of the studies provide in-depth analysis of the incidents. These include a remarkable photograph taken near Vancouver, Canada, in which a metal-looking object was found only after the film was developed. Another case involves an aerial object caught in a photograph taken by a mapping mission over Costa Rica. The case is unusual in that the photo was taken from above the object. Jacques Vallee presents six cases estimating the optical power output from UFOs and another ten cases in which material samples were obtained.

Returning to GEPAN studies, the famous Trans-en-Provence case is covered for nearly forty pages. This case is unique due to the extensive analysis done by GEPAN. Soil samples clearly indicate anomalies consistent with the observations of the witness. Further, more soil samples were taken seven years later and subjected to comparative analysis.

Over seventy pages are devoted to one of the best researched and most compelling UFO cases ever reported. Known as the Mansfield, Ohio case, the first observations came from four members of a helicopter crew. In this case the helicopter was intercepted and actually lifted nearly 2000 feet while the pilot was attempting to descend. It was later determined that there were additional witnesses on the ground that could confirm the UFO incident. For those who desire detailed information about UFO incidents, the Mansfield case is must reading.

Peter Sturrock is one of the best qualified people to write this book. His scientific credentials are impeccable. A graduate of Cambridge University, in 1961 he went on to be appointed Professor of Engineering Science and Applied Physics at Stanford University. Later he became Professor of Space Science and Astrophysics in their Physics Department. He has won prizes from the American Astronomical Society, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Cambridge University, the Gravity Foundation, and the National Academy of Sciences. As president of the Society for Scientific Exploration he has demonstrated the requisite open mind and scientific rigor demanded of this project.

This book will provide important information to the general public. While much of the material is available in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, it is not a widely read technical publication. Sturrock's discussion of the past and present give the reader a firm grasp of the current status and how—after more than fifty years of observations—we remain scientifically deadlocked. Sturrock has provided a small, but important step in pointing the way to the future in studying The UFO Enigma.

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