Friday, August 27, 2010
I have been reading this new book about UFOs, which has been getting some play in the mainstream press. Leslie Kean is the investigative journalist who wrote it and it has a foreword by John Podesta. Podesta is a former Clinton administration WH chief of staff and a heavy hitter in the DC policy world. I believe he is at some liberal think tank now. Back in the early '90s he was a partner at a big DC law firm that my firm worked with on some matters. I met him once and was impressed. No doubt he is a serious guy. I heard about Kean's book on NPR.
If you are at all interested in this sort of thing, that is, UFOs, the book is well worth reading. I am evidently not up on my UFO lore as I had not even heard of the last three biggest incidents, in Belgium, Chicago and Phoenix respectively. As Kean reports it, the basic message is, numerous credible witnesses have observed what appeared to be physical objects shaped like either saucers, triangles or cigars, hovering, shining lights and/or darting about in ways that suggested they were being intelligently driven and doing so in ways current technology cannot account for. Several chapters in the book consist of first hand accounts by retired high military officers, and commercial or military aviators of their encounters with whatever it was they encountered. I am currently reading the chapter which is a history of how the US government has dealt with UFO reports, which one could say has been pretty stupid, at least according to Kean.
It's difficult to know what to make of this. As a mere fan of the X-Files (which hasn't aged very well I'm sorry to say, but how great it was when it was fresh!) and former and I hope again someday amateur astronomer, I can't claim to be any sort of expert on UFOs. I do think aviation is very cool and sometimes regret I did not follow a boyhood dream of flying jets, a profession at which I suspect I would not have been very good, alas, since I was fired from a job driving a truck for my inability to make the truck go where I wanted it to. But to just the casual reader who wants to be open minded yet not appear a credulous fool, books like Kean's present a problem. She appears to be a perfectly level headed journalist who is very careful not to make wild claims. She has simply interviewed lots of people with serious jobs who say they saw these puzzling things, read government reports, and reached her conclusion that something significant is indeed going on. To wit, there appear to be from time to time objects that appear in our skies that fly about in ways that no technology that we currently have (unless there is technology that nobody admits to having or knowing about) can explain. Kean frankly admits we don't know what these things are but says we should be seriously studying them and not, as she says the FAA among others routinely does, just ignoring them or making up risible explanations for them. So Kean says.
What is the reader to do? On the one hand, it seems improbable that a serious seeming journalist would just make this stuff up out of whole cloth. The same applies to her witnesses. On the other hand, what the witnesses are reporting is highly improbable as well in its own right. I've never seen a UFO and I have spent quite a bit of time looking at the sky, a thing I like to do. I have seen a piece of tumbling space junk silhouetted against the bright lunar surface in a telescope for example, a rare sighting. Thus one is left having to choose among improbable things, unless one decides, as I suppose I shall, on just remaining in a state of suspension, where one says, well, I don't know if this writer is as credible as she seems, or whether she just seems credible. If for example, I came out and said, I believe her!, wouldn't I feel stupid if her next book were about leprechauns and she managed to get a bunch of Irishmen with serious titles to tell their stories of leprechaun encounters. My only point is banal enough I suppose -- forming beliefs is a fairly complicated business.
Having said that, we may move on to some unproductive speculation. Assuming these Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs -- preferred by some to try to get away from the stigmatized term UFOs) actually exist as such, and are not mere hallucinations or whatever, what can one say about what they might be? Very little that is warranted of course, but what could one guess in the spirit of speculation? Oddly enough, the so-called extra-terrestrial hypothesis seems more plausible than the alternatives. Some writers such as Nick Cook have speculated that the US military has developed anti-gravity drive and kept it deeply in the black. But if that is the case, what on earth would a super-secret branch of the US military be doing performing stupid tricks over Belgium of a summer night? That makes no sense. On the other hand, it makes little more sense that entities capable of building craft that can travel interstellar distances would go to rural Belgium and then do such things as look down the smokestack of a power plant. Even the business of shining super bright spot lights down to the ground, as is reported in several cases, makes little sense. What, they don't have infrared? They need bright white light so their old fashioned Nikons will work when they lean out of their saucers to take pics for the squids back home? On the other hand, this may be supposing that ET's would send their best and brightest. Maybe UFOs are degenerate von Neumann probes, smart in some ways but stupid in others. Or maybe they are like teenagers or tourists who get off an exit in a remote part of the galaxy, poke around and generally make a nuisance of themselves, then go on their way, like Manhattanites driving up the Hudson Valley. Technologically extremely advanced but in important respects, pretty stupid. Now there's a plausible theory.
ALSO this fairly information free offering. I think being a pop-physics professor with your own TV show would be a lot of fun.