For years, mainstream scientists have scorned reports of UFOs - and the people who investigate them - as on or beyond the fringe of science.
But today, for the first time in nearly three decades, a group of scientists is asking colleagues to take sightings of unidentified flying objects more seriously. Admittedly, it's a small gesture. But in the often uneasy relationship between the scientific community and UFO investigators, it represents an important symbolic step - an admission that some of these seemingly bizarre phenomena deserve research, not ridicule.
In suggesting further study, the panel of scientists noted that several sightings have been accompanied by physical effects that are difficult to explain and thus warrant more-disciplined study - although the group is unconvinced that the effects violate physical laws or have out-of-this-world sources.
Indeed, UFO sightings should be subjected to the rigor of the physical sciences, panelists say, not to prove E.T. is out there, but to erase the "un" in "unidentified."
"The real problem has been that scientists have tended to say, 'UFOs mean extraterrestrials, there can't be extraterrestrials, therefore we can forget UFO reports,' " says Peter Sturrock, professor of applied physics at Stanford University and the panel's director. "We say, 'Forget the theories about what caused the evidence. Look at the evidence and see what it has to tell us.' "
"If there are phenomena we don't understand, as scientists we ought to be interested in understanding them," adds panelist Thomas Holzer, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
The group calls for modest financial, laboratory, and other support from institutions such as universities or nonprofit foundations. This would give scientists access to the latest technologies to examining the physical evidence associated with UFO sightings. The panel also would like to expand regular contact between experienced UFO investigators and mainstream scientists.
These and other recommendations are contained in a 50-page report appearing today in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, published by the Society for Scientific Exploration in Palo Alto, Calif. The society was founded in 1981 to provide a forum for scientists to take a critical look at unusual phenomena. The report summarizes a four-day workshop held last fall that brought the panel together with eight UFO investigators from the United States and Europe.
Grounds for optimism
To UFO investigators such as Mark Rodeghier, the report is cause for cautious optimism. "This is very significant because there has been no serious look at UFOs by reputable scientists for 30 years," says Mr. Rodeghier, director of the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago.
At that time, the US Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency backed a two-year effort to study UFO reports. Known as the Colorado Project and led by Edward Condon, it culminated in a 1968 report that stated: "Further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby."
Since then, however, a number of factors have combined to raise the issue again. The discovery of planets circling nearby stars, discoveries of bacteria that thrive under extreme conditions, and the debate over whether a Martian meteorite contains fossil evidence of microbial life all have lent varying degrees of credence to the notion that life likely exists elsewhere in the universe. Moreover, technology for studying physical evidence from UFO events has become smaller and more capable.
The scientists point out that the quality of UFO data and their analysis fall short of what formal science requires. Yet they were intrigued by several UFO cases and acknowledged that UFO investigators tried to test evidence for signs of a hoax or faulty equipment.
One of the most interesting cases involved a French gardener, who in January 1981 reported that an egg-shaped UFO landed in his garden. He was the only witness. But when specially trained investigators arrived and sampled the plants around the purported landing spot, they discovered that the plants' biochemistry showed increased signs of aging the closer the plant was to the alleged landing spot. Poisoning was ruled out. Researchers tried to test similar plants' response to various forms of radiation. Nothing emerged as the cause of the plants' condition.
Unlike many UFO sightings, this instance was significant because scientists had evidence from the event and could run it through tests, panelists say.
Unraveling the mysteries
In the US, formal investigations of UFO reports could be accomplished for roughly $1 million a year, according to Dr. Sturrock. He points to France, which has had a small, modestly financed investigation team attached to its space agency. By training the French gendarmes how to respond to UFO sightings and secure the site for investigators, France in effect has its own "Men in Black."
If five to 10 countries were to mount that kind of an effort, Sturrock says, it's likely researchers would be able to outline the answers to UFO mysteries in five to 10 years.
"We've been getting UFO reports worldwide for 50 years that we've been ignoring for 50 years," he says. "Let's not ignore them for the next 50 years."