DREAMLAND: TRAVELS INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF ROSWELL AND AREA 51
By Phil Patton
336 pp., $25
Here's a tip for enjoying this book: Relax in a comfortable chair with good light. Don a pair of shades that don't restrict your peripheral vision. You'll need it if conspiracy theorists sneak up on you.
The book title has several meanings. "Dreamland" is the nickname of a military flight-test base next to the nuclear weapons test site in Nevada. It's also the secret world of aeronautical pioneers who gave us such marvels as the U-2 spy plane and stealth aircraft. Above all, it's the surreal world of "outsiders" who fantasize about secret technology or see alien invaders behind official denials.
All of this is a good read and, on one level, a lot of fun. The now-it-can-be-told history of some of the things that went on at the secret flight-test facility is especially interesting.
At the same time, a darker theme permeates the narrative. It warns readers of the human tendency to make up solutions to unsolved mysteries - even to make up mysteries - when official explanations seem wanting.
As Phil Patton - who writes the Public Eye column for The New York Times - puts it: "Folklore and superstition begin where science and knowledge end." He takes readers across that boundary in a sprightly account spiced with humor.
Conspiracy theories crystallize when a little knowledge is dissolved in a lot of ignorance and spiked with suspicion of official deceit. Governments have only themselves to blame for the latter.
What they consider necessary secrecy is intended to mislead. Too often it is misused to hide malfeasance. It also can backfire. There's irony in the author's tale of Dreamlanders caught off guard by nuclear tests that dusted them with radioactive fallout and blew in their aircraft hanger doors.
The flight site and the bomb site shared common terrain and cooperative management. Yet such is the compartmentalization of secret operations that they were less than candid with each other.
Beyond this interagency deceit, there were official lies (eventually exposed) that reassured the American public that weapons-test fallout posed no hazard beyond the test site neighborhood. A meteorologist monitoring fallout later told me that radio-iodine contaminating some New England pastures was well over the official safety guideline. Yet the government insisted that fallout from the test site was minuscule. This one example shows why even the most sober thinkers have had reason to suspect official statements.
It's little wonder that secret technology buffs - including some former Dreamlanders - keep watch over the Dreamland base. They understandably befuddle themselves with spurious sightings of fantastic aircraft. UFO fans carry such thinking into outer space.
If you wonder how anyone can believe such nonsense, the author details the mental journeys of several prominent true believers.
In doing this, he could have spent a little less space on conspiracy theorists' personal foibles. Accounts of nights spent in futile vigilance on hilltops overlooking the Dreamland base soon become boring.
Overall, though, Patton gives us useful insight into a classic fallibility of the human mind.
And what does this reviewer think of UFO conspiracy theories after nearly half a century of covering such stories? I know of no official coverup.
But several decades ago, another science writer and I took a mock solemn oath to keep silent about any evidence of alien visits we might run across. So far, we haven't been put to the test.
* Robert C. Cowen writes on science for the Monitor.