Volume 49, Number 2, Summer 2000


by Robert L. Park

In the summer of 1954, when I was a young Air Force lieutenant, I was sent on temporary assignment to Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, NM, to oversee the installation of a new radar system. Late one night I was returning to the base after a weekend visit with my family in Texas. I was driving on a totally deserted stretch of highway. The sky was moonless but very clear, and I could make out a range of ragged hills off to my left, silhouetted against the background of stars. Suddenly the entire countryside was lit up by a dazzling blue-green light, streaking across the sky just above the horizon.

The light flashed on and off as it passed behind the hills, then vanished without a sound. It was all over in perhaps two seconds. At the time, reported sightings of UFOs made the news almost daily. Indeed, Roswell was the hub of many such speculations. But I prided myself on being a skeptical thinker, and I had little patience for wacky ideas about flying saucers invading the earth.

In fact, I had a perfectly plausible explanation for the spectacular event I had just witnessed. Pale blue-green is the characteristic color of the light emitted by certain frozen free radicals as they warm up. A free radical is a fragment of a molecule, and one well-known variety of free radical is the so-called hydroxide radical-a water molecule that is missing one of its hydrogen atoms. Free radicals are energetically predisposed to reconnect with their missing parts, and for that reason they are highly reactive: ordinarily they do not stick around very long.

But if molecules are broken up into free radicals by radiation at low temperatures, the radicals can be frozen in place. Then, when the severed parts of the molecule are warmed up, they readily recombine to form the same kinds of stable molecules from which they originated. The energy that is liberated when hydroxide radicals recombine with hydrogen atoms to form water appears as blue-green fluorescence. It occurred to me that an ice meteoroid would gradually accumulate hydroxide radicals as a result of cosmic-ray bombardment. What I had had the good fortune to see just then, I reasoned, was a meteor plunging into the earth's upper atmosphere, where it warmed, setting off the recombination reaction.

As I continued driving down the empty highway and crossed into New Mexico, I felt rather smug. The UFO hysteria that was sweeping the country, I told myself, was for people who don't understand science. Then I saw the flying saucer.
It was off to my left, between the highway and the distant hills, racing along just above the range land. It appeared to be a shiny metal disk, thicker in the center than at the edges, and it was traveling at almost the same speed I was. Was it following me? I stepped hard on the gas pedal of the Oldsmobile-and the saucer accelerated. I slammed on the brakes-and it stopped. Only then could I see that it was my own headlights, reflecting off a telephone line strung parallel to the highway. The apparition no longer looked like a flying saucer at all.

It was a humbling experience. My cerebral cortex might have sneered at stories of flying saucers, but the part of my brain where those stories were stored had been activated by the powerful experience of the icy meteorite. At an unconscious level, my mind was busy making connections and associations. I was primed to see a flying saucer-and my brain filled in the details.

Who has not seen an animal in dusky twilight that turns into a bush as one takes a closer look? But something more than the mind playing tricks with patterns of light is needed to explain why hundreds-by some accounts thousands-of people claim to have been abducted by aliens, whisked aboard a spaceship and subjected to some kind of physical examination, usually focusing on their erogenous zones. After the examination, the aliens are frequently said to insert a miniature implant into the abductee's body. Often the memory of an abduction has a dreamlike quality, and subjects can recall the details only under hypnosis.

. . . UFO hysteria . . was for people who don't understand science. Then I saw the flying saucer.

Scientists themselves are not immune to such beliefs. In 1992 a five-day conference was held at MIT to assess the similarities among various accounts of alien abduction. The conference was organized by John E. Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist, and David E. Pritchard, a prize-winning MIT physicist. Mack had been treating patients who thought they had been kidnapped by aliens. His treatment was to reassure them that they were not hallucinating but really had been abducted.

Pritchard, an experimentalist, was more interested in the physical evidence of the kidnappings, particularly the minuscule implants. The most promising candidate seemed to be an implant that abductee Richard Price said had been inserted midshaft into his penis. The implant, amber in color and the size of a grain of rice, was clearly visible. Under a microscope, what appeared to be fine wires could be seen protruding from it. What wonders of alien technology might be revealed by a sophisticated analysis of that diminutive device? Amid high expectations, the "implant" was removed and examined. The conclusion? It was not from Andromeda. Its origins were distinctly terrestrial: human tissue that had accreted fibers of cotton from Price's underwear.

It is hardly surprising that there are similarities in the accounts of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. All of us have been exposed to the same images and stories in the popular media. My local bookstore stocks three times as many books about UFOs as it carries about science. Aliens stare at us from the covers of magazines and make cameo appearances in television commercials. As time goes by, the depictions become increasingly uniform. Any six-year-old can now sketch what an alien looks like. Popular culture is, in fact, undergoing a kind of alien evolution: each new creation by a filmmaker or sci-fi writer acts as a mutation, and the selection mechanism is audience approval. Aliens subtly evolve to satisfy public expectations.

The Truth Is Out There

The widespread belief in alien abductions is just one example of the growing influence of pseudoscience. Two hundred years ago, educated people imagined that the greatest contribution of science would be to free the world from superstition and humbug. It has not happened. Ancient beliefs in demons and magic still sweep across the modern landscape, but they are now dressed in the language and symbols of science: A best-selling health guru asserts that cancer can be banished from the body by the power of the mind. If anyone should doubt it, he explains that it's all firmly grounded in quantum theory.

Inventors claim to have built perpetual-motion machines that circumvent the laws of physics. Educated people wear magnets in their shoes to draw "energy" from the earth.

Voodoo science is everywhere. But why? Perhaps the most endearing characteristic of Americans is their sympathy for the underdog. They resent arrogant scientists who talk down to them in unfamiliar language, and government bureaucrats who hide behind rules. Scientists, meanwhile, often look the other way when science is being abused, expecting bogus claims to self-destruct. But members of the public are often not in a position to distinguish between fabulous but verifiable phenomena, such as hermaphrodites and antimatter, and fanciful ones, such as touch therapy and astrology. It's up to the scientists to inform the nonscientists-and to remember how easy it can be to subscribe to erroneous ideas. Whenever I become impatient with UFO enthusiasts, as I often do, I try to remember that night in New Mexico when, for a few seconds, I, too, believed in flying saucers.

The current fascination with aliens can be traced back to the strange events that took place near Roswell in the summer of 1947. On June 14 of that year, William Brazel, the foreman of the Foster Ranch, seventy-five miles northwest of Roswell, spotted a large area of wreckage about seven miles from the ranch house. The debris included neoprene strips, tape, metal foil, cardboard, and sticks. Brazel didn't bother to examine it closely at the time, but a few weeks later he heard about reports of flying saucers and wondered if what he had seen might be related. He went back with his wife and gathered up some of the pieces. The next day he drove to the little town of Corona, NM, to sell wool, and while he was there he "whispered kinda confidential like" to the Lincoln County sheriff, George Wilcox, that he might have found pieces of one of those "flying discs" people were talking about. The sheriff reported the matter to the nearby army air base-the same base, in fact, where I would be stationed seven years later (before my time, though the Air Corps was still part of the army, and the base was known as Roswell Army Air Field).

My local bookstore stocks three times as many books about UFOs as it carries about science.

The army sent an intelligence officer, Major Jesse Marcel, to check out the report. Marcel thought the debris looked like pieces of a weather balloon or a radar reflector; in any event, all of it fit easily into the trunk of his car. There the incident might have ended-except for the garbled account the public-information office at the base issued to the press the next day. The army, the press office noted, had "gained possession of a flying disc through the cooperation of a local rancher and the sheriff's office." The army quickly issued a correction describing the debris as a standard radar target, but it was too late. The Roswell incident had been launched. With the passage of years, the retraction of that original press release would come to look more and more like a cover-up.

By 1978, thirty years after Brazel spotted wreckage on his ranch, actual alien bodies had begun to show up in accounts of the "crash." Major Marcel's story about loading sticks, cardboard and metal foil into the trunk of his car had mutated into the saga of a major military operation, which allegedly recovered an entire alien spaceship and secretly transported it to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Even as the number of people who might recall the original events dwindled, incredible new details were added by second- and third-hand sources: There was not one crash but two or three. The aliens were small, with large heads and suction cups on their fingers. One alien survived for a time but was kept hidden by the government-and on and on.

Like a giant vacuum cleaner, the story had sucked in and mingled together snippets from reports of unrelated plane crashes and high-altitude parachute experiments involving anthropomorphic dummies, even though some of those events took place years later and miles away. And, with years' worth of imaginative energy to drive their basic beliefs, various UFO "investigators" managed to stitch those snippets into a full-scale myth of an encounter with extraterrestrials-an encounter that had been covered up by the government. The truth, according to the believers, was simply too frightening to share with the public.

Roswell became a gold mine. The unverified accounts spawned a string of profitable books, and were shamelessly exploited for their entertainment value on television programs and talk shows-even serious ones, such as CBS's 48 Hours, then hosted by Dan Rather, and CNN's Larry King Live. The low point was reached by Fox TV. In 1995 the network began showing grainy black-and-white footage of what was purported to be a government autopsy of one of the aliens-a broadcast that garnered such exceptional ratings (and such exceptional advertising revenues) that it was rerun repeatedly for three years. Then, when ratings finally began to wane, Fox dramatically "exposed" the entire thing as a hoax.

Project Mogul

In 1994, to the astonishment of believers and skeptics alike, a search of military records for information about the Roswell incident uncovered a still-secret government program from the 1940s called Project Mogul. There really had been a cover-up, it turned out-but not of an alien spaceship.

In the summer of 1947 the USSR had not yet detonated its first atomic bomb, but it had become clear by then that it was only a matter of time. It was imperative that the United States know about the event when it happened. A variety of ways to detect that first Soviet nuclear test were being explored. Project Mogul was an attempt to "listen" for the explosion with low-frequency acoustic microphones flown to high altitudes in the upper atmosphere. The idea was not entirely harebrained: the interface between the troposphere and the stratosphere creates an acoustic channel through which sound waves can propagate around the globe. Acoustic sensors, radar tracking reflectors and other equipment were sent aloft on long trains of weather balloons, in the hope that they would be able to pick up the sound of an atomic explosion.

The balloon trains were launched from Alamogordo, NM, about a hundred miles west of Roswell. One of the surviving scientists from Project Mogul, the physicist Charles B. Moore, professor emeritus at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, recalls that Flight 4, launched on June 4, 1947, was tracked to within seventeen miles of the spot where Brazel found wreckage ten days later. Then, Moore says, contact was lost. The debris found on the Foster Ranch closely matched the materials used in the balloon trains. The Air Force now concludes that it was, beyond any reasonable doubt, the crash of Flight 4 that set off the bizarre series of events known as the Roswell incident. Had Project Mogul not been highly secret, unknown even to the military authorities in Roswell, the entire episode would probably have ended in July 1947.

It is hard to understand why Project Mogul was secret at all. Even before the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, the project was abandoned, pushed aside by more promising detection technologies. There was nothing in Project Mogul that could have provided the Soviets with anything but amusement, yet it was a tightly kept secret for nearly half a century; even its code name was secret. The project would still be a secret if not for an investigation initiated in 1994 by Steven H. Schiff, a Republican congressman from New Mexico. Schiff insisted that an all-out search for records and witnesses was needed to reassure the public that there had been no government cover-up in Roswell.

The truth, according to the believers, was simply too frightening to share with the public.

By 1997 the Air Force had collected every scrap of information dealing with the Roswell incident into a massive report, in hopes of bringing the story to an end. In fact, the enormous task of locating and sifting through old files and tracking down surviving witnesses had actually begun even before Schiff's call for full disclosure. Responding to requests from self-appointed UFO investigators acting under the Freedom of Information Act had become a heavy burden on the Air Force staff at the Pentagon, and they were eager to get ahead of the Roswell incident. The release of The Roswell Report: Case Closed drew one of the largest crowds on record for a Pentagon press conference.

Although the people involved insist that it was mere coincidence, the Air Force report was completed just in time for the 50th anniversary of Brazel's discovery of the Project Mogul wreckage. Thousands of UFO enthusiasts descended on Roswell, now a popular tourist destination, in July 1997 for a golden-anniversary celebration. They bought alien dolls and commemorative T-shirts, and snatched up every book they could find on UFOs and aliens. The only book that sold poorly was the Air Force report.

If there is any mystery still surrounding the Roswell incident, it is why uncovering Project Mogul in 1994 failed to put an end to the UFO myth. Several reasons seem plausible, and they are all related to the fact that the truth came out almost half a century too late. The disclosures about Project Mogul were pounced on by UFO believers as proof that everything the government had said before was a lie. What reason was there to think that Project Mogul was not just another one?

Furthermore, Project Mogul was not the only secret government program that bolstered belief in UFOs. During the Cold War, U-2 spy planes often flew over the Soviet Union. At first, U-2s were silver-colored, and their shiny skins strongly reflected sunlight, making them highly visible-particularly in the morning and evening, when the surface below was dark. In fact, the CIA estimates that more than half of all the UFO reports from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s were actually sightings of secret U-2 reconnaissance flights. To allay public concerns at the time, the Air Force concocted far-fetched explanations involving natural phenomena. Keeping secrets, as most people learn early in life, inevitably leads to telling lies.

But secrecy, it seems, is an integral part of military culture, and it has generated a mountain of classified material. No one really knows the size of that mountain, and despite periodic efforts at reform, more classified documents exist today than there were at the height of the cold war. The government estimates that the direct cost of maintaining those records is about $3.4 billion per year, but the true cost-in loss of credibility for the government-is immeasurable. In a desperate attempt to bring the system under control, in 1995 President Clinton issued an executive order that will automatically declassify documents that are more than twenty-five years old-estimated at well in excess of a billion pages-beginning this year.

Recent polls indicate that a growing number of people think the government is covering up information about UFOs. Nevertheless, it is easy to read too much significance into reports of widespread public belief in alien visits to earth. The late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan saw in the myth of the space alien the modern equivalent of the demons that haunted medieval society, and for a susceptible few they are a frightening reality. But for most people, UFOs and aliens merely add a touch of excitement and mystery to uneventful lives. They also provide a handy way for people to thumb their noses at the government.

The real cost of the Roswell incident must be measured in terms of the erosion of public trust. In the interests of security, people in every society must grant their governments a license to keep secrets, and in times of perceived national danger, that license is broadened. It is a perilous bargain. A curtain of official secrecy can conceal waste, corruption and foolishness, and information can be selectively leaked for political advantage. That is a convenient arrangement for government officials, but in the long run, as the Roswell episode teaches, it often backfires. Secrets and lies leave the government powerless to reassure its citizens in the face of far-fetched conspiracy theories. Concealment is the soil in which pseudoscience flourishes.


Robert L. Park is a physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park, and the director of the Washington, DC, office of the American Physical Society. This article was adapted from his book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud and published in The Sciences, May/June 2000.

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