August 31, 2010
In researching a reader’s letter about “Department of Flying Saucers” in the Sept. 2010 issue, I came across a report on the Web site, UFO Casebook, which claimed that General Omar Bradley had been flown overseas to view alien beings retrieved from a UFO crash site in the Arctic Circle. The report writer, Billy R., put it thusly: “In the early 50s her husband, who did not talk much about his work, told her he had flown the general to Germany to see some little space men approximately 3 feet tall and dead.”
Well. Surely that beats alien vampires, who would perhaps be the same height but undead.
July 7, 2010
“It was 58 years ago today that the Roswell incident occurred,” said Roger Launius, a National Air and Space Museum Space History curator who could also be considered NASM’s chief skeptic. (An earlier talk of his concerned people who refuse to believe the Apollo program landed men on the moon.) His “Ask an Expert” presentation for museum visitors, ”Assessing the Legacy of the Roswell Incident,” clearly defined fact versus fiction in the UFO craze that got its start at New Mexico’s Roswell Army Air Field in July 1947—shortly after pilot Ken Arnold coined the term “flying saucer” to describe what he saw on a flight one June afternoon.
“Most Ask an Expert presentations focus on an artifact,” said Launius. “Unfortunately, we have no artifacts from Roswell. Maybe in the future, we will [SNERK].” Fellow snerker David DeVorkin had dusted off his tin foil hat, which he had worn at the “No Apollo” talk, and later lobbed a few softball questions at his Space History co-worker.
All the fuss and feathers arose from debris found by rancher Mac Brazel, who brought it to county sheriff George Wilcox, who notified Roswell Army Air Field, where, the story goes, a colonel okayed a press release that stated the base had captured a flying saucer. There is no documentation whatsoever on how this info was released to the local newspapers, and, as Launius put it, the stories from the major players, some of whom lived into the 1990s, “got better with time.”
The next day, the Army debunked the entire tale, but the damage was done, and the UFO craze continues today, with Roswell and its UFO Museum a big tourist attraction.
What really happened? Project Mogul. Mogul, conceived by Columbia University’s Maurice Ewing, involved a 600-foot-long chain of high-altitude Mylar balloons, microphones, sensors, and instrumentation designed to audibly detect Soviet A-bomb tests. Mogul Flight 4 was launched from Alamogordo on June 4, 1947, and is likely the source of the debris Brazel brought to Sheriff Wilcox. Although that doesn’t make for nearly as much whoop-dee-do as alien autopsies, another Roswell legacy.
May 18, 2009
In 1982, the year E.T. The Extraterrestrial ruled at the box office, another, less heralded movie about aliens came out—John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, starring Kurt Russell. In the first film, a kind-hearted, magical being appears on Earth, works miracles, then ascends into the heavens with a promise to return. Basically, the Christ story.
The second film took a darker, more Darwinian view of extraterrestrial contact. “They” were here to invade their newfound host organisms (us!) with no explanation or apology.
Lacking information about the motives of whatever aliens might exist, both scenarios are equally plausible. And that makes some people nervous about deliberately advertising our presence by beaming messages to other stars. Maybe we shouldn’t “shout at the cosmos,” for fear of who’d come running.
The folks at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who patiently listen for radio signals that might hint at alien intelligence, have no plans to send messages into space. But they’d like to know what you’d say if they did. So they’ve invited the public to upload words, pictures, songs, or whatever to a site called “Earth Speaks.” The project explores a critical question, according to the researchers: “If we discover intelligent life beyond Earth, should we reply, and if so, what should we say?”
No doubt some people will strain themselves trying to be profound or all-inclusive, as Carl Sagan and colleagues did when they created the Voyager Golden Record, which contains, among many other things, the sound of thunder and whales, and greetings in 55 languages, from Czech to Sotho. (What, no Guaraní? Come on!)
My advice? Don’t worry about it. When communicating with imaginary beings, any message is as good as any other. And let’s hope that the aliens—who learned eons ago to merge their consciousness with the fabric of space-time and are watching us all the time, anyway—will look on our efforts with amused sympathy.
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