3 February 2009

"The UFO Experience" by J. Allen Hynek

The history of the UFO phenomenon is (or at least should) be built on witness reports and physical evidence. But when dealing with a subject as baffling and almost unintelligible as this one, the investigator himself becomes a central piece in attributing credibility to the study and its subsequent results. Sadly enough, science as a whole has cast the UFO enigma outside its gates, allowing gross misappropriations by the show-prone media and unprepared self-styled specialists. Only a handful of brave academics have emerged from the ivory tower of universities and laboratories to apply their knowledge on this matter. Among them the astronomer J. Allen Hynek is both a pioneer and an unforgettable reference.

Curiously enough, he came into the UFO field by accident, after an invitation presented by the United States Air Force to serve as a consultant to the newly created Blue Book Project. His work would put him in contact with thousands of sightings reports and take him around North-America to interview witnesses and supervise the collecting of evidence. His initial reluctance to accept the reality of the phenomenon was well in tone with the military authorities’ wishes. Later, his contact with other investigators like Jacques Vallée and Aimé Michel (also members of the mythical “Invisible College”) would contribute to a dramatic shift in his conviction, towards a realisation that such a quantity of strange events was urging for a major organized scientific study. More than that, the inquiry’s results should be made available to the public, an idea that went against his employer’s secretive (and manipulative) objectives.

“The UFO Experience” was published for the first time in 1972, when Hynek had already spent 25 years in the field. The Condon Report was published just 3 years before and its conclusions were peremptory: there's no scientific validity or interest to the study of UFOs. Obviously J. Allen Hynek disagreed, but was followed only by a small group of scientists who remained interested in the phenomenon (some publicly, others privately). His book was, firstly, a wake up call against the fallacious results brought to light by Edward Condon and his committee. For that purpose he presents evidence that the investigation was biased and scientifically inept, a fact also supported by former members of its board who voluntarily resigned in protest. Hynek underlines that in spite of the laughter of science the phenomenon continues to manifest itself, generating a crowd of people from all walks of life who have experienced something they can’t explain and that doesn’t fit the prevailing notions established about our world - that alone is worthy of scientific scrutiny.

On the other hand, the main and more perennial contribution of this book to the study of UFOs would be the classification method for sightings, ranging from distant observations (nocturnal lights, daylight discs and radar-visual reports) to the more fascinating close encounters of the first, second and third kind. To illustrate the different categories, Hynek picked several cases, including some from the Blue Book Files, and divided them according to strangeness and probability indexes. The proximity of the observed object and, eventually, the physical effects and traces left behind are the main vectors to consider in his classification method. Remarkably, it’s fairly noticeable that the close encounters of the third kind (which involve descriptions of beings associated with the UFO itself, usually denominated as humanoids) provoked a reaction of extreme caution in the author. They were attached to reports of such high strangeness that J. Allen Hynek was visibly contained in his appreciation, presenting only a handful of well documented cases.

In the end, “The UFO Experience” remains as one of the essential reads for anyone with an interest in this phenomenon. It’s a truly scientific, methodical and passionate analysis directed both to academic circles and the general public, a balance that few authors can claim to have achieved.

Further information about J. Allen Hynek is available on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Hynek). For contextual purposes we also suggest the article about the Condon Committee (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condon_Committee).

2 February 2009

"The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball" by Surendra Verma

Around 7:14 A.M. on June 30 1908 the Siberian heartland was shook by a colossal explosion, with a strength equivalent to 1000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The effects of this cataclysm were felt worldwide: shockwaves were registered around the planet, for weeks Europe had unusually bright nights and disturbances were measured on Earth's magnetic field. More than 100 years have gone by and the definitive answer for such dramatic event still eludes the scientific community.

The debate has flourished between scientists and passionate investigators and the theories that purportedly explain the mystery are diverse, ranging from the plausible to the absurd. Strangely, the available literature in english about the Tunguska Event is scarce, making this work by Melbourne based science writer Surendra Verma a gem of sorts.

The structure of “The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball” is very straightforward: it starts with an overview of the happening and its immediate consequences and then follows a path of historical review of the various expeditions and scientific studies performed on the spot. The lifelong work of Leonid Kulik, scientist and leader of the first expedition to observe the devastating effects of the catastrophic occurrence (1921), is carefully scrutinized. His theory was that the Tunguska Event was caused by the impact of a meteorite and this is a possibility that still has many followers. The evidence on the ground though was quite frustrating and Kulik died without ever discovering the massive impact crater he expected to find.

The procession of theories begins to unfold from the third chapter onwards. The comet hypothesis, first suggested by the astronomer F. J. W. Whipple in 1934, became one of the most solid and supported through the decades. But as the expeditions to Tunguska became more frequent and well equipped, more puzzling data began to emerge. Small spheroid particles were found scattered around the epicentre of the explosion and bizarre increases in annual tree growth served as support for stranger possibilities. The impact of a black hole, antimatter and even the spectacular crash landing of an ailing extraterrestrial spacecraft, were some of the theories that met more or less criticism from the scientific community and the media.

Surendra Verma must be lauded for the impartial treatment of every hypothesis, allowing the reader to make his own judgement. As an author he took the right approach, strongly cementing his book on published scientific studies and through direct contact with some of the investigators who spent (and still spend) long summers on the inhospitable Siberian wilderness in search for the answer to one of the truly great mysteries of the 20th century.

More information on the Tunguska Event may be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunguska_event), which also contains further links for websites pondering on this enigma.