Paul Schemm / AP
A stela at the Egyptian museum in Cairo shows Pharaoh Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti and their children worshipping the sun in the more natural artistic style of the time. Akhenaten's sighting of a "shining disk" descending from the sky is included on a list of 500 unexplained aerial observations made before the industrial revolution, drawn up by Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck.
One of the best-known scientific sleuths of UFO sightings is focusing his search not on today's flying saucers, but on the sky wonders of antiquity.
Jacques Vallee, the French-born computer whiz and venture capitalist who also served as the model for Francois Truffaut's UFO-hunting character in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," says such sightings show that the UFO phenomenon did not start in 1947. He's a co-author of a newly published book, "Wonders in the Sky," that lists 500 unexplained aerial observations dating back as far as 1460 B.C. and going up to the dawn of the industrial age in 1879. (That 500th case involved an unknown "airship" that was sighted over eastern Iowa, where I grew up. Coincidence? I think not.)
Vallee and fellow researcher Chris Aubeck also delve into longstanding UFO legends that they've excluded from their list for various reasons. For example, take the story about Alexander the Great seeing a flying object that shot out a blaster ray. "We traced the story and discovered it was about the use of gunpowder, not an unexplained flying object," Aubeck and Vallee write.
About 90 percent of UFO reports turn out to have perfectly natural explanations, but Vallee says the reports that remain unexplained are provocative enough that they deserve more thoroughgoing study. He stated his case this week during a telephone conversation. By the way, when he points out that the modern flying-saucer era began in my "neck of the woods," he's not talking about eastern Iowa, but about western Washington, where msnbc.com is headquartered. (Coincidence? I think not.)
Here's an edited transcript:
Cosmic Log: It's interesting to see that these sorts of sightings go back into antiquity. It almost makes one feel as though this is a phenomenon that goes along with being human.
Jacques Vallee: It certainly has had an impact on humanity. We're staying away from theories, because we don't think we're ready to have a good hypothesis about this phenomenon. What we're trying to do is ... well, as you know, when you're doing science you want to know how did something begin, and what were the conditions under which it began. So far, if you read most UFO books, they say this started in 1947. In fact, they say it started in your neck of the woods when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold described seeing six objects similar to saucers in flight. The problem with that is, it didn't start in 1947. We have cases just like it earlier in the 20th century, and when you look at the literature of the 19th century, we find experiences of the same kind.
Courtesy of Chris Aubeck
Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck, seen here in a 2003 photo, are co-authors of "Wonders in the Sky."
Forty years ago, I published a book called "Passport to Magonia," saying, "Look, this is very similar to ancient folklore, about elves and demons and angels and other types of creatures, leprechauns and so on, who in many cases were also coming from the sky and were doing very similar things." Of course this became folklore, and the question I raised was, are we being faced with the same kind of folklore with modern UFOs? Could there be a real phenomenon underneath all of this that has not been recognized? Whether or not it's extraterrestrial is a different question. Of course, it could be. It's a big universe out there. Many astronomers -- including myself -- strongly believe that there is life throughout the cosmos.
But we still need to know the characteristics of the phenomenon. And thanks to the Internet, now we have the means to look at vast collections of records, from newspapers and books, from museum collections. Chris Aubeck is an Englishman living in Madrid who is very much a scholar of history and languages, and he contacted me about doing this research together. So we merged our databases. He had assembled a remarkable network of people in Russia, Germany, Latin America, the U.S. and so on who were interested in the same kind of research. We started tracking down every case, trying to find original references. It took six years. Nobody got paid. It's very much a labor of love. I think all of us fell in love with the material, it's so rich and so interesting.
Q: How does one approach a study of this sort of thing? The scientific study of these observations, and the assessment of it, is so fraught with difficulty. Some people might say there's a high "giggle factor."
A: We went beyond the giggle factor. Today there are pilots and military people willing to talk openly about what they've seen. The records of many countries have been made available. You know, I'm a member of the expert committee for the aerial phenomena study group of the French equivalent of NASA, CNES. It has been working on this phenomenon officially since 1975 and has a database. I built one of the early databases of sightings. My background is in computer science, so I started looking for patterns. Of course we all know that 90 percent of the reports are explainable, as illusions or airplanes, or meteors or atmospheric phenomena. The second part of our book is all about the cases that we have excluded, and why we did. But you're left with a significant number -- dozens of thousands of cases -- all unexplained. Not only are they unexplained, but they're also very well documented, well enough that scientists can begin to look for patterns in the phenomenon.
That's what I've been doing. That's what my earlier books were about. I've been doing that with a small group of scientists from other parts of the world who are very interested in this phenomenon. Again, I have no firm conclusion, but this certainly behaves like a technology that's very much in the science of our own. I'm interested in the physics of this. There are radar records, visual observations, electromagnetic observations, so there is quite a bit of material that one can begin to work with.
Q: I suppose the fact that these sightings in the sky, at least the small percentage that are unexplained, could be taken as evidence that there are entities that have been around here for a long time. It's not as if someone just showed up in 1947 and said, "We're going to save humanity from themselves." It could suggest that alien visitors have been here for a long time, but there could be other explanations. For example, it could say something about how our mind works ... that this is a purely psychological or mental phenomenon.
A: It's not simply a psychological phenomenon. Many of the cases, both ancient and modern, involve a number of trained people -- sometimes the entire crew of an aircraft. ... There is a database of over 500 reports by pilots in the first person. This is not hearsay, this is not a case of "my nephew told me there was something that a pilot saw." This is first person, and official reports by pilots which in many cases involved near-collisions. So this is serious business, and everybody knows it.
There is a reaction of ridicule simply because we don't know what it is. The tendency is to laugh, and it's probably a healthy tendency. It's a psychological reaction to protect ourselves from things we don't understand. Many of the reports in our book came from professional scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Two directors of the Paris Observatory. People who have left their name in the history of science, like Lagrange and Messier. These are not casual observers. These are serious men.
Q: This subject sometimes leads people to say that the government must know more than it's telling, and that there's some kind of global conspiracy going on. I think you've resisted that pull to point to conspiracies. But if it seems as if there's credible evidence, how do you avoid falling into that way of thinking?
A: You know, there is a great difference between having a lot of data and having an explanation for something. For example, we have a lot of data about people dying of cancer every day. We have samples, we have X-rays, we have everything about what happened to them. And we've been applying high technology to this problem for 50 years. But we still don't know how to cure cancer. So there's a big difference between saying "the government must have a lot of data" and saying "the government knows what this is."
Tarcher / Penguin
"Wonders in the Sky" chronicles 500 cases of unexplained aerial objects.
The place where I end up is, parts of the government must have a lot of data that should be turned over to the scientific community. What are they afraid of? The way to approach this is to turn over any data to the scientists, and they can compete to try to explain it. That's the way modern software is created. That's the way the Internet was built. I know that from my professional history. As you know, I was involved in ARPANET as a principal investigator. You do it with small teams, working on a competitive basis for two or three years, and that's how you do science. What's wrong with that?
We know there is data. All of us who have investigated this have spoken to pilots and radar operators who said that after a sighting, a couple of people in blue jeans showed up with some identification from somewhere and confiscated the tapes or the film, and they took it somewhere and no one ever saw it again. There's enough of that now that we know that data went somewhere.
You know how the government works: They accumulate things they never do anything with. I'd certainly love to see that data, and many of my colleagues would love to see it. To that extent, I think there should be more openness, especially from the military. They can strip out anything that's confidential or classified. If it's data that came from a special kind of radar, we don't need to know what type of radar. We should just see what the phenomenon was and go on from there. To that extent, I agree with people who say there should be disclosure. I have no evidence to tell me that the government has a solution to this, but I could be wrong. The government doesn't tell me what it does.
Q: You've worked in this field for decades now. How does it make you feel? Do you feel fearful? For a lot of people, this can get to be scary stuff.
A: Well, first of all, I'm certainly not frustrated. We're making a lot of progress, and this book is an example. We think this is only the beginning. This book will stimulate scholars in other countries to start looking at their records. That's exciting.
We've worked for a long time, and we don't have an answer -- but that's the way it works in science. I've worked at the University of Texas on the structure of galaxies, and we still don't know the structure of galaxies. We are puzzled by dark matter and all those things. There are very few sciences where you have definite answers in your lifetime. You can work on cancer research for decades and see only a marginal improvement in rates of success.
Personally, I've nver been afraid of the phenomenon. I'm occasionally awed by it. One thing that kept us going through the six years of the book project was that the material was so amazing. Here you have Michelangelo observing a triangle in the sky. You have Cassini observing something in the sky, and not publishing anything about it until he saw it a second time, some years later. You're touching upon not only the history of science, but also the history of culture.
Q: If there was anything you could change about the way anomalous phenomena are reported in the media, what would it be? What would be your prescription?
A: If you go out in the streets of Seattle tonight and see something in the sky, where would you report it? If you call the Air Force, they will say, "We're no longer entrusted with this." If you call an observatory, they will laugh at you. If you call the police, they will say, "We've got more important crimes to go after." You have no place to go. So you might call the newspaper, and the newspaper will write a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article about somebody who maybe had a little bit too much to drink. And that's the end of that. You'll never report anything anymore after that.
Why not have a series of small scientific projects with a well-advertised reporting number, where people can be taken seriously? Again, most of those reports will be explained very quickly. People do misunderstand Venus for a spacecraft, they do misinterpret the moon rising through a layer of fog as a flying saucer. Most of these witnesses are really genuinely looking for an ordinary explanation, and if you give it to them, they will be happy. But once in a while you have something that does not have the usual explanation, and then you have to do research.
So I would set up four or five small projects around the country, just looking into this with no preconceived notions, not saying that this is an invasion by E.T. or anything like that. Potentially this is a very important phenomenon.
Jacques Vallee's top-ten list of pre-20th-century unexplained aerial objects:
- July 7, 1015: Objects emerge from "mother stars" over Kyoto, Japan.
- Oct. 2, 1235: Stars are seen circling over Japan. Astrologers say "it is only the wind making the stars sway."
- June 3, 1277: Chinese poet Liu Ying immortalizes flying-saucer sighting in a poem titled "Event Seen at Dawn."
- Nov. 1, 1461: The legal adviser to Philip III, duke of Burgundy, describes a bright object that spirals upward, spins around, rolls over "like a loose watch" and disappears.
- 1513: Michelangelo observes a triangular light with three tails of different colors. He even paints a picture of it, but the painting has not survived.
- March 1638: Puritan settler James Everell and two companions report seeing a bright object appearing in the sky above Massachusetts' Muddy River ... and experiencing the "missing time" phenomenon.
- Sept. 14, 1641: An Armenian chronicler describes the appearance of a light that "revolved like a wheel" in the sky and moved away.
- Jan. 25, 1672: While serving as the director of the Paris Observatory, astronomer Giovanni Cassini spots an object he takes to be a moon of Venus. He announces the discovery after seeing the object again in 1686. But no such moon exists. (The hypothetical moon, which came to be known as Neith, was reported by other astronomers as well. Scientists have speculated that the object was actually an optical illusion or a nearby star.)
- Sept. 7, 1820: Astronomer Francois Arago, director of the Paris Observatory, watches a formation of unknown objects making turns with "military precision" during a lunar eclipse.
- June 18, 1845: Crewmates on the British brig Victoria report seeing "three luminous bodies" rise from the sea between Malta and Turkey.