UFOs and Roswell

What are UFOs?

UFO stands for "Unidentified Flying Object". Let's look at each word:

  • Object = (Obvious) Something.
  • Flying = (Obvious) Not on the ground.
  • Unidentified = The person reporting it does not know what it is.
It's the third one that gets people in trouble.

The problem with the third one is that the observer tries to interpret what they are seeing; they'll say what it is. This involves assumptions, the prime one being that since it is something unknown it must therefore be an alien spacecraft. This is Arguing from Ignorance: I don't know what it is so it must be alien. Misinterpretation is quite likely, particularly for someone not trained or experienced in looking at such phenomena.

A more scientific approach, although harder to do, is to observe and describe without attempting any interpretation. Here are some imaginary examples. Someone sees something bright streaking across the sky.

  • "Look at that! It's huge! Must be 200 feet across. Going 2000 miles per hour! It's heading downward - maybe gonna land! It's not far away - couple of miles!"
  • Look at that! Bright as a full Moon. Azimuth about 225. Altitude about 45. Going about 20 degrees per second. Heading downward at 10 degrees moving northward.

Compare these two descriptions. Look at what the first observer is doing. He's making an interpretation, excitedly saying what he thinks the thing is. How can he know it's 200 feet across without knowing its distance? The human eye cannot estimate distance at one mile without additional clues, which are absent here. What justification does he have for calling it alien?

Now to the second description. This fellow is describing what he sees, not trying to say what it is. He gives the direction (azimuth) and position above the horizon (altitude), both in degrees (angle) so the estimate does not require knowing the distance. He notes that it appears to be going downward at a small angle and is going north as seen. There is no attempt to interpret it and say what it is. An experienced observer might see this and note that it strongly resembles a bright meteor (fireball); these are seen fairly frequently and now are often captured by surveillance cameras.

Let's look at some possible misinterpretations. In 1969, the Air Force issued a summary of its Project Blue Book findings. This UFO investigation project ran from 1952 to 1969 with a small staff headed by various Air Force officers. In the summary is this breakdown of the 887 sightings documented in 1965:

  • Astronomical events 245 (27.6%). The planet Venus is a major offender here. Mars near maximum brightness has also contributed. Also - bright meteors and reentering space junk contribute, although both can be identified by an experienced observer.
  • Aircraft 210 (23.7%). Surprising but true.
  • Satellites 152 (17.1%). Now this would be the ISS, as it is the brightest orbiting object. An experienced observer would recognize the ISS quickly.
  • Hoaxes, imagination 126 (14.2%). Hoaxes (fake flying saucers) have been a problem since about 1950. They are still a major problem. No UFO sighting/incident can be taken seriously until you have confidently ruled out hoax, which is extremely difficult to do now.
  • Insufficient data supplied 85 (9.6%). In these cases the observer did not provide enough good information to allow a determination.
  • Weather balloons 36 (4.1%). We will include research balloons. Just after sunset on the ground, a sunlit balloon at high altitude makes a wonderful UFO.
  • Still being processed 17 (1.9%). No explanation needed.
  • Unidentified 16 (1.8%). The remainder.
from "Flim-Flam!" by James Randi, page 72.

What Happened at Roswell?

In 1947 something interesting happened on a ranch north of Roswell. It generated a bit of publicity but soon faded . It lay dormant for over 30 years until some UFOlogists began to look at it.

Roswell NM markets the 1947 "incident" quite expertly. There is a UFO Museum, several UFO organizations and a number of shops that sell UFO souvenirs. There's even an annual UFO Festival there every summer. Prof. Cotton once inadvertently drove right through Roswell during the festival. There was a large green (inflatable) alien sitting in a Jeep parked on the street.

Here is a synthesis of the Roswell Myth

The Real Scoop on Flying Saucers

Flying Saucers and Frank Scully