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Long before the 1947 Roswell incident brought “little green men” into the public consciousness and prompted an explosion in UFO sightings, writers and scientists have speculated about the existence of life beyond our planet. H. G. Wells laid the groundwork for modern science fiction with novels like The War of the Worlds (1898), one of the first books to imagine an extraterrestrial invasion. Before Wells, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) sparked the imagination by discovering “canals” on Mars. But for the first recorded instance of humanity pondering the possibility of alien life, we have to go all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman times. In the first century B.C., Roman poet Lucretius wrote, “Nothing in the universe is unique and alone and therefore in other regions there must be other earths inhabited by different tribes of men and breeds of beast.” Not exactly a controversial supposition; still, whether or not such tribes have come to our planet remains impossible to prove, and those who claim to have encountered alien beings have long been dismissed.
That said, in recent years, the concept of otherworldly visitors has begun to shift toward the mainstream. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense established the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, the latest governmental entity devoted to investigating unexplained sightings. Even the term of choice, “UFO,” has given way to “UAP”—unidentified aerial (or anomalous) phenomenon. And just this June, former U.S. Air Force officer and intelligence official David Grusch claimed that the U.S. government had retrieved remains of several aircraft of “non-human” origin. The fallout from Grusch’s claims is yet to be determined—as is their veracity—but it seems likely that, in the end, the world will settle back into the binary of believers and skeptics, with no concrete evidence to settle the debate. Regardless of which camp you fall into, some of us will always look skyward with hope; we may never be able to scour the entirety of the universe, but it’s hard not to thrill to Lucretius’ logic. In the meantime, the longform articles collected here offer a fascinating glimpse into the UFO community and the stories that have shaped our modern understanding of the topic.
I Want To Believe (Brad Badelt, Maisonneuve, July 2021)
For me, what makes alleged alien encounter testimony so compelling is that—regardless of whether I believe the person’s interpretation of events—the incident had an undeniable and profound effect on their lives. This may not be true in every case, but even if you write off many accounts as delusion or whimsy or simply fiction, you’re still left with a legion of people who have been dramatically changed by their perceived experiences. It’s comforting to know, then, that for those such as Jason Guillemette, a character in this piece about amateur ufologists, communities exist where one can share their experiences without judgment.
In Guillemette’s case, that community is the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a non-profit, volunteer-run organization active in more than 40 countries—and one whose members are as rigidly skeptical as Guillemette. For most MUFON alumni, this is a quest for truth, not validation; members work rigorously to find earthly explanations for reported sightings. And as Badelt widens his scope to other folks in other organizations, you can’t help but be moved by people’s stories. After all, if you were to have a life-changing close encounter, with whom would you share that knowledge?
Most of the time, he’s able to find an explanation, he says. He often sends videos to other volunteers at MUFON who specialize in analyzing computer images. He refers to websites that track the flight patterns of satellites and planes and the International Space Station—the usual suspects when it comes to UFO sightings, he says. Guillemette described a recent case in which a couple reported seeing strange lights hovering above a nearby lake. The lights circled above the lake and then dropped down into the water, only to rise up a moment later and zip away. It turned out to be a plane, he says—filling up with water to fight a nearby forest fire. “Not everybody likes what we come up with,” he says, “but sometimes it’s really evident.”
Crowded Skies (Vaughan Yarwood, New Zealand Geographic, April 1997)
The history of UFO sightings in New Zealand dates back to the early 20th century. It seems such a tranquil and unassuming country—cinematic hobbit history notwithstanding—which perhaps makes the events recounted here even more unsettling. These are all-too-human tales of altered lives. Some cases, such as that of Iris Catt, a self-proclaimed alien abductee whose nightmarish encounters go back to her childhood, are heartbreakingly tragic. Others follow more positive narratives, believing that aliens are beaming down rays of positivity and openness, gradually bringing humanity to a point where it is ready for formal communication.
When I was at university in the 1990s, “regression therapy” became big news, with countless stories of trauma-blocked memories and past-life remembrances unearthed through hypnosis. Just as suddenly, regression therapy drowned in a flood of peer-reviewed criticism, relegated to yet another pseudoscience. The concept never went away entirely and it pops up again in Vaughan Yarwood’s story, cautiously approved by academic institutions for its utility in specific circumstances. It’s complex territory, but Yarwood navigates it with clarity and sensitivity.
Iris Catt, a mild-mannered, unprepossessing woman in her 40s, then introduces herself. She is an abductee. It appears certain aliens have had their eye on her from an early age. She recounts her night horrors calmly, the way people do who have learned to accept their scars, to make their hurt and anguish a part of themselves.
“It is happening every day, and it is happening in New Zealand,” says Iris. “It is not going to go away. I truly believe that more and more people are beginning to remember what is happening to them because the time is getting closer when we are going to have to recognise that we are not the only intelligent form of life in the universe.”
Her audience understands. She is among friends.
Alien Nation (Ralph Blumenthal, Vanity Fair, May 2013)
Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Edward Mack spent many years engaging with people who claimed to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, in the process becoming a pioneer in his field. Not surprisingly, he attracted resistance from the scientific community—less because of his work than because, over time, he came to the startling and highly controversial conclusion that a number of alleged abductees were telling the truth. Mack’s research may be little remembered by his profession at large, but his warmth, humanity, and faith continue to inspire hope in a small community that gathers annually in Rhode Island. They prefer the term “experiencer” to “abductee,” and in this Vanity Fair feature Ralph Blumenthal interweaves their stories with Mack’s.
For more about one of the characters in Blumenthal’s story, a 1994 feature in Omni details Linda’s alleged experience.
Once again, for me, the fascination of this piece lies in the stories of these everyday folks. To some degree, it doesn’t matter what they actually experienced. What counts, as Mack understood, is they have experienced something, and that something left a profound mark on their lives. In seeking to apply rigor and structure to the stories he was collecting, Mack plowed a hard path with poise and compassion. As this piece eloquently shows, his work was not in vain.
“Nothing in my nearly 40 years of familiarity with psychiatry prepared me,” Mack later wrote in his 1994 best-seller, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. He had always assumed that anyone claiming to have been abducted by aliens was crazy, along with those who took them seriously. But here were people—students, homemakers, secretaries, writers, businesspeople, computer technicians, musicians, psychologists, a prison guard, an acupuncturist, a social worker, a gas-station attendant—reporting experiences that Mack could not begin to fathom, things, he reflected, that by all notions of reality “simply could not be.”
One Man’s Quest to Investigate the Mysterious “Wow!” Signal (Keith Cooper, Supercluster, August 2022)
I have long been fascinated with the so-called Wow signal, received in 1977 by Ohio University’s Big Ear radio telescope, which was then being used to search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The tale of the signal makes for a great story in itself, but Keith Cooper’s piece sees that as merely a starting point. His narrative finds a central character in a man named Robert Gray: While the scientific community, including SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), gradually lowered the Wow signal to the status of “interesting curio,” Gray remained convinced that there was more to uncover.
Gray’s tenacity and belief in the face of mounting opposition is remarkable. Struggling for funding, unsuccessfully attempting to enlist help, and bartering for much-needed time on a limited number of radio telescopes, the frustrations he must have experienced make the twists in his story all the more poignant. Just when his enthusiasm began to wane, his work seemingly at a dead end, an exoplanet scientist reached out to Gray with a fresh idea, breathing new life into the man’s relentless quest. There is no neat, satisfying definitive end to this tale, but perhaps therein lies the true glory of Gray’s work. In the face of uncertainty, he carried on until the very end.
Nobody knows what the Wow signal was. We do know that it was not a regular astrophysical object, such as a galaxy or a pulsar. Curious the frequency that it was detected at, 1,420 MHz, is the frequency emitted by neutral hydrogen atoms in space, but it is also the frequency that scientists hunting for alien life listen to. Their reasoning is that aliens will supposedly know that astronomers will already be listening to that frequency in their studies of galactic hydrogen and so should easily detect their signal – or so the theory goes. Yet there was no message attached to the signal. It was just a burst of raw radio energy.
If SETI had a mythology, then the Wow signal would be its number one myth. And while it has never been forgotten by the public, the academic side of SETI has, by and large, dismissed it, quite possibly because it hasn’t been seen to repeat, and therefore cannot be verified—the golden rule of a successful SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) detection.
How Harry Reid, a Terrorist Interrogator and the Singer from Blink-182 Took UFOs Mainstream (Bryan Bender, Politico, May 2021)
Celebrities who have copped to believing in UFOs are numerous enough to populate a listicle. Politicians? Not so much. Yet, the U.S. Congress’ House Oversight Committee has announced plans for a hearing regarding UAP reports, and if you trace the conversation back a few years, you’ll find that this shift is at least partly thanks to the protagonists in this story: former U.S. senator Harry Reid and Tom DeLonge, a founding member of pop-punk band Blink 182.
There’s a lot to digest here. It’s a wonderful example of hidden history: a small group of like-minded individuals working behind the scenes to advance their cause, with potentially wide-ranging repercussions. That history would be far less engaging, however, were it not for Tom DeLonge’s gregarious personality and indefatigable belief in alien visitors. His company, To The Stars, devotes considerable time and money to researching UAPs and extraterrestrial matters in general; Bryan Bender’s feature tells the story of how the singer managed to recruit experts and politicians to his cause.
Hanging on DeLonge’s wall was what might be considered the medals he’s collected in his struggle: a display case filled with dozens of commemorative coins from his meetings with generals, aerospace contractors and secret government agencies. They trace his visits to the CIA, to the U.S. Navy, to the “advanced development programs” division at Lockheed Martin’s famously secretive “Skunk Works” in Southern California, where some of the world’s most advanced spy planes were designed.
Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, U.K. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.
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