“All science, regardless of what science you’re in, begins with observable phenomena,” asserted Professor Don Donderi of the Department of Psychology last Wednesday, during the second lecture of his four-piece series on unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Entitled “Evidence, Scientific Reaction, and Popular Culture,” the talk, attended by eight students, discussed the growing body of testimonials from people claiming to have seen UFOs, as well as scientific evidence supporting their existence.
According to Donderi, the first widely publicized UFO sighting occured in 1947. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot from Idaho, saw what he later described as “bright, saucer-like objects” flying in the air. Arnold tried to approach the government about the incident, but after failing to find a receptive federal agency, he turned his attention to the local press. After news of this incident was published, reports of UFO sightings became more common.
The task of classifying eyewitness accounts was first dealt with by the U.S. Air Force (USAF), beginning in the late forties. The USAF hired J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer, to consult on Project Blue Book, a systematic study of UFO sightings. Hynek proposed a classification system for the different types of reports. His system divided the accounts into categories such as Daylight Discs, Radar/Visual Reports, or Close Encounters. The Condon report, a USAF-sponsored paper published in 1969, reviewed Project Blue Book data and concluded that there was no scientific knowledge to be gained from the study of UFOs.
After Condon was published, the USAF stopped all official investigations into UFOs. Other world governments, however, have shown less apathy toward the subject. In 1958, the Almirante Saldanha, a Brazilian ship, observed a strange object flying over Trindade Island, in the South Atlantic Ocean. Almiro Baraúna, a submarine photographer onboard, took pictures of the object, which were then analysed exhaustively by the Brazilian Navy’s Aerial Reconnaissance Lab, explained Donderi. “No piece of evidence, like a photograph, is worth anything at all without information about how it was taken,” said Donderi. At the behest of President Juscelino Kubitschek, the navy released an official report on the incident that included the photographic evidence.
As Donderi explained, however, one of the major problems in the study of UFOs is that even if one establishes the reliability of eyewitness accounts to form empirical evidence, there are limits to what can be explained given our current understanding of the universe.
Dr. Albert Bregman, Emeritus Professor from McGill Psychology, for example, remarked during the question period at the end of the lecture that UFOs defy our notions of Newtonian physics.
“If [UFOs] are solid objects, they violate some fundamental physical laws such as momentum,” Bregman said.
Donderi argued that the inability to explain UFO phenomena using current scientific understanding does not necessarily preclude the problem from having a solution.
“Everyone talks about the speed of light being a limiting factor [in interstellar travel], but how long is it [travel to Earth] for them? It’s not about how long we live, but how long they live,” Donderi said.
After the lecture, Tom Gibbs, U0 Political Science, said that he was surprised there were so many scientific considerations in the exploration of UFO sightings.
“What struck me the most was that I had never considered the physics involved in a possible Earth landing. It makes me ponder the foreignness of extraterrestrial biological make-up, and our possible comparatively quaint scientific advancement,” Gibbs said.
Donderi’s third lecture, “Close Encounters,” is on March 18 in room N2/2 of the Stewart Biology Building at 4 pm.