In the past, we have talked about astronomers and UFOs with the prevailing opinion that astronomers don’t see UFOs because they are familiar with what is in the sky so they are not easily fooled. I believe that astronomers don’t report UFOs because they are afraid of ridicule and committing professional suicide.
So, the question is, are there any facts to back up this claim?
Certainly. I refer to the Special Report on Conferences with Astronomers on Unidentified Aerial Objects to Air Intelligence Center, Wright Patterson Air Force Base by Dr. J. Allen Hynek and dated August 6, 1952.
According to the introduction, "This special report was prepared to describe the results of a series of conferences with astronomers during and following a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Victoria, B.C., in June, 1952. It recounts personal opinions of a large number of professionally trained astronomical observers regarding unidentified aerial objects. In addition, it reports sightings by five professional astronomers that were not explainable by them. Representing the opinions of highly trained scientists, these comments should prove particularly helpful in assessing the present status of our knowledge of unknown objects in the skies."
Of those in the survey, Hynek wrote, "Astronomer R has personally sighted an unidentified object, a light which loomed across his range of vision, which was obstructed by an observatory dome, much faster than a plane and much slower than a meteor... Astronomer R does not ascribe any particular significance to this sighting, except as it constitutes one of the many incomplete and unexplained sightings."
And, of course, it doesn’t really suggest anything solid or extraterrestrial. It’s just a light moving across the sky that the astronomer can’t identify and fits into that category we’d call nocturnal lights. Just a light seen at night that has no ready explanation.
Another astronomer labeled as II had made two sightings two years apart. Hynek described him as having an adequate professional rating, which probably means here that he wasn’t involved in any advance theoretical work and was just an average astronomer. Nothing bad about him but he wasn’t a stellar performer (pun intended)
According to Hynek, the astronomer heard a transport plane heading to the west that was making a lot of noise and he looked up to watch it. "He then noticed, above the transport and going north, a cluster of five ball-bearing-like objects. They moved rapidly and were not in sight very long."
The second sighting, according to Hynek’s report, was two years later. He saw a single object, ball-bearing shaped, that disappeared quickly. The astronomer said that he would supply the details, but he didn’t want anyone to have his name.
Hynek mentioned Dr. Lincoln La Paz, who was identified by name and was also Astronomer LL in his report. Of course, La Paz was the scientist working on the Green Fireball mystery (bright green meteor-like objects that seemed to fall only in the desert southwest over a period of a couple of years). Hynek noted that the discussion of the Green Fireballs had taken place in front of many astronomers who were of the opinion that the Fireballs were natural objects.
Hynek wrote, "However, close questioning revealed that they knew nothing of the actual sightings, of their frequency or anything about them, and therefore cannot be taken seriously. This is a characteristic of scientists in general when speaking about subjects which are not in their own immediate field of concern. (Emphasis added)."
I thought this a rather interesting statement from Allen Hynek when talking about his fellow scientists. They tended to make pronouncements about topics of which they knew nothing. The media, because the men were scientists, assigned more importance to their statements than they might someone with less education and standing.
Astronomer NN was Clyde Tombaugh who had discovered Pluto and he too had made two sightings. In one of them, he mentioned square-shaped objects like lighted windows overheard. In the other he talked of an object that was four times brighter than Venus at its brightest traveling across the night sky from zenith to horizon in about three seconds.
The best of the sightings reported by Hynek in his monograph was made by Dr. Everton Conger who was, at that time, an instructor in Journalism at the University of New Mexico. He said that on July 27, 1948, between 8:35 and 8:45 a.m. he noticed "a disc-shaped object in the sky. It was flat and round like a flat plate. It appeared to made of duraluminum and gave off reflected light very similar to the light reflected from a highly polished airplane wing."
In his "Summary and Discussion," Hynek wrote, "Over 40 astronomers were interviewed of which five had made sightings of one sort or another. This is a higher percentage than among the population at large. Perhaps this is to be expected, since astronomers do, after all, watch the skies. On the other hand, they will not likely be fooled by balloons, aircraft, and similar objects, as may the general populace."
Hynek added an appendix about an experience he had while in Los Angeles. He had been invited to appear on a television program to discuss flying saucers that included a science analyst, a rocket expert and the writer Aldous Huxley. He declined but then observed, "There was very little constructive about the program. It consisted of a rehash of all the things we have heard already. It might be profitable, for instance, to have a TV program, sponsored by the Air Force, acquainting the public with the problem of flying saucers as a scientific problem (Emphasis added). Though suggested jokingly, there might be some point to this, if this investigation ever gets to the scientific panel stage."
I might point out here that this suggestion was made months before the CIA sponsored Robertson Panel made a similar suggestion and ten or twelve years before the Condon Committee was organized.
But back to the original question of astronomers not reporting UFOs because of their fear of professional suicide. Has that statement been verified?
Well, given the above, not really. We learned that two astronomers, Lincoln La Paz and Clyde Tombaugh have reported UFOs and that did not affect their standing in the community. It could be argued that who they were had something to do with it. In the 1950s, Tombaugh was thought of as the man who had discovered the ninth planet in our system... of course, today, he is the man who discovered one of the dwarf planets, and the discoveries of other scientists and other dwarf planets has negated his importance. But, in the 1950s, his reputation was quite secure.
The same can be said for Lincoln La Paz. He was the man who directed the search of a solution to the mystery of the Green Fireballs and it was his work with other meteors that cemented his reputation. He could suggest he had seen a flying saucer and not worry about his career.
Others were reluctant to talk, according to Hynek. Some thought the topic silly. Of Astronomer C, Hynek reported, "It is evident that he regards it as a fairly silly proceeding and subject."
Of Astronomer G Hynek wrote that he was "Reasonably interested in talking about the subject, he clearly does not consider it a topic of real interest..."
Hynek did report, "It is interesting to remark upon the attitude of the astronomers interviewed. The great majority of were neither hostile nor overly interested; they gave one the general feeling that all flying saucer reports could be explained as misrepresentations of well-known objects and that there was nothing intrinsic in the situation to cause concern."
Then he added, "And certainly another contributing factor to their desire not to talk about these things is their overwhelming fear of publicity. One headline in the nation’s papers to the effect that "Astronomer Sees Flying Saucer" would be enough to brand the astronomer as questionable among his colleagues."
Hynek drew these conclusions based on his discussions with the astronomers but didn’t provide much in the way of confirming information. That he put it into this report is interesting and it suggests that it was an impression he drew from his interviews.
And it seems to hold true today, giving what many of the current crop of astronomers have to say when interviewed about the topic. They offer the same ill-informed opinions that their predecessors offered and apparently with the same level of ignorance.
So, we have learned that astronomers see UFOs, but most of those sightings fit into the category of nocturnal lights. Clyde Tombaugh’s sighting suggested a structure and Lincoln La Paz saw a Green Fireball, not to mention something else.
For Phil Plait, it looks as if the astronomers didn’t report alien spacecraft and the best sighting in this bunch was that by the journalism professor. But we have a report, based on interviews with 40 astronomers and the conclusions we drew were based on those facts. At least we had some... too often, the conclusions are drawn on what we’d like to believe rather than what is.