Re­spect, not just be­lief

This is not the de­fin­i­tive biog­ra­phy of as­tronomer–ufol­o­gist Hynek, but it zips along while chart­ing his move to as­tro­nom­i­cal apos­tasy

Fortean Times - - Reviews/Books - Jerome Clark

The Close En­coun­ters Man How One Man Made the World Be­lieve in UFOs Mark O’Con­nell Dey St./ Wil­liam Mor­row 2017 Pb, 416pp, il­lus, notes, ind, $17.99, ISBN 9780062484178

As ghastly sub­ti­tles go, it’s hard to beat the one Jim Stein­meyer got sad­dled

with when he wrote Charles Fort: The Man Who In­vented

the Su­per­nat­u­ral. Still, this one gives the Fort biog­ra­phy a run for its money. In the ul­tra-polem­i­cal rhetoric of anom­alies de­bate, ‘be­lief’ and ‘be­lieve’ are in­tended to de­mean, to con­vey the no­tion that ac­cep­tance of ex­tra­or­di­nary phe­nom­ena is so re­moved from imag­in­able pos­si­bil­ity that no one could en­ter­tain it with­out pro­trud­ing eye­balls and a slack jaw.

As­tronomer/ufol­o­gist J Allen Hynek (1910–1986) did not, of course, in­tend for the world to ‘be­lieve’ in UFOs, only to give them re­spect­ful at­ten­tion and sci­en­tific treat­ment ow­ing to what he deemed their po­ten­tial im­por­tance. I could have fig­ured that out just by read­ing The UFO Ex­pe­ri­ence:

A Sci­en­tific In­quiry (1972), which nearly half a cen­tury on re­mains the finest book in the lit­er­a­ture. I claim, how­ever, an ad­di­tional cir­cum­stance: as a board mem­ber of Hynek’s Cen­ter for UFO Stud­ies and edi­tor of CUFOS’ In­ter­na­tional

UFO Re­porter, I knew him per­son­ally and rea­son­ably well over the last 11 years of his life.

Among the most en­ter­tain­ing of hu­man be­ings, Hynek pos­sessed an abun­dance of wit, warmth, and sto­ry­telling abil­ity. On his sober side he was com­mit­ted to science, which is how, af­ter par­tic­i­pa­tion in di­rect in­ves­ti­ga­tions of re­ports to a de­gree few can match, he came to cham­pion UFOs as some­thing sci­en­tists ought to in­ves­ti­gate sys­tem­at­i­cally.

He failed, of course, in that am­bi­tion, not be­cause he was wrong but be­cause … well, that’s a ques­tion fu­ture philoso­phers and his­to­ri­ans of science will surely puz­zle out. Per­haps the sim­ple an­swer, as some so­cial sci­en­tists and jour­nal­ists have ar­gued, is that the UFO ques­tion turned out to be too big, too de­mand­ing, too ob­tru­sive. Bet­ter to shove the re­ports into the Ex­plana­tron, where Rube Gold­berg schemes pro­vide a so­lu­tion – of­ten enough, mul­ti­ple so­lu­tions – for ev­ery oc­ca­sion. The num­ber of “pro­saic”so­lu­tions pro­posed for the Ken­neth Arnold sight­ing (the sub­ject of Dr Bruce Mac­cabee’s re­cent, au­thor­i­ta­tive mono­graph Three

Min­utes in June), which started it all, is be­yond count­ing..

Allen Hynek, ac­com­plished as­tronomer (at Ohio State Univer­sity, North­west­ern Univer­sity, and else­where), cer­tainly mer­its a com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy. If this isn’t it, Close En­coun­ters

Man man­ages still to be crisply writ­ten and em­i­nently read­able. Whole pages fly by, though, with­out a sin­gle men­tion of its os­ten­si­ble sub­ject, of whom Mark O’Con­nell could have said more if he’d in­ter­viewed more of us who knew him. The proper ti­tle might have been ‘J Allen Hynek and the UFO Phe­nom­e­non’, since much of the text is de­voted to scru­tiny of cases that caught Hynek’s ac­tive or pas­sive at­ten­tion. If th­ese in­ci­dents are well known to those versed in ufol­ogy, O’Con­nell makes them feel vi­tal again, even rev­e­la­tory, by tak­ing care to base his writ­ing on pri­mary doc­u­ments and keep­ing his judg­ments mea­sured. The Close En­coun­ters

Man pro­vides a ser­vice­able ac­count of Hynek’s early work on bi­nary stars and later in­volve­ment with weapons tech­nol­ogy and satel­lites. From the be­gin­ning his col­leagues re­spected and even revered him as a hard-work­ing, cre­ative pro­fes­sional with an al­most lim­it­less sci­en­tific cu­rios­ity. On the other hand, the story of Hynek’s ac­ci­den­tal in­ter­sec­tion with UFO re­ports – he was the near­est as­tronomer to Ohio’s Wright-Pat­ter­son Air Force Base, where the Air Force’s UFO project was head­quar­tered, and thus got tapped as sci­en­tific con­sul­tant – is much chron­i­cled else­where. O’Con­nell pro­duces no sur­prises.

From a de­pend­able ser­vant of the UFO-bash­ing com­pany line, Hynek came to voice an at first muted dis­sent which over time and grow­ing vol­ume alien­ated him from Blue Book and its head, the bor­der­line­un­hinged UFO­phobe Ma­jor Hec­tor Quin­tanilla. Mean­while, as Hynek qui­etly gath­ered sci­en­tific al­lies in an in­for­mal “In­vis­i­ble Col­lege,” most of his prom­i­nent as­tronomer col­leagues came to see him as an apos­tate. In O’Con­nell’s telling, the late Carl Sa­gan emerges as par­tic­u­larly cyn­i­cal, charm­less, and cow­ardly.

A man of Hynek’s in­tel­lec­tual brav­ery de­serves a sym­pa­thetic treat­ment, and he has one here. But the full treat­ment waits for the day when sci­en­tists, mak­ing up for long ne­glect, turn back to re­con­sider the phe­nom­e­non and do what Allen Hynek wanted them to do in the first place. They`re sure to start by read­ing The UFO Ex­pe­ri­ence.

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