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
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.