The search for lit­tle green men con­tin­ues.


Back in 1950, dur­ing a lunch break at the Los Alamos National Lab­o­ra­tory, sev­eral sci­en­tists were trad­ing wise­cracks about a re­cent spate of UFO re­ports when No­bel Prize-win­ning physi­cist En­rico Fermi of­fered an ob­ser­va­tion that has echoed through the decades. Given the num­ber of places where life could ex­ist in the vast uni­verse, and the length of time it has had to evolve, the skies ought to be teem­ing with be­ings from ad­vanced, space­far­ing civ­i­liza­tions — but noth­ing in­con­tro­vert­ible has shown up. You have to won­der, as Fermi did, “Where is ev­ery­body?”

His col­leagues chuck­led, but the “Fermi para­dox” per­fectly frames the pro­found ab­sur­dity of the search for life beyond Earth. Hu­mans have beamed bea­cons into space, robot­i­cally vis­ited ev­ery world in the so­lar sys­tem and dis­cov­ered thou­sands of plan­ets cir­cling stars far from our own. Yet all we’ve en­coun­tered is a chilly void.

Still, the pos­si­bil­ity that some­thing is out there calls to us.

Three new books ap­proach the mys­tery from dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives: the un­likely be­liever in UFOs, the vi­sion­ary ded­i­cated to rig­or­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the cadre of sci­en­tists who still plug away at the prob­lem, prob­ing the uni­verse for an an­swer.

In “The Close En­coun­ters Man: How One Man Made the World Be­lieve in UFOs,” screen­writer Mark O’Con­nell re­counts the grad­ual evo­lu­tion of J. Allen Hynek, an Air Force as­tronomer, from UFO de­bunker to be­liever. Hynek’s tale un­folds a few years be­fore Fermi posed his ques­tion, when aliens were much on the minds of Amer­i­cans. In the sum­mer of 1947, a Boise busi­ness­man pi­lot­ing a small plane across the Cas­cade Moun­tains spot­ted a chain of uniden­ti­fied fly­ing ob­jects weav­ing among the peaks. Shortly af­ter, Alabami­ans re­ported that bril­liant lights ap­peared over an air­field in Mont­gomery. Then a swarm of wing­less ma­chines was spot­ted in Maine.

Baf­fled by these bizarre ac­counts, the Air Force de­cided that some­one had to sort through all the sight­ings — if only to prove that they weren’t re­ally ex­trater­res­tri­als.

So they hired Hynek, an alum of the Univer­sity of Chicago and a for­mer civil­ian sci­en­tist for the Navy who pre­vi­ously was best known for study­ing the evo­lu­tion of stars. Me­thod­i­cal and un­dog­matic, Hynek could not have been fur­ther from the kooky, para­noid stereo­type of a UFO en­thu­si­ast. He seemed to be ex­actly the man who could be counted on to dis­miss the phe­nom­e­non. In­stead, he be­came its big­gest ad­vo­cate. “I was some­what like the prover­bial ‘in­no­cent by­stander who got shot,’ ” Hynek would later say.

Af­ter re­search­ing thou­sands of UFO re­ports, many from ap­par­ently cred­i­ble wit­nesses, Hynek be­came con­vinced that a sig­nif­i­cant frac­tion of sight­ings could not be ex­plained by cur­rent sci­ence.

The Air Force, how­ever, dis­agreed. In 1970 it dis­con­tin­ued its UFO in­ves­ti­ga­tions, hav­ing con­cluded that the phe­nom­e­non was largely a re­sult of pranksters, psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences and tricks of light.

Un­de­terred, Hynek estab­lished his own Cen­ter for UFO Stud­ies and de­vel­oped a sys­tem for clas­si­fy­ing these “close en­coun­ters” that in­spired the 1977 film “Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind.” Hynek died in 1986 still con­vinced that UFOs were some­thing “ex­otic.”

It’s clear that O’Con­nell, who main­tains a UFO blog of his own, wants read­ers to come away from his book agree­ing with Hynek. He de­rides main­stream as­tronomers who mock UFOl­ogy as pseu­do­science and re­serves spe­cial venom for Carl Sa­gan, who spoke so elo­quently about the po­ten­tial for life in the uni­verse but was un­will­ing to be­lieve that ex­trater­res­tri­als might have vis­ited Earth.

I’m in­clined to side with Sa­gan — the hu­man mind is far too eas­ily de­ceived for this sci­ence re­porter to be­lieve that rogue aliens of­fer the most per­sua­sive ex­pla­na­tion for strange ap­pari­tions in the skies. If there re­ally are ad­vanced be­ings out there, travers­ing the uni­verse at the speed of light, it seems un­likely that scar­ing sub­ur­ban­ites and con­fus­ing live­stock are the best uses of their time.

But read­ing “The Close En­coun­ters Man” does en­gen­der re­spect for its sub­ject. “Hynek was a ra­tio­nal per­son look­ing at an ir­ra­tional sub­ject,” James Oberg, a sci­ence jour­nal­ist, NASA engi­neer and long­time UFO doubter, tells O’Con­nell. He ap­proached the UFO prob­lem as a sci­en­tist would. And al­though aliens didn’t ac­tu­ally in­vade Amer­ica, Hynek — with a lit­tle help from Steven Spiel­berg — helped them in­vade the Amer­i­can psy­che. He got us think­ing about en­coun­ters with ET, paving the way for a more sci­en­tific ap­proach to the search for ex­trater­res­trial in­tel­li­gence, or SETI.

Shortly af­ter the Air Force gave up on UFOs, NASA com­mis­sioned a study of the best meth­ods for seek­ing out alien life. The re­sult­ing re­port ar­gued for us­ing ra­dio tele­scopes to lis­ten for the kinds of elec­tro­mag­netic sig­nals that would em­anate from an ad­vanced civ­i­liza­tion in space. If we still haven’t seen aliens in per­son, the think­ing went, per­haps we might be able to hear them.

That re­port landed in the lap of a young as­tronomer named Jill Tarter, who, like Hynek, had started her ca­reer ob­serv­ing dis­tant stars.

In “Mak­ing Con­tact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Ex­trater­res­trial In­tel­li­gence,” sci­ence jour­nal­ist Sarah Scoles writes that the as­tronomer was in­stantly “con­verted.” As Tarter told Scoles, “I just knew I’d found the right place, never hav­ing thought about it be­fore.” Whereas her work on stars had felt dis­tant and ab­struse, SETI gave Tarter a sense of pur­pose. She went on to di­rect the first tar­geted ef­fort to de­tect ex­trater­res­trial sig­nals and helped found the SETI In­sti­tute — now an author­ity on the search for alien life.

“There was a feel­ing of con­nect­ed­ness,” Tarter said of this re­search. “I was do­ing some­thing that could im­pact peo­ple’s lives pro­foundly in a short time.”

It’s a no­ble mo­ti­va­tion, and Scoles — who nar­rates her story in a warm, chatty tone — clearly thinks Tarter is a hero. But the SETI pioneer’s big­gest ene­mies are de­cid­edly pro­saic: nar­row-minded, sex­ist male col­leagues who try to tell Tarter she doesn’t be­long in sci­ence; sneer­ing politi­cians who deny SETI fund­ing to make a po­lit­i­cal point; seem­ingly ex­otic ra­dio sig­nals that turn out to come from or­di­nary satel­lites.

Tarter is now cel­e­brated as a pioneer and a fem­i­nist icon; she was the in­spi­ra­tion for Jodie Fos­ter’s char­ac­ter in the movie “Con­tact.” But her story lacks a tri­umphant end­ing. She re­tired in 2012, never hav­ing heard the sig­nal she spent her life lis­ten­ing for.

SETI re­search is a far cry from UFOl­ogy. But it’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Tarter and Hynek. Both were or­di­nary as­tronomers who hap­pened upon the alien ques­tion and never let go, re­gard­less of the in­dif­fer­ence, de­ri­sion and out­right hos­til­ity they en­coun­tered. Both de­voted their lives to the idea that, as the say­ing goes, ab­sence of ev­i­dence isn’t ev­i­dence of ab­sence. Even though ab­sence is all ei­ther ever found.

Which brings us back to Fermi’s para­dox. More than a half cen­tury of sus­tained sci­en­tific re­search has un­cov­ered nei­ther hide nor hair — or what­ever — of ex­trater­res­trial life. Does that mean there’s noth­ing to be found?

“Aliens: The World’s Lead­ing Sci­en­tists on the Search for Ex­trater­res­trial Life” lays out the case for op­ti­mism in a col­lec­tion of es­says. The world in which this book was pub­lished is one that Hynek and Tarter helped make. Chris French, the head of anoma­l­is­tic psy­chol­ogy re­search at Gold­smiths, Univer­sity of Lon­don, uses Hynek’s “close en­coun­ters” scale to dis­cuss psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena that can ex­plain such ex­pe­ri­ences. Two of the es­says were writ­ten by sci­en­tists at Tarter’s SETI In­sti­tute.

The other con­trib­u­tors in­clude ex­perts from as­tron­omy, cos­mol­ogy, plan­e­tary sci­ence and ge­net­ics, as well as fields that didn’t even ex­ist when Hynek and Tarter be­gan their work — as­tro­bi­ol­ogy and ex­o­planet re­search. To­gether, they pro­vide an over­view of where the search for alien life now stands.

Ad­vances in bi­ol­ogy on Earth have ex­panded our no­tion of where and how life can thrive. Mean­while, ex­plo­ration of space has iden­ti­fied places in our so­lar sys­tem and beyond that could be (or once were) hos­pitable to alien or­gan­isms. Mars used to boast an at­mos­phere and flow­ing wa­ter; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn har­bor hid­den sub­sur­face oceans and liq­uid meth­ane lakes. Our grow­ing cat­a­logue of ex­o­plan­ets sug­gests that most stars in the galaxy host plan­ets on which life could con­ceiv­ably form. When the James Webb Space Tele­scope launches in 2018, sci­en­tists will be able to probe the at­mos­pheres of those plan­ets in pur­suit of “biosig­na­tures” — mol­e­cules that are thought to sig­nal the pres­ence of life.

No one has an an­swer to the ques­tion: “Where is ev­ery­body?” But sci­en­tists do have plenty of places to look. Per­haps, some­day in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, they’ll re­ceive that long-awaited ra­dio bea­con from a dis­tant galaxy. Or look through a mi­cro­scope at a wa­ter sam­ple from an ocean moon and find mi­crobes swim­ming around. Or de­tect a haze of “biosig­na­tures” in the at­mos­phere of an alien world.

Or, hey, maybe an uniden­ti­fied fly­ing ob­ject will ap­pear sud­denly in the sky one day when we least ex­pect it. A crowd will gather, a hatch will open and, fi­nally, a lit­tle green man will step out to re­as­sure us we’re not alone.

Sarah Ka­plan is a sci­ence re­porter for The Wash­ing­ton Post.


As­tronomer J. Allen Hynek was hired by the Air Force in the late 1940s to probe “UFO” sight­ings. He found that some could not be ex­plained by sci­ence.

THE CLOSE EN­COUN­TERS MAN By Mark O’Con­nell Dey Street. 403 pp. $17.99 paper­back

ALIENS The World’s Lead­ing Sci­en­tists on the Search for Ex­trater­res­trial Life Edited by Jim AlKhalili Pi­cador. 232 pp. $25

MAK­ING CON­TACT Jill Tarter and the Search for Ex­trater­res­trial In­tel­li­gence By Sarah Scoles Pe­ga­sus. 288 pp. $27.95

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