The acronym UFO, Unidentified Flying Object, refers to any real or apparent flying object which cannot be identified by the observer and which remains unidentified after investigation. If a UFO is identified as a known object (for example an aircraft or weather balloon), it ceases to be a UFO and becomes an "identified" object. Sightings of unusual aerial phenomena date back to ancient times, but reports of UFO sightings only became fashionable after the first widely publicized American sighting in 1947. Many thousands of such claimed observations have since been reported worldwide. Often UFOs are linked to extraterrestrials, aliens in control of flying saucers being the popular explanation for UFOs. Despite so many reports, and significant scientific investigation of the claims, no resolution as to the true nature of all such phenomena has been achieved. Some have suggested religious or spiritual meaning to the occurrences, often with a connection to the ultimate destiny of humanity.
Although there are hundreds of different types of Unidentified Flying Objects or UFOs observed all over the world, a majority of the sightings can be grouped into five common categories:
While different in appearance, reports of these objects share certain unusual characteristics. UFOs are often alleged to be able to go from a dead stop to high velocities and maneuver in ways that defy the known laws of physics, which is one reason that certain reports are ruled out as manned aircraft. Some have reported that UFOs interfere with the local electro-magnetic field, interrupting electrical devices in close contact to the UFO. They are also said to give off heat and possibly radiation. All evidence in support of these claims is at best circumstantial.
Unusual aerial phenomena have been reported throughout history. Some of these strange apparitions may have been phenomena such as comets, bright meteors, or atmospheric optical phenomena such as parhelia. These sightings were usually treated as supernatural portents, angels, and other religious omens. Some contemporary investigators believe them to be the ancient equivalent of modern UFO reports.
Ancient Chinese and Indian texts talk of flying vehicles that are driven by either deities or people from far off lands. Some researchers even believe that sections of the Bible, such as the "pillar of fire" that led the Jewish exodus out of Egypt and the vision of God seen by the prophet Ezekiel, fit the description of modern day UFOs. Such ideas are difficult to verify: While every ancient society does report mysterious phenomena that appears to be concurrent with modern day reports, it must be taken into account that the ancients had a radically different outlook on life than contemporary times; more often than not, metaphorical and supernatural explanations were given to occurrences that science has since explained.
Much of the speculation regarding the UFO connection to ancient times comes from Erich Von Daniken's 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods? in which it was argued that aliens, using UFOs as their transportation, had been visiting and influencing the evolution of Earth for centuries. However, much of Von Daniken's work has been found inaccurate and too broad to be taken seriously.
There is, however, some compelling artistic evidence. Cave paintings by tribal groups, such as the Native Americans of the United States and the Aborigines of Australia, produced works that seem similar to the popular conception of what gray aliens look like. Several Renaissance paintings show what appear to be small crafts flying in the background sky, deliberately made by the artist.
Before the terms “flying saucer” and “UFO” were coined, there were a number of reports of strange, unidentified aerial phenomena. These reports date from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, and range from farmers in Europe, to whole cities in California, and the entire Northeastern region in the early twentieth century. During World War II, both Axis and Allied airplanes reported strange lights that would trail them during flight. These lights were later given the name Foo Fighters. As widespread and unsettling as these reports were, there was no context into which to place them until 1947.
The post-World War II UFO phase in the United States began with a reported sighting by American businessman Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947, while flying his private plane near Mount Rainier, Washington. He reported seeing nine brilliantly bright objects flying across the face of Rainier towards nearby Mount Adams, which he calculated as traveling at at least 1200 miles per hour, based on timing their travel between Rainier and Adams. His sighting subsequently received significant media and public attention. Arnold’s reported descriptions caught the media’s and the public’s fancy and gave rise to the terms flying saucer and flying disk.
The next major event in the UFO story happened less than a month later in Roswell, New Mexico, in which a farmer discovered fragments of what some claimed to be pieces of a crashed UFO. Once word broke, the attention of the entire world focused on Roswell, only to have the U.S. military claim later that the sensation was misled; the wreck was that of a weather balloon. The "Roswell Incident," as it has come to be known, can be seen as the genesis of many aspects of the current beliefs in UFOs. It marks the first direct involvement of the U.S. government and military with UFOs and aliens, and is one of the earliest reputed cover-ups and conspiracies in U.S. history. It also marks the first time out of literature that UFOs are defined as extraterrestrial space crafts.
Since the mid-twentieth century, many individuals have spent their time researching the many different aspects of the UFO phenomenon. Over the years, the term Ufology has been used as an umbrella term for sociologists, journalists, physicists, psychologists, amateur investigators, and anyone else who spent time investigating physical evidence, talking to eyewitnesses, and evaluating photographs and videotapes claiming to have captured images of UFOs.
While many Ufologists strive for legitimacy, and some are respected scientists in other fields, Ufology has never been fully embraced by the scientific community. Despite involvement of some respected scientists, the field has seen very little attention from mainstream science. Most critics still consider Ufology a pseudoscience or a protoscience. Some argue this rejection by mainstream science is part of the problem: Anyone can declare themselves a "UFO researcher," and completely bypass the sorts of consensus-building and peer review that otherwise shape and influence scientific paradigms. This has allowed many to stake out territory and disseminate claims, information, and analysis of widely varying rigor and quality.
The course of Ufology has been taken in a more rigorous direction by the work of J. Allen Hynek. Hynek developed a commonly used system, dividing sightings into six categories. It first separates sightings on the basis of proximity, arbitrarily using 500 feet as the cutoff point. It then subdivides these into divisions based on viewing conditions or special features. The three distant sighting subcategories are:
The distant classification is useful in terms of evidentiary value, with RV cases usually considered to be the highest because of radar corroboration, and NL cases the lowest because of the ease in which lights seen at night are often confused with identifiable phenomena such as meteors, bright stars, or airplanes. RV reports are also fewest in number, while NL are largest.
In addition were three "close encounter" (CE) subcategories, again thought to be higher in evidentiary value, because they include measurable physical effects and the objects seen up close are less likely to be the result of misperception. As in RV cases, these tend to be relatively rare:
Since Hynek's groundbreaking work, large organizations sharing manpower and resources have formed to study UFOs. Some of the most influential and authoritative groups include National Investigators on Aerial Phenomenon (NICAP), International Committee of UFO Research (ICUR), and Fund For UFO Research (FUFOR), all of which seek to answer the UFO question scientifically.
Governments have occasionally joined the investigation. While the U.S. government may have denied the retrieval of a UFO at Roswell, it could not deny what was happening in the U.S. and around the world. In 1947, as a response, the U.S. Air Force began investigating the phenomena under "Project Blue Book." Thousands of UFO reports were collected, analyzed, and filed. The final report rejected the extraterrestrial hypothesis. In the second paragraph of his introductory "Conclusions and Recommendations," Condon wrote:
Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge. Careful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.
As the result of the Condon Report, Project Blue Book was ordered shut down in December 1969. This project was the last publicly known UFO research project led by the USAF. Most of the investigations were concluded to be hoaxes or misidentification, however several hundreds were left unexplained. While most governments deny such investigations, it has been alleged that the KGB of Russia had detailed files on UFOs, as well as Britain and France, while Belgium has publicly acknowledged interest in UFOs.
The development of the highly controversial alien abduction stories is perhaps the most bizarre phenomenon of the UFO culture. The incident in New Hampshire in 1961, involving Betty and Barney Hill was the first reported abduction of humans by extraterrestrials for the purpose of medical experiments and testing. The tenacity of the couple, their desire to keep the incident a secret, and the recognition of their psychologist that something traumatic had happened to them all lent a sense of credibility to their story when it was revealed some years later. Since then, thousands of people around the world have made similar claims.
Usually the individual has no idea they have been abducted, but begins to experience a series of psychological symptoms, such as nightmares, amnesia, unaccountable gaps of time, sudden flashes of images, and unexplained anxiety. Eventually, memories begin to surface of an abduction that had either been so traumatic the person has forcibly forgotten it, or, as some claim, the memory was removed by the aliens. Some people claim to have had a single experience, while others claim to have been abducted periodically throughout their whole lives. Some "contactees" (persons who claim to be in regular contact with extraterrestrials) have typically reported that they were given messages or profound wisdom by aliens, regarding them as benevolent toward them and humankind in general. Beyond firsthand testimony and some strange scarring on a few "abductees," there remains no evidence to support their claims. Yet, many in the psychology field claim that the very real psychological damage these people suffer is proof enough.
Crop circles and cattle mutilations are two other very different phenomena attributed to UFOs in the latter part of the twentieth century. The large, intricately geometric patterns caused by the bending of crop stalks have been reported since the mid-twentieth century. They are often attributed to the work of UFOs as the patterns are apparently too large and complicated for a human hoaxer to pull off. Others point out that the patterns contain mathematically precise messages encoded in their design. However, this phenomenon has remained controversial since it has been proven that several of the patterns were, in fact, hoaxes.
Likewise, the mutilation of cattle and other domesticated stock has also received attention in connection with UFOs. The animals are reportedly killed at night, without noise, the blood drained from their bodies, and the tongue and genitalia removed with a precision that appears unworldly. Yet, beyond the dead animal, there is no evidence that UFOs are in any way involved. Nevertheless, it has become an essential part of UFO lore, and is often studied by Ufologists who specialize in these tangential, but possibly essential, phenomena.
The terms "skeptic" and "believer," often used in regards to UFOs, are somewhat misleading. Those that would be called believers do not necessarily agree on what UFOs actually are, but rather agree that people are actually seeing something. On the other hand, those classified under skeptics range from those who dismiss the idea outright as ridiculous and just hoaxes, to those who consider sightings to be psychologically based. Listed below are some of the most popular theories, from both believers and skeptics.
This theory proposes that some or even all UFO sightings are advanced, secret, or experimental aircraft of earthly origin. During the 1980s, there were reports of "black triangle" UFOs. Some of these could have been the (at the time) secret F-117 Nighthawk, B1 Stealth Fighter, or B2 Stealth Bomber. An alternative version of the theory proposes that the government created these and other advanced craft from recovered UFOs. While such planes may account for certain UFO observations, it is doubtful they account for every UFO ever seen. There is also the issue of whether any man-made aircraft could have been capable of maneuvering in the ways attributed to UFOs.
Some have argued that, since it is unlikely that any craft could successfully navigate the vast and dangerous vacuum of space, UFOs are more likely from parallel dimensions or universes. Quantum physics has for a while suggested the existence of alternate dimensions, and some theorists think it a more likely origin for UFOs.
This theory is related to the "psychosocial hypothesis," that angelic, demonic, and other supernatural manifestations throughout history were caused by aliens trying to control human destiny, and that UFO sightings are part of this process.
Skeptics have claimed that certain events of nature, including meteorites, meteors, comets, stars, planets, ball lightning, the Aurora Borealis, cloud formations, even the release of methane from swamps igniting in the air, are possible causes for UFO sightings. While some maintain that human misinterpretation of such phenomena, in conjunction with overactive imaginations and the subconscious knowledge of UFO sub-culture, could have led to many alleged sightings of UFOs, this theory falls short of explaining a wide range of sightings.
When dealing with paranormal occurrences, it is common to run across hoaxes, and this is the case with UFOs. Most often, hoaxes come in the form of photographic evidence, which is the easiest to fake (and subsequently, the easiest to debunk). Often times, UFO sightings are faked in order to receive public attention; sometimes books are written and documentaries are made, claiming to have certain incontrovertible evidence that was merely manufactured in order to help the product's sales. However, since UFO sightings exist over such a long expanse of time, geography, and culture, it is unlikely that even a considerable proportion of all these sightings are hoaxes.
Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, theorized that UFOs might have a primarily spiritual and psychological basis. In his 1959 book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen In The Sky, he pointed out that the round shape of most saucers corresponds to a mandala, a type of archetypal shape seen in religious images. Thus the saucers might reflect a projection of the internal desires of viewers to see them. However, he did not label them as delusion or hallucination; rather he suggested something in the nature of a shared spiritual experience.
French UFO researcher, Jacques Vallee, noted an almost exact parallel between UFO and "alien" visitations and stories from folklore of fairies and similar creatures. He documented these findings in his 1969 book Passport to Magonia, and explored them further in his later works. The significance of these parallels is disputed by mainstream scientists, who contend that they merely show both phenomena to be fanciful. Vallee and others maintain that some underlying, poorly understood, phenomenon is actually interacting with humans to cause both kinds of sightings.
The UFO phenomenon took on new dimensions in the latter part of the twentieth century, becoming combined with spirituality. These UFO religions commonly believe that alien beings exist. UFO religions have predominantly developed in technologically advanced societies, particularly the United States, but also in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. They have often emerged at times of particular social and cultural stress.
Such religions state that aliens have played, or continue to play, a key role in human history; and that at some point in the future, humankind will become part of a wider galactic community. The arrival or rediscovery of alien civilizations, technologies, and spirituality will enable human beings to overcome their current ecological, spiritual, and social problems. Issues such as hatred, war, bigotry, poverty, and so on are said to be resolvable through the use of superior alien technology and spiritual abilities.
The Aetherius Society is such a group, founded in the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Its founder, George King, claimed to have been contacted telepathically by an alien intelligence called Aetherius, who represented an "Interplanetary Parliament." According to Aetherians, their Society acts as a vehicle through which "Cosmic Transmissions" can be disseminated to the rest of humanity.
The Heaven's Gate group achieved notoriety in 1997 when one of its founders convinced 38 followers to commit mass suicide. Members reportedly believed themselves to be aliens, awaiting a spaceship that would arrive with Comet Hale-Bopp. They underwent elaborate preparations for their trip; for a time, group members lived in a darkened house where they would simulate the experience they expected to have during their long journey in outer space. The suicide was undertaken in the apparent belief that their souls would be transported onto the spaceship, which they thought was hiding behind the comet.
Since the 1970s, alien contact became a common belief in the New Age Movement, both through mediumistic chaneling and physical contact. A prominent spokesperson for this trend was actress Shirley MacLaine in her book Out on a Limb.
Some have suggested that UFOs are mere tricks of the mind, hallucinations that may be distortions of real object. Reasons for these wrong perceptions include mental illness, food shortages forcing people to eat moldy food where the mold fungus had made hallucinogenic chemicals, non-alcoholic delirium tremens caused by chronic magnesium deficiency, the brain being affected by electric effects caused by ball lightning, exposure to hallucinogenic drugs, dreams confused with reality, following the area's general local belief, delirium caused by heat and dehydration, and false or implanted memory.
The route followed by these misperceptions can be influenced by the environment that the perceiver was brought up in as a child: Fairy stories, religion, or science fiction may influence one's perception. For example, one perceiver may see fairies where another sees "Greys."
UFOs have become prevalent in popular culture. The "flying saucer" has reached an almost iconic significance, while the aliens that allegedly fly them appear in everything from television and movies, to commercial products. UFOs have become a staple in the science fiction genres of television, movies, and literature, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, The X-Files, Steven Spielberg's Taken, and so forth becoming classics in the field.
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