Dr. Thornton Page's Review of The
INCLUDED BY DR. PAGE IN FIRST REPLY LETTER
Study of Unidentified Flying Objects: Final Report of Research Conducted by the
University of Colorado for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under the Direction
of Edward U. Condon. Pp. 965+xxiv, Bantam Books, 1969. Price: $1.95, paperback. (Reviewed
by Thornton Page.)
Most reviewers of this book have an advantage over Condon and his Colorado Project Staff in that we write for a more homogeneous audience. I assume that readers of Amer. J. Phys. are mostly physicists, many of whom view "flying saucers" with amusement or disdain, and I hasten to add that I had that reaction in 1953 when I served on the first (secret) UFO panel chaired by the late H. P. Robertson (Cal. Tech. physicist). He recognized our responsibility better than I, and reprimanded me severely for my excessive levity (though he included my warning in our brief report that UFO reports might clog the U. S. communications system during a true military emergency).
The Condon report is not brief (989 pages), nor very humorous, and I cannot say that I have read every word of its 24 chapters and 24 appendices ranging over such physical topics as optics, radar, zodiacal light, plasma, and sonic boom, to history, perception, and psychology. This edition starts with an 8-page introduction by Walter Sullivan of the New York Times, and ends with an excellent 23-page index. Whether or not you agree that the subject is worth all this, the 56 detailed case studies make interesting reading, and a good deal of physics is brought to bear on a popular problem. In fact, we have offered Flying Saucers as a 1-semester course at Wesleyan University for the past two years, with some success. (It attracted students who would not otherwise have had any science.)
In one sense, the Condon Report lives up to its title Scientific Study, because physical principles and available data are applied meticulously to more than 56 selected, well-documented "cases" (UFO sightings), with the result that 33 cases are explained. however, as several other reviewers have noted, this leaves unexplained a larger proportion than the 10% or so which caused all the ruckus and forced the Air Force to fund the Colorado Project in the first place. Hence, it may be argued that Condon's carefully written conclusions (the first five pages of the Report) do not logically follow from the case studies. He recommends, in effect, that there be no further government records or study of UFO sightings, a recommendation that makes the "UFOlogists" see red. Those of us concerned with the AAAS Symposium on UFO's (scheduled for 27 December 1969 in Boston) find it important not to take sides on this controversial issue (We have discovered how emotional the reaction is on both sides, a fact hinted at in Sullivan's introduction. So I will outline three separate views: Condon's, as expressed in this report, his critics' (the more sensible ones) and a "middle" position.
Condon argues that his Colorado Project explained the majority of cases as normal phenomena, examined the "far-out" hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitors, and found (no direct evidence favoring it. In fact, use of the extraterrestrial hypothesis to explain more cases would clearly violate laws of physics and/or require materials with properties we think are impossible. It seems likely to Condon that, if more complete observations had been made, all UFO sightings would be explained by normal phenomena. Twenty-one years of investigation have developed no evidence of new scientific phenomena, hence further study is of no scientific value, and should not be maintained as a load on the scientific community
The sensible critics, one of whom is J. Allen Hynek, who recently reviewed the Condon report [Bull. At. Scientists 85,39 (1969)], admit that 90 to 95% of UFO sightings are easily explained, but find a few well-documented cases among the other 5 or 10% that may be highly significant. These may indicate new atmospheric phenomena, or extraterrestrial visitors with technology far superior to ours. As in many important discoveries (supernovae, quasars, pulsars), the significant "cases" may be swamped by non-significant ones, and vast amounts of "messy data" (ancient observations of bright stars, rough locations of small radio sources, and UFO sightings) must be carefully studied. Therefore, Air Force records and periodic reviews, the critics say, should be continued.
The "middle position" is based on the fact, mentioned in the psychology section of the Report but ignored in Condon's conclusions, that a large fraction of the U. S. public (30 to 40%) believe that UFO's are extraterrestrial visitors. This is not only of political significance (it probably accounts for the $500,000 grant to the University of Colorado for preparing the Report); it raises further questions about public education and the public image of science and scientists. Certainly educators (particularly science educators) should be concerned when the public is grossly misinformed. (The AAAS Symposium will discuss several aspects of the UFO problem for that reason.) But it does not help the public image of science when the scientists shrug off sightings and interpretation accepted by so many tax-paying citizens simply because "UFO's don't appeal to us." In fact, the scientists' general refusal to take UFO's seriously may strengthen the "new left" view that science is based more on authority than on observation and reason. Intelligent laymen can (and do) point out the logical flaw in Condon's conclusion based on a statistically small (and selected) sample, Even in this sample a consistent pattern can be recognized; it is ignored by the "authorities," who then compound their "felony" by recommending that no further observational data be collected. Actually, the Colorado Project introduced one new set of data with higher statistical reliability than visual UFO sightings-the sky photos of the Prairie (meteor) Network. It had been noted [Science 160, 1258 (June 1968)] that this is a valuable source of UFO data not costing millions of dollars, but the Report scarcely does it justice in a brief section [(pp. 770-774) garbled by poor definitions and misprints.]
In my opinion, this "middle position" leads to the philosophical question: "What is the proper evidence for Physical reality?" Following the "operational" definition of P. W. Bridgeman (Logic of Modern Physics. The MacMillan Co., New York, 1927), UFO's have certainly been "measured" (detected) in a definable way, unlike the luminiferous ether, or the 20,000,000 deg. K central temperatures of stars, for instance. In more modern terms, the UFO sightings show some statistical patterns that can be fitted to a theory based on the hypothesis of "extraterrestrial civilizations which know far more physics than we do, and have developed materials, energy sources, and field devices that we have not yet invented." How can we logically reject this theory when we accept theories of rotating neutron stars to explain pulsars? Of course, a better theory might be devised if more data were collected and the present data examined in broader terms. For instance, there is a definite trend in the shapes reported from "saucers" in 1947 to "sickles" in 1960 to "cigars" in 1966, and also the eastward travel of "flaps" (maxima in UFO activity) circling the earth in about 15 years. This latter empirical fact, which I like to call "Page's Law," may fit a sociological theory that settles the UFO problem and allows physical scientists to regain their sense of humor (though it is "outside the scope" of the Condon Report).
[Dr. Page received his Ph.D. from Oxford in 1938. He has been Professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan since 1958. He has also been associated with the universities of Chicago and California, Smithsonian Astrophysics observatory, united Aircraft, Grumman Aircraft, and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. His interests include atomic spectra for planetary nebulae, comets, twilight sky, and spiral nebulae. This year he is Research Associate at the Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas.]
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