Sixty-five years ago this week, a post-War American obsession with flying saucers began when a private pilot spotted a series of saucer-shaped flashes near Mount Rainier in Washington. The Associated Press introduced the term “flying saucers” to describe what he saw and the account was taken quite seriously by the public, investigated by the Pentagon, and duly reported by newspapers across the country. Soon flying saucers filled the skies.
The Cold War backdrop prompted numerous UFO sightings in the United States and Great Britain, including the notorious Roswell New Mexico incident, where debris was recovered from the crash site of an unknown aircraft, believed to be a weather balloon. The incident was initially downplayed but years later, after intimations of a cover-up by the Air Force, researchers reopened the case and spawned a UFO industry in Roswell.
For decades, Americans regarded flying saucers in earnest. Random poor quality photographs “documenting” UFOs surfaced, and the phenomenon was studied in depth by the Government, academics, and the media. Movies reflected the zeitgeist - From The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) to Independence Day (1996) filmmakers seriously entertained the possibility of extraterrestrial visits to Earth. The flying saucer was a staple of the television sci-fi classic, The Twilight Zone.
Yet today, accounts of UFOs have plummeted and for the most part, flying saucers have become a source of public amusement. Contrast the aforementioned films with the current Men In Black film franchise, featuring Tommie Lee Jones and Will Smith, which has earned over $1 billion, spawning video games, amusement park rides, a television series and rap recordings - all based on a tongue-in-cheek premise.
What ever happened to flying saucers and UFOs? The answer is the video era.
Rodney King’s recent death recalled the amateur film of his savage beating by the LAPD twenty years ago. It became a landmark case exposing racial intolerance, but it might also be considered the beginning of the video era. Technology permitted everyday people to film, record, and display daily activities heretofore rarely seen, including in King’s case, police brutality.
People who once filmed only their vacations and their children began filming anything. Soon, film posted as You Tube videos might be seen by 25 people or 25 million.
And yet, no evidence of flying saucers. (The word “evidence” comes from the Latin “videre” - to see - also the source for “video”). Considering all that is available for viewing on You Tube, it is particularly telling, among the millions of postings, there is no credible footage of a flying saucer.
Not surprisingly, the main agencies tracking flying saucers have given up. The NASA website states, “No branch of the United States Government is currently involved with or responsible for investigations into the possibility of alien life on other planets or for investigating Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO’s)”. For 50 years, the British MoD examined sightings of UFOs. They’ve also given up. In December 2009, the Ministry discontinued their UFO investigation Unit and shut down the hotline and its email address.
In Chicago, the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies was founded in 1973 by the chairman of astronomy at Northwestern University. Before he died, Professor Hynek published his treatise, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Study, where he coined the phrase, “Close Encounters”. Hynek started the Center as part of a serious academic study of UFOs but the Center, which now acts primarily as a clearinghouse for UFO reports, has noted a decline in activity in the last 15 years and discontinued its longstanding UFO periodical, International UFO Reporter.
Scientists acknowledge the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe approaches 100% but that doesn’t mean they’ve been here. The brilliant monologist Robert Klein wondered why “intelligent” extraterrestrials would bother to travel millions of light-years, land in the cornfield of some rural farmer, probe him, and then simply make the long trip home. At least drop by the Princeton Institute For Advanced Studies for lunch with Albert Einstein or some other genius.
Perhaps the most famous UFO incident occurred on Halloween Eve in 1938, when actor Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe broadcast a simulated Martian invasion on radio. The program War of the Worlds, based on the H.G. Welles story, panicked millions on the East Coast who believed there was a real invasion. People actually fled their homes before the “hoax” was exposed.
The episode catapulted Welles into prominence, making him an international sensation. Hailed as a creative genius, he was soon given the go-ahead to make the film Citizen Kane, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever produced.
Consider what would happen today in our video era. Orson Welles would never have been able to pull off his broadcasting coup with War of the Worlds. Armed with cellphones and videocams, legions of bloggers and twitterers would have descended instantly on Grover’s Mill, the small New Jersey town where the alien invasion “began”. Finding nothing, they would have immediately exposed Welles’s hoax and he might have remained an obscure show business personality, never to direct films.
Ironically, if today’s video technology had been available in 1938 proving there were no flying saucers or Martians in New Jersey, the world might never have witnessed the masterpiece Citizen Kane.
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