In the XVIth century, right in the middle of Europe’s renaissance period, Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was judged to be a heretic by the church and burned at the stake. His ‘heresy’? Expanding on Copernicus’s astronomical ideas, and proposing a plurality of worlds throughout the Universe that would be capable of harboring life, just like Earth.
Five centuries later not much has changed when it comes to how science deals with ‘heretical’ ideas. True, we’ve become more civilized so no one is sent to die horribly on a burning pyre anymore; but the threat of peer backlash, public ridicule, and cutting of funds in such a competitive discipline, is a different sort of ‘academic death’ which fosters amid researchers an ingrained fear of deviating too much from the treaded roads of approved scientific inquiry. And one narrow path most of them avoid like the plague, is the active search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
One brave scientist who did choose that narrow path was Dr. Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysicist who gained international notoriety when he proposed that Oumuamua (the first extra-solar object ever discovered by our instruments) could have been artificial in origin. This idea contravened one of the biggest unspoken commandments in modern astronomy: Thou shalt NOT invoke aliens as the answer.
On January 16th, The Joe Rogan Experience interviewed Avi Loeb, and aside from talking about the ongoing Oumuamua controversy and how his colleagues have dealt with it so far –“this is a very peculiar object. I wish it never existed!” was what one of them said to Loeb at a seminar– the conversation invariably moved to the subject of UFOs.
Even though Loeb seems to take the typical skeptical dismissal of regular UFO sightings –he wonders for instance how in an age in which almost everybody is carrying a high-quality camera on their cell phones, we are not getting better photographic evidence of UFOs*– he does find the first-hand testimony of Navy pilots like Commander David Fravor credible, and thinks these reports do warrant further scientific inquiry.
When pressed further by Rogan on how he himself would conduct that kind of UFO study, Loeb considered that such a project would not require an enormous amount of funds. He also said he would hire a dozen physicists, and go to the areas with the highest incidence of reports in order to place advanced sensor instruments, capable of collecting data that would later be analyzed and interpreted by the team.
…Wow, if only UFOlogists had thought of that before!
Contrary to what Dr. Loeb may think, in the past there already have been several projects attempting to detect and analyze UFO activity the way he proposes –we will go through some of them in a future article; but after listening to Loeb’s enthusiastic (although perhaps naïve) opinions, I proceeded to reach out to two scientists who have been directly involved in the scientific study of UFOs: Chris Rutkowski and Massimo Teodorani.
Chris Rutkowski is an astronomer, science writer, and one of the most prominent UFOlogists in Canada. Since 1989 he has been soliciting data sightings from Canadian researchers, and each year he compiles the annual Canadian UFO survey which is freely available to the public –whenever mainstream media want to publish an article about the rise or decline of UFO sightings in Canada, Rutkowski is their go-to guy. He’s the author of several books, including The Big Book of UFOs and The Canadian UFO Report: The Best Cases Revealed. He’s also made numerous appearances in TV shows and movie documentaries.
Dr. Massimo Teodorani is an Italian astrophysicist and best-selling author, who has been involved in the study of explosive stellar phenomena like supernovae and eruptive protostars, as well as the search of extrasolar planets and extraterrestrial intelligence through SETI. In 2010 Dr Teodorani was invited to address the European Parliament on the subject of UFOs. Massimo was the lead scientific advisor for the 2000-2001 EMBLA research project in Hessdalen, Norway**. He has conducted on-site scientific research in several known locations of U.A.P including Arizona USA, and Ontario Canada. Outside his traditional field of astrophysics, he has also tackled the hard problem of consciousness through a scientific lens, and if the author of the (out of print) book The Hyperspace of Consciousness.
Below are the answers both of them gave to the five-point questionnaire I sent:
[RPJ]: Dr. Avi Loeb, who has gained a lot of public notoriety due to his controversial proposal that the extra-solar object Oumuamua could have been artificial in origin, recently appeared in the Joe Rogan Experience podcast showing support for the scientific study of UFOs. He believes that recruiting a dozen physicists and placing sensors on hotspot areas of UFO activity would be sufficient for collecting and analyzing data. As a person involved in the study of UFOs for so many years, what’s your opinion?
[CR]: It’s a physicist’s solution. Technology can fix anything. But there have been all-sky cameras in operation for decades that have not caught fleets of UFOs. We get lots of cool videos and photos of bolides and meteors, though. The relatively recent UFO Skywatch systems and the new NICAP MADAR nodes are in operation already. So, nothing much new there.
[MT]: I completely agree with him. In particular, we need an automatic monitoring station where several different measurement instruments are working simultaneously 24 h. The only problem with this is money funding, which anyway would not be that much compared with other more conventional research projects. This would be the only feasible way in which physicists, astronomers and engineers would be able to study the UFO problem: namely, by means of concrete multi-wavelength and multi-mode data acquisition. By the way, five years ago I proposed this. Also, it would be interesting to answer to questions like this: do UFOs appear also when human witnesses are absent?
[RPJ]: Dr. Loeb is an adamant defender of the Copernican Principle, which posits that no observer can find itself in a privileged place in the Universe with relation to space and time. Does that apply to the study of UFOs?
[CR]: I suppose. Some ufologists assume that aliens have travelled across the galaxy or from other dimensions to contact us … because why? We are deserving of attention? Contactees are singled out of all humanity because they are chosen to be ambassadors of the Galactic Federation? On the other hand, it was more humbling when Betty Hill was shown the star map on board the Reticulians’ saucer and noted that Earth had only a dotted line instead of a well travelled trade route between spacefaring civilizations.
[MT]: With no doubt, yes. If UFOs really come from other planets, Earth would certainly be privileged for their visitations due to the rarity of habitable planets in the Universe. Nevertheless, at the same time recent extrasolar planet search shows that very often at least one planet similar to Earth (even if not necessarily inhabited by intelligent beings) is found around a candidate star. Therefore, they might visit them too, everywhere in the Universe, and one day we humans will do the same.
[RPJ]: Dr. Loeb thinks everything in the Universe is governed by the laws of Physics, and therefore UFOs should be no different. He thinks a group composed of only physicists should be adequate to conduct a scientific study. Do you agree, and if not why?
[CR]: The laws of physics can’t be broken, but an advanced civilization might be able to figure out how to bend them. But yes, UFOs such as Tic Tacs need to obey physical laws so it’s likely huge accelerations and sharp turns are probably illusions or observation effects. But physicists only? Nah. Chemists and philosophers could be useful too. And we’ve had physicists in ufology already. If Loeb really meant scientists in general, perhaps, but again we’ve had such in ufology before. Was Hynek a piker?
[MT]: In principle, I would agree with him. The laws of physics, physical constants and chemistry are the same all over the Universe. Therefore, the technology through which it is possible, in case, to be able to tap such laws should be the same. The difference is – with no doubt – that although we know that wormhole physics is correct we are not able yet to make a technology of it, instead much more advanced civilizations would be. There is only a point in which I might disagree with him: UFOs might have nothing to do with extraterrestrial visitation, but rather with something else that involves our consciousness too, so that the witness of UFO cases might be central in this study: if this is the case physicists alone would not be enough to study the problem. In that case, neurophysiologists, psychologists and other kinds of scholars should be probably added and maybe not even sufficient. In few words, I might be wrong but I am just a bit skeptical of the idea that UFOs really come from other planets, although I accept the possibility that extraterrestrials can visit us using some technology. I mean that UFOs and possible extraterrestrial probes might be two different things, and yet both worth being studied scientifically in depth.
[RPJ]: Dr. Loeb seems to be more in favor of having the private sector and wealthy benefactors investing in UFO studies, rather than having government agencies (for which national security and secrecy might be issues) involved. Do you agree with this approach, given your personal and professional experience?
[CR]: Well, there’s more independence and money in the private sector. However, private corporations will be subject to the whims of their founders***, so that’s not the best thing either. Can I opt for a benevolent dictator?
[MT]: I substantially agree: the private sector might give a lot in this research and give to (multidisciplinary) researchers more freedom of action. Moreover, official scientific institutions should be fully involved in this study. As science exists because it must be shared with every researcher and with the general public, a prerequisite with this research should be transparency and the subject should be treated like any other scientific subject and the results published on peer-reviewed journals. However, I must add that scientific researchers should promptly advise the Department of Defense if they – in case – realize that the phenomenon may represent a threat to national security. Once more, even if I am not sure that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin, it would be extremely interesting to see if and how these objects are able to violate the known laws of physics. For instance, if we see a UFO entering inside a mountain without passing through a hole or crashing against it then we might try to understand if and how the Pauli Indetermination Principle about the atomic structure of matter is violated. More than “new laws of physics”, I think that UFOs are interesting because they often show to violate the known ones, and this is extremely interesting for physics anyway. Knowing the way to suspend the known laws of physics, in my opinion, is much more interesting than searching for new laws of physics.
[RPJ]: Finally, what would you say to scientists like Dr. Loeb, who are now beginning to be public about their interest in UFOs, but may not be familiar with the literature and/or work related to scientific UFO investigations conducted in the past?
[CR]: I’d say he has to do his research. In his field of scientific study, he has to do extensive literature searches and engage in discourse with others in his field before submitting an article to a peer reviewed journal. Has he read the basic UFO literature? Has he conferred with Pasulka? Banias? Vallee? Oberg? What about a review of Project Starlight International? The aforementioned MADAR? Hessdalen?
Having said all that, I must point out that I have yet to see his book [Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth (published last week]. I was simply answering your questions, given what you cited about his comments [on the JRE podcast]. Loeb is only the latest scientist to be critical of the scientific community in its dismissal of ufology and the search for ET life. He makes some really good points and is really just trying to encourage a more open minded approach by science. Which is good.
Oh, and Oumuamua is just an asteroid shard.
[MT]: I would advise him to read carefully some well-selected books and articles published by serious and well-known scholars, where there is sufficiently well screened information about the typical physical behavior of UFOs and at the same time a detailed description of their strangeness, especially when they seem to interact with witnesses. Clearly, just as a physicist myself, I would tell Dr. Loeb that a real UFO study should be interdisciplinary and not only based on physics. It also might tell something about how our consciousness works and about ourselves.
As you can see from their responses, Teodorani suspects consciousness has a role to play in the UFO phenomenon, whereas Rutkowski’s position is more rooted in what is called the ETH camp (extraterrestrial hypothesis). Nevertheless, as professional scientists they both agree on the need of an interdisciplinary study of UFOs, in which transparency and an open sharing or data with other teams is ensured. They also think that, although Dr. Avi Loeb is to be commended for his open-mindedness toward the UFO problem, he should nevertheless get himself more acquainted with the existing literature –be that UFO books written by respected authors, or scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals– so that any future scientific project doesn’t end up trying to re-invent the wheel.
My own personal opinion is that there is one pesky problem that may be at the root of why, after so many decades, we haven’t been able to gather conclusive proof that UFOs are real: what if the phenomenon does not want to be studied?
In his book Messengers of Deception, Dr. Jacques Vallee writes about a conversation he had with a former US Intelligence officer he refers to a ‘Major Murphy’****. The Major tells Vallee that the problem with researchers like him, is that they want to approach UFOs as a merely scientific enigma, when in reality it should be considered a ‘counter-espionage’ problem, such as the ones he used to deal back in the service:
“Now, in the world of counterespionage the rules are completely different.” He drew a simple diagram in my notebook. “You are a scientist. In science there is no concept of the ‘price’ of information. Suppose I gave you 95% of the data concerning a phenomenon. You are happy because you know 95% of the phenomenon. Not so in Intelligence. If I get 95% of the data, I know this is the ‘cheap’ part of the information. I still need the other 5%, but I will have to pay a much higher price to get it. You see, Hitler had 95% of the information about the landing in Normandy. But he had the wrong 95%!
Let us just hope that, if Joe Rogan, Elon Musk or the GameStop army do decide to sponsor Dr. Loeb so he can assemble a superteam of scientists to study UFOs, that he does not end up conforming himself with the cheap 95% of the data. Otherwise, his willingness to appoint himself as the new Giordano Bruno of the XXIst century would have been for nothing.
(*) Has he ever tried to take a decent picture of the full moon with an iPhone, I wonder.
(**) Hessdalen is a small valley in the central part of Norway. At the end of 1981 through 1984, residents of the Valley became concerned and alarmed about strange, unexplained lights that appeared at many locations throughout the Valley. Hundreds of lights were observed. At the peak of activity there were about 20 reports a week.
Project Hessdalen was established in the summer of 1983. A field investigation was carried out between 21.January and 26.February 1984. Fifty-three light observations were made during the field investigation. You may read the details in the technical report. There was an additional field investigation in the winter of 1985. However, no phenomena were seen during the period when the instruments were present.
Lights are still being observed in the Hessdalen Valley, but their frequency has decreased to about 20 observations a year. An automatic measurement station was put up in Hessdalen in August 1998.
(***) It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who Chris might be referring to…
(****) The name is an alias, and for many years Vallee’s colleagues thought this was a fictitious character, but Vallee revealed his identity in one of his Forbidden Science journals.