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2021 Virtual SCU’s Anomalous Aerospace Phenomena Conference (Review)

“Can you all see my shared screen?”

“No?”

“Okay how do I do this…”

The above quotes, which would be immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever tried to use the Zoom platform in recent years, were also present during last weekend’s virtual conference on ‘anomalous aerospace phenomena’ (UAPs) celebrated by the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU): a think tank of scientists, researchers and professionals stretching across organizations, governments, and industries, that is trying to join the increasingly mainstream discussion on UFOs (they switched to the UAP acronym to be ‘hip with the current times’) by offering a science-grounded perspective, instead of just propagating unsubstantiated rumors and fantastical ideas which have more to do with science fiction than actual facts –blue avians anyone?

Richard Hoffman

SCU was formed in 2017, with some of their executive board members –like Robert Powell and Richard Hoffman– being previously associated with MUFON until they realized that filling file cabinets with reports is not enough, and that someone needs to actually look at the data. SCU is currently partnering with other organizations like Sky Hub; UAP Expedition (UAPx); NARCAP; and CUFOS, which is the organization founded by the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek. In retrospect, it would seem as if SCU was the kind of group Hynek wanted to form but never quite managed to get –except for one or two little caveats, which I will be touching upon throughout this review…

Robert Powell

SCU has published papers about the 2013 Aguadilla UFO video from Puerto Rico and the 2004 Nimitz encounter, among many others. During Rich Hoffman’s introduction and welcome to the conference, I asked if SCU had ever bothered to study close encounters of the 3r kind –you know, the thing that made Hynek a household name thanks to Steven Spielberg? – and this is the response I got from Dr. Joseph S. Dinoto, who holds the title of ‘National Security Advisor’ at SCU:

“Not unless there is physical or trace evidence that can be analyzed or some other form of measurable signature.”

So… I guess that’s a hard No?

I also asked whether SCU members had ever been asked to brief government officials (US or foreign) with regards to the current release of UFO information, and Dinoto answered me once again:

“The SCU is accessible to both government and non-governmental organizations, to include academic institutions or scientific centers of excellence.”

Accessible… but evidently still not invited to the table. Yet maybe that could very well change once authorities and mainstream media realize you do need to include people with scientific expertise to talk about what could very well be the greatest scientific challenge of all time –and already Hoffman and Powell have both been interviewed in a few TV shows, a welcomed change from the likes of Jeremy Corbell or Mick West.

Indeed, SCU members are all very smart people with impressive credentials who have a lot to contribute to the UFO discussion; although it is kind of comforting to realize that even people holding PhDs who like to give presentations with PowerPoint slides filled with long equations and complicated graphs, are not impervious of suffering the same problems as regular laypersons when it comes to things like using the Zoom platform!

Bigelow and the UFO Imagineers

Dr. Hal Puthoff. Notice the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space station render in the background.

After Hoffman’s introduction on day 1, the keynote presentation was given by Dr. Hal Puthoff, who was probably the ‘main attraction’ of the whole event due to the notorious (AND controversial) roles he had in both the once-secret AAWSAP/AATIP program as a subcontractor for Robert Bigelow –a long-time associate of his, ever since the days of NIDS in the 1990s– as well as with Tom DeLonge’s short-lived To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTSA)*.

The title of his presentation,“UAP Studies: Managing the Transition [from an] Intelligence Problem [to a] Scientific Problem,” was kind of revelatory because it offered a rare glimpse into the rationale behind what he and Bigelow were apparently trying to pursue when BAASS was running AAWSAP (which eventually was renamed as AATIP, an unofficial nickname that stuck) based on their assumptions that someone somewhere is hiding UFO-related physical materials behind an impenetrable firewall of secrecy and compartmentalization; in order to keep them a secret from America’s adversaries, whom they also believe are running similar reverse-engineering programs –when asked point blank during the Q&A session whether he knew if there were any government organizations or private companies currently in possession of “one or more vehicles (in whole or in part) built anywhere other than Earth?” he ambiguously responded, “I cannot comment on that.” **

Puthoff’s solution to bypass this problem of not having access to ‘the goodies’ in order to study alleged UFO remains was an odd one: Commission instead ‘white papers’ to different individuals and organizations (including his own Earthtech Intl) in order to come up with out-of-the-box ideas that might help to understand the physics behind reported UFO sightings. In other words, even if you don’t have alien tech in your hand, that doesn’t stop you from enrolling people to help you imagine how alien tech might actually work.

There are of course numerous problems with this strategy: First of all, many of those subcontractors were never told that the purpose behind these radical scientific papers was trying to understand UFO technology (and conversely, they were also never shown any sensor data from actual sightings) –instead, they were simply told that BAASS was conducting a survey for investment purposes on the future of aerospace technologies in the next 50 years.

The second obstacle is the response such out-of-the-box ideas might garner from squared Military mentalities: once the subcontractors submitted their papers, Puthoff put them all into one hefty volume to be distributed through the Department of Defense’s secure intranet system (JWICS) as Defense Intelligence Reference Documents (DIRDs) (he also told the authors that, although their papers were not meant to be released to the publics, nothing forbid them from publishing their results). These are the controversial ‘woo papers’ which have gathered a great deal of criticism once some of them were made public; and although Puthoff jokingly remarked that for a time his DIRDs were the Pentagon’s ‘best-sellers’, where he sees the level of attention as a sign of positive interest, it could very well have been the complete opposite –if Youtube has taught us something, is that number of views is NOT indicative of quality or general acceptance.

It’s entirely likely the ‘popularity’ of the AAWSAP papers had more to do with the outrage several high-level members of the Pentagon felt, who couldn’t understand why the Department of Defense was wasting time and money in studying the feasibility of ‘stargates’ and ‘traversable wormholes’***. Whatever the actual response received by Puthoff’s DIRDs was, what we do know is that BAASS didn’t get their contract with the Pentagon renewed, and later on the remaining program’s goals were streamlined into just focusing on military encounters with UFOs, instead of trying to figure out what makes them tick (tack).

Finally, the biggest problem I have with Puthoff’s approach is that he was asking his subcontractors to imagineer UFOs as spacecraft. This bias towards the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) is unfortunately something most of the SCU as an organization suffers from in varying degrees; and it’s even more surprising among someone like Puthoff, who has spent so many decades investigating out-there ideas including remote viewing at SRI, and the strange happenings at Skinwalker ranch while involved with NIDS –“I lean toward the ET hypothesis, but barely above the other hypotheses,” he admitted during the Q&A. That’s all well and good, but the purported interstellar provenance of UFOs is something that is probably impossible to scientifically establish (until we ourselves can travel to other planets) and Puthoff’s old friend and colleague, Monsieur Jacques Vallee, has spent a lot of ink and paper arguing why the ETH is the least likely explanation for the UFO mystery.

In his closing remarks, Dr. Puthoff celebrated the fact that “the UAP topic has come of age” and has lost a lot of the stigma adhered to it, now that “the data cannot be ignored.” He also believes there is a great future in the horizon for the study of the phenomenon, ideally in the form of groups that foster international cooperation. And yet the irony is that, when asked by one of the attendees if the time had come to invite the Russians and Chinese scientists to participate in the study of UFOs, Puthoff showed a lot of reticence to this suggestion and thought it would have to be handled very carefully, for fear of “showing too much” to ‘the enemy’.

Wouldn’t it be ironic, I wonder, if the aliens had deliberately ‘seeded’ their technology all around the world to ensure no country by itself would be able to crack the UFO egg? Maybe Mister Bigelow should organize a movie night and invite Hal and all his buddies to watch the film Arrival –because if they already saw the movie, I think they missed the point…

Panel Discussion (The Knuth Kontroversy)

Dr. Kevin Knuth

Like all UFO-related things, the CSI was not without a little polemic and conspiracy fodder: The third presentation of Day 1 was scheduled to be given by former NASA research scientist Dr. Kevin Knuth (currently involved with UAPx) and was titled “The Physical Observables of UAPs,” but was changed at the last minute and substituted with a round table involving all the conference presenters, including Puthoff who was asked to stick around.

Prior to the conference, all attendees received an e-mail with the following statement:

[…]Dr. Knuth did not have sufficient time to vet his presentation which he recently changed with SCU and decided to not present at this time. Instead, he will participate as a panelist.

In another section of the conference’s website, one could find yet another message left by the main organizer, Richard Hoffman:

The Powerpoint slideshow titled “The Physical Observables of UAPs” that was briefly posted on the convention website was a draft; the document contains material that is not endorsed by Prof. Knuth or Prof Szydagis. or “contains material that does not represent the work or the views of Prof. Knuth or Prof. Szydagis”. As such, it was not vetted to SCU and a decision was made to remove the presentation in favor of a panel discussion as stated in my announcement. If you have downloaded this material, please be advised.

Ray Stanford

So… what happened? According to Chris Lambright, author of X Descending, Knuth was planning on including actual images from Ray Stanford’s 1985 film. Now, for people who are not familiar with Ray, he is a very controversial figure in the world of UFOlogy: a rare remnant of the golden years of the Contactees in the 1950s when he and his twin brother Rex were just teenagers, Ray rubbed elbows with many of the celebrities of that era –George Adamski and George Hunt Williamson, to name a few– and in 1971 he founded the Association for the Understanding of Man (AUM), which were involved in a lot of dubious endeavors (including trying to build a time machine!).

Eventually Ray gave up on trying to contact the Space Brothers through psychic channeling, and attempted instead to use the scientific method to gather evidence of extraterrestrial visitation –despite the fact of lacking any proper scientific credentials. He created Project Starlight International (PSI) and assembled a team of researchers and instrumentation said to be worth a million dollars, designed to attract and record evidence of UFO activity –we mentioned Ray’s work in a previous article about scientifically-oriented UFO projects.

On a subsequent post at the Facebook group UFO Updates, Lambright stated that the reason behind Knuth’s cancellation was because Douglas Dean Johnson –an active member of SCU– had written a letter to their board of directors complaining about the inclusion of Ray’s material in the conference. When I asked Mr. Johnson about his motivation in this matter, he explained his concern about the inclusion of Ray’s footage because –according to him– it consists of “extreme enlargements from negatives that have never been examined by independent experts” (but then, isn’t Knuth himself an ‘independent expert’?), and that he felt the inclusion of this material ran contrary to SCU’s mission statement to “share credible data with the public, the media, the government, and scientific institutions…to establish a foundation and resource for credible, objective, scientific peer reviewed content on the subject of UAP.”

It is a perfectly valid concern, and one that would have also been applicable if someone had chosen to include quotes and material from say, Bob Lazar, in a similar presentation (it’s also kind of surprising SCU wasn’t apparently aware of Ray’s reputation prior to Johnson’s complaint, or maybe they weren’t thoroughly aware Knuth was planning of showing his footage).

As a follow-up to this story, I contacted Dr. Knuth himself to learn about his opinion on this apparent controversy. This was his reply to my email:

As a professional scientist I am not accustomed to there being any controversy surrounding a canceled scientific presentation.  Almost every scientific meeting I have gone to has at least one canceled or dramatically revised presentation.  As a result, I am not sure what to say.

After discussing the presentation with my colleagues it became clear that I needed to obtain additional evidence and documentation for a couple of topics I had planned on discussing.

As a scientist, I am careful not to present material that is not fully backed-up.

There is no controversy; only more work to be done.

With all due respect to Dr. Knuth, everything related to the UFO phenomenon is, by definition, subject to controversy. And it could very well be that thanks to the opportune intervention of Mr. Johnson, he and his SCU colleagues managed to dodge a bullet. Then again, a scientist’s position should always be to look for answers without any biases and preconceptions –isn’t that what UFO advocates (including SCU) are always demanding from skeptics like Seth Shostak or Neil deGrasse Tyson? – so I sincerely hope that eventually either Knuth or another researcher bothers to take a cold, hard, dispassionate look to what Ray Stanford may or may not have. Because UFOs might not be as discerning with the reputation of those who witness them as we may like them to be.

The ironic thing about this, though, is that despite all the controversy surrounding Ray and his rocky past, that apparently hasn’t stopped many people with interesting credentials from paying attention to whatever he’s got hiding behind piles of rocks and dinosaur tracks at his home in Maryland –including (according to some) Dr. Hal Puthoff himself.****

Ray Stanford’s personal collection of dinosaur tracks.

Fermi vs the Flying Saucers

Peter Reali

After the 1-hour lunch break, the next presentation of Day 1 was given by executive board member Peter Reali, who is an electrical engineer retired after a long career in Silicon Valley. The subject of his lecture was not telecommunication technologies but Astrophysics, and was named “A Statistical Treatment of the Drake Equation with the implications for the understanding of the Fermi Paradox and some hypotheses about UAP technology,” which was as approachable and easy to follow as the title implies.

Basically, Reali tried to tackle the age-old paradox proposed by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (if the universe is more than likely teeming with life, where is everybody?) and reconciling it with UFO sightings –something astrophysicist Frank Drake would not have approved of, which is why Reali decided to call his famous equation the “R equation” instead during his talk– and falsifying the ETH hypothesis (here we go again with the space fetish!) based on ten assumptions (that’s a lot!) including the assumption that after a few hundred years advanced civilizations would for some reason lose any interest in space travel and communicate with cultures below their own level of evolution –I wonder when was the last time Reali took a trip abroad…

The Drake equation

I found this logic to be awfully biased and too based on how Western nations treated aboriginal countries in the XIXth century (anthropomorphizing much?). Perhaps a much wiser and older civilization would find in younger, more primitive planets something that would be extremely rare once you reach a post-scarcity level –novelty.

I also noticed that in Reali’s probabilistic-based scenarios, he wasn’t entertaining the possibility of cooperation between different civilizations, and instead he was envisioning each group doing their own thing totally in isolation of each other –including the occasional visit to planet Earth. I asked why it was the case during the Q&A session and Reali conceded he did not dismiss the possibility of a ‘galactic council’ of some sort –I suspect all SCU members are Star Trek fans– but given our own conflict-ridden history, perhaps ET civilizations are inherently incompatible. But then, isn’t it true that most of our conflicts arose from a scarcity of resources, which –according to him– would be immediately solved once we perfect space travel and start mining asteroids?

Enrico Fermi

In the end, this feels like an exercise in trying to massage the only data with possess with a degree certainty (number of stars in the Universe) and adding a bunch of hunches into the mix, like the so-called ‘Mediocrity Principle’ (the idea that there’s nothing special about us, which was touched upon again later in the conference), in order to try to make sense of the disparity between the apparent silence in the Cosmos, and the numerous sightings of UFOs reported each year.

The Fermi paradox is the ultimate Rorschach test: how you choose to ‘solve it’ probably says more about you than about the actual reality of extraterrestrial life in our galaxy. For Carl Sagan and the people facing the threat of mutually-assured destruction during the Cold War, the ‘cosmic silence’ was likely the result of ET’s failure to grow beyond their ‘technological adolescence’ by nuking themselves out of existence. To a retired engineer like Peter Reali, the silence is the result of ET just growing tired of going out and staying home.

Separating the UFO Wheat from the Chaff with A.I.

The final speaker for Day 1 was Robert Powell, who has a B.S. degree in Chemistry and had an illustrious career in the semiconductor industry –his work helped develop flash memory technology, and he is the holder of four patents related to nano-technology.

The title of his presentation, “An examination of past attempts at statistical analysis of UFO reports and a proposal for an improved analysis technique,” is a rather interesting approach in trying to solve one of UFOlogy’s biggest problems to date: with so many UFO reports labeled simply as “unknown” cluttering the databases, how to differentiate between the good cases and the bad ones?

Powell’s proposed solution is the utilization of A.I. algorithms programmed with Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is a subfield of linguistics, computer science and A.I. which mimics the natural way in which humans understand and assign value to language. Using this tool, Powell is looking to assign an arbitrary ‘veracity value’ to the words utilized by witnesses to describe their UFO encounters, with ‘weak cases’ being the ones composed of mainly ‘emotional’ words, whereas ‘strong cases’ would be the ones composed of ‘descriptive words’.

As intriguing as Powell’s approach looks at first glance, there immediately arise a number of problems if one does not tread carefully. For starters, one has to start with an assumption of WHAT constitute a good case in the first place. For a person like Powell, a good case might be one in which you have more than one witnesses who are trained observers and reported a seemingly structured object in the sky for a significant length of time; whereas to a researcher interested in the transformative nature of the UFO phenomenon (like yours truly), the best cases are the ones in which the witness can discern a clear subjective impact from their experience with ‘the Other’ –even if they find themselves putting them into words.

And in fact, one of the prime characteristics of what psychologists call ‘peak experiences’ is their ineffability –you ask someone who just took an heroic dose of psilocybin to accurately describe what they experienced, and they may not be able to do so; despite their absolute certainty that what they went through had an incredible impact in their lives.

What’s true for near death experiences or psychedelic sessions is also applicable to close encounters, so how would an NLP system try to avoid giving a low rating to such reports? How would it rate cases like for example Travis Walton’s abduction, or Betty and Barney Hill?

Betty and Barney Hill, the first (official) alien abduction case

I asked Powell’s that question to the conference’s private messaging system, and this is the reply he gave me:

I’m very familiar with those two cases but I’m not sure how the algorithm would rate them because I have not seen the original report that the witnesses submitted. They would get plus points because both cases are at “close distance” and plus points for multiple witnesses. If memory serves me well, the Hill’s were matter-of-fact in their descriptions. I don’t recall how Travis reported.

The algorithm rates the original witness’s report for their use of words.

Would the algorithm give a different rating based on the witness’s education level (college graduate versus illiterate), occupation (police officer versus truck driver) or even gender? When pointed out by another attendee during the Q&A session how women tend to employ a more emotional lexicon than men, Powell (who is married) nervously laughed and said “I’m not even gonna go there!”

Powell’s screening methods has the potential to solve the “garbage in-garbage out” problem when trying to extract useful information from UFOlogy’s disparaging databases. But in order to do so correctly a number of multiple factors must be considered, including the opinions of people from different specialty fields, like psychology and anthropology –and yes, also the wives. Because.

Dark Matter UFOs? Whoa!

Matthew Szydagis
Dr. Matthew Szydagis

The first presentation of Day 2, “What is the Possible Connection between UAPs and Dark Matter?,” was given by Dr. Matthew Szydagis –an experimental particle astrophysicist and associate professor at the University of Albany– and was also my personal favorite of the whole event. Szydagis is a young, passionate scientist with a knack for making even the most obscure topics in modern physics approachable to the layperson –in this case quite literally, since his professional expertise happens to be dark matter, the hidden stuff that along with its cousin (dark energy) constitute 95% of the known Universe.

Like many people from his and previous generations, he was acculturated by Star Trek –in his case TNG and Voyager instead of TOS– but unlike many scientifically-oriented individuals, he explained to the audience that from an early age he was also highly interested in the UFO phenomenon, and did not dismiss it out of hand as merely pseudoscience.

After giving a brief summary about the history of dark matter as a scientific explanation for the observable acceleration of our galaxy’s arms, and how the Universe itself is moving faster away from us without falling apart despite the apparent lack of observable mass –he also addressed how this is not just a case of not understanding the laws of Gravity (even though nobody still understands WHAT Gravity is, I might add)– he went ahead to explain a few current theories on what dark matter could be and the many (still fruitless) attempts to detect it, which might still many decades to be successful.

All of that to finally come to the crux of Szydagis’s idea: The same way that electricity and anti-matter were once considered useless when originally discovered, but then proved to be valuable sources of energy –our entire civilization is now electricity-dependent, and Star Trek has coaxed many scientists to dream of efficient anti-matter reactors to power-up spacecraft engines like the USS Enterprise in a few hundred years– perhaps a much older and advanced civilization could have been smart enough to make good use of all that invisible stuff that comprises the larger chunk of the known Universe; that could help solve the conundrum of how UFOs lack a visible exhaust, and how close encounters leave no detectable traces of radiation or radioactivity.

This could be perceived as somewhat anti-climactic –“wow, a science class on an early Sunday morning to tell me we don’t know what dark matter or dark energy are, but hey maybe aliens are smart enough to use that as fuel?”– but in truth it would do a disservice to how engaging Szydagis’s presentation was, and how open-minded he is to consider all sorts of hypothetical scenarios. How open-minded? For starters, and unlike most SCU members who are too fixated in the ETH for my taste, Szydagis is willing to entertain more than one solution for the UFO mystery! What if, he proposed, UFOs are a combination of time travelers, ultra-terrestrials, ETs, what-have-you?

Types of aliens reported in CEIII cases

“We’re asking the wrong questions,” he told the audience. “What if everybody is right? We shouldn’t assume that just one theory is correct!” Folks, not even in regular “woo-woo” UFO conferences you often hear presenters adopt that kind of approach, and I liked it.

I also liked another idea proposed by him: since science postulates that dark matter is everywhere around us (we just cannot perceive it) then perhaps there are naturally occurring ‘clumps’ of the stuff that might account for some UFO sightings. That could help explain the apparent appearance/disappearance of these manifestations, and also how there are even accounts of UFOs going through mountains; of course, that still doesn’t solve the problem of how dark matter might momentarily interact with visible light –or else we wouldn’t be able to see them– and although critics might point out Szydagis is replacing one unknown with another unknown, I still give him kudos for proposing such an elegant novel idea, which is oddly reminiscent of the Earth lights theory by Paul Deveraux.

Or maybe I’m just showing my bias, due to the fact that during the Q&A he showed appreciation for a question I posed: since science already established we are made of what constitutes the visible 5% stuff in the universe, I asked, then… wouldn’t that negate the so-called ‘Mediocrity Principle’ maintained by people like Peter Reali?

Szydagis admitted that he’d never considered it that way before, but still believed the mediocrity principle still holds, because that tiny 5% of visible stuff is so evenly distributed. Fair enough.

Jacques Vallee

Szydagis was also took the trouble of answering another one of my questions through the conference’s private messaging system, which had been left out of the Q&A after his segment ran out of time. I wanted to know his opinion about Jacques Vallee and Garry Nolan’s analysis of the supposed UFO debris and how the isotopic ratio of these materials seemed as if they had been “re-engineered at a molecular level.” Might that not suggest, as I had proposed to Vallee when I interviewed him, an instantaneous transformation of energy into matter and viceversa?

“I think there might be an easier explanation here than dark matter or energy conversion,” he replied. “Don’t get me wrong I think the samples are VERY interesting, because they show usage of more elements and compounds than humans use in material production. In addition, the parts seem to be engineered at the molecular level as you say, to insert beneficial atoms and molecules like water, which block radiation, into what appears by eye to be only metal.”

Matthew Szydagis is a fine addition to the SCU team, and I’m looking forward to seeing him getting more involved with the UFO discussion in the future –maybe one day I’ll suggest him to look into apports

Bug-Eyed Time Travelers? Oh My…

Dr. Michael Masters

The next presentation, given by Dr. Michael Masters (professor of biological anthropology at Montana Tech in Butte, Montana) was a bit underwhelming, despite of having the sexy title of “Time Travel, Hominin Evolution, and the UFO Phenomenon.”  Perhaps it is because I’ve already listened to an interview of his with Greg Bishop on Radio Misterioso, so I was already familiar with his arguments of why he thinks his ‘Extra-tempestrial model’ (as he calls it) is a better explanation than the ETH;perhaps it was because he chose to show a pre-recorded video instead of doing a live (or rather, virtual) presentation like the rest of the speakers –which was plagued with technical difficulties and ended up eating much of the allotted Q&A time; or perhaps it’s simply because Master’s somewhat monotonal tone of voice proved a sharp contrast with the deluge of enthusiasm shown by Szydagis on the previous presentation

Having said that, one needs to give proper credit to Masters, for being the *only* SCU presenter (and perhaps the only member) who seems to actually give a damn about close encounters of the 3rd kind and the description of humanoid-like occupants by the witnesses. His deep knowledge of anatomy and human anthropology gives a very compelling argument of how it would be astronomically unlikely for a species resembling a human being –or even bipedalism itself– to independently evolve on a different planet. Here on Earth we were lucky enough to have a giant asteroid wipe out the dinosaurs, so what are the chances of the same chain of ‘random’ circumstances to repeat themselves elsewhere?

Prototypical gray alien

…And yet, one gets the impression Masters might have not fully entertained the number of problems arising from trying to force the UFO phenomenon, with all its high strangeness and complexity, fit a time traveling scenario. Forget for a moment the fact that the possibility of a time machine a-la “Back to the Future” is still considered science fiction, and that even some of his own SCU colleagues had previously discussed how a time machine would not be able to go back to a time prior to its construction (for reasons apparently so obscure and complex they didn’t even bother to explain). Even if our descendants were smart enough to bypass all that, wouldn’t the possibility to control Time give the impression of ‘omniscience’ to an outside observer (think ‘Groundhog Day’)?

And if that was the cause, then how to account for all those close encounter cases in which the UFOnauts were acting as if they were caught “with their pants down,” picking plants and rocks and then acting all surprised in front of stupefied witnesses? Is it all a stage show, as researchers like Nick Redfern and Greg Bishop suggest?

Masters was gracious enough to answer my question after his presentation was over, and this is what he replied:

[…]While our future descendants would likely have a deep understanding of events on the whole (ie, major historical events, catastrophes, etc.) I don’t know if they would or could be aware of everything in every moment that transpires during interact with us in our times, such as in cases where they get caught with their pants down as you say…. with that said, i have often wondered, and i discussed in my first book, whether the ones that crashed into Roswell knew that was their fate, or if it was so distant in their own past that they were unaware of it. Seems like it would be hard to get on that ship knowing you were going to crash and some die in 1947 if they were aware of that event ahead of time. 

A fair answer. And obviously, I also have no way to tell if there could be unforeseeable limitations that would restrict the number of times one could travel back to the same past moment over and over –maybe if time travel becomes a diversion for our future post-human descendants, they might simply run out of flurbos…

From Ape to Gray

Like all attempts to explain the UFO mystery, Master’s time traveling ideas feel incomplete and leaves many things unanswered (if bipedalism is so unlikely, for example, then how to account for sightings of reptilian and insectoid beings, even if they might come from a post-human era in which different animal species might take over the planet?). Nevertheless, it was a bout of fresh air amid a conference dominated by CE-2 sightings in which interactions with humanoids were conveniently omitted, and I look forward to his soon-to-be released book, in which he will even explore the controversial ‘binary download’ of Jim Penniston, one of the witnesses to the Rendlesham forest incident.

Looking for Aliens: What’s it Worth to You?

Dr. Silvano Colombano

The next presentation of Day 2, given by former NASA scientist Dr. Silvano Colombano, was… well, dry would be something of an understatement. Here I may be showing my complete lack of experience with academic conferences, in which showing slideshows filled with equations and impenetrable graphs is as common as Texas Instrument calculators; but if there is one thing SCU as an organization should try to figure out is WHO their target audience is –are you trying to convince just your scientific peers that there’s something to all this ‘UFO nonsense’ after all, or are you trying to appeal for more scientific rigor among  the existing UFO community, which is not necessarily comprised of people with a basic understanding of Bayesian formulas?

It is not about ‘dumbing down’ the arguments, but of making sure people are actually capable of following them, lest they be scared out and lured instead by sexier narratives involving recovered disks and Element 115.

But getting back to Colombano, who is probably the SCU member with the most impressive scientific credentials of them all, the title of his presentation was “A cost-benefit analysis of UAP research.” He proposed a series of cost-estimates to the search of intelligent life in the Universe, applying statistical analysis to calculate the probability of UFOs being ET spacecraft given our current understanding of physics (i.e., where we are now today), extended physics (i.e., future discoveries that are expected, like the discovery of more exoplanets) and speculative physics (e.g., faster-than-light travel and ‘out there’ scenarios).

SETI radio telescope array

In short: even though it’s all educated guesses on his part –and even though Colombano is not a statiscian– his conclusion is that it’s more effective to assume we are already being visited by ETs and to look for signs of their activity right here on Earth, than to spend millions of dollars trying to detect artifacts of alien civilizations outside of our planet. I’m sure SETI’s Seth Shostak would be thrilled to hear this.

Speaking of SETI, it was inevitable that someone in the audience would take the opportunity to ask a former space scientist about NASA’s recent decision to start taking UFOs seriously. According to Dr. Colombano, NASA was involved from the start with SETI but ended up being dissuaded from “wasting their time with ‘little green men’ by Congress.” So that would mean their apparent lack of interest was caused by the government; but I have to disagree with Colombano, because I’m not sure he is familiar with how in the 1970s the Carter administration was trying to follow on the president’s campaign promise to re-open an official study of UFOs, and NASA wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole! ♦♦

As for myself, I couldn’t resist the possibility of asking Colombano –since he seems so fond of calculating models and making statistical guesses– how much probability he gave to the possibility that we are all living inside a simulation. The good doctor took the question with humor, and made a joke on how perhaps the reason UFOs could appear and disappear out of thin air is because they simply move outside the Zoom background. “I don’t believe it,” he said, “although one can never say never.”

Much more interesting, however, was his answer to my question about Oumuamua and Dr. Avi Loeb’s theory that this interstellar object was of artificial origin. Colombano admitted he didn’t know enough to comment on whether it is a strange enough anomaly to give credence to Loeb’s speculation, or just an ordinary object as his detractors maintain. “But it is worth looking into it.”

'Oumuamua cigar-shaped comet
Oumuamua

But perhaps the thing that surprised me the most about Colombano is that he doesn’t seem to discount alien abductions out of hand, like many of his SCU colleagues would. “It’s probably cheaper (from a cost-estimate perspective) than looking elsewhere, and they should be considered too.” But in science, he explained, it is best to go after the low-hanging fruit, and focusing on other types of sightings where there is corroborating data (e.g., radar) to attain respectability makes more sense. Fair enough; the problem is that this is exactly the kind of approach UFOlogy as a field has tried to pursue long before we started to refer to UFOs as ‘tic-tacs’ –and it has never worked.

Snooping Aliens with Machine Learning

Chris Cogswell

The final presentation of the SCU conference was given jointly by Dr. Chris Cogswell (Sky Hub) and Ronald Olch (UFODAP), who both represent two similar approaches to the problem of acquiring reliable, publicly available UFO data –using affordable camera systems and modern machine-learning technology to automatically discern between mundane objects and true anomalies– so we can stop going all ‘Oliver Twist’ with the US government (or their unofficial ‘leakers’ *ahem*) and cry, “Please Sir, may I have some more?”

I personally find these two projects exciting and highly commendable, and I also hope they are considering similar efforts which attempted to collect UFO data in the past, like project Hessdalen, so they don’t end up repeating the same mistakes –Olch answered to me during the Q&A by mentioning the Hessdalen scientists were looking to buy some of his equipment. Cool!

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome comes from the (more than likely) possibility that trying to gather evidential data from an intelligence who has NO desired to be analyzed might prove to be an insurmountable challenge (Skinwalker ranch anyone?). Mr. Olch was kind enough to answer to my question after the presentation, and this is what he wrote:

That would be a good question no matter where we attempt to collect data.  However, I think it makes sense to utilize a number of simultaneous sensors of different types to determine what is affected and collect what data can be had.  UFODAP systems combine camera video with sensors for various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The kind of answer I would expect from someone who is not willing to just throw up their hands and try to make sense of the UFO phenomenon, even if it may end up being beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Bravo.

Conclusions

The 2021 SCU virtual conference was a fun, engaging ♦♦♦, and reasonably priced event (a bargain really, compared to other online paranormal conferences♦♦♦♦) with an exceptional list of speakers who provided a lot of food for thought with regards to the UFO topic. A scientifically oriented approach to this mystery has always been hard to come by, because aside from the fact that scientists have a tendency to disregard the phenomenon out of hand, there’s a certain natural tendency among the people who are interested in these sort of things to distrust authority figures (scientists included).

SCU could very well become the bridge that finally helps to close that gap. But to do so without falling into the same biases that have plagued similar efforts, I feel they need to broaden the scope. As mentioned by a couple of their own speakers, the ETH is not the end-all-be-all of the UFO enigma; just like scientists are no immune to be challenged by things like using a simple virtual meeting platform like Zoom, they are also as prone to be influenced by personal biases just like the rest of us.

Which is why I would urge SCU to make a few changes, like paying more attention to close encounters and experiencers. Thinking you can coldly analyze UFO data without paying attention to its profound effects on human witnesses, is as limiting as studying the chemical composition of drugs without ever bothering to analyze their effects of human consciousness.

If someone feels this review was too critical, then I apologize. Had I found the event boring or irrelevant, then rest assured this review would have been a lot shorter. I’m giving ‘hard love’ because I care about the subject deeply, and I see in SCU a potential for improvement and growth.

… Well, growth to a certain degree. Because the last thing UFOlogy needs is another MUFON.


Notes

(*) Back in 2017, when TTSA launched, Puthoff was addressed as ‘Vice President of Science and Technology’ but nowadays he appears on the webpage only as a member of their advisory board.

(**) And yet, if you have paid attention to the stories and rumor mills spinning over the last four years, there is no doubt that Puthoff and his associates clearly believe that to be the case –e.g. Dr. Eric Davies (another long-time collaborator of Puthoff, who joined the SCU conference as part of the audience) and his involvement with what is known in UFO circles as the ‘Wilson memo.’

(***) One of the most interesting comments Puthoff made during the Q&A, was when he was asked if he believed that Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais’s controversial patents represented a “true technological breakthrough” (something I myself was interested in learning). He said that some of his concepts seemed similar to his own zero-point energy theories, but there is no scientific evidence to back their feasibility –The Drive wrote an article showing how, after performing a few experiments, the Navy had failed to find any proof of the so-called ‘Pais effect’, which would have theoretically permitted the construction of UFO-like craft capable of incredible feats.

Although brief, Puthoff’s response seemed to confirm two things: (A) that Salvatore Cezar Pais’s work had nothing to do with the AAWSAP program; and (B) that even for a former NIDS associate and remote viewer investigator, there are still ideas that are too ‘out there’.

(****): It has been mentioned to me by individuals who have taken the trouble to visit Ray Stanford, that he told them Puthoff once spent considerable time looking through his alleged UFO footage. If true, that does not necessarily validate Ray’s claims, since we also know Puthoff and his NIDS associates were famous for sending feelers to gauge a lot of controversial material –including the Project Serpo and Santilli ‘alien autopsy video’ hoaxes.

(♦): It should also be pointed out that there are no women in SCU’s board of directors and emeritus members.

(♦♦): For more information, read Jacques Vallee’s Forbidden Science Vol. 2

(♦♦♦): During the two days of the conference participants were encouraged to join ‘networking tables’ where they could virtually engage with other people.

(♦♦♦♦): For the purposes of disclosure, I was able to get a press pass through the kind intercession of Mr. Richard Hoffman.


[ADDITIONAL NOTE]: A previous version of this review stated that SCU had published a paper on the Stephenville lights case. The Stephenville report was actually published by SCU executive board member Robert Powell in 2010, 7 years before SCU was founded. Many thanks to Jonathan Lace and Douglas Dean Johnson for the clarification.

  1. Over a period of more than 60 years, Ray Stanford has publicly made countless claims to have obtained extraordinary UFO evidences, including “thousands” of film frames, as well as physical samples of alien technology products. He has also claimed various types of contacts and communication with advanced aliens. These claims go back to 1954, and are as recent as 2019, at least. I have written up a selection of Ray Stanford’s most remarkable claims (selected from a much larger number), including uploads of contemporary audio files and documents that put you there. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Ray Stanford Carnival of Incredible and Unsubstantiated UFO Claims!

    https://alienexpanse.com/index.php?threads/ray-stanfords-carnival-of-incredible-and-unsubstantiated-ufo-claims.5497/

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