Friday, 05 July 2019 05:41

How we became obsessed with UFOs

It all began the afternoon of 24 June 1947. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot, was flying his plane near Mount Rainier in the northwestern part of the United States, when he saw what appeared to be nine bat-shaped objects flying in a pattern at an amazing speed. Upon landing, he told reporters what he saw. They ‘flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across water,’ he replied when asked about how they moved. Knowing a good headline when he saw it, one keen reporter dubbed them ‘flying saucers’.

Within six weeks, nine out of 10 Americans said they had heard of the term ‘flying saucer.’ A meme was born… and an obsession. Over the next few years, as people throughout the US, UK, and Europe reported also seeing strange flying objects in the skies, early speculation about the origins of the flying saucers ran rampant. While many admitted to being at a loss for an explanation, most considered witnesses to be either mistaken or believed the objects to be secret American or Soviet weapons. Few seriously entertained the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors. This quickly changed, especially in the US, after a number of prominent books hit the market claiming that the U.S. Air Force was convinced the disks were alien in origin, but were reluctant to say so for fear of starting a mass panic. Photograph of the supposed Westall UFO encounter where more than 200 students and teachers allegedly witnessed a UFO in 1966 (Picture: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) A 1957 survey found that 25 per cent of the public believed it was possible that flying saucers were the work of aliens. Within 10 years, five million Americans were claiming to have actually seen a UFO. And by 1986, polling showed that 43 per cent of the U.S. population believed it likely that at least some UFOs were from outer space. The fascination with UFOs enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s. Reports of sightings came in from all over the world. UFO organisations and periodicals sprouted up and thrived not just in Europe and North America, but in South America, Africa, Australia, China, and India. Books about flying saucers, ancient astronauts, and alien abductions became bestsellers. And films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and television shows like In Search Of and The X-Files drew big, dedicated audiences. Explaining the widespread interest in UFOs has proven more challenging than tracking it. The most common explanation offered has focused on the Cold War: worries over possible alien invaders has been seen as an expression of anxiety about the threat of global nuclear destruction on the part of the scientifically uneducated. Academic research, however, has revealed that enthusiasts and their curiosity are more difficult to pin down than that. Studies conducted in the early-2000s showed that those reporting UFOs were generally lower income white males of moderate to high education. And a survey in the 1980s of British UFO researchers indicated that a majority did not believe the objects came from outer space. Overall, those who take a deep interest in UFOs have ranged widely in their motivations and beliefs. There are those who take up UFO study as a hobby akin to trainspotting or birding. There are sceptics who delight in treating each case as a challenging puzzle to crack. Groups dressed as aliens ride through downtown Roswell, New Mexico on the 53rd anniversary of a mysterious crash northwest of Roswell in 1947 (Picture: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers) Some believe they are among thousands or even millions of others who have been kidnapped by aliens as part of a sinister human-alien hybridisation experiment. And still others consider the encounter with UFOs to be a mystical experience, part of a spiritual journey toward personal growth. Ultimately the common thread is a passion for getting to the bottom of a great mystery. There seems to be some evidence that in more recent times, however, interest in UFOs and alien encounters have been on the decline. The UK Ministry of Defence shut down its UFO desk in 2009. UFO periodicals worldwide, once numbering around 3000, dipped below 50 by 2010. Many veteran ufologists admit that membership in UFO groups has seriously declined since the mid-1990s. And the largest international UFO organisation, MUFON, recently reported a more than 50 per cent drop in sightings worldwide since 2014. And yet there remain signs that UFOs are here to stay. A 2012 survey found that 20 per cent of UK residents still believed unidentified flying objects have landed on Earth, while 10 per cent admitted to having seen one. MORE: SCIENCE Huge, rare and mysterious lava lake found in the Antarctic by British team Cockroaches are rapidly evolving to become 'almost impossible' to kill Amazing satellite pictures capture 'path of totality' from yesterday's solar eclipse In the United States – where sightings actually rose from 3,479 in 2001 to over 11,800 by 2015 – the revelation in December 2017 that the Department of Defense had secretly run a program that tracked UFO reports from 2007 to 2012 has seemingly brought new credibility to the UFO phenomenon. The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) appears to have been tasked with, among other things, determining whether any unidentified flying objects posed a national security threat and whether they might be worth capturing and reverse engineering. Since news about AATIP broke, both mainstream media outlets, cable television programs, and UFO forums have been clamouring for more information about the project’s findings and the reasons for its closure. Details, however, have remained scant. And those who had been directly involved, like aerospace businessman Robert Bigelow, have generally been tight-lipped and cryptic about AATIP’s work. And some might say that’s all for the best. For in the world of UFOs, more often than not, the devil has not been in the details, but in the mystery itself. Greg Eghigian is presently writing a book on the history of UFOs and alien

(Metro)

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