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UFOs, Ufology and the British Public
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2008-05-18 09:50:48
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Few people realize the immensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims.
H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Current discussions in the archive world are awash with talk about extra-terrestrials. Releases announced by national archives trigger a choking exodus to vulnerable websites - conspiracy theorists, agnostics, and the generally curious head for the cyber show, often crashing the website in question with salivating, mouse-clicking eagerness. The French were first in the queue of ET-releases, divulging an impressive record of files spanning 50 years last year. Interest was intense. The website of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales crashed last year after more than 220,000 users deluged it with traffic.

That in itself was not surprising. Keen UFO gazers would be aware of the French interest in ‘Un-identified Aerospace Phenomena’ (PAN). The Rare Aerospace Phenomena Study Department (SEPRA), based in Toulouse, was charged with developing a methodology for examining such sightings. It was closed in 2004.

Britain’s National Archives site has also gone public this month on its collection of UFO sightings, releasing a series of documents from the Ministry of Defence (MoD - an acronym that is curiously extra-terrestrial in its import). MoD had little choice in revealing these ‘X Files’, drowning in requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. Some 160 or so files will be kept at the archives for perusal.

A quick peek then, at what these files have to offer, eight of which have been made available on the archive site. The dates: 1978 to 1987. To justify its interest in reporting such incidents, the MoD made it tediously obvious: it was only keen, as a note made in January 1983 says, to catalogue such curiosities to ‘establish whether they reveal anything of defence interest (e.g. aircraft)’ (DEFE-31/172).

Besides, surely they could be nothing peculiar about these space oddities, despite the occasional ‘strange’ object moving through the sky. For the cold realists within the MoD, ‘there are adequate material explanations for these – satellite debris re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, ball lightning, unusual cloud formations; meteorological balloons, aircraft lights, aircraft at unusual angles etc’.

Any initial excitement in perusing such reports is dampened quickly, and the dull dismissive language of the humourless MoD pen pusher proves infectious. The prosaic bureaucratic language does little to raise expectations. The sightings assume a monotonous sameness. Both the witness and the recorder are engaged in an exercise of banal recall. If only such sightings could be that more inventive.

Sightings are nothing short of predictable. Airports are unsurprising venues for alien intruders. Rather naughtily, they like ‘flashing’ (that’s the lit variety). They also persist in using saucers more like pet bowls as their preferred mode of transport. As the French records show, the Trans-en-Provence man who, in January 1981, saw such an object 2.5 meters in diameter is little different from his English or American cousins.

Records do little to endear one to the lack of inventiveness of the observers. On 26 January 1985, the observer in question, while walking the dog, observed a ‘Bright light’. Another description from an observer in a car, in December 1984, for a duration of 10 minutes at 8.45 in the evening: ‘Witness observed the object when driving along, he stopped and flashed his light, object turned, approached and dropped an orange ball of light, car radio went dead.’ Nothing to make you fall off your chair.

Little has changed from those first ‘flying saucer’ sightings in June 1947 made by pilot Kenneth Arnold from the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. After 1950, such objects came to be called UFOs (unidentified flying objects) in the familiar jargon of Captain Edward Ruppelt’s Project Blue Book of 1950.

A civil servant who worked at the UFO desk of the MoD, Nick Pope, sounded exasperated. ‘There simply is no saucer-in-a-hangar smoking gun’ (Guardian 15 May, 2008). Pope was, however, happy to throw ufologists a bone in December last year, claiming that some sightings were ‘highly credible’ (Daily Telegraph, 12 Dec 2007).

Officials were at times compelled to make some statement or take some action. One source detailing observations in October 1984 was treated as ‘quite genuine and has other witnesses’. In all likelihood there was ‘probably some sort of phenomena to be seen possibly connected with the radio masts or the royal radar’. A comment could be made as 'a public relations exercise’ - some ‘official acknowledgment’.

For all these findings, the record on human and extra-terrestrial actual contact is depressingly thin. There has been a very visible death of the British alien abduction. Hornchurch, Essex, in October 1974 (the Aveley Case), seems to have been the last major instance of it. More cache is gotten out of reporting and pondering agricultural phenomena. Crop circles are what enchant the UFO boffin in Blighty.

Such un-identified phenomena sightings are often barometers of social behaviour. Whether it is the communist fifth columnist of the Cold War, intrusive enemy aircraft or fears of millennial apocalypse, the alien phenomenon is often a case of overheated angst.

Lord Wynne-Jones even had time to be flippant in a question in the House of Lords (4 March 1982), addressed to the government’s Viscount Long: ‘My Lord’s, does the Answer [from Viscount Long] mean that since there has been a Conservative Government the UFOs have done a U-turn and departed?’ Life, as a consequence, is continuously imitating art and digesting political sentiment – the conical alien head, whirling in a curious saucer, or a bright cigar-shaped object.

But there is another feature to the release of these files. Determined, campaign-hardened ufologists, using very terrestrial creatures (the FOI Act and public pressure), become self-appointed freedom fighters combating government secrecy. And that is hardly alien.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-05-18 10:35:42
Another take on the matter is that of Carl Jung who in 1958 wrote a small book called Flying Saucers, a Modern Myth. Jung used the term "myth" to mean a sacred story which reflects deep inner needs of a community of believers and which necessitates that some important action to be taken. In the book Jung notes that the first "flying saucer" stories appeared in 1947, two years after the first atomic bombs were exploded. They appeared at a time when there was great fear of a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now as in times past, people look to the sky for salvation from danger. At such times in the past people would have visions of gods, saints, angels etc. Sacred stories or mythologies were told about these beings and ceremonies such as the Native American Ghost Dance were performed. Science has made most people too skeptical about supernatural beings to see the traditional mythological images. Since we live in an age of science and technology, we interpret the new signs in the sky as machines from a world with a technology more advanced than ours. Indeed, throw religion out the window and it will come back from the back door.

Albert Einstein2008-05-18 11:05:53
Letter to Eric Gutkind (partial)
Albert Einstein (1954)
Translated from the German by Joan Stambaugh
... The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the priviliege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolisation. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.
Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, ie in our evalutations of human behaviour. What separates us are only intellectual 'props' and `rationalisation' in Freud's language. Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes
Yours, A. Einstein.

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-18 15:08:31
This from yesterday's The Guardian:


Some scientists are happy to chuck out theology and philosophy. But would we still want a theory of everything if it meant giving up everything that mattered?
By Guy Dammann

Being an atheist, I rarely look to the Bible for consolation. But there was something about the phrasing of Einstein's newly resurfaced letter to the Jewish philosopher Eric Gutkind, professing his opinion of religion as a "childish superstition" that drove me to it. Nor did it drive me to the Old Testament, the primary object of Einstein's amusing diagnosis of the Bible as a series of "primitive legends", but to its sequel.

Specifically, it drove me to the bit you often hear at weddings, which always finds even the worst reader squeezing out evenly-spaced, powerfully paced pearls of Pauline wisdom. "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up ... "

Except that the bit in question, to be even more specific, comes just after that, inevitably finding the same recently so confident reader wading painfully through theological quicksand, holding their breath until the word "charity" returns, allowing a relieved congregation to discard their slightly constipated look and return to smiling beatifically at the bride in progress.(continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-18 15:15:24
"But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

Hmm. So, anyway, there I was, picturing Einstein - who never to my knowledge looked constipated and famously turned away from conventional religion in his youth - thinking of himself putting away childish things on becoming a man, seeing creation not "through a glass, darkly; but face to face". But Einstein would in fact have been unlikely to consider himself looking at "God" - he used this term quite frequently, and reasonably, as a metaphor for the laws of the universe - "face to face". Yet there are many who see themselves as continuing his work who would not.

Stephen Hawking, for instance, whose stated ambition to articulate a unified cosmology tantamount to a theory of everything 2.0, is quite clear that where physics sees the world for what it is, other kinds of account are mere childish fumblings in the dark. Asked recently whether he considered the study of "philosophy and theology a waste of time", Hawking pulled no punches. As his interviewer Rachel Cooke put it, Hawking "looks at his screen, and grimaces. More beeping. 'Yes,' he says, finally. 'Most of it is based on a complete disregard of observational evidence and modern science.'" (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-18 15:18:19
The trouble is, the "everything" that Hawking would explain is but a tiny portion of the everything that many of us would like to know about. When the natural sciences join up, so that the theory of natural selection becomes fully commensurate with the new theory of relativity, most of those things - which include the questions of why Beethoven is better than "auditory cheesecake", why Dostoyevsky's story-telling amounted to more than a ruse to get laid, why consciousness exists, why Seinfeld had to end, why human actions have a value - won't get explained. Rather, they'll get explained away, discarded as meaningless byproducts whose temporary "existence" is only supportable through a "complete disregard of observational evidence."

To read the entire article open the link below:


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-18 15:25:58
(continued from above)

And this is Guy Dammann's conclusion:

Ultimately, it all comes down to babies and their bathwater. If faith in consciousness is no less a childish superstition than belief in God, which according to science's cutting edge it is, then when science throws out the bathwater of theology, it will also throw out the baby of philosophy. And indeed, when it does so, we won't even notice, because part of what will get thrown out is precisely the kind of explanation that indicates a preference for the conglomerations of atoms that form babies over those equally fascinating, fluctuating conglomerations of atoms that form bathwater.

Our only hope is, that when the time comes, there will be someone left to hold the baby. But with such a bright future, if they're to have any chance of catching it, they had better be wearing shades, seeing through the glass, darkly.'


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-18 21:17:57

For a scholarly and thorough exploration of Einstein's view on religion open the above link at the Metanexus Institute.

john craig2009-01-08 05:06:30
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