July 8 marks the 66th anniversary of the Roswell incident, as Google is alerting us with its Monday doodle!
Something happened on a July day in 1947. Something. Maybe it made no sound. Maybe it made a swishing sound. Whatever it was, in the following years, a complex array of theories and explanations has sprung up around it.
This year I went to the UFO Citizens Hearing on Disclosure, where several former members of Congress heard hours of testimony about UFOs (for a handy stipend, of course).
I wish I could say I came away convinced that The Government is Keeping Deep Dark UFO Secrets Because Since The Crash Landing Decades Ago It Has Had The Clean Alien Technology To Cure Us Of Our Dependence On Oil But It Will Not Share This Because It Is In The Pocket Of Sinister Petro-Interests And Even The President Isn’t Really In Control Of Disclosure Which You Can Tell Because (UFO theorists always seem to have greater lung capacity than the average person and these sentences can go on for weeks.) But the nature of these conspiracy theories is that once you believe one of them, the rest slot into place, but until you believe one, the evidence keeps collapsing in on itself like an ill-constructed cake. If you saw a blur in the sky, it flows from there. If you missed it, there’s little to convince you. It always baffles me that, as a friend pointed out once, camera technology has improved vastly over the past few decades, yet UFOs in pictures contumaciously insist on remaining just as blurry and elusive as ever.
Leaving aside the generally poor graphic design of this crowd (you can’t base your judgments on graphic design alone, or no Republican candidate for national office would ever get a second look) and their apparently firm conviction that Web pages look best as giant walls of text that seem not to have been updated since 2002, some serious skepticism is still in order. Carl Sagan wrote that he found UFOs “a thrilling idea. It’s at least a break from the ordinary. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in my scientific life working on the issue of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Think how much effort I could save if those guys are coming here. But when we recognize some emotional vulnerability regarding a claim, that is exactly where we have to make the firmest efforts at skeptical scrutiny. That is where we can be had.” And that’s where most of these theories start. It is so strangely reassuring to think that Everything Is Under Control. Even if it’s malignant petro-dollar entities who happen to be controlling it.
One thing you learn quickly if you write on the Internet for any length of time is that no matter what time it is or where you are, there is always someone Googling “alien conspiracy” and “what really happened at Roswell” and “ufo sightings” and “government cover-up.” (Let’s leave aside the fact that if the government were actually competent enough to orchestrate a massive, multi-decade cover-up, crossing party lines and national borders, presumably there would not be numerous easy-to-Google articles about it (this has never stopped us from Googling before; Google is more a record of our wishes than anything else, which is why when you type in “how can I make h,” it suggests “how can I make her love me/him happy/him fall in love”).) So if you ever write about UFOs, even once, you get a steady trickle of three or four people daily coming to see if there’s Anything Out There.
The odds are, Stephen Hawking and others have noted, that we’re not alone in the universe. But those blurs in the sky? That Roswell moment?
Douglas Adams asked, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”