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Are UFOs real? Maybe, says historian PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 31 August 2010 15:03

KINDERHOOK — We may not be able to identify unidentified flying objects, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real. That was the gist of a talk by historian John Horner Saturday at Kinderhook Memorial Library.

“I believe they’re real,” he said. “There’s a strong body of evidence. I don’t buy the extraterrestrial hypothesis. I believe they are as yet unknown phenomena.”

Horner led an overflowing audience through the history of sightings in the U.S., beginning with the first major sighting in 1896 in San Francisco. Since there were no airplanes at that time, the Sacramento Bee used nautical or railroad terms to describe it, like “air brakes,” “boat-shaped hull” or “steam-powered,” referring to the most technologically sophisticated vehicles of the day.

Reports of early sightings often described the occupant of the vessel as a “lone inventor,” a description that reflects figures like Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton and Thomas Edison. “It was believable to the people at the time,” Horner said. “We have a strong belief in technology and industry. The fact that it occurred in the U.S. made it more believable.”

Soon the Wright Brothers came along, and then World War I “changed everything in our perception of technology,” he said. “Death from the sky was now a reality.”

Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds,” although it included a disclaimer at the beginning of the show, pretended to be a news account of the invasion of Earth from outer space. The panicked reaction to the show is evidence to Horner of how much currency the idea of UFOs had. “For the panic to reach this extent, it had to be believable,” he said.

Horner said his own aunt, in Catskill, was terrified by the broadcast, and an audience member said his grandmother, in central New Jersey, was angry at Welles for the rest of her life.

The term “flying saucer” apparently entered our lexicon in 1947 when aviator Kenneth Arnold was flying over the Cascade Mountains in Washington state and saw a tailless, flat, disc-shaped object flying off the water below him, Horner said.

“I’m convinced it was some kind of airplane,” Arnold said at the time; then a few years later he said, “I’m inclined to believe it’s of extraterrestrial origin.” But he was so hounded by critics and cynics that he later said, “If I saw a 10-story building flying through the air, I’d never say anything about it.”

The most well-known UFO occurrences were in Roswell, N.M. in July 1947, and are shrouded in mystery. The town was home to the 509th Bombardment Wing, which had dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Allegedly, a crashed saucer containing the bodies of extraterrestrial beings was discovered on land near Roswell by the 509th. The Air Force’s first press release, which said the 509th had gained possession of a disc that landed on a ranch near Roswell, came out late afternoon Pacific time, and the California papers carried it. But the next day, the story was changed, and it was just a weather balloon that was found.

“The Air Force could contain the stories because of newspapers’ publication schedules,” Horner said. “So very few on the East Coast heard about it.”

The story was dormant for 30 years, he said, but in recent decades there has been much controversy and speculation about what was actually found at Roswell.

Horner also talked about sightings in Washington, D.C., the Hudson Valley, Lubbock, Texas and Phoenix, Ariz., as well numerous references in popular culture and the media.

He puts much blame on the media for the lack of serious research that’s been done on UFOs. People who see UFOs are often subject to public ridicule, he said.

“UFOs are either spaceships or nonsense — nothing in between,” Horner said. “The news often makes people look like idiots.”

There were a “tremendous number of witnesses” to the Hudson Valley sightings, in Putnam and Westchester Counties from 1982 to 1987, he said; there were about 12,000 reported sightings.

Horner has had two UFO sightings himself. But he said he personally believes the extraterrestrial hypothesis doesn’t answer the questions, because of the great distances beings would have to travel. “Our current science does not allow us to study them seriously,” he said. “Even study of life in the universe is often ridiculed.”

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