Seth Shostak, astronomer with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), recently asked me if so many people see UFOs, why astronomers don’t see them also. I responded that they do and there are surveys that were done to demonstrate this, unfortunately the names of the institutes and people who conducted these surveys eluded me at the time, but this article will give him his answer.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer who investigated UFOs for the Air Force, is the first person known to have conducted a survey of astronomers regarding UFO sightings. In 1952, he conducted a small survey of 45 colleagues, and among them 5 (11%) admitted that they had a UFO sighting. A more exhaustive study was done by Hynek with the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in 1980 which included 1800 members of various amateur astronomer associations. 24% responded that they had “observed an object which resisted [their] most exhaustive efforts at identification.”
However, it is not just amateur astronomers who have said they have seen UFOs, inspired by a report done by the prestigious American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AAIA) in 1970 on UFOs, astronomer Dr. Peter Sturrock conducted his own surveys. The report that inspired him was the AAIA’s investigation into UFO reports. In 1969 a study done by the University of Colorado in Boulder in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force had concluded that there was no scientific value in the investigation of UFOs. This report has been dubbed the “Condon Report” in reference to the lead scientist of the investigation, Dr. Edward Condon. In 1970 the AAIA released their report which had been the result of a multi-year study by one of their subcommittees. They disagreed with Condon stating, “[we] did not find a basis in the report for his prediction that nothing of scientific value will come of further studies.” In fact they suggested further study.
In his book The UFO Enigma, Sturrock says this made him wonder if perhaps scientists would be interested in reports by other scientists. He conducted a small survey amongst the members of the San Francisco chapter of the AAIA and the results were published in their monthly journal in 1974. Of the 1175 member responding 5% said they had UFO sightings.
Encouraged by the results, he sought to do a larger survey and was given permission by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to poll their membership. Sturrock wrote that he was pleased to receive a 52% response rate, with only a few rude remarks. Instead he says that the responses were overwhelmingly supportive. While again around 5% admitted having unexplainable sightings, Sturrock was even more satisfied with the results on his colleagues’ interest in the continued research into the UFO enigma.
For whether the “UFO problem” deserves scientific study the answers were:
23% – certainly
30% – probably
37% – possibly
17% – probably not
3% – certainly not
The high amount of positive responses surprised Sturrock, as he was expecting the opposite. He had also asked how they would like to receive information on this subject, and the response was overwhelmingly through scientific journals. However, Sturrock and his colleagues always had problems getting their papers regarding UFOs printed in mainstream journals. This prompted Sturrock to help start a new group called the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE), which publishes a peer review journal.
Of the dozen or so professors that helped found the SSE, seven were astronomers. The SSE is still going strong with a large membership of Ph.D.s. Their website defines them as “a professional organization of scientists and scholars who study unusual and unexplained phenomena. Subjects often cross mainstream boundaries, such as consciousness, ufos, and alternative medicine, yet often have profound implications for human knowledge and technology.”
This article simply includes some of the well known surveys done of astronomers demonstrating that they do indeed see UFOs along with everyone else. The latest large scale poll by the Associated Press and polling agency, Ipsos, in 2007 stated that 14% of those polled respond that they had seen a UFO. This puts the figures for astronomers in the ballpark. Another story would be the immense contribution astronomers have had on the study of UFOs. You can read more about them in another story I wrote dispelling the myth that scientist are not interested in UFOs here.
Hynek found that his fellow astronomers seemed to be very close minded on this issue. In his book, The UFO Experience, he recounts the story of a commotion that was made at a reception with “several hundred” astronomers when it was reported that there was a UFO being seen outside making strange maneuvers. He says people laughed and made some jokes as usual, but that not one astronomer went outside to investigate.
His problem with this was that the lack of investigation didn’t exhibit a true scientific inquisitiveness. He quoted physicist and philosopher Edwin Schrodinger who wrote, “The first requirement of a scientist is that he is curious. He should be capable of being astonished and eager to find out.”
Incidentally, SETI is holding the SETIcon this weekend. I wonder what would happen if a UFO was seen outside of their conference, would they take a look. It is apparent from several debates with Ufologists, and from Shostak’s question, that they haven’t read the literature of their fellow astronomers on this matter. Hopefully this article on the work of their colleagues can stimulate some scientific curiosity, just as the astronomers referenced in this article were stimulated by the work of their fellow scholars.