If you were going to cast the character of a brilliant eccentric scientist for a Spielberg-type sci-fi movie, the late NASA astrophysicist Dr. Thornton Leigh Page (1913-1996) would fit the role perfectly. He had a big beard, used a pirate-like eye patch (he had lost an eye in a car accident in 1961) and constantly smoked a pipe. In ufological history, Dr. Page is best known as one of the five top scientists who sat on the CIA’s Scientific Advisory Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects—better known as the Robertson Panel after its chairman Dr. Howard P. Robertson—convened secretly by the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, DC on January 14-17, 1953.
By all accounts, the Robertson Panel produced one of the U.S. government’s most influential policy decisions on UFOs, although the key role of the CIA was kept secret for many years. If you want to know more about this event including its genesis, proceedings and impact on the government’s handling of UFOs (including the USAF’s Project Blue Book), I direct you to my article, “Revisiting the 1953 CIA’s Robertson Panel,” published in issue 18 of Open Minds magazine. You can also consult directly and download many of the original declassified documents on the CIA’s own Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room. Just type UFO in the search box, and a complete chronological list of their declassified files on the subject will appear.
It was in the early eighties when I met Dr. Page at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, where he worked during the last phase of his very active career in science, academia, and government. I traveled often to Houston in the period between 1981 and 1984 because my late sister and her family were living there at the time. I spent a lot of time going to JSC and doing articles and interviews on the space program for a science column I was then publishing in The New York City Tribune. I also got to know and interview some of the ufologists at JSC like John Schuessler, who became later the director of MUFON, the brilliant scientist Alan Holt, and James Oberg, the well known UFO skeptic, space expert and author.
It was Oberg, in fact, who first took me to Dr. Page’s office during one of my earlier visits to JSC. I still remember the gist of our first conversation. He had just received back then a packet of documents from Lee Graham about the so-called “Blue Room” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where UFO secret files and/or artifacts were supposedly kept; and where Senator Barry Goldwater was denied access, as he later stated on the record in a number of letters. (For background on this story you can read Michael Schratt’s article “Inside the Blue Room” in Open Minds magazine issue 3. Dr. Page told me on that first meeting that he had just sent the package of “Blue Room” letters to Dr. J. Allen Hynek at CUFOS, of which he was a member of the Board of Governors.
The second anecdote had to do with his not too friendly relationship with Dr. Edward Condon, the director of the famous USAF-sponsored Scientific Study on UFOs conducted by the University of Colorado in the late sixties. Their feud had to do with who would write the UFO entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Condon wanted the assignment and so he was furious when Page got it instead. Dr. Page provided a little more background on this “exchange” between the two scientists in the Abstract for a talk he gave on “The CIA Robertson Panel on the UFO problem” for the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) in Austin, Texas, in 1987:
The final anecdote has to do with my being invited to write the article on UFO for the Encyclopedia Britannica. I thought it only right to check my text with Condon, so I phoned him at the University of Colorado. When I explained the situation, there was a loud crash, and the phone went dead. When I called back, the secretary explained that Dr. Condon was so angry that he had not been approached by the Britannica that he dashed the phone to the floor.
In subsequent trips to Houston and the JSC, I made sure to always visit Dr. Page, and he eventually agreed to do an interview for my science column in The New York City Tribune, which took place at his office on June 22, 1983. By this time, Dr. Page had moved his office to literally the end of JSC, where he had his library and his own world. The place was so far from the main JSC buildings that you had to take a special cab to get there. The bulk of the interview, however, was not on UFOs but on Dr. Page’s extensive research in astronomy and space exploration, including an experiment he conducted with “a powerful ultraviolet camera” that was set up by the Apollo 16 astronauts on the lunar surface. Page trained astronaut John Young on how to use the camera, and he also used to teach basic astronomy to NASA astronauts. We also discussed comets and his astronomical research on the “dark matter” in the universe. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my article in the Tribune so I cannot post it here, but that article dealt only with Dr. Page’s astronomical research. The UFO part came at the end of the interview and it was never published, until now. However, before posting the transcript let’s review first briefly the colorful career and personality of Dr. Thornton Leigh Page.
Who was Dr. Thornton Page
Dr. Thornton Leigh Page (1913-1996) doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, but there is a very thorough and personal obituary written by one of his many students, Donald E. Osterbrock of the Lick Observatory who became a member of the National Academy of Sciences, published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society (BAAS) in 1996. Dr. Page was born in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father taught physics at Yale, growing up in an academic atmosphere. He received his BS in physics from Yale in 1934, becoming a Rhodes scholar and studying astrophysics at Oxford. Page remained at Oxford until 1938, when he received his D. Phil., and also got married. He was then appointed instructor in astronomy at the University of Chicago, and he would continue to teach at intervals throughout the rest of his life. Here Osterbrock added his own personal experience as a student of Page:
Page proved to be an outstanding undergraduate astrophysics teacher, as I can testify from my own experience soon after World War II. He was demanding, inspiring, and possessed a vivid personality, exemplified by his beard (uncommon in those days) and the brilliant red sailor’s rain hat he wore on many occasions.
Page served actively in the war in a number of capacities, joining the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington “to work on magnetic mines and countermeasures,” traveling to England to observe the countermeasures there. He was then, continues Osterbrock,
…sent to Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor with the minelaying operations-research group. He served on Guam, Tinian, and at sea, and was with the fleet in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender. After a year helping to clear mines in the Inland Sea, just before he retired as a lieutenant commander, he observed and reported on the atomic bomb tests at Bikini.
Page returned to academia in Chicago after the war, but returned to government service in 1951 as deputy director of the Operations Research Office in the Department of the Army, where he worked mostly on classified matters—he had a Top Secret “Q” clearance—including a six-month tour in Korea during the war and two years as chief science advisor at U.S. Army Headquarters in Heidelberg, West Germany. It was during this period that Dr. Page was recruited to serve in the CIA Robertson Panel (a detail omitted in Osterbrock’s profile), and the only time he ever got paid by the CIA, according to Page himself. A declassified memo by H. Marshall Chadwell, the CIA scientist in charge of organizing the Robertson Panel, gives a little background on the hiring of both Dr. Page and Dr. Luis W. Alvarez, the brilliant physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 and is best known for his theory that the extinction of the dinosaurs was triggered by the crash of an asteroid or comet.
Dated January 9, 1953, Chadwell’s memo begins with the problem: “To obtain the services of Dr. Luis W. Alvarez and Dr. Thornton Page as ad hoc consultants to the O/SI [Office of Scientific Intelligence] Advisory Panel on ‘Unidentified Flying Objects’, scheduled to convene 14 January 1953.” Chadwell then list some brief qualifications for both scientists:
b. Dr. Luis W. Alvarez is an outstanding scientist in the fields of radar operation, characteristics and anomalies.
c. Dr. Thornton Page is a particularly competent astronomer and astrophysicist. Moreover, he has given considerable thought to the subject of “unidentified flying objects.”
In a letter to researcher Bill Pitts, Dr. Page provided a little more background to his enrollment in the Robertson Panel, which he says, came of a result of his friendship with Dr. Robertson:
H.P. Robertson, a mathematical physicist, was an old friend of mine. (We worked together in France just after WWII). He was asked by the CIA to gather a panel of distinguished scientists in Washington, 14-18 Jan. 1953, to be briefed on the UFO problem, which had just broken out in D.C. He invited me because of our friendship and because I lived in D.C., requiring no travel expenses.
In the interview with me he also gives the additional and important reason that he already had all the necessary security clearances needed to work in such a panel. In 1958, five years after the Robertson Panel, Dr. Page returned to academia, this time as professor and head of the astronomy department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he moved with his new wife Lou Williams, a geologist. Osterbrock provides a wonderful vignette of Page’s unique personality, writing that in this period he and his new family,
lived in a large, picturesque, university house which dated back to 1783. He used a picture of it as the illustration on the labels of the bottles of beer which he brewed under the name of “Pagerbr’áu,” and presented to faculty friends as Christmas gifts. Before leaving Germany he had located and bought a 1938 Mercedes touring car which had once belonged to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel; back in Middletown with Connecticut vanity license plates bearing a short version of the Panzer leader’s name it established Page as a colorful, respected campus character.
In 1961, Page was seriously injured in a car accident, losing his right eye, which led to his use of the eye-patch. Following a long recovery period he went back to science, including working on space-tracking programs with the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory, helping to modernize the Cordoba Observatory in Argentina, and lecturing on astronomy to astronauts at NASA’s JSC, among other things. In 1971 he resigned from Wesleyan and moved permanently to Houston, working there first as a member of the Naval Research Laboratory until his retirement in 1976, and afterwards directly for NASA. He also taught astronomy at the University of Houston-Clear Lake near the space center, and also organized a Brown Bag (luncheon) Seminar at JSC, which continued after his death in Houston in 1996, at the age of 82. Dr. Page, concluded Osterbrock,
was a productive research worker and an outstanding teacher in the Socratic mode. He left thousands of former students more interested and knowledgeable about astronomy, science and the universe than he had found them.
Transcript of Interview with Dr. Thornton Page
Johnson Space Center, June 22, 1983
Antonio Huneeus: Well, maybe we can talk a little bit on the UFO subject. I am familiar of course with most of your background on the UFO subject, but what I would really like to get from you—I have reviewed so many times all the pages on the Robertson Panel, the declassified documents that were released by the CIA recently, I am very familiar with all that material, but I’ve never spoken with somebody who was really there, so more than the conclusions and all that, it’s more the anecdotal aspect that I want to know.
Thornton Page: Yeah, when I first got on the Robertson Panel I thought it was a lot of stupidity and lack of serious study of UFOs, and Robertson, who was an old friend of mine, got very angry at me one day and said, ‘shut up Page!’
AH: How were you selected on it?
TP: I am not really sure.
AH: You were not involved at all with UFOs before that?
TP: No, and I lived in Washington, so it was easy to attend the meetings, and well…
AH: You were doing research for the Navy at that time?
TP: Actually, at that time it was for the Army, but I was an astronomer by training and so perhaps it was for that reason, and they had a number of very eminent people on that panel, including Luis Alvarez a Nobel Prize winner, so it was an interesting time. We were shown everything that was known, that was another thing, I had a clearance, top secret and Q clearance which made it possible because everybody on this panel had to be cleared to top secret so they could show us all these secret things; and we, actually I was able to debunk one of the early UFO reports by a Navy man near Salt Lake City, who had got pictures of white spots and taken on a movie [the Trementon, Utah, film of July 2, 1952 taken by Delbert Newhouse], so we got a similar camera and sent a man out there to the same place and he got some pictures, of course this time he had binoculars with him, and they were seagulls, the pictures therefore were not UFOs but seagulls. I think that since then I’ve come to see the peculiarities of UFOs which are largely in the minds of people who see them, and it’s hard to explain why the interest on UFOs has been maintained for such a long period of time, but the sightings, in my opinion, are a variety of different things. The term UFO tends to make it seem that is one thing when, I think, most sensible scientists would agree that there are a wide number of different things. There are certainly many sightings, good sightings, with several people involved and either photographs or radar or some other detection scheme, which cannot be explained, and I think this is quite reasonable that there are combinations of circumstances in the atmosphere that scientists don’t know about yet, so that’s why there are unexplained UFO reports.
AH: So you would think that they are natural causes?
TP: Right, and of course I have to agree with Hynek that if they are not natural causes it would be of great importance, so I favor his institute at Northwestern, the Center for UFO Studies, to keep on studying these unexplained cases with the possibility that something extraterrestrial will turn up, but as I said earlier, my own inclination is that they are natural.
AH: Right, what was the atmosphere in those meetings? I mean, you met Ruppelt and all those people, right?
TP: Yeah, well, as I said, I started off with this hostility to UFOs, and got somewhat converted, I still think that, well, some of the investigations was as good as could be done, other parts were poor, and the very large number of reports is what made it so difficult for Hynek and the other people who were trying to run the show, but I must admit that the Robertson Panel was handled very well, the CIA, well they paid us among other things (laughs) and they had the presentations well organized, it was done well.
AH: Was there any kind of indication to come up with a predetermined conclusion, or you were entirely free?
TP: No, no, in fact I made one of the recommendations of the Panel conclusions, was that a serious hazard, our main purpose was to determine whether there was a hazard to the United States from these UFOs, and I thought that probably the most serious hazard was in our communication system because the number of phone calls and letters and telegrams that were sent about UFOs in that scare of 1952 could have actually made difficulties for Civil Defense and the military because of the confusion in communications, but the Robertson Panel concluded that there was no hazard per se. Well, as I remember it now and I haven’t looked at the report for a long time, I think we favored the natural causes as an explanation.
AH: Well, I think there was a clause that they [UFOs] were not a hazard per se, but they were a hazard of what you were saying, in terms of clogging the defense communication system.
TP: That’s correct.
AH: Therefore they had to be debunked or something.
TP: Yeah, that was my doing, my contribution.
AH: Now, but then of all those very eminent scientists you were the only one, I think, well, without counting Allen Hynek who was already working on that…
TP: He [Hynek] was not on the Panel.
AH: He was an Associate Member, but you were the only one that kept at least a passing interest on the subject. I’ve never seen any of the others, I’ve never seen their names again [in connection to UFOs], and you were involved later on that other thing organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS].
TP: Yes, that’s true. Well, we had, Carl Sagan and I organized the AAAS Conference on UFOs, and there we had tremendous opposition from, it was when the Condon Report came out, and the idea was to have Condon come and he refused. The idea was to have—well, the book A Scientific Debate describes it—so that people on both sides of the question, both anti-UFO and pro-UFO, could say what they thought, but there it was largely, well Carl and I selected people we knew to come to the meeting and talk, and we threw open the discussion to the whole audience. I remember at the time we were very worried about that because we thought we’d get some crackpots who would, you know, continue the meeting forever with discussions that didn’t make any sense, but it worked out fairly well, and the book records what happened. I guess by that time I had given my course on UFOs at Wesleyan University and I talked about how this was a good way to get students to study astronomy.
AH: Yeah, I remember on the declassified documents I’ve reviewed there is a whole correspondence you had with Marshall Chadwell, one of those people at the CIA.
AH: About the results of the course.
TP: Right, we never thought in Washington in 1952 that I would be teaching a course on UFOs 20 years later (laughs).
AH: You also did write the chapter on UFOs for the Encyclopedia Britannica, right?
TP: Entry, right, and that’s what made Condon very angry because he thought he should write the article for the Encyclopedia Britannica (laughs) and I tried to give both sides, and so I think that article is still, well, it’s not biased.
AH: Since your book with Sagan you haven’t been that involved?
TP: No, here at JSC for quite a while I answered all the letters about UFOs, but since then, Schuessler does it now, and some of them were ridiculous but some were quite interesting, pictures taken by a man in Italy which showed lights in the sky, and well, reports from many different countries, it’s surprising that they started sending these reports to NASA, I don’t know why, I guess in the early Apollo flight there was some joking about UFOs, Oberg debunked this, but a lot of people thought that the astronauts had seen UFOs and therefore that we would be experts on UFOs here.
AH: OK, I guess that sort of covers it. I guess the main thing is, you consider yourself more or less a skeptic but you do endorse serious research like the one done by Dr. Hynek?
TP: I am on his Board of Governors, or whatever he calls it, and well, I suggested several things to them. One was this man, we talked about the Blue Room the other day…
AH: This is not entirely related to UFOs, but the subject of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)?
TP: Yeah, well, I have given money to Carl Sagan’s Planetary Society, and they, as you know, have a new radio analysis program out of the Haystack Radio Telescope, and hope to survey at different frequencies all the sky or at least more than half of the sky, so that the possibility of radio communications from extraterrestrials can be estimated, that is, if they do this over enough of the sky for a long enough time and don’t find any radio signals, then I think you have to admit that there aren’t any people trying to reach us by radio.
AH: The search has been very limited so far?
TP: So far it’s been very limited and it’s a mammoth undertaking.
* * *
The UFO Course
It is interesting to note that of all the official members of the Robertson Panel, Dr. Page was the only one who kept at least a passing interest in ufology for the rest of his life. Of course the other one was Dr. Hynek, but he was only an associate member and didn’t sign the final conclusions and recommendations of the panel. Another member and prominent scientist, Dr. Lloyd Berkner, has been implicated as an alleged member of the Majestic 12 or MJ-12 Committee tasked to research the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, but the authenticity of these “documents” is in dispute, and a discussion about MJ-12 goes well beyond the scope of this article.
Dr. Page continued to correspond once in a while with CIA officials like Philip G. Strong and some of this correspondence can be read or downloaded at the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room (their equivalent to the now famous FBI Vault). Some of these letters have to do with queries from outside people like Dr. Leon Davidson or Fred Kirsch, mostly regarding the CIA’s participation in organizing the Robertson Panel, which the agency tried to hide for a number of years. Others deal with the idea of a course on UFOs, which began to germinate in Dr. Page’s mind after his return to academia in 1958. Eventually this developed into a full-fledged UFO course at Wesleyan University in the late sixties, probably the first of its kind at any American university. Dr. Page provided the background and explained the success of this class in the already mentioned letter to Bill Pitts, where he wrote:
I went back to teaching astronomy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where I had difficulty attracting students to my courses. So in 1967, I offered a course in Flying Saucers, which attracted 50 students (astronomy got 10 to 15). They had to learn some astronomy to identify UFOs as planets or bright stars. The kids loved it, each one wrote a term paper citing the evidence for or against UFOs as extraterrestrial visitors, and we published the three best papers in a pamphlet, printed by the University, which sold well at 25 cents an the Univ. bookstore. We even had a debate on a Hartford radio station between two pro and two con students.
I found the titles of some of the winning papers quite interesting, particularly for the time period of 1968-1971 when they were written by the students. For instance, “The Scientific and Philosophical Question of Life – Part IV: Flying Saucers?” by Bruce Karten; “The Implications of Flying Saucers for Theology” by William Madden; and “Cosmopolitics: Problems and Prospects of Human Relations in Space” by Donald Schellhardt. These papers, together with other documents related to Dr. Page (his correspondence with Bill Pitts and James Klotz, the Encyclopedia Britannica UFO entry, review of the Condon Report, etc.) can be found at the Computer UFO Network (CUFON) website.
Thornton Page monitored the UFO phenomenon quite actively particularly in the period of the late sixties, publishing among other things a paper titled, “Photographic Sky Coverage for the Detection of UFO’s,” in the June 14, 1968 issue of the AAAS magazine Science; a long and insightful review of the Condon Report in the American Journal of Physics (Vol. 37, No. 10, Oct. 1969); the UFO entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was used in the editions between 1974 and 1984; and the book, co-edited with Carl Sagan, UFO’s – A Scientific Debate (W. W. Norton, 1972), which is the proceedings of the AAAS UFO Symposium in Boston in 1969. Besides the Introduction co-written with Sagan, Page wrote the first paper in the book, “Education and the UFO Phenomenon.”
In his review of the Condon Report, Dr. Page wrote that
it does not help the public image of science when the scientists shrug off sightings and interpretation accepted by so many tax-paying citizens simply because “UFO’s don’t appeal to us.” In fact, the scientists’ general refusal to take UFO’s seriously may strengthen the “new left” view that science is based more on authority than on observation and reason.
Dr. Page revisited this issue on his paper about Education and UFOs, where he concluded that,
For a number of reasons, many students as well as the general public are interested in UFO’s. Teachers should capitalize on this interest in teaching courses of broad appeal; scientists in general should take advantage of public interest in UFO’s to correct public misconceptions about science.
If nothing else, the trends analyzed by Dr. Page have continued to grow. The public interest and belief in UFOs and ETs is likely bigger now, and so is the disconnect between the public and the scientific community; or between science and the political class as can be seen from issues like climate change. But the need to use UFOs to teach science—or any other number of issues specially in the social sciences—is still very much relevant, probably more so than when Dr. Thornton Page discussed it.