The Professional UFO Skeptic Who Believed in Aliens

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'The Close Encounters Man' tells the unlikely story of how the government's astrophysicist debunker became the phenomenon's most expert defender. If you're jonesing for an extraterrestrial, you should check out The Close Encounters Man by Mark O'Connell. O'Connell, a writer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and founder of the UFO blog High Strangeness, set out to write "a UFO book people wouldn't need to hide from other people." He found his ideal subject in J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer hired by the United States Air Force in 1948 to debunk the reports of strange objects in the sky flooding in from across the country. Eventually Hynek broke with his handlers and became the first scientist to lend credence to the UFO phenomenon. The author of 1972's The UFO Experience: A Scientific Study, he would go on to found the Center for UFO Studies in 1973, present a speech on flying saucers to the United Nations in 1978, and develop the "close encounter" scale that would inspire Steven Spielberg's popular Close Encounters of the Third Kind ("a huge boon to his work," O'Connell told me. "They shot a scene where the little aliens grab Hynek's pipe from him and stick it up their noses, but it was cut down to a six-second cameo.") In telling the life story of Hynek, the "astro-beatnik," O'Connell winds up with a stunning panorama of the UFO movement—from fringe conspiracy theorists to amateur astronomers to agnostic scientists—as well as its colossal impact on pop culture and modern science. I recently spoke with O'Connell over the phone about Hynek's unique story of skeptic turned believer, the scientific study of the inexplicable, and what makes a good UFO witness. VICE: What had to happen for a scientist as disciplined as Hynek to reach an epiphany and come around to a belief in flying saucers? Mark O'Connell: It was a gradual process punctuated by traumatic moments. He had been involved in the Air Force's first UFO study, Project Sign, where he simply looked over the collected UFO reports and classified as many as he could as misidentified astrological objects like comets or meteorological phenomena like strange clouds, or normal things like aircraft or weather balloons. At the end, there were about 20 percent of the cases left unsolved. He just put those aside, thinking with enough time and resources we could probably explain those away as well. So he filed the report, went back to teach at Ohio State and Wesleyan Universities.

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