Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review: The UFO Experience

© 1972 by Dr. J. Allen Hynek

This may have been the classic weirdity book from my youth.

And the thing is, it isn’t really all that weird. The UFO Experience is one scientist’s attempt to make an unexplainable inexplicable phenomenon a respectable study for science.

As a wee young lad in the single digits of life, my mom, a librarian, would take me to work with her quite often. And just as often I’d find myself splitting the time between the Science Fiction shelves and the 001.94 section, conveniently located in the farthest, quietest corner from the check-out desk. I spent many enraptured hours in both spots, but it’s those memories in front of the Weirdity Section I remember best. Stretched out on the cold white tile, I soaked up every book on Sasquatch, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, cryptozoology, haunted houses, whatever eerie thing I could find. Hynek’s book was one of them.

I reread it a few weeks ago, and now see it for the book the author intended it to be. Hynek, a professional astronomer, was attached to the classic UFO phenomenon from the earliest, late-1940s days, as an Air Force consultant whose primary job was to red flag those eyewitness encounters that were explainable as misinterpreted stars and planets and such. Over the course of two decades he became, gradually and gradually, more discontented with the stance the government was taking. Rationalizing that not every single UFO report is Venus misidentified, or a hoax, or a plane, or swamp gas, or whatever, he realized that scientific rigor had to be applied to this perplexing puzzle.

The UFO Experience is his answer to the Air Force’s deconstruction of the whole phenomenon.

The biggest takeaway from the book is the classification system Hynek devised (the last famously used by Steven Spielberg):

Nocturnal Lights

Daylight Disks


Close Encounters of the First Kind

Close Encounters of the Second Kind

Closer Encounters of the Third Kind

The difference between those Close Encounters? Well, in the First Kind the UFO is seen at near range, about 500 feet, but it does not interact with the observer or environment. In the Second, there are some physical effects on the environment – vegetation burnt or damaged, car engines or radios shut down. A Close Encounter of the Third Kind is a UFO encounter where the “occupants” are sighted … and maybe sight you …

Each classification type is fleshed out and illustrated by several detailed eyewitness encounters.

Remember the chase in Close Encounters where the state troopers pursue the ice cream cone shaped UFOs across the countryside? That’s in the book. So is the opening scene, where air traffic controllers nervously watch a radar screen as a UFO zips past two aircraft, and the pilots clam up to the suggestion of reporting an unidentified flying object.

Hynek also discusses now-famous cases in Ufology lore, such as the Betty and Barney Hill abduction case and the Third Kind encounter out in the desert by patrolman Lonnie Zamora. And dozens and dozens of others.

Verdict: A little dry, dryer than your average flying saucer book, but much more respectable than the more lurid paperbacks on the subject. Plus, I had a major Close Encounter of the Nostalgic Kind in nearly every chapter of this solid read.

Grade: A-minus

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