Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Close Encounter of the UFO Kind

As a science writer and hardened skeptic, I don’t take much stock in UFO stories. (Although I am apparently folksy enough to use the phrase “don’t take much stock”.) As an adult I find stories of “paranormal” events to be humorous and entertaining. But I was not so amused back in 1985 on the side of a dark country road as a UFO hovered overhead.

I was 12 years old and despite this being the only “close encounter” of my life, I cannot remember seeing the Unidentified Flying Object at all. I was in the backseat of the car coming back from seeing a movie with my parents and their friends. It was summertime and already dark but not yet 10 p.m.

We were well into the countryside when someone mentioned a strange light moving above us. We turned off the highway onto a deserted country road. My parents and their friends were growing excited now, and they pulled over onto the gravel shoulder to get out and take a better look.

What I remember of the event was the adults standing on the road, filled with agitation and excitement, chattering and pointing upward. And I remember myself, huddling in the far corner of the car, terrified. I felt like I was under a spotlight, beckoning the aliens to me, because the only light for miles on this country road was the one coming from the dome in the car. My parents had left their doors open and a dinging noise kept repeating this fact, drawing more attention to me in my bright cocoon. The car, parked on the side of the road, leaned toward the ditch and I allowed gravity to pull me as far from the open doors as possible, hoping that I would not be visible to any beings that were joyriding above us.

Eventually my parents returned to the car where they saw me squished into the crack between the seat and door. My mother burst out laughing.

Twenty years later I would stumble across a report of this UFO sighting, which allowed me to fill in some of the blanks.

In 2005, I bought a book called The W-Files: True Reports of Wisconsin’s Unexplained Phenomena by Jay Rath. At the time I was researching any and all minutiae about Wisconsin for a trivia and puzzle book I was writing (Badger Brain Twisters) and not even thinking of my own close encounter when I came upon the following.

The entry for August 2, 1985, begins, “Around 9:45 p.m., 10 people, in a region that spreads from Cross Plains to Blue Mounds, saw a UFO moving slowly eastward. It was white, brighter than a star and ... projected a beam of light that ‘moved back and forth like a searchlight.’”

One of the witnesses was Rogers Keene. Keene, a teacher at Wisconsin Heights Junior High School, was walking his dog around his rural home, five miles north of Black Earth. The car in which I was “hiding” during this time would have been parked on the shoulder of the road a mere two miles east of Keene.

I don’t know what subject Keene taught at Wisconsin Heights Junior High, but he analyzed the situation like an astronomer, noting that the object was about 75 degrees above the horizon and appeared to be the size of his thumb when his arm was stretched away from his body. He watched it for two minutes as it swept a beam of light across the ground. It then hovered and zig-zagged slowly downward until it was only 20 degrees above the horizon. The light then shrank until it disappeared.

Madison’s airport and NWS radar did not detect this object. And, even more strangely, on the same night, at the same time, witnesses in six other Midwestern states reported similar sightings.

So was it a UFO? Sure, in that no one has explained it. It remains unidentified. But was it an alien spacecraft? I think it’s fair to say that’s highly unlikely.

Yes, there are scientists who study “aliens”. However, they are not out tracking UFOs. They are working on projects such as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and analyzing the statistical possibility of extraterrestrial life with mathematical tools such as the Drake Equation.

One of my favorite stories concerns the physicist Enrico Fermi. One day he was having lunch with colleagues and they were discussing that if Earth is typical for a planet and the sun is a typical star, then life should also be a commonplace occurrence in the Universe. This is when Fermi famously blurted out, “Where are they?” Meaning, if extraterrestrial life is so abundant, shouldn’t we know of their existence? Many scientists and authors have tried to answer this question, and Stephen Webb did a great job of it in his book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody? But Fermi’s Paradox remains unanswered.

I have my own answer to the question, which plays a small part in a novel I wrote that is on my next-to-be-edited list. Perhaps someday soon I will finally finish editing my apocalyptic young adult book and it will find a home at some publishing company. In the meantime, I continue to write my astronomy articles, columns, and blogs for various media, occasionally explaining bright or flickering lights and helping to make more of the night sky identifiable to all.
Nothing "unidentified" here. The moon with Venus, Jupiter, and the Hyades Cluster in Taurus.

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