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Reason to believe

  • Written by nymag.com
  • Published in Mysteries
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The “Wow!” Signal

In 1977, Ohio State’s Big Ear radio telescope intercepted a 72-second burst of sound that bore signs of having come from interstellar space, which could be a sign of extraterrestrial communication. The anomaly measured 1,420 megahertz, a frequency in the “water hole,” the term for a radio-emission range thought ideal for intergalactic messages because it’s unusually quiet. Jerry Ehman, the astronomer who spotted it, was so excited that he scribbled a giant “Wow!” on his printout. Astronomy’s explanations for the bizarre phenomenon include secret spy satellites and a passing comet nobody knew about in 1977. But many admit nothing explains it adequately, and even if the signal doesn’t prove aliens exist, it’s still a “tug on the cosmic fishing line.” To date, it remains the best evidence of alien communication ever obtained.

Foo Fighters

In the middle of World War II, things took a mysterious turn for Air Force pilots flying overnight missions. They reported seeing lights chasing their aircraft. The number varied (sometimes it was one; other times ten), and so did the colors (red, orange, and green). But the unidentified objects shared in common that they moved very fast, up to 200 miles per hour, yet could dart on a dime. These pilots -- among the world’s best -- admitted the objects generally flew circles around them. Their lore grew among the squadrons. In 1944, a crew flying along the Rhine in Germany described seeing “eight to ten bright orange lights” whiz by “at high speed.” Neither ground control nor their own planes caught anything on radar, and when one pilot turned toward the lights, they reportedly “disappeared.”

They called their mystery air companions “foo fighters,” an inside joke based on a phrase the comic-book character Smokey Stover used to declare (“Where there’s foo, there’s fire”). The term flying saucer hadn’t caught on yet, or else it would’ve sufficed. Some witnesses assumed they were tracer fire, reflections from ice crystals, or high-tech weaponry developed by the Nazis, while the government had a boring explanation as always: They were “electrostatic (similar to St. Elmo’s fire) or electromagnetic phenomena,” though which one and wherefrom were “never defined.”

Kecksburg UFO Crash

In 1965, an intense fireball streaked over southern Canada and Detroit and dropped debris over Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Officially, it was declared a midsize meteor, but eyewitnesses in the small Pennsylvania town of Kecksburg claimed they’d found an acorn-shaped object about the size of a VW Beetle in the woods that was festooned with hieroglyphics. Newspaper reporters on the ground said the military conducted a “close inspection” of the crash site, and despite the official line being that the search yielded “absolutely nothing,” conspiracists maintain the object was packed onto an Army flatbed truck and that the whole thing was a Roswell-level cover-up. Leslie Kean’s Coalition for the Freedom of Information managed to secure some of the government’s files but reportedly not anything enlightening.

However, a second explanation surfaced in the early aughts: It was Die Glocke, purportedly a top-secret weapon Nazis developed that let them time-travel. By dumb Back to the Future–esque luck, it had come to rural Pennsylvania in the year 1965. These proponents argue Nazi SS officer Hans Kammler was navigating the device when it crash-landed in Kecksburg, allowing him to escape Allied troops in the days before VE Day and successfully integrate into postwar U.S. society.

Kenneth Arnold’s “Flying Saucer”

Kenneth Arnold, a respected pilot, claimed in 1947 he’d seen nine mostly flat objects whip past Mount Rainier at speeds he timed at 1,760 miles per hour. “They were shaped like saucers,” he reportedly explained, “and were so thin I could barely see them.” A neologism was born.

Arnold he demanded military personnel explain what the contraptions were, if they knew, since he’d dismissed any possibility of them being guided missiles or new types of jets. His best guess? “From another planet.” Dozens of others came forward with similar sightings, from as far away as Oklahoma and Arizona. But Arnold didn’t enjoy his newfound celebrity. He said people had started shrieking in cafés when they saw him and fleeing. He described the situation to reporters as “out of hand” and regretted having people “look at me as a combination of Einstein, Flash Gordon, and screwball.”

To be continued