Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Idle UFO Musings Two: J. Allen Hynek, Accidental Hero.


Ah, Allen. A good man. A good-not-great scientist. A paradoxical timid but avid explorer of the Unknown. We were lucky to have you, "warts and all".


Allen Hynek is the second most significant positive element [speaking of human beings] in UFO history [next to Donald Keyhoe without whose superhuman tenacity there probably would have been no UFOlogy at all]. But not many people following the UFO mystery from 1952 through 1970 liked or trusted him --- and given the strange dramatic role he assumed, it is understandable why not.

Hynek was an obscure astronomy professor at Ohio State University in 1948 when the Project SIGN people at Wright-Patterson wanted an astronomy consultant [mainly for their "final report" to the Pentagon, which became the "Grudge Report"]. Dayton-based Wright-Pat had called upon University of Cincinnati professor Dr. Paul Herget for ad hoc advice, but he wanted no permanent duties. Instead he recommended that they look into Lincoln LaPaz or maybe this fellow Hynek. When asked, LaPaz also recommended Hynek. Since Allen had worked on an important Top Secret project during WWII [the development of the Proximity Fuse to allow bombs to explode before burying themselves in the Earth --- maximum damage is done by blowing the bomb slightly above the target], Hynek was A-OK on those grounds. He was hired. The drive from Columbus to Dayton was fairly short, so he could mosey over there get case files and analyze them from an astronomical perspective.

Allen said that he was totally naive about UFOs and assumed that they were just bunkum. He might have added that he was also totally naive about military intelligence matters and their attitudes towards science. He interpreted his charge as attempting to explain away as many cases as he could, EVEN IF THE EXPLANATION WAS A STRETCH. In later years he would say: "Maybe I reached too far". His appendix to the Grudge Report is almost totally negative about UFOs, but he does often say: "this case has no astronomical explanation", while giving the reader the impression that it can however be explained otherwise. Hynek presumably picked up his added pay at the end of 1948 and went back home to Columbus through with UFOs for good, he thought.

But that wasn't true for long. When the wide-open year of 1952 arrived with all its liberal Pentagon thinking about UFOs, Ed Ruppelt and the new Project Blue Book wanted a "permanent" external astronomy consultant, and they wanted the local guy, Hynek, back.

And back he came... a little more intrigued now, a little more wondering if there might be some new natural phenomena buried in the more mysterious sightings, but no more "hip" to what was actually going on around him.

As this year proceeded, he became convinced that there WAS "something" in this, but not extraterrestrials. ET just couldn't get here. [An absolute dataless dogma of the Academic Tribe]. Hynek never really got over this hang-up. But he DID think that there was reality and that it was a very old reality, mentioned in the Books of Charles Fort [that he was reading Fort shows the quietly renegade adventurer down inside him]. He soon spoke to a major science society about his belief that the UFO phenomenon pointed to a not-yet-described type of atmospheric "X" which he called "The Nocturnal Meandering Light". To Allen he was on to something which could even make him a famous discoverer. Who knows what his colleagues thought.


When Ruppelt and the positive elements of USAF attitudes towards honestly researching UFOs evaporated, Hynek found himself embedded in a Project bent on waving away UFO incidents no matter how mindlessly and savagely opposed to case details the "explanations" might be. Once again, Hynek was naive. He'd present his stretched astronomical possibility with very cautionary language only to find out later that his idea was written into the case file as absolutely the explanation. Rather than complain, he tucked his tail and shut-up. It was these bogus explanations that drove Jim McDonald  around the bend and almost made him come to blows with Hynek in a confrontation in the late 1960s in Hynek's office. McDonald was a science idealist and a fiery man. Hynek was an idealist hiding in a mouse's body, too scared of the bosses for too long, too ignorant and too trusting of what was going on, and subconsciously realizing that he was screwing this mystery up.


In the mid/late 1950s Allen at least woke up to the fact that he wasn't seeing the best cases. Either the Air Force [due to its public attitude] wasn't even getting them [True] or the Air Force were shunting some kinds of cases away from Wright-Pat and into some other intelligence pathway at Air Defense Command [Probably also true]. In desperation, Hynek reached out to certain civilians to try to get better reports. He actually took a trip to France with the famous astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs to visit Aime Michel and look at Michel's case files of the 1954 wave. He also reached out to the little-known-today powerhouse triad of NYC researchers, CSI-NY [Isabel Davis, Lex Mebane, Ted Bloecher]. People like Dick Hall and Ted Bloecher have said that Isabel Davis was perhaps the clearest mind thinking about UFOs in their lives. Hynek secretly arranged to meet with the Terrific Trio in NYC at, I believe, Isabel's home [and more than once --- Hynek would ask them if they could get him Broadway tickets so as to double his pleasure from the trips]. He actually would show up at their place almost in disguise --- another testament to his timidity. Hynek would share USAF information [doubtless against his security oath] and they would share case information back. Isabel saw right through Hynek and gave him a blistering letter reminding him of what science was and his duty to a higher purpose. Poor old Allen.


When Sputnik went up Allen got a job at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory as assistant to Harvard's Fred Whipple to make plots of satellites in their new orbits. They were assisted by ground observers all across the country in what was called Project Moonwatch. These observers were of course set up to catch fast-moving high-altitude aerial objects --- uh oh --- and they did. There was a great debate about whether the Moonwatchers should send in reports on the mysterious lights which were NOT satellites. In some places direct orders went out NOT to send them. Allen, of course, wanted them and many came through. Once again he blew it, as when asked by the press whether there were ever any Moonwatch reports which could be classified as UFOs, he said "never a UFO from Moonwatch". He later in life claimed that he had not yet seen one, but upon returning "to the office" shortly thereafter "I had spoken too soon". Even if he's not telling a fib here, he never [to my knowledge] went to the press to correct his false statement. Allen, no wonder Mac wanted to punch you!

Finally he and the Air Force got on one another's nerves so badly that Hector Quintanilla [last chief of Blue Book] wanted to punch him too. Hynek was straying more from USAF influence, buying the reality of UFOs as far beyond meandering lights, and feeling that he was clearly the expert on these things and Quintanilla was not. Suffice it to say that by the time Swamp Gas came along [early 1966], Hynek and Quintanilla hated one another's guts. The embarrassment of the Swamp Gas fiasco tore everything apart: Hynek's last shred of faith in the Air Force project, Hynek's last shred of credibility in the civilian research community, and the Air Force project itself. In came Colorado. Out went Hynek and Blue Book.

So, how in the world did Allen Hynek get to the point where he was actually doing any service for UFOlogy? I'll continue this riveting masterpiece of [as Frank Mannor would say during a Swamp Gas interview] HULLABILLUSION in the next post, which I hope I'm up to soon.


Till then: Peace.


14 comments:

  1. A most excellent and insightful posting. I look forward to the next part. Meantime, these thoughts:

    Perhaps the miracle is not that Allen Hynek came out as a supporter of serious research into the UFO phenomenon but that he came out at all. Except for raising his profile in popular culture (and lowering it in the scientific) he gained little from his radical transformation in the 1960s. He could have kept his head down, and practically nobody would have suspected that he was harboring heretical thoughts.

    In terms of his own narrow financial interest, he made the bulk of his money shilling for Blue Book. His long association with that misbegotten operation helped pay for his sons' college education. It also safeguarded his scientific respectability, which he would lose once he openly embraced what Billy Cox calls the Great Taboo.

    History is written large letters, not in small ones. In that sense, whatever his failings (such as a tin-eared obtuseness to the political end of UFO advocacy in all its dimensions, which opened him to withering attacks from critics like the late Leon Jaroff), Allen will be remembered as the scientist who dared tell the truth about the most significant scientific mystery of his time. In the end, nothing else will matter.

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    1. Well said. We have a choice: we can condemn people for their early failings or delight when they have the sense to change; I'll take the latter, since imperfect heroes, when you get down to it, are the only real heroes we get.

      I enjoy this site immensely and these recent posts especially. Our Professor, for me, is the great veteran ufologist: he knew all these guys, read all the books, combed through all the files. All of them. Wonderfully grounded in this most high-flung and peculiar of pursuits, a very rare thing. He knows as well as any human can what a slippery fish we're trying to grasp here. Thank you gentlemen, for all your good work.

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  2. Hi Jerry. Fair warning: YOU could ultimately be mentioned in this conspiratorial unmasking! Did Jerry Clark influence Allen Hynek? Did Allen Hynek influence Jerry Clark? Why does Jerry Clark listen to country music and drink beer [good beer, admittedly], but Allen Hynek listened to classical music and drank wine? Oh the mysteries......

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  3. Hi Professor,

    An excellent piece of the early history of ufology and a fitting tribute to Isabel Davis - how I wish that one day, the definitive tome on the history of ufology gets written!

    Until then, I am enjoying your thoughts and entries very, very much!

    Best regards,

    Theo

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  4. I'd like to know more about Isabel Davis. There's very little online about her, except she personally investigated the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter/siege.

    It seems women in ufology are few and far between. Off the top of my head I can only think of Linda Moulton-Howe, Leslie Kean, Paola Harris(meh), England's Jenny Randles, the late Coral Lorenzen and the late Cynthia Hind of So. Africa. There's also a Brazilian female investigator whose name escapes me right now.

    I know there must be more, including women that have done the grunt and administrative work in the various ufo organizations in the U.S. as well as around the world.

    ~ Susan

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  5. Hi Susan,

    Also Idabel Epperson, Irene Granchi, Katharina Wilson, Lou Zinsstag, Ann Druffel, and many more, and there is this website: http://www.womeninufology.com/

    Best regards,

    Theo

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  6. Hi Theo, How could I have forgotten Ann Druffel (I have her Tojunga Canyon Contacts & How To Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction....as well as Katharina Wilson, who runs a great website - Alien Jigsaw). I also forgot the late Karla Turner.

    I hadn't heard of Idabel Epperson, Irene Granchi and Lou Zinsstag. Thankyou! I'm going to search online for info on them.

    ~ Susan

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  7. Without trying to write a biography: Isabel Davis was a New York City resident who became interested in UFOs almost from the beginning. I believe that she was in almost the earliest civilian club, organized by Eliot Rockmore. She and two young men [Ted Bloecher and Alexander {Lex} Mebane] viewed this typical UFO club as insufficiently serious and rational, and formed their own organization CSI-NY named in imitation of the aeroengineering-based UFO group, CSI-LA. CSI-NY became the sanest group in the field prior to the best years of NICAP. Isabel did most of the correspondence and the Terrific Trio [Isabel and her two "boys"] began putting out high quality [now very rare] newsletters and holding sometimes spectacular guest lecturer meetings [Keyhoe was one; Sanderson another]. Ivan Sanderson joined their group in those early days. Because of their NYC connections, they began publishing articles of real merit in the science fiction magazine Fantastic Universe [I think that I have the correct one--- don't sue me]. Isabel herself wrote a fairly lengthy essay for that, which some folks think was one of the best pieces of early writing in the field.

    Isabel with lots of help by Ted and Lex began creating not only UFO case files but a sort of clever card catalog with which they could access multiple cases containing locations and dates, but also case characteristics. This was the "stuff of legend" in some early UFOlogists' minds and I actually saw the great artifact once in Dick Hall's basement. When NICAP began to hit its stride with Keyhoe in full force and Dick Hall on board, Isabel's dedication to UFO research was so great that she moved herself and the CSI-NY files to DC to work at NICAP. She had a lengthy correspondence throughout the 1950s with the other superior lady of UFOlogy Idabel Epperson, thus linking the two coasts by sane individuals transmitting facts rather than nonsense. Idabel was so impressed with Isabel Davis that she referred to her as "The Oracle of Jane Street" which was isabel's NY address.

    In my opinion Isabel was underemployed doing too much "housekeeping" at NICAP and not enough "brain-trusting" but she succeeded in imprinting Dick Hall with the highest standards of open-minded but rational analysis, for which he always thought of her as the best UFOlogist he'd ever encountered.

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  8. One thing about Hynek that is bigger than it might appear at first glance: in the paper he deliovered before the Optical Society of America (I believe this was October, 1952), he said, "Ridicule is not part of the scientific method, and people should not be taught that it is." This stubborn, basic intellectual integrity, no matter how much he vacillated in how many ways, always brought him back to the "puzzlers" in the UFO data. He really knew that there were things that needed to be explained, not explained-away.

    Frank John Reid

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    1. correct, Frank. As someone who knew him and many of those around him in those Chicago days, you have earned your insights about Allen.

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  9. I would like to add Dr. Hynek's former graduate assistant Jenny Zeidman's name to the list of female UFOlogists. I had the pleasure of speaking to Ms. Zeidman a few months ago as part of my research on a book about Dr. Hynek, and she is very modest about her contributions to the field, preferring to let her writing speak for her. And she's a very good writer! Next up on my reading list is Ms. Zeidman's report on the Coyne case.
    Thank you, Professor, for sharing your insights and opening this conversation up to such interesting avenues!

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    1. The Universe moves in flowing crossing streams --- I am about, when I can get to it, write the final piece of this Hynek oriented "trilogy", within which Jennie, among others, is praised for her work.

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  10. prof, as far as you know now , do you think the US gov still keep ther 'best' UFO cases locked up ? i mean thos cases that are not shown to mr hynek. now im not proposing that there are conspiracy or anything , im just curious if these 'best' cases ever got revealed in any UFO publication. (by 'best' cases i assume its a still-unexplained formal UFO report that was handled and filed by goverment agencies)

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    1. i doubt that the question is a simple one. On the one hand, I doubt that the Government has made a concerted effort to evaluate which reports to its intelligence agencies constitute the best UFO reports AS UFO REPORTS, and then save them away in a dedicated file. On the other hand, I believe that it is almost a certainty that when some "UFO" reports came in via top secret channels, they were saved out due to other elements about those reports, and that a lot of those cases were extremely good UFO cases.

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