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The Straight Dope

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Questions about UFOs may be unanswerable, but on the chance you may be even better connected than I thought, here goes. Why are UFO sightings always at night? And why do they seem to appear mostly to stranded motorists or farmers in the middle of Montana or Kansas? Are our friends from afar allergic to light or do they just prefer the late night specials at Denny's? And what is it with their ships? They always seem to be illuminated in colorful lights that either impair the victim's vision or provide him with an incredible light show. Do our space visitors have some arrangement to buy out the contents of defunct discos? --Eleanor Tubbs, San Antonio, Texas

I detect a certain lack of reverence here, Eleanor, which is typical of the younger generation. Whatever happened to the paranoia that made this country great? Actually, UFO sightings aren't always at night, and they aren't always in rural areas. They do tend to involve suspiciously few witnesses, however.

Flying-saucer debunker Robert Sheaffer calls UFO encounters "jealous phenomena," meaning that UFOs are finicky about letting themselves be seen. In The UFO Verdict he writes, "It is a well-known fact that UFOs are supposed to be extremely wary of showing themselves openly. . . . They will not . . . under any circumstances fly low over a crowded vacation site in broad daylight or hover conspicuously over a major city, because the photographic record they would presumably leave behind would be clear and unmistakable. . . . In short, one must conclude that the UFOs' reported behavior is principally determined by an overriding concern with human thoughts and emotions."

Similar behavior was attributed years ago to--don't laugh--fairies. In 1920 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a sucker for tales from the unknown, proclaimed in all seriousness that fairies existed. He even published photos of them taken by a young woman, inspiring a rash of sighting reports by others. But Doyle never saw the fairies himself--like UFOs, they were a jealous phenomenon that would only reveal itself to those with the Right Stuff. It was later learned that the poses of the fairies had probably been copied from an illustration in a children's book.

The moral of this story, of course, is that jealous phenomena almost always turn out to be illusions or hoaxes. In the case of UFOs it's easy to see how this happens. The typical sighting occurs at night, when you can readily mistake a planet, satellite, aircraft, etc, for an alien visitor. (The planet Venus, which is quite bright, is notorious in this regard.) Adding to the illusion is the fact that our ability to gauge the size and distance of airborne objects is laughably poor. (Example: When asked to judge the size of the image of the moon in the sky, most people say it's about the size of a dinner plate. In reality it's smaller than the nail on your little finger held at arm's length.) Another factor is the natural human tendency to "fill in" (i.e., make up) missing details when we get a hasty glimpse at something. This is often what accounts for reports of blinking and/or colored lights, spacecraft windows with aliens visible inside, and so on.

A good example of this is the rash of UFO sightings that occurred the evening of March 3, 1968. Three people in Tennessee saw a large cigar-shaped craft zip overhead at about 1,000 feet with orange flame shooting out the tail. One person said the craft had ten large square windows illuminated from within. Six people in Indiana saw a similar UFO at about the same time. It had windows, was 150 to 200 feet long, and flew at treetop level. A woman in Ohio saw three UFOs at 1,500 feet, which frightened her dog. Another Ohioan also saw three fast-moving objects, which executed various turns and thus appeared to be under intelligent control.

What the witnesses actually saw were the flaming remnants of a cluster of Russian booster rockets that burned up over the central U.S. after launching the Zond-4 spacecraft. The rockets were many miles overhead, did not have windows, and were not under intelligent control. Neither were the humans, from the sound of it, but let's be kind and just say you shouldn't always believe what you think you see.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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