Just days ago, an anniversary of global importance passed by yet again, with nary a fanfare or tribute in the world’s media. June 24 was the 65th anniversary of the world’s first UFO sighting, and yet no fireworks lit the skies above Washington DC, no celebratory banner unfurled from the Eiffel Tower, and North Korea failed to put on anything resembling a gymnastics show. Even I nearly forgot, and I’m supposedly an expert on this sort of thing.
At least that’s what the media usually calls me – either that or ‘Dr Who’. The truth is that my PhD was on UFOs, but it was in Cultural Studies, not ‘ufology’, as the cardigan-clad seekers of ‘the Truth’ call their oft-maligned brand of fringe science. I’m not a believer myself, but you might call me a ‘ufologist’ given that I study the belief in UFOs but not the UFOs themselves. Perhaps it’s that shining aura of the unknown – or more precisely, the unknowable – which surrounds UFOs that I find most intriguing. Even from a semantic point of view, the familiar acronym of ‘U.F.O.’ conceals more than it reveals. The strange object in the sky becomes a ‘UFO’, but in calling it this we are, by definition, identifying it as something unidentified. ‘UFOs’ doesn’t actually mean anything. What a wonderfully counter-intuitive paradox – unless, of course, you happen to be a believer.
My professional incredulity aside, in over 10 years of research I’ve met UFO witnesses from all over the world – indigenous shamans in Mexico, jovial publicans from Wiltshire, former military men in New Mexico, and secretive alien contactees in Chile. All of them believe they have seen something that doesn’t belong in this world.
I kept a detailed travel diary throughout all these journeys to the odder ends of the earth, which eventually formed the basis of my first book, The UFO Diaries: Travels in the Weird World of High Strangeness. Unfortunately, since its release in 2011, The UFO Diaries has failed to draw any notices, positive or otherwise, from extraterrestrial reviewers.
According to ufologists, the world’s first UFO sighting took place over Washington State on a bright and clear afternoon in 1947. Back then, the Cold War was just starting to hot up, the partition of Palestine was about to tear the Middle East apart, and Perry Como was Number One on the US charts. The world was in a terrible state.
Into these troubled skies flew a 32-year-old Minnesota-born pilot called Kenneth Arnold. He’d only been in the air for minutes when he was distracted by a sudden flash of light. Peering through the cockpit glass, Arnold spied nine flat disc-like objects (although he later described them as being ‘crescent-shaped’) flying at incredible speed across the face of the Mt Rainier massif, some 25 miles away. Vaguely disconcerted, Arnold watched the strange aircraft – which he felt sure were under intelligent control – for about three minutes before they disappeared around the mountain’s flank.
Arnold was at a loss to describe what he’d seen. A couple of hours later, he tried to report the sighting to the nearest FBI office, but as it was closed he went to the local newspaper instead, with fateful consequences. When asked by an incredulous journalist to describe once again the strange craft, Arnold snapped, ‘Well, they flew as if you were skipping a saucer across water.’
Arnold’s throwaway line started a bona-fide modern legend. Tuesday, 24 June 1947 was the day flying saucers were born. But was this really the world’s first UFO sighting?
Ufologists are a notoriously tribalistic bunch, and have been arguing about the exact timing of their Year Zero since, well, 1947. What about the ‘ghost rockets’ that were reported by thousands of witnesses across Scandinavia in 1946? What about the playful ‘foo fighters’ that chased aircraft over Europe during World War II, or the ‘phantom airships’ seen plying the skies of the Old West in the 1890s? And don’t forget the Pyramids, Stonehenge and practically every other ancient monument of superhuman size – surely these were built with the help of extraterrestrials.
As far as I can tell, all these antediluvian UFO sightings are at best retro-fittings, the attempts of ufology to create a backstory for itself that predates its own self-awareness. Before 1947, people tended to explain unusual phenomena in the skies as omens or portents; divine signs from the gods meant for us mortals to decode. But for a variety of cultural and historical reasons, after 1947 we started seeing extraterrestrial craft instead. 1947 saw a shift in perspective of the same magnitude as, say, the Enlightenment (let’s think for ourselves for a change), the Industrial Revolution (let’s work in factories rather than fields), and more recently reality television (let’s save production costs by not hiring script writers or professional actors).
If 1947 remains the most popular Year Zero for ufologists, then the so-called Roswell Incident is Arnold’s only real contender for World UFO Day. Accounts vary, but most ufologists believe that a flying saucer crashed near the town of Roswell, New Mexico, sometime between 2 July and 7 July. At any rate, by 8 July the Roswell Army Air Force Base had issued a press release claiming they were in possession of a ‘flying disc’.
During the resulting media circus, the US military retracted the statement, thus fertilising the lantana growth of conspiracy theories that exist today. According to proponents of the Roswell Incident, it wasn’t just extraterrestrial technology that was salvaged from the crashed saucer. Wounded alien crewmembers were also ‘rescued’ from the burning wreck by the US Army, only to be held captive in hidden subterranean bases like the near- mythical Area 51 in Nevada, where they were put to work on nefarious scientific projects such as the development of the Stealth Bomber.
Which day, then, should we be celebrating, 24 June or 2 July? But here’s the problem – there’s just no evidence in any materialist, scientific or ontological sense to prove the existence of UFOs. No loophole or caveat or prevarication can conceal this awful truth, which might explain why so many ufologists are angry mad, if not actually crazy mad.
After all my years of intensive and often immersive folkloric research, the truth about UFOs that I’ve arrived at is that they represent nothing. UFOs make us consider nothing as if it were an object. This nothing exists by itself. Imagine seeing a piece of nothing detach from what a moment ago seemed to be your normal, everyday picture of reality, and then you might be partway towards understanding the typical UFO witness’ experience. Recall that the appellation ‘U.F.O.’ points only to this object’s chronic unidentifiability, but says nothing about what that object actually is. Nothing, seen like this, is both more and less than simple material absence. Less, because UFOs have punched a hole in reality that 65 years of sceptical and credulous debate hasn’t been able to fill; and more, because by virtue of their lack of evidential proof, UFOs have perversely become more real than if a flying saucer had landed on the White House lawn. After all, you can’t conclusively disprove something that can’t be proven to exist in the first place. Figure that one out, Immanuel Kant!
So even though I don’t really believe in ufology myself, even though I think that most UFO witnesses probably did see the Moon through low-lying clouds or Venus at dawn or the apocryphal marsh gas, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we shouldn’t celebrate World UFO Day.
There’s simply nothing like it, after all. Except, perhaps, for ufology’s poorer cousin, cryptozoology. But let’s face it – Bigfoot and Nessie really don’t make us question our place in the greater scheme of things quite as much as the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Never before has nothing made its absence felt so strongly in the history of the world. Not everybody has an opinion on God, but everybody has their own answer to the question, ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’
The concerted lack of response to either of the two possible World UFO Days this year was absolutely fitting and perfect. On what should be the most important day in the history of our species, the day we realised we weren’t alone in the cosmos, most of us did nothing.
I certainly didn’t do anything. My perfect record of observing this holiest of days was marred this year only by the writing of this article. But don’t worry – next year for the 66th World UFO Day I plan to do nothing again. And I hope you do, too.