Sometimes, when someone discovers that I’m reading a book about UFOs - Unidentified Flying Objects; to a knitter, a UFO is an Unfinished Object, a project that hasn’t been completed, something which all knitters have - they look at me as if I’ve suddenly grown a third eye in the middle of my forehead or sprouted pin feathers behind my ears.
You see, in the twenty-first century, in most circles, you don’t admit any interest in “flying saucers” or little green men or Men In Black, or any of the other common memes that surround the subject in popular culture, because expressing interest is tantamount in most people’s eyes to admitting that you’re either expecting the Space Brothers to swoop in and save us any day, or that you’re sure that the invasion will happen a week from next Tuesday, at the very latest. Never mind that this isn’t the case; it’s what most people believe, and they are not about to be dissuaded.
Well, I’ve been reading books about UFOs since I was about eight or nine years old, and I haven’t turned into a true believer yet. However, I haven’t turned into a debunker, either. Both English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington and British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane have been quoted as having said “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.” I subscribe to this belief, and in order to give the universe its due, I believe that it is at least necessary to consider all possibilities, even those that aren’t very likely. So, I consider the idea of visitors from another planet, another galaxy, another universe, or wherever they might possibly come from.
And so, I occasionally read books about UFOs.
The one I’ve just finished reading Sight Unseen: Science, UFO Invisibility and Transgenic Beings (Atria Books, 2003; 406 pages), by Budd Hopkins and Carol Rainey, is a much more serious book about the topic of UFOs than many that have hit the shelves of libraries and bookstores in the past couple of decades, a period of time in which it has seemed to me that books like this one have gotten sillier and less substantive than earlier offerings have been. More and more, the books are written either by “true believers” who don’t seem to be willing to be bothered by presenting evidence for their claims or by debunkers whose stance is generally “UFOs can’t exist and so they don’t”. I don’t find either stance very helpful.
I only picked up Sight Unseen at the library because it was co-written by Budd Hopkins, who has been studying UFOs since the mid-1960s and has specialized in the claims of those who have claimed to have been abducted by aliens. While he has come in for some criticism for using hypnosis as a way of recovering memories of these alleged abduction experiences, I’ve read earlier books of his and found them to be far less sensationalistic then many others on the subject that I’ve either read or become exasperated with and given up on.
Sight Unseen presents parts of some interesting cases that Hopkins has worked on, specifically addressing two issues, UFOs and invisibility and the claims that some experiencers make that whoever is carrying out these alleged abductions are creating alien/human hybrids, or what he calls “transgenic beings”. The stories of some of these claims are alternated with chapters on current scientific research that the authors believe might be headed toward explaining how UFOs and their occupants might attain invisibility and on how the occupants might be able to create such hybrids.
The stories reported here are interesting, not especially sensationalistic in that those who claim to have undergone them are rabid believers in UFOs and aliens aside from the experiences they claim and not told in a breathless, tabloid style of some accounts. The stories suffer, in the mind of some skeptics, from being merely anecdotal evidence but, as Carol Rainey points out in one of her chapters on the science that might explain how some alleged abductees’ claims jibe with things we are learning about the universe through mainstream science, that large studies like the Framingham Heart Study, carried out by the National Heart Institute, which studied the citizens of Framingham, Massachusetts over a fifty-year period, relied heavily on anecdotal evidence reported by study participants over the years. The point is, science does use such evidence, and to rule it out in the study of UFO experiences is just a bit ingenuous.
Most of the problems in the book, however, also come from Rainey’s chapters. I’m not sure she is quite as familiar with the science, especially physics, as she claims to be, and she makes some mistakes in stating scientific facts. Some of those mistakes could be typographical errors. Even if that is all they are, they should have been caught in proofreading and editing. They make the book and its claims not as strong as they might be otherwise.
For example, on page 89, she got the speed of light wrong, stating that light travels at 186,000 miles per hour. Later on the book, she uses the correct figure of 186,000 miles per second for the speed of light, indicating that the first reference might be a typo, but as a commonly known fact for anyone who has taken college, or even high school, science, it is something that she should not have gotten wrong.
Then, on page 185, Rainey refers to “…the billions and billions of hears that homo sapiens [sic] have been pairing off and reproducing.” Since there was no life at all on land on the earth, according to most accounts, until less than half a billion years ago, in the Ordovician, and those were all plants and fungi, with the first amphibians making it onto land in the Devonian Period, which didn’t begin until around 416 million years ago. The genus Homo did not appear until approximately two and a half million years ago and Homo sapiens, modern humans, did not come on the scene until less than a million years ago, a figure that is subject to change as new discoveries are made. So, clearly, Homo sapiens, as a species, has not been “pairing off and reproducing” for billions of years. Again, Rainey’s statement might be a typo, but it detracts from the believability of what she reports in the book.
It is true, however, that some of the scientific advances Rainey reports on concerning both ways to achieve invisibility and in cloning and genetic manipulation, are interesting whether or not you accept the existence of UFOs. Some advances, such as the cloning of Dolly the sheep, are widely known. Others are not, and I can’t speak to whether Rainey has reported them accurately or not, although I’m interested enough in a couple of them that I’m considering doing a little looking around to see what they really are about. At least, Hopkins and Rainey have provided endnotes to make that research a little easier.
Still, even with the problems, I would recommend Sight Unseen to readers who are interested in UFOs generally, and in alleged abductions by beings presumably associated with them. It isn’t a bad book, and what I perceive as problems could be partly my own problem, since I expect that when someone is making money from a book they’ve written, in the form of royalties, facts will be reported accurately. This isn’t something I only blame the writers for. There are editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers for a reason, and I expect writers to make use of them.