Mark O’Connell, The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs. HarperCollins, 2017.
A human life can be read as the totality of its enigmas. The questions to be asked, naturally, will differ from person to person.
For J. Allen Hynek (1910-1986), the brilliant astronomer who insisted on the reality of what he called the “UFO experience” even while serving as consultant and occasional mouthpiece for the Air Force’s debunkery machine, I want to know: what connection might there have been between his pivotal if ambiguous role in UFOlogy, and his tragic loss of both parents before he’d turned 20? What are we to make of his teenage fascination with mysticism and the occult, apparently in the wake of his father’s death? This was surely a foreshadowing of his adult UFO career. But in precisely what way?
What do we make of his relationship with the Air Force? At the beginning, in the spring of 1948, all seems clear enough. The Air Force needed an scientific consultant for its newly established “Project Sign.” Hynek was a rising star in the department of physics and astronomy at Ohio State University, a mere 60 miles away from Project Sign headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The man and the position were a natural fit.
By the early 1950s, though, the Air Force’s agenda and Hynek’s had shifted to opposite poles. For the Air Force, UFOs were a nuisance to be explained away or laughed away; forget about them, hope the public will too. Already Hynek had different ideas. Yet he stayed on with the Air Force UFO project, now called “Blue Book,” until it ceased operations at the beginning of 1970. When appropriate, he spoke in its name. Why?
We turn to biographies to find answers to questions like these, or at least the materials we can use to construct our own answers. Mark O’Connell’s new biography, the first ever attempted of Hynek, mostly does not disappoint. It has its flaws, from its preposterous subtitle to its irritating practice of citing books in the endnotes, sometimes long books, without providing any page numbers. A few deeper concerns will be noted presently. But it discharges the biographer’s essential obligation: to give a coherent, sober, readable account of the subject’s life. Or rather, of the multiple lives that–in Hynek, as in us all–were twined into one.
Besides the UFOlogist-Hynek and the occultist-Hynek, there was a very impressive and accomplished astronomer-Hynek who, until this book, has never had his due. Also a media-star-Hynek. As a popularizer of astronomy, Hynek never achieved the dazzling success and name- and face-recognition of Carl Sagan, who appears in O’Connell’s portrayal, perhaps with some exaggeration, as Hynek’s nemesis. Yet he did make it to the cover of Life magazine (October 21, 1957), not in connection with UFOs but as one of a team of scientists, originally recruited for the International Geophysical Year, who found themselves tasked with plotting the orbit of the Russian satellite Sputnik.
In the early, scary days after Sputnik’s launch, O’Connell writes, Hynek and Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple were the public voices of calm authority, who “assured the country that there was no imminent threat from a Soviet attack. … Hynek and Whipple held twice-daily press conferences, hiding nothing, sharing everything they knew and becoming the faces and voice of calm and reassurance to millions of worried Americans.”
Nine years later Hynek again gave a press conference, this time on behalf of the Air Force–and came away with egg on his face.
This was the infamous “swamp gas” conference of March 1966, where Hynek suggested that a string of much-publicized Michigan sightings might be explained as the lights produced by oxidizing gases in the marshy areas where they’d been seen. He was hooted down from all sides–“I got out of town as quickly and as quietly as I could”–with Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, eight years later to become President of the United States, joining in the chorus of outrage and contempt.
Actually, as O’Connell points out, Hynek’s conjecture was fairly sensible if perhaps not wholly convincing. That didn’t matter. “Swamp gas,” with its overtones of fifth-grade bathroom humor, had a ridiculous sound; and the mockery normally heaped on UFOs and those who saw them was diverted toward the unfortunate scientist.
It’s tempting to regard the “swamp gas” debacle as Hynek’s road-to-Damascus moment, to use John Franch’s language–his transformation from Air Force hatchet man to UFO apostle, the man whose taxonomy of “close encounter” sightings inspired the title of the great blockbuster UFO film of all time (and won Hynek a six-second cameo in that film). It’s clear from O’Connell’s account that there was no transformation, no road to Damascus. Long before 1966, Hynek was insisting that UFOs be taken seriously, and although he hadn’t yet gone public with his views he didn’t try to conceal them either.
As early as 1952, Hynek rebuked his fellow scientists Urner Liddel and Donald Menzel to their faces for what he regarded as their flip dismissal of the subject. “Nothing constructive is accomplished for the public at large–and therefore for science in the long run,” he admonished, “by mere ridicule and the implication that sightings are the products of ‘bird-brains’ and ‘intellectual flyweights.’ Ridicule is not a part of the scientific method and the public should not be taught that it is.”
Yet Hynek stayed with the Air Force throughout, contracting himself to work with them even after Blue Book’s demise, on a project or projects that remain mysterious despite O’Connell’s efforts to elucidate them. Surely this was not to put food on the table; since 1960 Hynek had been chair of the astronomy department at Northwestern University, which had evidently managed to lure him away from Ohio State. (Hynek’s history of academic employment–and the tensions created at Northwestern by his increasing prominence as “Mr. UFO”–is a part of the story that O’Connell leaves mostly untold. Which, as a former academic myself, I regret.)
So then: why? O’Connell suggests a parallel with the pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), whom Hynek deeply admired and after whom he seems to have modeled himself. Kepler put up with the insufferable Tycho Brahe to gain access to Brahe’s data, which he needed for his own work. Perhaps similarly Hynek with the Air Force? (“Project Blue Book files,” says O’Connell, “had a way of migrating in bulk from Wright-Patterson to Hynek’s office.”) It’s an intriguing and perceptive suggestion, but I doubt if it’s the full explanation.
Hynek, whom his close friend Jacques Vallee once described as “a quiet man, who … feared authority and was in awe of secrecy,” seems to have expected something of the Air Force that it could not deliver, had no interest in delivering. How else to understand his quixotic visit to Wright-Patterson at the end of October 1973, nearly four years after Blue Book’s demise, “demanding that his employers [how odd O’Connell should use that word!–DJH] look into the rash of UFO sightings sweeping across the nation”? Of course his “demand” was ignored, as he should have known it would be. That he didn’t know suggests to me the Air Force was something more for him than a source of UFO files or supplemental cash. An emotional bond, of a man who from an early age had no father, was also in play.
Johannes Kepler was a great astronomer but also an astrologer. He was a scientist but also a mystic; the same may be said of his 20th-century acolyte. It’s this side of Hynek, “occultist-Hynek,” that gets the least justice at O’Connell’s hands.
He doesn’t pass over it entirely. He acknowledges that as a teenager Hynek was “interested in the teachings of the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians … enthralled with the concept of ‘occult science’ propagated by philosopher and spiritual teacher Rudolf Steiner.” But there’s a great deal more he could and in my opinion should have said.
He could, for example, have at least mentioned the story told of the youthful Hynek by John Franch: “The high schooler spent over $100—roughly $1,300 in today’s dollars—to purchase the Canadian mystic Manly Hall’s massive, richly illustrated tome An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy: Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings Concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of All Ages, better known simply as The Secret Teachings of All Ages. ‘All my student friends thought I was crazy: why didn’t I buy a motorcycle instead, as they all did,’ Hynek later told Jacques Vallee.”
A cool kid–shall we say, a kid who hadn’t just lost a parent?–would have bought a motorcycle. Young Josef Allen had his mind on higher things. The episode reveals him as a seeker after what Kepler would have called the prisca theologia, the esoteric doctrine of God shared by the wise of all nations and all religions. It’s true that Franch, writing for The Skeptical Inquirer, puts this information to what I regard as bad use, to discount Hynek’s scientific bona fides and brush off his UFO beliefs as so much “wishful thinking.” The information remains true, and important. No one who wants to approach the enigma that was J. Allen Hynek can afford to ignore it.
O’Connell seems reluctant to broach the question of Hynek’s relationship with religion. His childhood and adolescence are depicted–correctly? wrongly? and if correctly, how did that come to be?–as wholly unchurched. The issue of religious faith isn’t even mentioned until near the end of the book, when Hynek is dying of cancer. “One of the aspects of our childhood that people find remarkable,” O’Connell quotes Hynek’s son Paul as having told him, “is that there was not even one scintilla of religion. We were completely areligious; it was all about science.” Only when sick and dying, in O’Connell’s portrayal, did Hynek finally go looking for God.
“Completely areligious”–said of a man whose entire life was a religious quest? For whom science was not a substitute for faith but a pathway to something greater that would subsume and transcend both science and religion? Agreed, this wasn’t the religion of the established “isms.” Hynek’s science wasn’t quite that of the scientific establishment, either. Yet both were real, scientific and religious in equal measure.
Which brings me to the question I know can’t be answered, by O’Connell or anyone else. Was it something more than coincidence that Hynek’s death was heralded by the return of Halley’s Comet?
He was born during the comet’s visit in 1910. According to a much-told tale, when he was five days old his parents took him to the roof “to bask in the light of the comet” as O’Connell puts it. As a newborn, of course, he couldn’t possibly have seen it. (It’s no doubt this incongruity that has led some who tell the story to change his age from five days to five years, forgetting that by then the comet was long departed.) What his parents did that May night has the feel of a ritual act, the forging of a bond between child and comet that would imprint itself deep in his awareness.
For much of his life, it would seem, he was haunted by the sense he would die when the comet returned. “Weren’t we in some cathedral in England,” he wrote on his 60th birthday to his former student and lifelong friend Jennie Zeidman, “when I mentioned to you that Halley’s comet had just ‘turned the corner’ and was on its way back (to get me!)?” The unconscious had prophesied; the prophecy was fulfilled. Can that same unconscious have fulfilled it? In the late summer of 1985, the comet only months away, Hynek was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
He saw the comet before he died. At least four times that spring, according to O’Connell, his friends drove him into the Arizona desert to watch its “tail streaming away like a feather in a cap” (Zeidman) in the clear night sky. To pay homage to the far-traveling star, the identified but still numinous flying object that had given him his life and now had returned to claim it back.
Conjecture, of course. How much of it true? We’ll never know. Only those who deny the mind’s influence over the body will think it too absurd to be worth entertaining.
by David Halperin
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