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Extraterrestrial Origin

In popular fiction and conspiracy theories, life forms, especially intelligent life forms, that are of extraterrestrial origin, i.e. not coming from the Earth are referred to as alien and collectively as aliens. When humans in fictional accounts accomplish interstellar travel and land on a planet elsewhere in the universe, the local inhabitants of these other planets are usually still referred to as "alien," even though they are the native life form and the humans are the intruders. In general they are seen as unfriendly life forms.

In popular culture, such as movies and comics, "aliens" are often depicted as somewhat humanoid in their appearance. There are several reasons for this humanoid depiction in popular culture. It makes it easier for an alien in a movie scene to simply be a disguised human actor. Aliens in movies, in order to catch our attention, must trigger instantaneous emotional reaction; this requires a design based on recognizable human facial features and expressions. It is easier to relate to an alien with features we recognize such as arms and legs, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, as well as behavior we recognize such as baring its teeth in anger or widening its eyes in shock or surprise.

However, if real extraterrestrial life exists, few people expect to find humanoid characteristics, believing that this would be too great a coincidence given an entirely different evolutionary scale. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that alien life similar to humankind exists.

The ficitionalization of extraterrestrial life occured before the 20th century. The didactic poet Henry More took up the classical theme of Cosmic pluralism of the Greek Democritus in "Democritus Platonissans, or an Essay Upon the Infinity of Worlds" (1647). The possibility of extraterrestrial life was a commonplace of educated discourse in the 17th century, though in Paradise Lost (1667) Milton cautiously employed the conditional when the angel suggests to Adam the possibility of life on the Moon.

Our fascination with UFOs goes to the heart of one of the seminal questions of human existence: Are we alone in the universe? We don't yet know the answer. Until we do, we will continue the quest for some kind of resolution. And until it is resolved, if ever, the search will be conducted in every way humans find possible, from the very scientific and scholarly to the highly speculative and anecdotal, and every permutation in between.

The modern UFO movement began on June 24, 1947. A pilot named Kenneth Arnold flying in a private plane toward Mt. Rainier in Washington State reported a bright flash and then what seemed to him to be nine disk- or saucer-shaped objects. They seemed to be flying in a chainlike formation five miles long and to dip or change direction.

Arnold later that day took his sighting to a local FBI office, but it was closed and so he went to the local newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon, and related his story to a columnist there, saying the objects "flew like a saucer would if skipped over water." The next day the news then went out nationally over the Associated Press: "Nine bright saucer-like objects flying at `incredible speed' at 10,000 feet altitude were reported here today by Kenneth Arnold, Boise, Idaho, a pilot who said he could not hazard a guess as to what they were."

The story appeared worldwide. Flying saucers were suddenly all the rage. More sightings came in. People were seeing lights in the sky and "flying saucers" almost everywhere. Some thought they were secret U.S. or Soviet aircraft being tested. Others, that they were spaceships from another planet.

It was in this charged atmosphere that a New Mexico rancher named William W. "Mac" Brazel innocently became a player in this drama. On June 14 while riding the range on his ranch thirty miles southeast of Corona, New Mexico, Brazel had found some unusual-looking debris. It was, he said, mostly pieces of paper covered with foil, small sticks, and torn pieces of gray rubber, scattered over an area of about two hundred yards. The largest of the pieces were only about three feet across. It looked kind of like a kite but clearly wasn't a kite. He didn't know what it was. On July 4 he and his family went back to the site and recovered all the pieces they could find and took them back to their ranch house.

Brazel hadn't heard about the "flying disc" reports, but his brother-in-law had and persuaded him to go to the sheriff's office in Roswell, New Mexico, and report his discovery in case there was some relation. Somewhat sheepishly (and to his immediate regret), on July 7 Brazel did so, and the sheriff referred the discovery to intelligence officers at the nearby Roswell Army Air Field who came out to the ranch and got some of the debris. Exactly how Brazel's modest-seeming debris got transformed momentarily into the remains of a crashed flying saucer we may never exactly know. Stories differ greatly. Fact and myth quickly diverge.

What we do know is that a base public information officer called a local radio station and announced that the air force base had recovered a "flying disc." This became a one-day sensation as a news story ("RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Area," was the headline on the July 8 Roswell Daily Record), until the news was retracted the next day when the Eighth Air Force at Forth Worth, Texas, announced that the debris in fact consisted of parts of angular corner radar reflectors suspended from balloons. The launches were for training and experimental purposes. That explanation was widely reported in newspapers of July 9. Local newspaper reporters and photographers were even brought out to Alamogordo Army Air Base on July 9 and shown foil-covered reflectors being launched from there and other locations ("Fantasy of `Flying Disc' Is Explained Here" was the front-page headline of the July 10 Alamogordo News), and the original story was quickly discounted and forgotten.

Thus, remarkably, within a two-and-a-half-week period in the summer of 1947 three of the major themes that have characterized the UFO movement in the ensuing half century were struck: sightings of fast-moving lights or objects in the sky; reports of recovery of debris of some sort northwest of Roswell; and government involvement and explanations.

Four other themes are of more recent vintage: claims that aliens have made contact with individual humans (contactees), highly popular in the 1970s and 1980s; claims, usually brought out under hypnosis, that certain humans have been abducted by aliens and even taken on board alien spacecraft (abductees), popular in the 1980s and 1990s; claims that the government has recovered aliens from either the Roswell incident or other UFO crashes (something also of fairly recent vintage); and claims that the government has been covering up all these and other matters (a recurring theme since at least the 1960s).

Two more tendencies have become apparent since then. Stories that were once thought dead, perhaps for good reason, can be resurrected years, even decades, later by popular writers and UFO proponents who report them to a new generation of readers. And stories that may once have been considered too outlandish on their face to be taken seriously by mainstream media now are often treated with a newfound respect. This is especially the case with the stories of abductions and recovered aliens.

What is the reality? Is this all a modern myth or is there some semblance of fact here? Are we actually being visited by alien spacecraft even while, paradoxically, first-rate astronomers involved in the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) - making use of powerful radio telescopes and computers capable of sorting through millions of channels simultaneously - Qreport they have yet to find anything definitive? Do the tireless promoters of UFO sightings, contacts, abductions, crashes, and coverups really know something that the scientific community does not? What does all this mean, anyhow?

In 1976, a new organization of distinguished scientists, scholars, educators, writers, and investigators was created to help the public sort fact from myth and sense from nonsense among the entire range of paranormal, fringe-science, and borderland-science claims and phenomena. Founding Fellows included authors Isaac Asimov and Martin Gardner, astronomer Carl Sagan, psychologist B. F. Skinner, philosopher Paul Kurtz (the founding chairman), and a number of other well-known philosophers, psychologists, and physical scientists. The nonprofit (and very independent) Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) seeks first - through networks of scientists, scholars, and investigators who carry out the work - to investigate and find answers to questions that excite the popular imagination or have significance for scholarly inquiry. It seeks second to educate the public about the results of those inquiries. More generally, it encourages an attitude of critical thinking and responsible, tentative skepticism toward all new claims and assertions, no matter the subject. Whatever the topic, it attempts to bring the full arsenal of science and reason to its inquiries. CSICOP has received wide acclaim from the scientific and scholarly communities and considerable attention from the news media for its work. While the organization has not eschewed controversy, it has always attempted to bring clear-headed analysis and fair-minded evaluation to the claims it considers.

CSICOP's bimonthly journal, the Skeptical Inquirer, subtitled The Magazine for Science and Reason, has been the main forum for publication of the results of these inquiries. Reports of UFO sightings, crashes, abductions, and coverups have been regular and frequent topics of investigation in the Skeptical Inquirer. For the past half century we have definitely been invaded by reports, claims, and assertions of UFOs, disseminated widely by the electronic and print media, too often with little critical analysis.

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