UFO sightings: the science © iStock

UFO sightings: the science

Peter Davenport, Director of the National UFO Reporting Center in the US, speaks to Louise Ridley about taking the scientific approach to finding alien life

Where did your interest in UFOs come from?

Chronologically speaking, from my first sighting. I was a lad of six and a half and was sitting in our family car at a drive-in movie theatre. Suddenly a disturbance began brewing; people were getting out of their cars and running and shouting. What caused it was an object the colour of a red traffic signal, hovering in the evening sky. It was stunning. It illuminated the ground as far as I could see and suddenly it accelerated and went over the horizon.


But even more than that, I’m trained as a scientist. I believe that in discussing the UFO phenomenon we’re addressing the most dramatic question in the history of science: whether life on our planet is the only life in the Universe. I think the clear and resounding answer to that is no, it’s not.

What is the evidence that extraterrestrial life exists?

I believe we ufologists have provided enough strong evidence. Not just eyewitness reports, which of course are very unreliable – you have to filter them carefully to get useful information – but also the physical trace cases. Cases in which there have been landings on the ground that leave marks, or metal from craft. I don’t think we’ve explained where all of the UK crop formations are coming from too.

What’s a typical day’s work for you?

We typically receive between 30 and 50 telephone calls per day.

We guarantee anonymity to anyone who contacts our centre, but we’ve communicated with senior military officers, members of law enforcement, senior figures in the news industry, political figures and many commercial pilots. Answering telephone calls, responding to email and collecting, proofreading and disseminating reports takes up most of my days. We also participate in many radio interviews, and respond to perhaps half a dozen queries from members of the press.

How do you investigate a reported UFO sighting?

Most of the reports we receive are of lights in the sky. Some of those may be genuine UFOs, but it’s very difficult when talking to a person over the telephone to establish what they may have been looking at. There are many different types of lights that people see in the night sky: landing lights on aeroplanes, marker lights on antennas, planets, stars. The International Space Station is reported to us frequently.

Only very few reports warrant sending out investigators to interview the witness further, to look for more data and additional witnesses who can be useful. If you have multiple witnesses looking at the same point at the same time you can triangulate the location of whatever it was they saw.

What scientific evidence would end the UFO debate?

Open contact would certainly end it, but in lieu of that I’m proposing we use an existing technology: that of passive radar. This would involve the construction of a low-cost array of antennas, which ‘listen’ for reflected radio and television signals from the atmosphere or beyond. If UFOs are real and if they reflect radio waves, then we should be able to detect them out to a distance of many thousands of miles. If we can show with an objective measuring system that these objects are here, then I think we’ll have the next degree of reliability of data that will open the eyes of the world’s scientific community.

What do you think of Steven Hawkings’s comments that we should avoid contact with extraterrestrial life?

I defer to Professor Hawkings’s expertise in matters related to cosmology and physics. I have not seen all of his comments, but in the case of Columbus, the analogy isn’t exactly parallel [Hawking suggested aliens landing on Earth could do for Humanity what Columbus’s arrival in the New World eventually did for Native Americans].

When Columbus landed in America he had a certain economic motivation and there was at least a modicum of competition between his crew and the indigenous people. In the case of aliens, they may not be in competition with us, so the resulting relationship might be completely different. We may not have anything that the aliens are interested in: they might be here simply to observe.

Can you ever say with complete confidence that a case is contact with extraterrestrial life?

Reliable information is probably the most precious commodity in the Universe. Until we have a large butterfly net that allows us to snag an object, put it on a laboratory bench and analyse it, I don’t think a scientist would ever say that’s definitely a UFO.

The only field in which there is proof is mathematics, and even some of those proofs are held in question by other mathematicians. Scientists in every walk of life are always struggling with the reliability of data. In that respect, ufology is no different from any other area of investigation.


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