Deep within Northwestern’s Technological Institute, Professor J. Allen Hynek, Chairman of the NU Department of Astronomy, lectures students on the virtues of the telescope and space exploration: “The Perspective of the Astronomer.” His typewriter notes are littered with blue and red ink, the changes to the plan penned by hand. A student reaches to turn off the lights, enveloping the evening lecture in darkness, save for the projector displaying a glowing New Yorker cartoon:
A short, fat, balding man looks up at a similarly drawn man looking into a massive telescope: “Nonsense!” he shouts, “There couldn’t be another civilization out there more advanced than ours — they would have destroyed themselves.”
It’s 1963, and Hynek is not so sure.
Hynek began teaching at Northwestern in 1960; that same year, he was named chairman of the astronomy program. Hynek had been heralded for his work in astronomy at universities and observatories across the Midwest. His ufology colleague, Mark Rodeghier, describes Hynek as “a classic absent-minded professor, in a good way.” He once left his briefcase on the L and miraculously recovered it.
But among the accolades, Hynek had a side project NU didn’t love as much: UFO research and investigation.
When Northwestern hired him, Hynek had also already spent 12 years as a scientific advisor for Project Blue Book, the United States Air Force’s formal investigation of UFOs. Between 1948 and 1969, he examined thousands of reported UFO sightings for the project. By determining which known astronomical object or phenomenon could explain these sightings, Hynek could debunk them. In 1969, the project coordinators halted the project, deciding that there was no significant evidence of anything flying that was “unidentified.”
Hynek, however, remained unconvinced. He debunked most sightings, but some remained unexplained. So he set to work of his own volition. He established the Center for UFO Studies in 1973, first out of his own home before moving operations to 924 Chicago Avenue in Evanston in 1975. Hynek’s goal for the Center, Rodeghier says, was similar to that of any scientific research institution: “do your work and try to learn more about what you’re studying.” Hynek was convinced that the subject merited a cohort of invested colleagues and an administrative staff to investigate and file reportings. In 1978, he retired from Northwestern to focus on ufology and devoted his efforts to the Center.
“I think they [Northwestern] put up with it, but they weren’t that happy about it,” explains Paul Hynek, Hynek’s son. The University found itself caught between two options: satisfy this highly regarded new professor, or formally associate with this fringe science. “I imagine they made some kind of deal: ‘You do it on your own time, don’t use Northwestern stationery, don’t involve us with it.’ And they never really warmed up to it very much,” Paul says.
Rodeghier echoes these sentiments. “The Northwestern administration and his colleagues in the astronomy department tolerated his interests, but I can’t say they were supportive, and they certainly didn’t provide him anything special.” Many academics anonymously approached him, cautious to use their name in the burgeoning UFO field.
Paul remembers joining his father to investigate UFO sightings throughout his childhood. He emphasizes his father’s ability to meld compassion with scientific methodology: it was an open-minded search for evidence. Hynek’s expertise in astronomy was imperative. A sighting could’ve actually been a weather balloon, planet or temperature inversion, unidentifiable only to those unable to recognize such phenomena. He developed tactful methods for finding the truth, like retelling a sighting story with slight inaccuracies and weighing the witness’s response to discern fabrication.
Even with diligent research, there is no physical evidence to prove the existence of UFOs. They are often conceived of as flying saucers, thanks to Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 report that described them as traveling through the air like “a saucer if you skip it across water.” And though commonly associated with aliens, the term actually refers to simply “unidentified flying objects:” any size, any shape, powered by anything.
The scientific community does widely accept that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, Rodeghier says, but this question begs further research. The nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, sponsored partially by NASA, searches for signals with radio telescopes.
And since UFOs pose a security threat in the sky, it’s surprising that the politics of UFOs are so messy. But Rodeghier says that the authorities, at least in the U.S., have this “amazing mental disconnect” when it comes to UFOs. “This is post 9/11,” he explains, “security is pretty important, and yet UFOs are something that basically causes a mind freeze among people ... There is this veil of ridicule that surrounds the subject, and it stymies action when there should be action.”
Sightings remain shrouded in mystery and skepticism, and the Center keeps a close watch. At about 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 7, 2006, a United Airlines ramp worker spotted a UFO among the overcast skies at O’Hare. While several of his colleagues confirmed the sighting, the Federal Aviation Administration refused to investigate the reports. In December, a leaked video revealed an undercover UFO investigation project funded by the U.S. Government between 2007 and 2012. That same month, The New York Times reported that the Defense Department spent $22 million on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, an effort that “was almost impossible to find. Which was how the Pentagon wanted it.” The sightings have stretched to this year. On Feb. 24, 2018, three separate pilots radioed in reports of an unidentified object in the sky in the same location. The FAA dismissed these reports as well — reports that Hynek would’ve surely deemed worthy of great study.
Today, Rodeghier carries on Hynek’s legacy at the Center. His 40-year tenure there began the summer before his senior year of college. Rodeghier moved the Center’s operations to his home in 2009, when it could no longer afford to rent an office. More than 30 contributors currently work there, including academics (some retired) from a variety of disciplines like history, science and psychology. Other volunteers are simply interested in the research. He recalls a time when someone claimed they were abducted, which prompted the Center to call a famous hypnotist to assess what the individual could remember. Hynek and his team searched for evidence like radar signals, additional witnesses and physical remnants. He investigated UFO sightings “in a balanced, scientific fashion, trying to take into account both an openness but also a scientific, healthy skepticism,” says Paul, who spent hours listening to his father’s inquiries. “It was fascinating to see him talk to these people and make them feel at ease right away.”
The Center’s interdisciplinary structure harkens back to Hynek’s 1963 astronomy lecture preserved in the Northwestern Archives. His neatly typed notes read: “Astronomy is not only looking through a telescope at remote objects, so to speak, but it is physics and mathematics, combined with other disciplines and crafts; of the latter, optics, photography, electronics and computing techniques are paramount.”
Current Northwestern Department of Physics and Astronomy Professor Dave Meyer compares the investigation techniques employed by Hynek and his ufologist successors to a police investigation: a witness claims a sighting and the team investigates, searching for truth, physical evidence or disproving the claim.
Professor Meyer explains that both the Department of Astronomy and the University as a whole didn’t, and still doesn’t, take official stances on what faculty should and should not research. But, he says the scientific community doesn’t study UFOs since there’s no convincing physical scientific evidence or discernable pattern to sightings. He recalls Carl Sagan’s famous words: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
“So,” Rodeghier concludes, “that’s why we’re here.”