In search of the little green men
Credit: Getty   

At UnHerd we like to take a closer look at under-reported stories, but today I venture into the realm of the ‘unexplained’.

I’ll begin with something that happened to me a while back. I was walking from a quiet country railway station to my parents’ house – a distance of about a mile. It was dark and the road was deserted, but I was fine with that.

And then I saw the lights. Four of them. At first I thought they were aircraft coming into Gatwick, which wasn’t far away. But there was none of the usual jet engine noise. And in any case, the lights were too still and, as far as I could tell, too low and too near.

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I was looking across a field; beyond it, a hillside was just about visible against the night sky. The lights, I realised, were below the ridgeline – so I thought they might be shining from the hillside. Except that I knew there were no houses there. No buildings of any kind, just woodland. Bonfires, was my next thought.

And then I saw that they were moving. Slowly, but in perfect formation – and parallel to my own path. I’ll admit: at that point my blood ran cold. Or was it just the gust of wind behind my back? Because that’s what gave it away: the wretched things were Chinese lanterns drifting along in the breeze…

The UFOs turned out to be no more than an irresponsible party gimmick. And, yes, I did feel stupid for not realising that straight away. Yet I’m grateful for the experience. For a moment the ordinary world had given way beneath my feet, leaving me struggling to explain the evidence my eyes presented me with. That brief moment of wonder and terror left me with a lot more sympathy for those who have more enduring encounters with the unexplained.

UFOs have been back in the news lately following a development first reported by Bryan Bender in Politico last month:

“The U.S. Navy is drafting new guidelines for pilots and other personnel to report encounters with ‘unidentified aircraft,’ a significant new step in creating a formal process to collect and analyze the unexplained sightings — and destigmatize them.

“The previously unreported move is in response to a series of sightings of unknown, highly advanced aircraft intruding on Navy strike groups and other sensitive military formations and facilities, the service says.”

While not leaping to conclusions, it seems that the US Navy is keeping an open mind:

“‘There have been a number of reports of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft entering various military-controlled ranges and designated air space in recent years,’ the Navy said in a statement in response to questions from POLITICO. ‘For safety and security concerns, the Navy and the [U.S. Air Force] takes these reports very seriously and investigates each and every report.

Pilots have been reporting ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ (UAPs) for decades. You can be sure that anyone allowed to fly the US military’s advanced, deadly and extremely expensive aircraft has passed a battery of psychological tests. Therefore, if such persons are reporting UAPs, then it’s entirely reasonable for the authorities to investigate – and for the mainstream media to cover the issue.

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It’s important that we don’t lose our appetite for the unexplained. It’s true that the field has been colonised by every kind of crackpot and conspiracy theorist, thus putting off respectable researchers. But in a world subject to evermore extensive scientific observation, anything we discover in the future is going to be increasingly elusive and/or weird. Breaking genuinely new ground in science (as opposed to finding out more and more about less and less) depends on our continued willingness to venture into uncharted territory.

By way of illustration, here’s a story from 1920s France: it concerns my great-grandmother Alice, who died before I was born, but whom I’m told was a sober and sensible sort.

One afternoon, Alice was in her kitchen when she heard thunder. Not being fond of stormy weather, she went to close the window. It was then that she saw what she described as a “ball of fire” drift over the garden wall. About the size of a football and shining brightly, it was levitating off the ground and moving at speed towards her. Fortunately, it hit an apple tree first – upon which it exploded into nothingness.

There were no other witnesses and no evidence, other than a scorched tree. Alice could offer no explanation for what she’d seen; and, other than telling her family about it, she sought no attention. It was, of course, several decades before the start of the UFO craze.

What she experienced, however, does have a likely explanation – the unusual but Earthly phenomenon of ball lightning. Being rare and unpredictable, it is still not well understood, but it has been scientifically documented – and various theories about it have been proposed.

Before the 1960s, however, scientists were highly sceptical – dismissing witness reports spanning centuries. If, in the 1920s, my great-grandmother had pursued the matter, her experience would have been filed away under the heading of ‘paranormal’ and given no credence.

So I’m glad the US Navy are paying attention to the strange stuff their pilots see. It doesn’t mean that little green men are behind it all – or even the Russians. But if they do find an explanation, it’s bound to be an interesting one.

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The principle of new things getting weirder over time makes a lot of sense. For instance, one often sees plane crashes and other disasters described as ‘freak accidents’. That’s not just cliched language, but a recognition that, having eliminated routine mishaps through extensive modern safety measures, anything that still goes wrong is, by definition, unusual and unanticipated.

It’s the same with scientific understanding. We’ve documented and explained almost everything in plain sight, and thus what we’ve yet to pin down isn’t going to be obvious at all. Which means that despite the internet-enabled proliferation of nonsense, we must nevertheless keep an open mind and expect the unexpected.