July 12, 2007
by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer
You may not have noticed (but only if you've been living in a hermetically sealed shipping container). This month is the sixtieth anniversary of what's politely termed the Roswell incident.
That incident unfolded like this. In July, 1947, New Mexico sheep rancher William Brazel showed up at the Roswell Army Air Field with some unusual debris in the bed of his pickup – weird leavings that he'd found in a pasture near the tiny town of Corona. This initiated a series of events that eventually became a drawn-out pot boiler about a crashed, alien spaceship. The plot line is simple: extraterrestrials came to visit, and accidentally destroyed their craft. The remains were efficiently collected and perfectly hidden by a government paranoid about security. According to the die-hard believers, the feds, even now, aren't willing to fess up to the fact that aliens were on our front porch.
Now Roswell isn't the only story about aliens come to Earth, although it's certainly garnered more press than most. Admittedly, there's some indication that its popularity, even among the UFO in-crowd, may be oxidizing somewhat. In a recent query to ten experts made by the Fortean Times web site, Roswell was mentioned only once as a "most interesting UFO case." And that single mention was offered by Stanton Friedman, who, as the greatest proponent of the Roswell story, certainly has a dog in the fight.
Well, I don't think aliens had anything to do with what took place at Roswell. There's good and compelling evidence that what was in play in 1947 was a secret government research program to develop technology for detecting Soviet nuclear tests. So I won't delve here, and yet again, into the sticky thicket of claims and counterclaims regarding what happened. That path has been beaten down to a trench.
In addition, adding my voice to the Roswell roar doesn't seem to help: I am perversely proud to note that, according to a poll recently conducted by one Canadian web site, I am less reliable on this subject than the Easter Bunny. I didn't lose this vote by a hare either – the vote was five to one against me. (I note, however, that Mr. Bunny's list of published opinion on Roswell is thin.) In addition, having written about this before, I've learned that doing so is like riding a bronco in your shorts – it's just a guaranteed way to set yourself up for pain. Frankly, every time I voice some skepticism about claims of alien visitation, I am promptly, and inevitably, rewarded with a flood of abusive e-mail.
Nonetheless, the incident remains iconic. So let me point out something that, frankly, I find strangely comforting.
Roswell was, supposedly, a situation in which an alien craft came who-knows-how-many light-years to visit Earth before the pilot punched the wrong button and caused a fatal explosion above the New Mexico desert (this is akin to making a cross-country road trip, and totaling your car on the garage door as you pull into the driveway). Debris was recovered, as were alien bodies. And yet, strangely, even after 60 years, the consequences of this short-circuited social call by a culture able to bridge interstellar distances are... zilch.
Well, not entirely zilch. The incident has been a boon to its articulate proponents, to television, and to the Roswell economy (indeed, for that small and friendly, but otherwise unremarkable city, the saucer smashup 70 miles outside of town has become a "crash cow").
But really, what significant effect has it had? An historical analogy might serve to give scale. As all readers and everyone else know, Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. But 60 years later, were the inhabitants of the area still unclear about whether Spaniards had happened upon their world? Was that still controversial? A contemporary, Bartolome de Las Casas, wrote in A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies about what changed on the archipelago of islands that, at the time of Columbus' arrival, "were densely populated with native peoples... [with Hispaniola] perhaps the most densely populated place in the world." By 1542, a half-century later, de Las Casas wrote that "We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the... years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million."
The effect of the encounter was not subtle, and sixty years after Columbus, the Indians weren't arguing on late-night radio about whether they'd been visited. And that's not just because they didn't have radio.
Well, in the more-than-half-century since Roswell, we still seem to be here with our lives and economy intact. If there's been any effect from an alien face-to-face, it's too subtle for me.
As rebuttal, some people claim that I'm wrong; that there really is a noteworthy aftermath to Roswell. Namely, that the military has reverse-engineered the debris, producing all sorts of strategically important technology breakthroughs. That, at least, would be significant. However, the idea, to begin with, is about as plausible as talking dogs. Could the Roman legions, a pretty successful military in their own right, reverse-engineer your laptop? They were, after all, only two thousand years behind us, and were humans to boot.
But plausible or otherwise, what's the evidence that we've in any way benefited from extrasolar imports? As an exercise, I recently graphed the speed of America's top military aircraft over the past century, assuming that if we'd really figured out the grays' engineering secrets, that fact would be reflected in this important category of hardware. Well, it won't surprise you to hear that our military planes are faster now then they once were, and between 1935 and 1970, the top speed went up by about a factor of ten. But the improvement was gradual, except for a bit of a jump as soon as the Nazis developed jet planes. Of course, that was before Roswell.
What about some new astronomy or physics? Have we learned anything there? Is there some striking discontinuity in knowledge following 1947 that you can point to?
I think Roswell is important, really I do. But more because it points to our gullibility, not to any alien guests who, intent on visiting the Land of Enchantment, proved that they should never have been given a driver's license.
OK, let the abuse begin.