A thin ray of light peeked through a recent article in the New Yorker during a discussion with retired Johns Hopkins medical historian Gianna Pomata. The topic was pandemics, with a focus on the 14th-century bubonic plague that annihilated uncounted millions in Europe.
The remedy for affliction 700 years ago was “scholastic” medicine, in which empirical analysis took a back seat to blaming more abstract forces. Faculty at the University of Paris said the fleas-and-vermin-borne plague was triggered by “a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the fortieth degree of Aquarius.”
The protracted Black Death, and the futility of mitigating it with contemporaneous solutions, produced what Pomata called “an accelerator of mental renewal,” which not only wrenched medicine away from astrology. The purge also seeded a revolution in astronomy, seafaring exploration and the artistic flourishing known as the Renaissance.
Grasping for parallels between the rebirth of ideas that reinvented the world seven centuries ago and what might happen on the other side of COVID-19 clearly seems twisted and cruel. The unremitting sickness, death and corruption filling the American leadership vacuum have turned our institutional norms to glass, and any historical analogy would skew more toward Rome than Florence. Yet, something familiar, and radical, is afoot. And it is emanating from a hunger for empiricism.
The latest shoe dropped last week, when a planetary scientist from NASA-Goddard joined an astrobiologist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science to boost a discussion that’s been germinating for nearly three years now. Writing for Scientific American – at 175 years, the oldest periodical of popular science in the USA – Ravi Kopparapu and Jacob Haqq-Misra lobbied for an all-hands-on-deck inquiry into UFOs. In making their case for a way forward, they turned to the past, the way Pomata did in the New Yorker.
Pomata saluted Italian poet Petrarch in her ruminations on the Renaissance, because it was Petrarch who reacquainted his own contemporaries with the earlier work of Cicero. Amid a republic in crisis, the Roman politico/philosopher had been its greatest orator, and Petrarch rescued his words from obscurity. Cicero’s work proved must-read fare during the Enlightenment, and one of his books wound up on the nightstand next to President Washington’s bed. Said Pomata of Cicero’s letters to public figures of antiquity, “It could be like someone today disliking the present state of America and wanting to talk to Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King.”
Here’s a stretch, but not by much — the Scientific American contributors did the same thing. They called on the legacy of a fearless, disaffected, 20th-century icon in their bid to “bring the phenomena into mainstream science.” Kopparapu and Haqq-Misra lambasted the “inadequacy of the methods” employed by the University of Colorado’s infamous whitewash that awarded the U.S. Air Force an excuse to shutter its UFO project in 1969. And they issued a new call to arms by invoking the work of atmospheric physicist James McDonald.
In a speech that should be mandatory listening for members of the Senate Intelligence Committee charged with evaluating whatever data the Pentagon chooses to share on UFOs come December, McDonald went on a 40-minute tear against the competence and veracity of the USAF. His 1969 pitch, “Science in Default,” is noteworthy not only for its fastidious command of case details, but for its intense urgency over the Colorado study’s abuse of resources and logic. His earlier appeal for a conscientious audience at the House Committee on Science and Astronautics was lost to the epic violence of 1968.
Half a century of wasted time. And we’re all neck-deep in stupid if we leave the fate of our inquiry solely in the hands of horse traders on Capitol Hill. Archived reports in the Pentagon could be useful, but Kopparapu and Haqq-Misra advocate aggressive and real-time research in hopes of discerning baseline patterns that might well prove predictive.
The good news: data collection is already underway, from the Sky Hub startup using portable AI-driven platforms to To The Stars Academy’s sophisticated mobile app called SCOUT (Signature Collection Of UAP Tracker). Think media culture isn’t evolving as well? Consider these shameful skank-bombs from the past few weeks:
In June, MUFON executive director Jan Harzan got stepped on by vice agents for soliciting sex from an imaginary 13-year-old. In July, the Washington Examiner busted “Ambassador to the Universe” guru Steven Greer for apparently staging an offshore flare drop east of Vero Beach in 2015; Greer convinced his ambassadors-in-training they were watching UFOs become USOs. Last but not least, also last month: Trump lunged for his base again by praising a mask-denying, conspiracy-mongering Houston physician/Fire Power Ministries pastor who asserts that unnamed medications are being spiked with alien DNA.
Not all that long ago, the messenger-class would’ve converted these events into fart jokes and more reasons to a) bash the UFO phenomenon and b) insult anyone gullible enough to follow the evidence. Fortunately, evidence for the magnitude of The Great Taboo is becoming so persuasive that these sideshows are being seen for what they are– distractions with zero bearing on the larger story arc.
The July 23 New York Times update on the Navy’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force, with those bell-clanging “off-world vehicles not made on this Earth” quotes, has been slammed and cheered for what it did and didn’t say. Corrections? Yeah, so what, it’s a complicated story, the Times owned it, and nobody’s perfect. This is a game of inches, not yards. And each time the NYT publishes, the ball goes a little farther downfield. The payoffs are already self-evident:
Gone are the rolling eyes during updates from this new frontier, the glib puns. No more X-Files soundtrack lead-ins. CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, USA Today – legacy media is finally starting to play it straight. Between that and the History channel’s “Unidentified” series, which is targeting lawmakers and military veterans, a process is underway.
The old ways cling tight, and there will always be pushback. “Humans are both a lying and a self-deluding species,” protests Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member Holman Jenkins, Jr. (who erroneously declared that UFOs avoid civilian air traffic corridors). “We are going through a particular bout of both right now.” That’s correct. But Jenkins and others of his persuasion are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
The ballot box may or may not determine the length of our new dark age. Science alone will not clear a path through the wreckage. But Scientific American’s exhortations are on the right side of history. Maybe, with any luck, we can go down swinging:
“We understand to an extent the nature of gamma-ray bursts, supernovae and gravitational waves. How? Because we have not dismissed the phenomena or the people who observed them.
“We studied them.”