Remembering NU professor J. Allen Hynek’s UFO analysis


On this collection, The Every day is diving into key historic occasions and researching distinguished figures from Evanston and Northwestern’s pasts.

When Kevin Leonard (WCAS ’77) was an undergraduate at NU, Highlights of Astronomy was a well-liked class — primarily due to the course’s professor, Josef Allen Hynek.

“Once I acquired right here, he was a topic of dialog amongst college students, normally alongside the traces of ‘he’s entertaining,’” Leonard mentioned. “He was extraordinarily informative, so I loved him.”

Whereas Leonard mentioned Hynek’s analysis was not mentioned a lot in school, college students knew he was a well-known astronomer. In any case, Hynek was the nation’s main professional on unidentified flying objects — or UFOs — on the time.

From 1960 to 1978, Hynek chaired NU’s Astronomy Division and directed the College’s Dearborn Observatory. Whereas he had quite a few scientific achievements — together with incorporating tv know-how into telescopes — Hynek’s UFO analysis captivated the nation in the course of the House Age.

His “Shut Encounter” classification system, which categorized UFO sightings primarily based on vary and impression, impressed Steven Spielberg’s 1977 cult traditional “Shut Encounters of the Third Sort,” which he consulted on set. 

Leonard, who now works as a college archivist, mentioned the Hynek Papers — a group of biographical materials, analysis experiences and information clippings — has been in style amongst researchers and the NU group on the College Archives.

“It has been a closely used assortment, which is especially rewarding for me and my colleagues as a result of the aim of our work is to carry individuals into the library,” Leonard mentioned. 

The Hynek Papers embrace data of Hynek’s proposed astronomical improvements, together with his bold however in the end unsuccessful thought to place telescopes in high-altitude balloons.

The Papers additionally embrace details about Hynek’s work as a U.S. Air Power investigator. First employed by the federal government whereas a professor at The Ohio State College in 1948, Hynek later turned chief scientific advisor for Undertaking Blue E book, an Air Power research of UFOs from 1947 to 1969. Within the position, he evaluated whether or not sure UFO instances may very well be defined by astronomical phenomena.  

Mark Rodeghier, a member of the Heart for UFO Research in Chicago, recalled sifting via volumes of Undertaking Blue E book’s findings on microfilm within the basement of Dearborn in the course of the mid-Seventies.

“They put two outdated microfilm readers down there, and I and two folks — one who was with the middle and a scholar from Northwestern — went via and checked out each web page,” Rodeghier mentioned. 

Whereas it appeared the U.S. authorities stopped investigating UFOs after it closed Undertaking Blue E book in 1969, a 2017 The New York Occasions report discovered a labeled UFO investigation program nonetheless exists.

Whereas Hynek’s extra notable work pertained to UFOs, he additionally studied stars and star matter. Hynek used the Lindheimer Astronomical Analysis Heart, a twin-dome observatory constructed on the northeast nook of the Lakefill in 1966, to analysis and educate. However, LARC was demolished in 1995 as a consequence of difficulties navigating gentle air pollution in Chicago and Evanston, atmospheric turbulence and structural issues associated to asbestos insulation and lead-based paint.

“The college determined it was of their greatest curiosity to tear it down,” mentioned physics and astronomy Prof. Melville Ulmer, who has labored at NU since 1976.

Hynek’s work at LARC didn’t contain UFO analysis, in line with Rodeghier. 

Although Hynek’s hypothesis about extraterrestrial life garnered nationwide consideration, NU administration was not eager on selling it.

In line with the NU Archival and Manuscript Collections’ biography of Hynek, directors turned more and more embarrassed by publicity of Hynek’s work.

“They didn’t provide him additional workplace house for the Heart … once we began, he by no means acquired any grants or something from them,” Rodeghier mentioned. 

Hynek appointed Rodeghier to take over his place as scientific director at CUFOS earlier than he died in 1986, greater than 10 years after the pair met whereas Rodeghier was a CUFOS volunteer and undergraduate astrophysics scholar.

Rodeghier mentioned Hynek was open to the concept of UFOs being extraterrestrial, however was an “old-school conservative scientist” who wasn’t certain aliens might simply get to earth. 

For instance, when the Air Power despatched Hynek to Michigan in March 1966 to research a well-publicized UFO sighting, he concluded the commentary was simply “faculty scholar pranks or swamp fuel.” Former president and then-Michigan U.S. home consultant Gerald R. Ford referred to as Hynek’s clarification “flippant.”

At present, Rodeghier mentioned CUFOS stays firmly on the fence about extraterrestrial involvement with UFOs. 

Nonetheless, he mentioned some sightings are greatest defined because the witness seeing “an intelligently managed object” that’s “not terrestrial.”

“You don’t need to journey sooner than the velocity of sunshine to get right here when you ship automated probes,” he mentioned. “If an (extraterrestrial) civilization developed, they’ve had (a) super period of time to turn out to be superior in applied sciences we will’t dream of.” 

Greater than 35 years after Hynek’s dying, UFO sightings nonetheless happen — Pentagon officers reported tons of of latest experiences final 12 months. Rodeghier mentioned if Hynek have been nonetheless alive, he’d have been joyful to see modern-day optimistic assist for the topic. 

Nonetheless, although he was famend for his work, Hynek by no means took himself too critically. 

Leonard recalled a Highlights of Astronomy class by which an individual who was fully bare, painted inexperienced and carrying an alien masks interrupted the lecture and flopped down the steps in diver flippers. 

The individual approached Hynek the way in which an unfamiliar alien would possibly earlier than taking an image of the late NU professor on a Kodak Instamatic digicam and operating out of the room. 

“Hynek simply burst into laughter,” Leonard mentioned. “Some man’s jerking him round and making enjoyable of Hynek’s affiliation with UFOS — and naturally the little inexperienced males — and Hynek simply took it… He was keen to tolerate a joke that was at his expense.” 

Electronic mail: [email protected] 

Twitter: @JorjaSiemons

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