Happy Birthday, Hysterics! The Roswell Incident Turns 60

You may nothave noticed (but only if you've been living in a hermetically sealed shippingcontainer). This month is the sixtieth anniversary of what's politely termedthe Roswell incident.

That incidentunfolded like this. In July, 1947, New Mexico sheep rancher William Brazelshowed up at the Roswell Army Air Field with some unusual debris in the bed ofhis 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 boilerabout a crashed, alien spaceship. The plot line is simple: extraterrestrialscame to visit, and accidentally destroyed their craft. The remains wereefficiently collected and perfectly hidden by a government paranoid aboutsecurity. According to the die-hard believers, the feds, even now, aren'twilling 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 garneredmore 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 toten experts made by the Fortean Times web site, Roswell was mentioned only onceas a "most interesting UFO case." And that single mention was offeredby Stanton Friedman, who, as the greatest proponent of the Roswell story,certainly has a dog in the fight.

Well, I don'tthink aliens had anything to do with what took place at Roswell. There's goodand compelling evidence that what was in play in 1947 was a secret governmentresearch program to develop technology for detecting Soviet nuclear tests. So Iwon't delve here, and yet again, into the sticky thicket of claims and counterclaimsregarding what happened. That path has been beaten down to a trench.

Inaddition, adding my voice to the Roswell roar doesn't seem to help: I amperversely proud to note that, according to a poll recently conducted by oneCanadian web site, I am less reliable on this subject than the Easter Bunny. Ididn't lose this vote by a hare either – the vote was five to one against me. (Inote, however, that Mr. Bunny's list of published opinion on Roswell is thin.) Inaddition, having written about this before, I've learned that doing so is likeriding a bronco in your shorts – it's just a guaranteed way to set yourself upfor pain. Frankly, every time I voice some skepticism about claims of alienvisitation, I am promptly, and inevitably, rewarded with a flood of abusivee-mail.

Nonetheless,the incident remains iconic. So let me point out something that, frankly, Ifind strangely comforting.

Roswell was, supposedly, a situation inwhich an alien craft came who-knows-how-many light-years to visit Earth beforethe 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 caron the garage door as you pull into the driveway). Debris was recovered, as werealien bodies. And yet, strangely, even after 60 years, the consequences of thisshort-circuited social call by a culture able to bridge interstellar distancesare? zilch.

Well, notentirely zilch. The incident has been a boon to its articulate proponents, totelevision, and to the Roswell economy (indeed, for that small and friendly,but otherwise unremarkable city, the saucer smashup 70 miles outside of townhas become a "crash cow").

But really,what significant effect has it had? An historical analogy might serve to givescale. 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 aboutwhether Spaniards had happened upon their world? Was that still controversial? Acontemporary, Bartolome de Las Casas, wrote in A Brief Account of theDevastation of the Indies about what changed on the archipelago of islandsthat, at the time of Columbus' arrival, "were densely populated withnative peoples? [with Hispaniola] perhaps the most densely populated place inthe world." By 1542, a half-century later, de Las Casas wrote that "Wecan estimate very surely and truthfully that in the? years that have passed,with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slainmore than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe withouttrying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteenmillion."

The effectof the encounter was not subtle, and sixty years after Columbus, the Indiansweren't arguing on late-night radio about whether they'd been visited. And that'snot just because they didn't have radio.

Well, inthe more-than-half-century since Roswell, we still seem to be here with ourlives and economy intact. If there's been any effect from an alienface-to-face, it's too subtle for me.

Asrebuttal, some people claim that I'm wrong; that there really is a noteworthyaftermath to Roswell. Namely, that the military has reverse-engineered thedebris, producing all sorts of strategically important technologybreakthroughs. That, at least, would be significant. However, the idea, tobegin with, is about as plausible as talking dogs. Could the Roman legions, apretty successful military in their own right, reverse-engineer your laptop? Theywere, after all, only two thousand years behind us, and were humans to boot.

Butplausible or otherwise, what's the evidence that we've in any way benefitedfrom 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 figuredout the grays' engineering secrets, that fact would be reflected in thisimportant category of hardware. Well, it won't surprise you to hear that ourmilitary 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 wasgradual, except for a bit of a jump as soon as the Nazis developed jet planes.Of course, that was before Roswell.

What aboutsome new astronomy or physics? Have we learned anything there? Is there somestriking 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 toany alien guests who, intent on visiting the Land of Enchantment, proved thatthey should never have been given a driver's license.

OK, let theabuse begin.

  • UFO Mysteries
  • The Roswell Incident
  • Ten Alien Encounters Debunked

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Seth Shostak
Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

Seth Shostak is an astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, who places a high priority on communicating science to the public. In addition to his many academic papers, Seth has published hundreds of popular science articles, and not just for Space.com; he makes regular contributions to NBC News MACH, for example. Seth has also co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology and written three popular science books on SETI, including "Confessions of an Alien Hunter" (National Geographic, 2009). In addition, Seth ahosts the SETI Institute's weekly radio show, "Big Picture Science."