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Are We Alone? Somewhere, the Truth Is Out There

Phenomenons: With academics, books, TV shows, movies--even a major highway--devoted to the subject, it's clear UFOs have a firm grip on the public's imagination.

July 03, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alien beings descend on Earth in miles-wide spacecraft this week as "Independence Day" hits theaters, but Alvin Lawson is figuring on business as usual.

No flood of calls like there was back in the 1970s. No hysteria. Just the current one or two calls a week to his UFO hotline, a telephone answering machine in his Garden Grove home. Lawson, a retired Cal State Long Beach English professor, has been studying UFOs in Southern California for nearly 25 years.

"Independence Day," with its dark vision of visitors from outer space, will no doubt leave moviegoers compelled to cast a wary eye skyward. But, if past experience is any indicator, they won't be reporting more unidentified flying objects out there than usual.

"A movie like 'E.T.' was a grand movie, but after that came out people weren't crowding onto my phone line to report things," says Lawson of the 1982 film. Studies--including one by the U.S. Air Force--have found no evidence that media coverage or entertainment spurs UFO sightings. "Whenever there is a big surge in reports," Lawson says, "it's been around a series of sightings or after a major sighting."

The Mutual UFO Network, one of several private organizations that keep track of such information, receives about 300 reports a year of UFO sightings nationwide that cannot be explained. The network estimates that about 10 of the unexplainable reports a year are based on sightings in the skies over Southern California.

Over the years, the region has had its share of "significant" sightings. What are considered some of the best UFO photos ever taken were snapped with a Polaroid camera in 1965 by an Orange County road maintenance inspector in Irvine. In the '70s, a Marine pilot saw mysterious balls of light following his plane and another observational plane over San Diego County; an observer on the ground also saw the lights. The occurrence remains unexplained.

Lawson started his hotline in 1973, during the last great wave of UFO sightings when thousands of people across America reported seeing unidentified flying objects. That first year he received more than 400 reports--the easily explained and prank calls included--from throughout Southern California.

Now, his UFO Report Center of Orange County is listed in only one local phone book; Lawson is retired and no longer investigates reports. But the currently low number of calls to his UFO hotline is not what's important, he says: "The interesting thing is it hasn't gone away."

Indeed, nearly 50 years after the press coined the term "flying saucers" to describe the nine disk-shaped objects pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing streaking through the sky over the state of Washington in 1947, UFOs continue to maintain a firm grip on the public's imagination.

The U.S. Air Force initiated Project Blue Book in 1952, a program in which it investigated about 12,000 UFO reports. In the late '60s, the Air Force commissioned a team of University of Colorado scientists to conduct an independent study of the UFO reports. Team leader Edward U. Condon concluded that further study of UFOs was not justified and agreed with the Air Force that UFOs did not threaten national security.

Many in the UFO research community were critical of his conclusions, saying they did not reflect what the report actually said: that the phenomenon appeared genuine and that more than 30% of the investigated cases could not be explained. Still, Condon's report led to the cancellation in 1969 of Project Blue Book.

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But UFO investigations have continued in the private sector, with the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a 5,000-member international organization based in Seguin, Texas; the Chicago-based Center for UFO Studies; and a host of smaller groups looking into alleged sightings. The 200-member Los Angeles MUFON chapter has its own UFO hotline ([818] 450-MUFON).

Today, some 300 academics in the United States are studying UFOs, says David M. Jacobs, an associate professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia. For the past 18 years, Jacobs has taught a class at Temple called UFOs and American Society.

Over the past five decades, at least 1,000 books, ranging from vanity publications to those from major publishing houses, have been written on the subject in the United States. Magazines and journals include the Journal of UFO Studies, International UFO Reporter and scores of smaller ones. UFO buffs now have Web sites on the Internet. And TV's "Sightings," "The X-Files," "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Paranormal Borderline" explore the subject.

In a humorous vein, "3rd Rock From the Sun," a farce about aliens sent to Earth to study human behavior, was one of NBC's biggest hits last season. And this fall NBC will launch "Dark Skies," an hourlong thriller.

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