Josef Allen Hynek (May 1, 1910 – April 27, 1986) was an American astronomer, professor, and ufologist. He is perhaps best remembered for his UFO research. Hynek acted as scientific advisor to UFO studies undertaken by the U.S. Air Force under three consecutive projects: Project Sign (1947–1949), Project Grudge (1949–1952), and Project Blue Book (1952–1969).
In later years he conducted his own independent UFO research, developing the “Close Encounter” classification system. He is widely considered the father of the concept of scientific analysis both of reports and especially of trace evidence purportedly left by UFOs.
Hynek was born in Chicago to Czech parents. In 1931, Hynek received a B.S. from the University of Chicago. In 1935, he completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Yerkes Observatory. He joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Ohio State University in 1936. He specialized in the study of stellar evolution and in the identification of spectroscopic binary stars.
During World War II, Hynek was a civilian scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where he helped to develop the United States Navy’s radio proximity fuze.
After the war, Hynek returned to the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Ohio State, rising to full professor in 1950. In 1953, Hynek submitted a report on the fluctuations in the brightness and color of starlight and daylight, with an emphasis on daytime observations.
In 1956, he left to join Professor Fred Whipple, the Harvard astronomer, at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which had combined with the Harvard Observatory at Harvard. Hynek had the assignment of directing the tracking of an American space satellite, a project for the International Geophysical Year in 1956 and thereafter. In addition to over 200 teams of amateur scientists around the world that were part of Operation Moonwatch, there were also 12 photographic Baker-Nunn stations. A special camera was devised for the task and a prototype was built and tested and then stripped apart again when, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched its first satellite, Sputnik 1.
After completing his work on the satellite program, Hynek went back to teaching, taking the position of professor and chairman of the astronomy department at Northwestern University in 1960.
Evolution of opinion on UFOs
In response to numerous reports of “flying saucers”, the United States Air Force established Project Sign in 1948 to examine sightings of unidentified flying objects. Hynek was contacted to act as a scientific consultant to Project Sign. He studied UFO reports and decided whether the phenomena described therein suggested known astronomical objects.
When Project Sign hired Hynek, he was skeptical of UFO reports. Hynek suspected that they were made by unreliable witnesses, or by persons who had misidentified man-made or natural objects. In 1948, Hynek said that “the whole subject seems utterly ridiculous,” and described it as a fad that would soon pass.
For the first few years of his UFO studies, Hynek could safely be described as a debunker. He thought that a great many UFOs could be explained as prosaic phenomena misidentified by an observer. In his 1977 book, Hynek admitted that he enjoyed his role as a debunker for the Air Force. He also noted that debunking was what the Air Force expected of him.
Change of opinion
Hynek’s opinions about UFOs began a slow and gradual shift. After examining hundreds of UFO reports over the decades (including some made by credible witnesses, including astronomers, pilots, police officers, and military personnel), Hynek concluded that some reports represented genuine empirical evidence.
Another shift in Hynek’s opinions came after conducting an informal poll of his astronomer colleagues in the early 1950s. Among those he queried was Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the dwarf planet Pluto. Of 44 astronomers, five (over 11 percent) had seen aerial objects that they could not account for with established, mainstream science. Most of these astronomers had not widely shared their accounts for fear of ridicule or of damage to their reputations or careers (Tombaugh was an exception, having openly discussed his own UFO sightings). Hynek also noted that this 11% figure was, according to most polls, greater than those in the general public who claimed to have seen UFOs. Furthermore, the astronomers were presumably more knowledgeable about observing and evaluating the skies than the general public, so their observations were arguably more impressive. Hynek was also distressed by what he regarded as the dismissive or arrogant attitude of many mainstream scientists towards UFO reports and witnesses.
Early evidence of the shift in Hynek’s opinions appeared in 1953, when Hynek wrote an article for the April 1953 issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of America titled “Unusual Aerial Phenomena,” which contained what would become perhaps Hynek’s best known statement:
Ridicule is not part of the scientific method, and people should not be taught that it is. The steady flow of reports, often made in concert by reliable observers, raises questions of scientific obligation and responsibility. Is there …any residue that is worthy of scientific attention? Or, if there isn’t, does not an obligation exist to say so to the public—not in words of open ridicule but seriously, to keep faith with the trust the public places in science and scientists?
In 1953, Hynek was an associate member of the Robertson Panel, which concluded that there was nothing anomalous about UFOs, and that a public relations campaign should be undertaken to debunk the subject and reduce public interest. Hynek would later lament that the Robertson Panel had helped make UFOs a disreputable field of study.
When the UFO reports continued at a steady pace, Hynek devoted some time to studying the reports and determined that some were deeply puzzling, even after considerable study. He once said, “As a scientist I must be mindful of the lessons of the past; all too often it has happened that matters of great value to science were overlooked because the new phenomenon did not fit the accepted scientific outlook of the time.”
In a 1985 interview, when asked what caused his change of opinion, Hynek responded, “Two things, really. One was the completely negative and unyielding attitude of the Air Force. They wouldn’t give UFOs the chance of existing, even if they were flying up and down the street in broad daylight. Everything had to have an explanation. I began to resent that, even though I basically felt the same way, because I still thought they weren’t going about it in the right way. You can’t assume that everything is black no matter what. Secondly, the caliber of the witnesses began to trouble me. Quite a few instances were reported by military pilots, for example, and I knew them to be fairly well-trained, so this is when I first began to think that, well, maybe there was something to all this.”
Regardless of his own private views, Hynek was, by and large, still echoing the post-Ruppelt line of Project Blue Book: There are no UFOs, and reports can largely be explained as misidentifications.
Hynek remained with Project Sign after it became Project Grudge (though he was far less involved in Grudge than he had been in Sign). Project Grudge was replaced with Project Blue Book in early 1952, and Hynek remained as scientific consultant. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, Blue Book’s first director, held Hynek in high regard: “Dr. Hynek was one of the most impressive scientists I met while working on the UFO project, and I met a good many. He didn’t do two things that some of them did: give you the answer before he knew the question; or immediately begin to expound on his accomplishments in the field of science.”
Though Hynek thought Ruppelt was a capable director who steered Project Blue Book in the right direction, Ruppelt headed Blue Book for only a few years. Hynek has also stated his opinion that after Ruppelt’s departure, Project Blue Book was little more than a public relations exercise, further noting that little or no research was undertaken using the scientific method.
Hynek began occasionally disagreeing publicly with the conclusions of Blue Book. By the early 1960s—after about a decade and a half of study—Clark writes that “Hynek’s apparent turnaround on the UFO question was an open secret.” Only after Blue Book was formally dissolved did Hynek speak more openly about his “turnaround”.
By his own admission, the soft-spoken Hynek was cautious and conservative by nature. He speculated that his personality was a factor in the Air Force keeping him on as a consultant for over two decades.
Some other ufologists thought that Hynek was being disingenuous or even duplicitous in his turnaround. Physicist James E. McDonald, for example, wrote to Hynek in 1970, castigating him for what McDonald saw as his lapses, and suggesting that, when evaluated by later generations, retired Marine Corps Major Donald E. Keyhoe would be regarded as a more objective, honest, and scientific ufologist.
It was during the late stages of Blue Book in the 1960s that Hynek began speaking openly about his disagreements and disappointments with the Air Force. Among the cases about which he openly dissented with the Air Force were the highly publicized Portage County UFO chase, in which several police officers chased a UFO for half an hour, and the encounter of Lonnie Zamora, a police officer who reported an encounter with a metallic, egg-shaped aircraft near Socorro, New Mexico.
In late March 1966 in Michigan, two days of mass UFO sightings were reported, and received significant publicity. After studying the reports, Hynek offered a provisional hypothesis for some of the sightings: a few of about 100 witnesses had mistaken swamp gas for something more spectacular. At the press conference where he made his announcement, Hynek repeatedly and strenuously stated that swamp gas was a plausible explanation for only a portion of the Michigan UFO reports, and certainly not for UFO reports in general. But much to his chagrin, Hynek’s qualifications of his hypothesis were largely overlooked, and the term swamp gas was repeated ad infinitum in relation to UFO reports. The explanation was subject to national derision.
In his reply dated October 7, 1968, to a request for scientific recommendations regarding Blue Book from Colonel Raymond Sleeper, commander of the USAF Foreign Technology Division, Hynek noted that Blue Book suffered from numerous procedural problems and a lack of resources, which rendered its efforts “totally inadequate”. Hynek also noted that one wag had bestowed upon Blue Book the epithet of “Society for the Explanation of the Uninvestigated”.
Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS)
Hynek was the founder and first head of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). Founded in 1973 in Evanston, Illinois (but now based in Chicago), CUFOS advocates for scientific analysis of UFO cases. CUFOS’s extensive archives include valuable files from civilian research groups such as NICAP, one of the most popular and credible UFO research groups of the 1950s and 1960s.
Speech before the United Nations
In November 1978, Hynek presented a statement on UFOs before the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of himself, Jacques Vallée, and Claude Poher. The speech was prepared and approved by the three authors. Their objective was to initiate a centralized, United Nations authority on UFOs.
UFO origin hypotheses
At the MUFON annual symposium in 1973, held in Akron, Ohio, Hynek first expressed his doubts regarding the extraterrestrial (formerly interplanetary or intergalactic) hypothesis, in a speech titled “The Embarrassment of the Riches”. He was aware that the number of UFO sightings was much higher than was reflected in the Project Blue Book statistics. “A few good sightings a year, over the world, would bolster the extraterrestrial hypothesis—but many thousands every year? From remote regions of space? And to what purpose? To scare us by stopping cars, and disturbing animals, and puzzling us with their seemingly pointless antics?”
In a paper presented to the Joint Symposium of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics in Los Angeles in 1975, he wrote, “If you object, I ask you to explain—quantitatively, not qualitatively—the reported phenomena of materialization and dematerialization, of shape changes, of the noiseless hovering in the Earth’s gravitational field, accelerations that—for an appreciable mass—require energy sources far beyond present capabilities—even theoretical capabilities, the well-known and often reported E-M (sc. electro-magnetic interference) effect, the psychic effects on percipients, including purported telepathic communications.”
In 1977, at the First International UFO Congress in Chicago, Hynek presented his thoughts in his speech “What I Really Believe About UFOs”. “I do believe”, he said, “that the UFO phenomenon as a whole is real, but I do not mean necessarily that it’s just one thing. We must ask whether the diversity of observed UFOs …all spring from the same basic source, as do weather phenomena, which all originate in the atmosphere”, or whether they differ “as a rain shower differs from a meteor, which in turn differs from a cosmic-ray shower.” We must not ask, Hynek said, simply which hypothesis can explain the most facts, but rather which hypothesis can explain the most puzzling facts.
Regarding hypotheses of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and extradimensional intelligence (EDI), Hynek continued, “There is sufficient evidence to defend both”. As evidence for the ETI hypothesis, he mentioned the cases involving radar as good evidence of something solid, as well as the cases of physical evidence. Then he turned to defending the EDI hypothesis: in addition to the observations of materialization and dematerialization, he cited the “poltergeist” phenomenon experienced by some people after a close encounter; the photographs of UFOs, sometimes in only one frame, and not seen by witnesses; the changing of form in front of witnesses; the puzzling question of telepathic communication; that in close encounters of the third kind, the creatures seem to be at home in Earth’s gravity and atmosphere; the sudden stillness in the presence of the craft; levitation of cars or people; and the development by some of psychic abilities after an encounter. “Do we have two aspects of one phenomenon or two different sets of phenomena?” Hynek asked.
Finally, he introduced a third hypothesis. “I hold it entirely possible”, he said, “that a technology exists, which encompasses both the physical and the psychic, the material and the mental. There are stars that are millions of years older than the sun. There may be a civilization that is millions of years more advanced than man’s. We have gone from Kitty Hawk to the moon in some seventy years, but it’s possible that a million-year-old civilization may know something that we don’t… I hypothesize an ‘M&M’ technology encompassing the mental and material realms. The psychic realms, so mysterious to us today, may be an ordinary part of an advanced technology.”
In Hynek and Vallee’s 1975 book The Edge of Reality, Hynek published a stereoscopic photograph of a UFO he took during a flight. According to the book, the object stayed in sight long enough for Hynek to unpack his camera from his luggage and take two exposures. UFO researcher Robert Sheaffer writes in his book Psychic Vibrations that Hynek seemed to have forgotten the photographs when he later told a reporter for The Globe and Mail that he had never seen a UFO. The article states that in all the years he had been looking upward, Hynek “has never seen ‘what I would so dearly love to see. Oh, the subject has been so ridiculed that I would never report a UFO even if I did see one—not without a witness'”.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
In his first book, Hynek published the “Close Encounter” scale that he had developed to better catalog UFO reports. Hynek was later a consultant to Columbia Pictures and Steven Spielberg for the popular 1977 UFO movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, named after a level of Hynek’s scale. He made a non-speaking cameo appearance in the film (at the end of the film, after the aliens disembark from the “mother ship”, he can be seen, bearded and with pipe in mouth, stepping forward to view the spectacle).
Hynek and his wife, Miriam (Curtis) had five children. Hynek’s son Joel is an Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor. He oversaw the design of the camouflage effect for the movie Predator, and won the Best Visual Effects Oscar for his work on What Dreams May Come.
On April 27, 1986, Hynek died of a malignant brain tumor, at Memorial Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 75 years old, and was survived by his wife Mimi, children Scott, Roxane, Joel, Paul, and Ross, and his grandchildren.
The UFO Experience: A scientific enquiry (1972) ISBN 978-1-56924-782-2
The Edge of Reality: A progress report on the unidentified flying objects, with Jacques Vallée (1975) ISBN 978-0-8092-8150-3
The Hynek UFO Report (1977)
Night Siege—The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings, with Philip Imbrogno and Bob Pratt (1987)
UFO Fact or Fiction – circa 1970