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The American Culture Underlying UFOs – Chris Impey

Chris Impey posits some reasons why American culture has led to a unique fascination with UFOs.
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Hello, my name is Chris Impey. I’m a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. I wanna talk to you about UFOs, in particular, their cultural implications. UFO, of course, is an acronym for unidentified flying object, so it simply means it’s something you don’t know what it is in the sky. It doesn’t necessarily mean that aliens are visiting the Earth. However, nearly half of the American public does believe in polls by Gallup and others that aliens have visited the Earth in the distant past or even recently, and that number is actually going up over time. So there’s a widespread belief in UFOs as alien visitations, which is certainly an interesting phenomenon to explore.
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Ground zero for UFOs is Roswell in 1947. Just after the Second World War and on the cusp of the Cold War, a UFO was cited in New Mexico, in the desert, and it caused a storm of other sightings and a few other, and the idea that the government was hiding information at a military base in New Mexico. Within a year or so, declassified information showed that this sighting was almost certainly a weather balloon at the time that deflated and came to Earth. But that didn’t stop the conspiracy theories from taking hold that got to the point of speculating that the American government was hiding deep-frozen aliens at a medical or military facility in a New Mexico desert.
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That was the start of a phenomenon that’s been going for almost 80 years. It’s interesting that the United States is the epicenter of the UFO phenomenon. Although it is a worldwide phenomenon, it seems to be singularly American in some ways. You can look at maps of UFO sightings around the world and also timelines. In a world map, the sightings mysteriously decline precipitously at the Canadian and Mexican borders, which doesn’t make sense. There’s a lot of people that live across the border, and they should be able to see them too.
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You also have countries like Brazil or Russia, where there’s almost as much population as the United States and as large as the United States, which have very few UFO sightings compared to the US. In time, starting in 1947, with the iconic episode of Roswell, the sightings are not random either. There are spikes of UFO sightings historically at times of major events in the space program. For example, the launch of Sputnik or the Apollo Moon landings, or the Mariner, the first object we sent to Mars.
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That’s nothing to do with seeing these objects; they were not visible to the naked eye, so clearly something is going on where people are thinking of looking in the sky, thinking of things going on in space, speculating about life in space, and they’re imagining they see things. That’s the only plausible explanation for these timelines. When astronomers have the vital information of the time, the date, and the angle in the sky of a UFO sighting, most of the time they can identify with mundane phenomena. Venus, in particular, is the single most common explanation for UFO. Others include fireballs, meteors, the Space Station going overhead or weather balloons.
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In fact, most UFOs, when there’s enough information to identify them in time and place, have a mundane explanation like that. That doesn’t mean they all can be explained that way but the vast majority. On a larger scale, in the US situation, science literacy is low, and UFO belief may be part of this problem. Belief in UFOs is actually slightly lower than belief in Bigfoot, but it’s slightly higher than belief in ghosts and in spirits. Americans believe in a lot of supernatural and unphysical phenomena, so UFOs are part of this landscape of belief. So I think UFOs are essentially a cultural phenomenon, not a scientific phenomenon, especially in the United States. And it’s easy to see why.
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Just look at the popular culture. Look at our history of decades of films and TV shows and series that project us into space that talk about visits from aliens. These are mass entertainment. You don’t have to be a science fiction fan to have seen the movies of Spielberg and others. So I think UFOs as a cultural phenomena is embedding them in the psyche of Americans. And since I used Spielberg as an example, there’s even a religious metaphor that can attach to this. “ET,” for example, is a literal retelling of the Christ story with an alien in the place of Christ. If you go through the movie scene by scene, episode by episode, it is the Christ story.
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And Spielberg does something similar in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” So I think aliens have become a kind of religious, iconic tradition in the United States where essentially their stand-ins for salvation by the other or damnation by the other. Aliens could save us or could destroy us. Maybe what’s really going on is that we now know we live in a vast and inhospitable universe, and really what we are is yearning for companionship.

The United States still continues to be the epicenter of the UFO phenomenon.

Chris Impey, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, posits some reasons why American culture has led to a unique fascination with unidentified flying objects.

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