UFOs in Skies, Photos and Best-seller Lists

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A creative illustration of a UFO in the sky. Credit: Corbis

Earlier this year, Annie Jacobsen's book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base drew groans from skeptics and believers alike, who derided her claim that the infamous 1947 Roswell crash was really a spy plane sent by Josef Stalin, and piloted by “alien-like children” created by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, intended to create a mass panic about an alien invasion.

The story was based entirely on one anonymous source without a shred of supporting evidence, which is not unheard of among UFO reports. UFO enthusiasts who like some documentation with their speculation might prefer journalist Leslie Kean's recent book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record.

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Kean's book topped The New York Times best-seller list — an unusual achievement for a nonfiction book about extraterrestrials. Part of the reason the book has done so well, Kean told Discovery News, is that “I'm trying to be very straightforward as a journalist, laying out what we know based on the official records. Also, many of the chapters were written by other people [including generals and former Arizona governor Fife Symington], and [former White House chief of staff] John Podesta wrote the foreword. … They're not just taking my word for it; the reader gets to actually read what these authorities have to say in their own words.”

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There are many cases in the book — from a UFO sighted over Chicago's O’Hare Airport in 2006 to reports from Brazil and Iran — but one famous UFO incident was solved shortly after the book came out.

The Belgian UFO Photo

It's a famous photo taken April 4, 1990, by a man known only as “Patrick” in the Belgian town of Petit-Rechain. Patrick and a female friend noticed a strange aircraft with four lights hovering in the sky above her home. He took a photo that has been called “one of the most convincing” pieces of evidence for the existence of UFOs.

According to one of Kean's contributors, Maj. Gen. Wilfried de Brouwer of the Belgian air force, a distinguished team of experts analyzed the photograph: “A team under the direction of Professor Marc Acheroy discovered that a triangular shape became visible when overexposing the slide. After that, the original color slide was further analyzed by Francois Louange, specialist in satellite imagery with the French national space research center, CNES; Dr. Richard Haines, former senior scientist with NASA; and finally Professor Andre Marion, doctor in nuclear physics and professor at the University of Paris-Sud and also with the CNES.”

The team came to various conclusions, including that there was no indication of tampering with the slide, and that the lights were positioned symmetrically on the craft. A 2002 reanalysis “using more sophisticated technology confirmed the earlier findings and concluded that ‘the picture was not faked. The experts noted especially that the unique characteristics of the lights are very specific and said such an effect would not occur if the picture was a hoax.’”

In fact, the photographer confessed on July 26, 2011, that he had indeed hoaxed the photograph. The image, which was (twice) deemed authentic by the panel of distinguished scientists and experts, was really of a small piece of triangular Styrofoam spray-painted black with lights attached. The skeptics had been right all along.

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Kean acknowledged that the hoaxing posed a serious problem: “If the guy says it was a hoax, we pretty much have to assume it was. We know that he’s a liar. He either lied the first time, or he's lying now. I'm going to have to assume that he’s telling the truth now, even though there’s some questions about it.” Belgian UFO expert Patrick Ferryn, who appeared in the History Channel show "Secret Access: UFOs on the Record," which was based on Kean’s book, has also concluded that the photo was faked.

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The fact that a UFO photo turned out to be a hoax is nothing new; many have been proven fake. But it raises serious questions about the scientific analysis involved. How could these distinguished Ph.D. experts with decades of experience have been convinced by a piece of painted Styrofoam? And what does that say about other famous UFO photos that have also been “authenticated” by these and other experts?

Kean agrees: “It's a disturbing development, and it shows how hard it is to authenticate a photograph. At the time the book was put together, everyone was relying on what we knew from the labs. As a reporter I'm going to take that information seriously, and de Brouwer certainly took it very seriously, and now the guy comes out [confessing the hoax], so we’re stuck with a serious problem that's still being investigated.” Kean noted, however, that the faked photo is only part of a larger so-called Belgian Wave of UFO sightings that occurred around the same time, and the hoax “doesn’t discount all the sightings that took place.”

The Mysterious 5 Percent

Kean first got interested in UFOs back in 1999, when she received a copy of a French report summarizing two years of UFO evidence analysis. The report, which was not an official government document but included data from more than a dozen retired generals, scientists and space experts, concluded that about 95 percent of UFO reports likely have mundane, prosaic explanations. Yet that remaining elusive 5 percent “cannot be easily attributed to earthly sources” and might be extraterrestrial in origin.

Despite the reluctance of many UFO eyewitnesses and officials to come forward, Kean felt no apprehension about researching the book. “A lot of people talk about being threatened, and the CIA tapping their phones and all that. I think a lot of that stuff is exaggerated among people in the UFO community,” Kean says. Besides, she notes, she's hardly revealing classified information: “I'm really only reporting on information that’s out there; I'm reporting on official information. Anybody can look at the documents and the data. … None of this is top secret information that would be any threat to anybody.”