Let me tell you about the time I saw a UFO.

During my first year of graduate school, I took a trip to southern New Mexico. The first stop was to the UFO museum in Roswell (very disappointing). When that was a bust, the next stop was to a nearby wildlife refuge. While looking for cranes in a wetland, I happened to glance up into the sky. That’s when I saw the UFO. Most UFO sightings (and purported alien craft sightings) are a strange light in the sky or a fuzzy object in a photograph. What I saw was a fairly large, crisp, black, irregular shape hovering in the sky. As I stared at it, it changed shape continuously over the course of several seconds.

In stunned silence, I tried to make sense of what I saw. It didn’t look like any plane or bird I had ever seen, and I was sure it wasn’t some kind of optical illusion. I was completely unable to explain what I was looking at, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was some kind of alien spacecraft. (Having nothing to do, I’m sure, with just having been to the UFO museum.) I stared for what seemed like minutes but in reality must have just been a few seconds. Spoiler alert: just a few seconds later, I figured out what I was looking at. But things could very easily have gone a different way. I could have run back to my car to tell the press. The object could have moved behind a cloud or a mountain. I could have fainted from the excitement. Any number of things could have prevented me from getting to the end of the story. If that had been the case, I would be left only with a strange, unexplained experience. Many people who experienced similar, strange phenomenon that are unexplained at the time go on to fill in the details on their own, forgetting that the “U” in “UFO” stands for “Unidentified.” “Unidentified,” of course, means that you don’t know what it is. Sometimes people will go on to conclude that what they saw was, for example, an alien space craft, and go on to attribute complex motivations to its purported crew and race. I hope it is obvious that you can’t start by admitting that you don’t know what something is, and then conclude that you know exactly what it is without adding additional information.

Back to the story. As I continued to watch in dumbfounded silence, the changing, irregular shape began to coalesce into a more recognizable form. I suddenly realized that I was looking at some type of stealth fighter, in the middle of a banking turn. It was flying away from me, which was why it appeared to be hovering, and it was turning, which caused the profile to change shape. The irregularity of the shape was due to the odd angle I was viewing it from, and the already odd shape of the aircraft. The “U” in “UFO” had just turned into an “I” for “Identified.”

The moral of this story isn’t necessarily about UFOs. (Though neither is it necessarily NOT about UFOs.) The moral of this story is more broadly to cautiously resist drawing conclusions about things until you have sufficient information to know what’s going on.

In my story above, I easily could have never figured out what really happened. Had that been the case, I would have been left only with a strange experience that I couldn’t explain. And I would have been wise to leave it at that. You may have had similar stories of your own, whether resolved or unresolved, and you will probably have more in the future. When you do, try to maintain a healthy skepticism about what it is you’re seeing. Be more interested in finding out what really happened than in having an answer. Seeking the truth means that sometimes you have to put the conclusion on the back burner until you get more information. Until then, it’s okay not to have an answer.


About Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

I have a Ph.D. in biology and a passion for sharing my knowledge and understanding of the natural world with anyone who will listen. At a time where science is permeating public life more than ever, it is especially important that the public understand what science is, and how its findings intersect with their own lives. In addition to the more practical benefits of scientific literacy, I believe strongly that understanding the natural world enriches peoples lives. The man behind the curtain is not me — it is the real world, which we can discover through science, and it is beautiful. Let me show it to you.  Follow me on twitter @CGEppig. View all posts by Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

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