Interview with Peter Sturrock

by rthieme on December 26, 2000

Interview with Peter Sturrock

RT: What’s your current title?

PS: I am Professor Emeritus of Applied Physics at Stanford University.

RT: And what is your interest in UFO phenomena?

PS: I’m a student. That’s about it.

RT: Was there a moment when your understanding of the phenomena shifted, a contextual shift, a quickening?

PS: No, there wasn’t. It was a fairly gradual trend in my interest. That began when Jacques Vallee came to Stanford for a year to work with me in astrophysics. I didn’t know Jacques Vallee, he had the skill I needed for the work I was doing. I found he had written by then three books on UFOs, so being a colleague of mine, I wanted to read what he had done. Having read that side of the story, then the other side, I spent a long time working through that, many months, and found that the Condon Report did not hold together. There was no Condon Committee, there was a project, never a report signed by a committee, and there‘s a huge difference. The conclusion did not follow from the evidence. The staff were doing a good job, the best they could with a difficult subject they were not used to, and to do that work in eighteen months was asking a lot. So for the time and money available they did a good job, but the way it reads, Condon had no interest in the subject  and did not take the time to study what his own staff had done. His report reflected that. Why he took it on when he had no interest in it is difficult to understand. Anyway, that’s when I began to get interested.

The Colorado Project was a research project that went on for eighteen months. It had substantial financial support and the cooperation of the Air Force. The Pocantico group lasted less than one week, with another meeting for 2-3 days, and that was it. The amount of person-hours was very small at Pocantico compared with the Colorado Project.

To choose the scientists, I reviewed the kind of physical evidence that could be presented and needed to find scientists who could respond to that kind of evidence and evaluate it. I went to people I knew or to people I knew for advice, and when they didn’t work I went to one or two lists of memberships in academies and pulled people out of that list. So it was really finding people who I thought had the competence to respond to certain groups of physical evidence.

RT: There was tension, wasn’t there?

PS: The whole point is that people did not know what was expected, and that was my shortcoming. I did not want to do too much manipulation of what was going on, I wanted to bring together two groups that had not met before and see what happened. That meant that I didn’t explain to them what they were going to find or come up against. The investigators had not had the experience before of having a tough panel. I have had that many times, I’m used to it and know what to expect, you have to be on your toes for that. The panelists had been working with scientists who were well funded, had published work in great detail in scientific journals, and they had never met people who had to do it on their own. They were individuals working without institutional support.

RT: It’s difficult to do the scientific work in an unofficial skunk works without a Boeing around you, isn’t it?

PS: Actually, it can be done. I have a paper coming out soon, an analysis of the Brazil magnesium that figures in the Condon Report. There I got a lot of cooperation from many people, a long list of people I thanked, and one or two played a very important role in the investigation.

RT: What does it reveal?

PS: There is no evidence it’s extraterrestrial. The isotopes are quite normal, but as the Condon Project found out, the impurities are really unusual, so the origin of the magnesium is still a puzzle.

RT: Why do we encounter so much negativity when we try to talk to others about this?

PS: The subject has gotten a bad name so nobody wants to touch it, officially, so therefore there is very little research in normal channels, there is no funding for research, so little gets done, and that reinforces the view that there’s nothing to it. So the attitude of scientists is self-reinforcing. There is nothing to it, therefore no research is done, therefore no results are presented, and that just confirms the point of view that there is nothing to it.

RT: Richard Haines kept going, you keep going. What motivates you? Why are you different?

PS: I think I have simply looked at it more carefully than most of my colleagues. I don’t know anyone who has put anything like the time into it that I have and therefore they don’t have the knowledge that I have.

RT: The phenomena is diverse and complex, but at this point, what is your working hypothesis, your tentative conclusion? What are we dealing with here?

PS: I don’t know the nature of it, but I have an idea of what we’re dealing with – it’s something very complex and really, to understand what’s going on one needs a team of people with very different expertise – a sociologist, FBI people, people who can work with metallurgical evidence, plant evidence, so what I see is a problem waiting to be attacked.

I don’t understand the reluctance of scientists to investigate not only UFO phenomena but all sorts of phenomena, such as parapsychology, cold fusion, and a number of subjects which are off limits to scientists. Scientists put them off limits, and I’m interested in why scientists do that and what these subjects have in common. Then, in the face of that attitude, what could be done if they were to discard that attitude? If scientists could be more scientific, to put it bluntly …

RT: Orthodoxy and heresy. What would be the tipping point? What would it take?

PS: I’m not sure it would happen that way. Things do happen suddenly sometimes, but in astronomy, it’s more gradual than sudden. The idea of black holes were weird forty years ago but there was no one day or one week when opinion suddenly changed, there’s a slow accumulation of evidence.

RT: But that’s a domain that is arcane and you’re habitually thinking beyond the norm, but in this case, the extraterrestrial hypothesis seems a likely hypothesis if nothing more.

PS: One of the problems is, scientists know too much, they know the laws of physics or they think they do and they know the laws of physics prohibit interstellar travel and therefore it can’t happen. If it can’t happen the evidence must be bogus. It’s as simple as that.

RT: Do you work with an “Invisible College?”

PS: You need to have a forum for discussion of what led to my forming the Society for Scientific Exploration.

RT: How do you evaluate Vallee’s thinking at this point?

PS: I really would rather not comment on that. Jacques’ a great friend of mine, we have discussions, I get very good help form him when I am discussing topics like the magnesium analysis. He’s a philosopher trying to fit what he’s learning into a philosophical context. I’m not a philosopher. I’m not competent to comment.

RT: Some compelling cases were presented to panel at the Pocantico. What’s going to happen next?

PS: I hope that somebody else will have another study similar to Pocantico but more extended – a two week or one month workshop or even better something that goes on for a whole year with three or four meetings. One thing that was clear was that to the panel it did not made much sense to discuss physical evidence unless you were also trying to assess the strength of the chain of evidence that produced that physical evidence. That’s an aspect of the subject that they are not qualified to investigate, nor am I, and it wasn’t on the agenda. I think they would agree that if there’s a follow-up it should have experts who are familiar with the collection and assessment of evidence from citizens.

RT: Now, you talk about “this case” or “ this datum” –  when there are many cases. Why not look at the aggregation of data? Why not look for larger patterns?

PS: If there were a longer study, it would make a lot of sense. For instance, Rodigher had a catalog of vehicle interference cases, Haines a catalog of aircraft encounters – it would make a lot of sense to have those catalogs discussed and analyzed.

RT: How about using computers to mine data for patterns? We have the data, but we need to have it in a single data base that can be manipulated consistently.

PS: To some extent, it is. Larry Hatch has produced a catalog. They are classified in various ways. It’s a start. I am sure we could make improvements to that catalog. Weinstein produced an aircraft case catalog. That could be in computer readable form. That would be a big step forward.

RT: What are dealing with here? I am sure you have tentative conclusions. Do you speak those aloud?

No, and I’ll tell you why. If I were to publish material for my scientific colleagues giving a conclusion, then all their energy and intent would be on the conclusion, seeing if that is viable or can be shot down in some way. My real goal is not to sell a solution to the problem because I don’t have one but to see that scientists will take time to study the evidence. The worst thing I could do is say what the answer is and here it is.

Besides, I really don’t know. I’m just open to all possibilities and when I did a survey for the membership of the American Astronomical Society I gave people a list of possibilities for any one case – a hoax, a misperception, a natural phenomena – well known or not well known, known technological object or unknown technological object, from this earth or extraterrestrial. They’re all there.

I’m an astrophysicist and my job is to try to understand what astronomers find. You develop models, and you don’t say, hey, I have the truth to this, you say this, something like a solar flare, is very complex, and I am thinking about the following model and it has certain strengths and certain weaknesses, that’s the way you go about it, you don’t say, this is the truth. I think this is how we ought to go about UFO study as well. OK, one model is, some part of these reports are due to hoaxes, so how would you distinguish those characteristics, can you find some cases. At the other extreme, we think this is spacecraft working by known physical principles, and does that see to fit? Or do we have spacecraft that are going against current laws of physics, what we understand them to be, does that seem to fit? You could probably have even more bizarre possibilities, like time travel. I like building models, I like the subject treated like any other subject. Then there would be groups of people developing models along these lines and then it’s pretty straightforward, you simply see which model fits the data best. You would probably find in this case that there is more than one. Then you have different groups of cases and some cases are experiments and others are some strange natural phenomena and who knows? there may be extraterrestrials. Who knows? I wouldn’t rule it out.

My view is that if there’s going to be a research program, it should start very simply, reviewing well-defined physical evidence or simple cases with abundant witness testimony. I think there’s a lot of evidence that’s simple in nature that could be analyzed without going into elaborate scenarios. I would advocate taking the simple route first.

The catch is, to me, what I would look for in a really significant case is a mixture of strong witness testimony and  multiple physical evidence, is what I would like to see. I haven’t seen that mix. The one case in France, Trans-en-Provence case, had two kinds of physical evidence, soil traces and plant injuries, but the witness testimony was extremely weak, it was just one person.  If you had the kind of witness testimony you had for the Mansfield helicopter case and the kind of physical evidence you had in the Trans-en-Provence case, then you would have something.

If enough scientists were to become interested in the subject or the National Academy were to decide to set up an official study and solicit reports form individuals, that would help and the reports would come in. Nothing like that is taking place today. The nearest thing is a study in France which is not going too well now, I shouldn’t say that, it had done good work for a number of years, Chile I believe is beginning a new study, I don’t know the details. So a country could start their own Blue Book or Gepan and it wouldn’t take a lot.

RT: Robert Schuessler and others think that someone, somewhere, does know answers. Is that a reasonable conclusion?

PS: It’s one that doesn’t interest me in pursuing because I’m not a detective, or filing FOIA requests, or lobbying Congress to release official information. I am just a humble scientist who finds this puzzling information available and would like to make some sense of it and get scientists to pay some attention to it, just using what’s available. there are people who feel we should get the Air Force to release files but I don’t know anything about that.

It may be a reasonable direction to go, but not for me. Depends on your outlook, what your skills are. I would not want to give time to that myself. It doesn’t interest me so I don’t dig into it.

My interest is broader than UFOs. I have learned a lot about science and scientists from my contact with the UFO problem. It makes me question just what we mean by science and what it means to be a scientist. I see scientists behaving unscientifically and this is something I wouldn’t have learned just by doing astrophysics.

The most disturbing aspect of what I see in the scientific community is the herd instinct. the instinct to all group together around a common view and repel ideas and people that don’t fit in. I think that’s bad science.

RT: Yet those same colleagues would probably agree with that statement, yes?

PS: That’s probably true.

RT: But then they would all leave the room mooing …

PS: I think one of the problems in this field is there has not been enough theoretical research. If astronomy were all observations and no one took the time to build up models, you wouldn’t get very far. One of the problems is, because the subject is not taken seriously, not only do we have an inadequate database to work with but we have inadequate theories to work with. Take the extraterrestrial hypothesis. The only articles I have seen was about people in the SETI project based on everyday physics. One needs to develop new theories. Physics has changed a great deal. The physics we used years ago is out of date by now. So it would be interesting to have new studies of what kind of technology is possible based on the kind of physics we now dimly perceive or are working on, what changes would we need in physics to begin to make sense of some of these weird observations that we’ve developed.

RT: Is Paul Hill’s book a good move on that direction?

PS: Paul Hill’s book is a good but very small move in that direction. We need much more effort given by some of the best minds in physics and astronomy in that direction.

RT: And SETI?

PS: I think it’s a good idea, exciting, I would like to see it much broader and the SETI scientists studying UFOs.

RT: How might this all be funded?

PS: In my case, Rockefeller got in touch with me so there was a source of money to do something. If there were a philanthropist who wanted to fund research in this area, then it would happen. What I have in mind is a little NSF, a source of funds for research, something like the NSF that is private money and willing to fund topics that NSF will not fund, not just UFOs but parapsychology, cold fusion, some of the other subjects rebuffed by the SF – or if the NSF were directed to spend 1% of its income in non-traditional research, that would be good. Anytime you go onto a new topic with new thoughts, you’re going to learn something although what you learn might be completely different from what you set out to learn. I think that having things you don’t understand, things that seem crazy, they’re the things worth looking at. That is not the standard view of scientists, which is I’m going to take on a problem I know I can do, know I can publish, know I’ll be believed.  Especially if you haven’t got tenure.

RT: What about abduction phenomena?

PS: I just don’t really get into that. It’s a very complex subject, the question is, is there anything simple I can do that will make a difference? One thing I did was review the Condon Report, another was survey, another was start the society, another was to carry out this study in Pocantico, so I’m just looking at small topics that I can work on and write something about that scientists may find interesting. So far I have not had much luck with my colleagues. You never know. A new generation may come along that will be interested.

I do it primarily for my own interest, I am not expecting applause from anyone, I just feel it’s an interesting subject, I’d like to learn about it,  and I like to learn about science and what is it about science that precludes these studies?

December 26, 2000

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