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The Close Encounters Man

How one man made the world believe in UFOs

Jun. 6, 2017
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Mark O’Connell’s first book is a biography of a larger-than-life astronomer, professor and pioneer of the field known as “Ufology”—J. Allen Hynek. O’Connell, who lives in Fort Atkinson, Wis., has several things in common with his subject. He’s a professor (he teaches a screenwriting class at DePaul University), a Midwesterner (Hynek was born and raised in Chicago) and an individual long fascinated with reports of visitors from other worlds. O’Connell utilized this interest to write several scripts—including episodes of “Star Trek: the Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine”—and gained real world insight by being a field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network, the largest UFO research organization in the world. 

Hynek, bespectacled with a neatly trimmed goatee, a pipe and what his son described as “astro-beatnik” loud neckties, was introduced to what were then known as “flying saucers” in 1948. He at first dismissed these reports as “sheer nonsense” and a “psychological postwar craze,” but was intrigued when, that same year, the Air Force approached him. Hynek was working as the director of the observatory at Ohio State University and was asked to be a consultant for Project Sign—a study of reports of sightings of UFOs and aerial phenomenon. Hynek went on to be a consultant for follow-up studies Project Grudge and Project Blue Book. Over the years, he would go on to travel the world examining cases and interviewing hundreds of UFO witnesses.

“Mr. UFO” would become one of the most familiar experts on the subject, often appearing on television programs and writing his own articles and books on the subject. His first book, 1972’s The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with the title based on Hynek’s classification system for UFO encounters.

O’Connell does a wonderful job bringing Hynek’s career to life in an informative but engaging style. We learn about his life as an astronomer, details on his UFO case studies and his running feud with Carl Sagan. Despite helping found the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Sagan was a critic who dismissed much of the field of UFO research as “pseudoscience.” Sagan disagreed with Hynek regarding the validity of UFO sightings so greatly that the two eventually had a staged debate at a futurism conference in 1975. 

Hynek died in 1986. As O’Connell states in his author’s note prefacing the book, Hynek’s story is one that deserves to be written in the stars instead of stuffed in a filing cabinet in a basement, where O’Connell found much research material for this book. O’Connell’s book is a good step to making that happen.

Mark O’Connell will discuss J. Allen Hynek at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 14, at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave.

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