In the current Times Literary Supplement, Nicholas Gibbs offers what seems at first glance to be a convincing solution to the “mystery” of the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval treatise written in what was long considered a secret code. I’ll leave you to read the details, but the short version is that the characters in the text are not code but are Latin ligatures—like an ampersand—that use artistic representations of letters to stand for a whole word. By reading the ligatures against known examples, and comparing the illustrations to similar examples from known medieval texts, Gibbs was able to translate the manuscript and reveal that it was actually a recipe book for women’s health cures assembled from copied sections of standard medieval medical treatises with illustrations that were often badly copied from these texts and therefore sometimes distorted and confusing. I think it a bit hilarious, if true, that vast conspiracies have been erected atop the supposed secrets of what Gibbs describes as a gynecology manual.
Last week, UFO researcher Jacques Vallée spoke with Alex Tsakiris of Skeptico to discuss the UFO phenomenon and other paranormal topics. While Vallée did not specifically repudiate the work for which he is best known, he continued the gradual shift in his feelings about flying saucers. Vallée has long been an advocate of the so-called ultra-terrestrial hypothesis, whereby UFOs are to be understood as a parapsychological phenomenon originating in human consciousness, but now he is more or less conceding that the only real reason to study UFOs is to use them as a framework for exploring cutting-edge scientific hypotheses that have yet to receive evidentiary support.
“So, among other things,” he said, “the UFO problem is a goldmine for somebody who wants to look at the history of ideas. I mean, you don’t have to take a position for or against UFOs; you just look at the record. […] So, in a way, studying this phenomena (sic) – both parapsychology and the UFO phenomenon – is just a way, it’s a glorious way into what physics is going to be for the next 50 years.” The implication is fairly clear: UFOs aren’t something “real” in any material sense but rather an idea that, by dint of being believed, has become a catalyst for new theories to help investigate their non-existence. In this, I am reminded of Hermeticism and alchemy in the Early Modern period. Neither was “true” in the modern scientific sense, but the effort to try to prove that Hermes really existed helped to develop new historiographic methods that eventually disproved him, just as the effort to explore the material world with Hermetic alchemy sparked new scientific methods that eventually disproved alchemy.
Vallée is in some ways an alchemist of sorts. I have previously criticized his attempt to explore the “UFO phenomenon” on the grounds that there is no evidence that such a “phenomenon” is anything more than the creation of modern Western culture, a myth imposed on unusual but unrelated events, ranging from lights in the sky to night terrors to cattle predation. In this, I am reminded of the Greco-Roman effort to impose the myth of the Giants onto the real world, interpreting unrelated pieces of physical “evidence,” ranging from geological formations to ancient stone walls to Ice Age mammal bones, as proof of Giants. So far, there is no reason to suspect differently of UFOs, but Vallée believes he can transmute lead into gold by generating proof of the “phenomenon” from the application of quantum physics to claimed UFO “evidence.” To that end, Vallée says that he has “quietly” been researching quantum entanglement in order to understand the “things left behind after UFO encounters.”
Vallée said that he has collected pieces of metal claimed to have fallen from UFOs and had them analyzed in a mass spectrometer owned by a company that he finances as a venture capitalist. “I’m pretty well connected with the high-tech community, including one company that I financed as a venture capitalist,” he said. Vallée claims that the metal shards contain a ratio of isotopes that is “100% off” from readings of Earth-based iron, and significantly different from meteoric iron. Vallée cautioned that the results are “very preliminary” but declared them “fascinating.” While he described working with engineers who built the mass spectrometer, he did not mention working with geologists, chemists, or physicists in order to understand the results in the context of what is known about terrestrial and extraterrestrial materials. There are several reasons to be cautious, none more than the fact that Vallée did not actually collect the samples himself; rather, three pieces of metal were sent to him by unnamed individuals in France who claimed to have witnessed UFOs. The allegation that the metal came from a spacecraft is therefore dependent on the trust that we place in three unnamed French witnesses.
I’ll be honest: I don’t get the awe and reverence with which Vallée is held in the UFO community. Perhaps it is because I have dug through his work and found a pattern of misrepresentation, misunderstanding, and fakery. Perhaps it is because I am not impressed by a French accent and helmet of hair. More likely it is because I wasn’t alive in the 1970s when he was famous enough to inspire a character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and to substitute for Rod Serling in UFO documentaries after Serling’s death. Tsarkiris says “Dr. Jacques Vallée is an almost mythical figure among those interested in UFOs.” But my problem is that Vallée has been researching this topic since the middle 1960s and has nothing to show for it. He has spent my entire lifetime and nearly all of my parents’ lifetimes searching for the truth about UFOs, and all he has to show for it is a very French postmodern hypothesis that UFOs are a psychological projection of an interdimensional reality, which in fifty years he has supported with nothing resembling evidence that is (a) accurate and correct and (b) sufficient to convince a skeptical observer to reject the null hypothesis.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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