The Living Force
After six globe-trotting decades spent probing “the phenomenon,” the French information scientist is sure of only one thing: The truth is really, really out there
ON A WHITE restaurant tablecloth in San Francisco, under the glow of a stained-glass dome ceiling with images of laurels, fleur-de-lis, and a ship, rested a portion of metal the size of a shallot. Around it, three men were having lunch one day in the summer of 2018. Jacques Vallée, a French information scientist, was explaining to Max Platzer, editor of a top aeronautics journal, how the metal had come into his possession. The story wound back more than four decades, he said serenely, to an unexplained episode in Council Bluffs, Iowa.On a cold Saturday night in late 1977, firefighters and police had responded to calls about a roundish, reddish object with blinking lights that hovered above the treetops in a public park, then dumped a bright mass onto the ground. When investigators arrived on the scene, they found a 4- by 6-foot puddle of metal, molten like lava, that lit the surrounding grass on fire before cooling. All told, 11 people from four separate groups gave similar accounts of the incident.A piece of this puddle was now sitting a few inches from Platzer’s plate. The mystery, Vallée said, was where the material came from originally. Metallurgical analyses at the time showed that it consisted mostly of iron, with traces of carbon, titanium, and other elements—basically, steel alloy scrambled to what looked like cast iron. It couldn’t be satellite debris or equipment falling from a plane, Vallée pointed out; those wouldn’t have gotten hot enough to melt, and they would have cratered the ground. Nor, for the same reasons, could it be a meteorite. And there wasn’t enough nickel for a meteorite anyway.
Could a hoaxer have poured the metal in place? Unlikely, Vallée said. That would have required an industrial furnace, plus some way of transporting the molten material. A canvassing of the local metal businesses had turned up nothing. Thermite was a possibility; it burns hot enough to melt steel and wouldn’t produce a crater. But to create the cast-iron-like material that Platzer saw before him, the perpetrator would have had to douse the puddle in water, and the water would have frozen, and there was no ice on the scene.
Vallée thought the metal deserved a look with the latest technology. This was where the third man at the table came in.
Garry Nolan, now eating a burger, was a pathology professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. His specialty was analyzing cells, especially cancer and immune cells, but some of his techniques worked on inorganic matter too. His equipment could, for instance, parse a metal sample at the atomic level, telling you not only which elements it contained but also which variants, or isotopes, of those elements, and where inside the sample they occurred. This, in turn, could offer clues as to where the material was manufactured—on Earth? elsewhere? —and possibly even its purpose.
Platzer was not the sort you’d expect to attend a lunch about UFOs. He made his bones working on the Saturn V rocket, the launch vehicle that conveyed humans to the moon, and he taught for three decades at the Naval Postgraduate School. But he had made inquiries into these two men. Nolan’s reputation was “impeccable,” he told me later, and Vallée’s was “outstanding.”
Vallée, who is 82 now, has celestite eyes, a strong nose, and a head of sterling hair that seems to riff on tinfoil hats. Beneath the rare hair is a rarer mind. His recollections from a six-decade career as a scientist and technologist include helping NASA map Mars; creating the first electronic database for heart-transplant patients; working on Arpanet, the internet’s ancestor; developing networking software that was adopted by the British Library, the US National Security Agency, and 72 nuclear power plants around the world; and guiding more than a hundred million dollars in high tech investment as a venture capitalist.
Contacts from Vallée’s long-term Rolodex praise his “seriousness” (Federico Faggin, inventor of Intel’s first commercial microprocessor) and “no-BS” “level-headedness” (Paul Saffo, tech forecaster); they emphasize that he “keeps balance” (Ian Sobieski, chairman of the investment group Band of Angels) and is “not a showboat, au contraire!” (Paul Gomory, executive headhunter); they assure you that he is “very careful” (Peter Sturrock, plasma physicist) and “wants concreteness” (Vint Cerf, Internet Hall of Famer and Google VP). Yet beneath that sober exterior, they may also say, beats “the heart of a poet” (Saffo again).
Vallée has written 12 books on what he and others call “the phenomenon,” the range of surreal experiences that includes UFO encounters. He considers the work a hobby and shrinks from the pseudo-archeologists, credentialed grifters, and conspiracy bros who tend to populate the field. There are beaucoup de bozos in this clown car, and Vallée is a cautious driver. As he sees it, the phenomenon represents both a scientific and a social frontier. When you study it, you must harness numbers, databases, pattern-hunting algorithms—but you must also have an ethnographic streak, an interest in how culture molds understanding. You have to endeavor, in other words, to weigh both hard and soft data, despite the modern scenario “where the physics department is at one end of the campus and the psychology department at the other end.”
Vallée’s papers, entrusted to Rice University, will ultimately include files on some 500 anomalous events that he has personally investigated, from the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill on US Route 3 to a landing that paralyzed a farmer in a Provençal lavender crop. Yet he likes to joke that he is the only ufologist who does not know what UFOs are. He doubts that they are interstellar SUVs—would be disappointed if they were. The truth, he believes, is almost surely freakier than that, more baffling, and more revealing of the nature of the universe. This is why, long ago, when Steven Spielberg consulted him for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Vallée pushed against the final scene, in which the aliens emerge from their spaceship. Too proscriptive, he thought. Spielberg memorialized Vallée as the film’s French scientist character, played by François Truffaut, but he went with the meet-and-greet ending. It appears to have been what the public wanted: Close Encounters beat out Star Wars at the box office just days after the Council Bluffs incident.
Platzer considered himself neutral on the subject of UFOs. “One has to be very careful in saying that certain things are impossible, because they became possible,” he told me. Think of, you know, the airplane. Reputable science journals like his had always avoided the subject, in a tacit, shared embargo that extends to subjects like flat-Earth doctrine. But Platzer felt that solid experimentation was in order. He agreed to publish Nolan and Vallée’s research if it passed peer review. “It’s time,” he said.
Whatever is behind the UFO phenomenon, Vallée says, “it’s a lot smarter than we are, and it uses humor at another level.” PHOTOGRAPH: CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK
VALLÉE’S ARRIVAL ON Earth, in 1939, coincided with a flash—Nazi bombs falling on the suburbs of Paris. His mother was a space exploration enthusiast. His father was a criminal court judge, “used to human testimony in all its colors.” Vallée was never bored as a child. He collected telescopes and gazed at the moon and Jupiter. In 1954, during a three-month wave of flying-saucer sightings in France and Italy, he clipped all the stories with witness interviews and pasted them into a notebook for rereading.
The following spring, when Vallée was 15 years old, he met the phenomenon on a clear, windless Sunday. He was up in the attic helping his dad with some woodworking while his mom was gardening outside. She screamed—he raced downstairs. He saw a gray disc silently parked above the town’s Gothic cathedral. Vallée’s best friend watched it from higher ground through binoculars. “We were the perfect little nerds!” he told me. “I got him to draw it. It was the same thing.” Vallée’s dad was sure the boys and his wife had seen a military prototype—an explanation his son almost swallowed.
Perfect little French nerds weren’t, of course, the only types applying themselves to the UFO question in the ’50s. In the US, the Air Force had set up a public study called Project Blue Book. In Switzerland, the psychiatrist Carl Jung was finding himself “puzzled to death” by flying saucers. In his book on the subject, he likened UFOs to a “technological angel” or a “physicists’ miracle.” They were shaped like mandalas, he wrote, and seemed to have a similar effect on our psyche—a “symbol of wholeness” that appears in “situations of psychic confusion and perplexity.”
Vallée went to the Sorbonne to study math. One day, in a Paris department store, he picked up a book called Mystérieux Objets Célestes, by the philosopher Aimé Michel. In ufology at the time, the vogue was for nonfiction that borrowed from pulp’s plots about civilizations on Venus and Mars; against it, Célestes put forward the field’s first testable hypothesis. According to Michel, if you charted all those 1954 sightings on a map, you’d find that they made straight lines crisscrossing the country. He called the pattern “orthoteny.”
Vallée, thrilled to see a proper theory, sent the author a letter. The teenager questioned whether humans could communicate with these hidden intelligences, which Michel had termed “X.” In his reply, Michel said that he did not have much hope of that. He reminded Vallée that witnesses had seen craft appear out of thin air and shape-shift in split seconds. How could one make sense of visions like that? “Don’t be fooled by the idea of ‘getting to the bottom of things,’” he urged. “That’s only a mirage.” Vallée should instead cultivate his mind as if it were a flower—though he should also remember that “the poppy is a flower” and not get lost in any intoxicating notions.
The advice landed. Vallée began writing a novel called Le Sub-espace, about a team of scientists who flee a world war on Earth, get set up in a lab on the dark side of the moon, and build a machine that allows them to explore alternate realities while dodging “hallucinatory traps.” He published the book under a pseudonym and, under his own name, worked toward a master’s in astrophysics. And he married Janine Saley, a like-minded soul who had trained to be a child psychologist but later switched to IT. (She had moved into the student housing next to his, and through the thin wall they realized that they loved the same records.)
The year Vallée graduated, Le Sub-Espace won the Jules Verne Prize. Despite the honor, awarded at the Eiffel Tower, he kept his sci-fi interests semi-secret. He worked as an astronomer for the French government, based out of a château turned observatory near the capital, where a whining IBM 650 computed the orbits of satellites out in stables once used by the king’s mistress.
Then, in 1962, Vallée took another astronomy job, this time in Austin, Texas. He appreciated the big oaks, big butterflies, and big cars, and learned, he says, that a good scientist is like a rider on the rodeo circuit, with the nerve to reembark on the bull. (He has signed off emails to me “Hook ’em up! Etc.”) But he was also feeling ready to chuck a perfectly fine career in astronomy for what he expected would be a more interesting life in computers—and mysterious celestial objects.
The following year offered the perfect opportunity: J. Allen Hynek, the chair of Northwestern University’s astronomy department, found him a job programming for the school’s Technological Institute. Hynek was also the scientific adviser on Project Blue Book, the US Air Force’s UFO probe. Vallée, barely 24, with a helmet of brunet hair, would serve as Hynek’s unofficial aide-de-camp.
“THERE ARE IN France more real philosophers than in any country on Earth; but there are also a great proportion of pseudo-philosophers there,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to a friend in 1803. A Gaul’s “exuberant imagination” often “creates facts for him,” the president and gentleman scientist went on, “and he tells them with good faith.”
Earlier that year, the French minister of the interior had sent Jean-Baptiste Biot, a young physicist, to investigate reports of a fireball and a hail of rubble over the town of L’Aigle, in Normandy. The Academy of Science was split over how to explain this phenomenon: Did the stones, as Descartes believed, originate in the atmosphere? Were they, as others thought, disgorged by volcanos or zapped from the ground by lightning strikes? Or were the stones, perhaps, strangers to our planet?
Biot was among a growing fringe that pushed the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Unusually for the time, he traveled to the area to collect his own data. Even more unusually, he spoke to regular folks (“citizens,” in the French Revolutionary argot) about what they had seen. Biot categorized the evidence he collected as either physical (stones, craters) or “moral” (people’s testimony).
According to witnesses, the rocks “broke off a branch of a pear tree,” impacted a meadow so deeply that water welled up, and came “whistling into the courtyard of the presbytery,” bouncing “more than one foot high.” At “a thatched cottage outside the village,” Biot wrote, “I found a peasant of the area who held one in his hands.” The man’s wife “had picked it up in front of their door.” Taken together, the physical and “moral” evidence made the reality of meteorites impossible to deny, at least for those who took the time to read Biot’s report. (Jefferson apparently did not.)
In Chicago, Vallée’s new mentor, Hynek, wanted a UFO event like L’Aigle. He wanted unimpeachable photography or something he could hold in his hands. In meetings of the Invisible College, the discreet ufology club the Vallées hosted at their apartment, he would say, “We have to wait for a really good case to show up.” But Vallée argued that scientific discoveries don’t usually happen that way. Understanding tends to come into view slowly, he said, after methodical study. They shouldn’t wait around for some sensational event that might never happen. They should be gathering every scrap of available UFO data—hard and soft—and truffling out the patterns in it. Solving for that unknown x.
Around the time the Vallées’ first child, a son, was born, the couple compiled a digital database of what they deemed credible UFO observations; it was populated with hundreds of reports from Project Blue Book in the US and thousands more they collected from Europe. Vallée was among the first to bring computers, statistics, and simulations to bear on the phenomenon. One of the things these tools taught him was that orthoteny, the pattern Michel discovered, occurred purely by chance.
Vallée spent 1964 pushing his son’s stroller along Lake Michigan, programming a model of the cardiovascular system for Northwestern’s medical school, pursuing a PhD focused on artificial intelligence, and polishing his first UFO tome, Anatomy of a Phenomenon, in which he argued that witnesses were a rich trove of data and should be taken seriously by scientists. (He eventually designed a classification system that accounted for how credible the source was, whether the site had been examined by investigators, and what possible explanations for the incident might be.) But Vallée was wary of coming off as some loud-and-proud “missionary”: He did not allow his publisher to mention on the dust jacket that he worked for Northwestern, and he refused to aggressively promote the book. Vallée recalls that Carl Sagan wrote to him admiringly about Anatomy, but balked when the ufologist asked whether he could extract a book blurb from the letter. As one UFO-friendly physicist told me, “You have to pay attention to your political situation as a scientist.”
In 1966, under pressure from Congress, the Air Force convened a panel of civilian scientists to decide whether the UFO question warranted further research. The committee was led by Edward Condon, an esteemed nuclear and quantum physicist. As Vallée recalls it, he and Hynek were the first to testify. (Afterward, Vallée watched Condon nap through Hynek’s press conference.) After 18 months and 59 cases sussed, the Condon Committee concluded that study “probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced.” Its opinion was endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences and published as a 965-page mass market paperback with a foreword by the science editor of The New York Times.
Long before that book was printed, the Vallées split for Paris in disgust.
VALLEÉ RESIDES IN San Francisco but keeps a pied-à-terre in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter of the French capital. On one of the afternoons, I spent there with him, over coffee and éclairs, he showed me a lithograph of a 16th-century engraving, which he’d spotted in the window of a nearby seller and “had to have.” It depicted an encounter, around 350 years earlier, between St. Francis and a heavenly seraph.
“St. Francis Receives the Stigmata,” 1567. PHOTOGRAPH: HERITAGE IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES
Francis was filled with both joy and pain by the experience. In the engraver’s interpretation, the angel emits a beam of light that brands him with stigmata. Those details remind Vallée of a wave of UFO activity in Brazil in 1977, shortly before the Council Bluffs incident. Victims reported being hit by powerful light beams from boxy craft. Dozens of them, he says, had burns consistent with exposure to radiation
We were in the same part of town that his family had moved to in 1967, when Vallée took a job at Shell. On computers in a basement off the Champs-Élysées, he had built balletic databases that anticipated how much and what kind of gas the French would guzzle in cars, trucks, boats, and trains as they set upon the Côte d’Azur for holidays. That spring, as civil unrest swept France and much of the population went on a general strike, his second child, a daughter, was born. There was chaos, and clarity.
The Condon Report had exposed how the UFO question tended to alternate between two poles: Either you believed that these phenomena were mirages created by bizarro natural events or tricks of human perception (ball lightning, weather balloons), or you believed that UFOs were nuts-and-bolts ships piloted by extraterrestrial starfarers.
Vallée found himself in neither camp. His Jung-accented sense of the phenomenon told him it was more than nuts and bolts. Something about it spoke to people on the level of mythology, engaged their psyches. Reports of sixth-sense experiences, like clairvoyance, were the norm. He hoped that science would eventually begin to explain all this—would explain what kind of technology, from what place, could generate such physical, mental, even spiritual effects. A 3D hologram with mass? A 5D object going through our 4D universe? The psychic equivalent of a film projector, capable of showing one person Bambi and another Godzilla?
And the shallot-sized lump of metal from Council Bluffs? It was made of isotopically ordinary elements, atypically mixed together. The Progress in Aerospace Sciences paper, which was published in December 2021, was never meant to be “a breakthrough about what UFOs are,” Vallée told me. It wasn’t meant, L’Aigle-style, to pummel an entire town with rocks. It is “a template,” he said, “for what serious UFO research could be in the future, if one plays by the rules.” He and Nolan are now studying samples for potential follow-up papers. “You have to open the door first, before you can bring in the packages,” he said.
Whatever the scientific truth here is, Vallée suspects that it may be knotted up with the secret of consciousness itself. The thing that philosophers call qualia—the conscious experience each human has—seems to be more than the sum of our physical parts. There’s an unsolved x there. Vallée’s friend Federico Faggin, for one, argues that consciousness is a basic property of nature, that the dimensions we call spacetime are in fact byproducts of some deeper reality. Maybe UFOs, Vallée suggests, are that reality welling up into ours.
When he read Mystérieux Objets Célestes for the first time, as a teen, Vallée wrote in his diary, “I will probably die without seeing any solution to this immense problem.” A decade later, after watching the moon landing, he copied down a line from Jung’s Alchemical Studies, about how life’s biggest problems “can never be solved, but only outgrown.” It’s still a long way to a place like the Museum of the L’Aigle Meteorite in Normandy, where dark fragments of a proven reality rest, like truffles, under a glass dome.