Proponents of the theory that aliens from outer space crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in June of 1947 were encouraged by the recent extravagant efforts of the Pentagon to prove a fraud. In a press conference on June 25, 1997, military officials explained the event as the collapse of a weather balloon filled with mannequins. Even more counterproductive was the Air Force’s attempt to persuade the Roswellians that a creature they saw, with a bulbous head and odd eyes, was a certain Captain Daniel Fulgham, with a bandaged head and face swollen from injuries he was to receive in a balloon flight twelve years later. This would be like the archbishop of Canterbury using Charles Laughton to disprove the existence of Henry VIII.
It seems suspicious that the year 1947 should have seen so many unsettling events in the United States: tornadoes in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas killing 167 persons; a ship explosion destroying most of Texas City; the death of eighty Northeasterners in a blizzard; and the singing debut of Margaret Truman with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. At least the Pentagon did not pretend that all of these were mannequins. The only earthling who has the authority to tell the full truth of the Roswell enigma is the president of the United States, who at the time of the sightings was an infant in Arkansas, which was the only state where nothing occurred on the day of the crash. Nor can we feel reassured by the knowledge that his Vice President was born exactly nine months after the alleged extraterrestrial invasion. They were elected for a second term by 43 percent of the voters, almost exactly the portion of Americans who believe that a UFO arrived in New Mexico.
Coming at a time when the military is demoralized by scandals involving gender issues, a controversy about Martians can only test nerves that are already raw. Sexual preference is a hot enough topic without introducing planet preference. For this reason I am almost loathe to point out that the Roswell crash occurred on the tenth anniversary of the death of the philanthropic Boston banker, Charles Hayden, for whom the Hayden Planetarium in New York is named. The Roswellians, who prudently impute superior intelligence to strangers, might become more exercised to learn that Hayden was born in 1870; for in that year, John and Isaiah Hyatt patented celluloid, which, while intended by them as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls, was part of that balloon material the Air Force claimed landed in Roswell.
Like Captain Fulgham, the unswollen Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) once was mistaken for an extraterrestrial being. The reason is riveting. In the third book of his Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, he describes the astronomers on the flying island of Laputa discovering two moons of Mars. The description exactly fits the two satellites Deimos and Phobos, which were not discovered until 151 years later by Asaph Hall (1829-1907), who was professor of mathematics at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Hall’s corroboration of Swift in August of 1877 led some fantasyists to conjecture that Swift had used privileged information from another natal planet.
One more intriguing coincidence attaches to the discovery of the position of the planet Neptune simultaneously in 1846 by John Couch Adams (1819-1892) in England and Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier (1811-1877) in France, each working independently. Both relied on calculations based on the perturbations of Uranus, which was discovered on March 13, 1781, by the father of sidereal science, Sir Friederich Wilhelm Herschel (1738-1822), who described the existence of the motion of binary stars.
There is a warning in this. Herschel first named Uranus after George III: “Gerogium Sidus.” The king’s own fondness for stargazing was surpassed only by his interest in clocks, and he became increasingly obsessed with both as his porphyritic dementia worsened. His court began to suspect that he might be one sandwich short of a picnic on that fatal day in 1788 when he got out of his carriage in Windsor Park and began to speak to an oak tree, under the mistaken impression that it was his cousin, the king of Prussia.
Armed with this information, the people of Roswell, and the officials of the Pentagon, and the American taxpayers should draw a veil over the whole scene in New Mexico until some distant time when the full facts may reveal themselves. Poor King George had no such rational option. He spent his last days at his harpsichord, playing incessantly what Shelley in his Epipsychidion would call music “sweet as stops of planetary music heard in a trance.”