Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Close Encounter with a Prominent Celestial Phenomenon

I was a faithful member of the Columbus Astronomical Society. The time was the mid-1950s. I was 12 or 13 years old. The third Saturday of every month was the day for amateur observing at the McMillan Observatory on the Ohio State campus. On one such Saturday it was raining cats and dogs in the afternoon. Nonetheless, I took my trusty bicycle and rode from my home on the south side of Columbus to Ohio State University, which was far away on the north side. On arriving at the observatory I met two men, who were huddled over a calculator. They told me, naturally, that observing with the telescope was cancelled that night. I asked them what they were doing. They told me they had been making observations of a particular star and they were doing calculations that night to confirm that the star had the greatest apparent motion of any star that had thus far been observed. They wished me well in my study of astronomy. One them was, he said, J. Allen Hynek. See biographical note . For years -- until today – I thought I had met James A. van Allen, the discoverer of the Van Allen Belts, who just died. See NYTimes obituary. I’m glad to see that J. Allen Hynek had a distinguished career of his own. In addition to teaching at Harvard for a few years (after leaving Ohio State University) and becoming the head of the astronomy department at Northwestern University (in 1960), Hynek became become a prominent (and reputable) investigator of UFOs and was a consultant for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. See 1985 interview.

Does this story about my brush with fame have anything to do with evidence or the law of evidence?

Probably not. But perhaps -- with some effort -- it could serve as an object lesson about the frailty of human memory -- and then about our ability to uncover evidence that nonetheless gets the historical story straight.
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