Science Revealed explores how we talk about UFOs | University time



Faced with “unidentified flying objects”, what identifications do we tend to give them?

It all depends on the time, said history faculty member Elizabeth Archibald, one of the panelists for the upcoming public lecture in the Science Revealed series, “UFOs and the Stories We Tell About Them,” from the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.

This free April 7 event (register here: also features panelists from multiple science departments, addressing how humans persist in attributing extraterrestrial architects to ancient human feats of science. ‘engineering ; how our brains deal with the prospect of extraterrestrial life; the probability that a resident of an exoplanet could visit here; and the recent U.S. government publication on UFOs.

Archibald said there have been reports of UFOs – mysterious happenings in the sky – as long as there have been reports of anything, including the Middle Ages (his specialty). They are generally interpreted according to the tenor of the time: as demons or astronomical phenomena or simply the weather.

She will explain how “we see people’s mental frames” when we see beyond these explanations and what drives humans to “create explanations for the unexplained”.

Many medieval chronicles may begin by recording that the king died and the harvest was poor this year, but just as often they record wonders. In ninth-century France, for example, Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons during the reign of Charlemagne’s successor, complained that the locals feared that Magonia spaceships would descend to steal their crops. Thus, people paid enchanters to ward off the Magonians. Although this is no more or less than a protection racket, Archibald said, “It’s really unclear what (Agobard) is condemning” – people’s belief in various forms of magic or the fact that irreligious practices were needed to keep UFOs at bay.

It’s also unclear where people thought these UFOs came from, given their idea that the universe consisted of the sun and a few planets that all revolved around the Earth.

“Sometimes, as a historian,” she says, “people ask me, ‘What do people believe in the past?’ It’s hard to answer, because there are never safe generalizations. There was a range of beliefs then, Archibald admits, just as there is a range of beliefs today.

“Whatever natural phenomena people may have observed, science can sometimes point us to an explanation (today),” she said. When a medieval chronicle reported that it had rained blood, for example, it was probably the red dust of the Sahara Desert that even today pours down with precipitation over parts of Europe.

“But as a historian,” Archibald said, “that kind of explanation interests me less than the explanation that people provide from their cultural context.”

Marty Levine is an editor for the University Times. Join it at or 412-758-4859.

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