1,600 cases; France puts three decades of archives online
by Allison Hanes, National Post
Monday, April 09, 2007-For three decades, an arms length branch of France's national space agency quietly gathered reports of strange apparitions in the skies over the republic, from bright lights zig-zagging in the dark night to calls about flying saucers.
A small team of investigators dutifully probed each sighting, and either reached a logical conclusion, or consigned it to enigma.
Now, after decades under lock and key in dusty filing cabinets, France went public with its "X-Files" late last month. The Centre national d'etudes spatiales decided not only to declassify more than 1,600 cases, but to scan each official page and post it online for all to see.
"When the site went live, it was hit by so much traffic it went down almost immediately," said Chris Rutkowski, a co-ordinator for the Winnipeg-based Ufology Research Centre, noting the popularity of the project.
With more than 100,000 documents the archives of GEIPAN, the Groupement pour l'etude et l'information sur les phenomenes aerospatiaux non indentifier, contains official police reports, statements by witnesses to bizarre scenes -- even colourful hand-drawn diagrams resembling children's artwork.
Each incident has been slotted into one of four categories: definitely solved, likely solved, unsolved for lack of sufficient information or unsolved mystery. More than half -- 58% -- of the phenomena investigated by the experts remain unexplained while just 9% have been definitely figured out.
For example, when two farmers in Royan came across a 50-centimetre metal cylinder in a field in 1985, GEIPAN launched a thorough investigation that involved contacting NORAD about satellite orbits and missile tests. It was finally determined the two men had discovered a piece of Nazi-era war machinery left behind when the Third Reich retreated.
An explanation was more elusive when GEIPAN inherited a case that had taken place 11 years before the body's creation.
Two children out herding cows in Cussac in 1967 came upon a sphere hovering over a field with little black beings running around underneath. The strange creatures were sucked into the sphere headfirst, which then flew away moving in an upward spiral pattern.
The frightened children ran home crying to tell their parents, who summoned the gendarmerie. The adults who returned to the scene remarked a strong odour of sulphur that lasted for days as well as burn marks on the grass five metres in diameter.
France is not the first country to peel back the layers of bureaucratic secrecy often surrounding the official study of bizarre phenomenon -- though it is the first to make its data so universally accessible.
The vault of the national Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa contains information from five different departments on UFO sightings and investigations in Canada, although the bulk of it can only be consulted in person. Britain's Ministry of Defence released a chunk of information last year and Sweden, Italy and Chile have made some data public.
While many governments have kept their UFO research under wraps or simply denied its existence, France has released "absolutely all" of its collection to the masses for the sole purpose of furthering science.
Jacques Patenet, who oversees GEIPAN for the French national space program, is quick to emphasize the distinction between studying unidentified flying objects in the literal sense of the term and the stigmatized pseudoscience of UFO visitors from outer space.
Most sightings are simply lights dancing in the sky, he said in a statement posted on the space agency Web site, adding he is hopeful the release of the data may yield new meteorological or astronomical discoveries.
"Scientists must absolutely separate the UFO file from the paranormal," he said. "It's an subject of inquiry like any other. At GEIPAN, we regularly collect observations from tangible facts brought to our attention by witnesses in good faith and we attempt to explain what happened. In the cases where hypotheses elude us, we want to call on scientists to help and make all our investigative reports available to them to study."
The material is the motherlode for UFO research, said Mr. Rutkowski, and it will be interesting to see if countries like the United States and Russia follow France's lead.
"In terms of real verification of data, or well-investigated, high quality data, there are very few other examples," he said.
Chris Matzner, a physics professor at the University of Toronto, said he sees the online archives being good public relations aimed at piquing the curiosity of the general public or arousing the interest of school children.
"It's an interesting cultural phenomenon if nothing else," he said.
Marc Nantel, a physicist at the Ontario Centres of Excellence, said he doubts there is much of strategic or scientific value to be learned in the GEIPAN archives.
"To me what this says is that the French government [agency] said: 'This isn't worth anything. Let's give the people bread and circus.' "
But to those who actually believe there may be proof of alien life contained in France's files, the opening of the archives is a "breath of fresh air," in the words of one Canadian enthusiast.
"It's not right to lie to people and if we are in fact being visited by beings from other worlds, should anyone be able to keep this information from us?" Nick Balaskas of Toronto said.
© National Post 2007
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