Jacques Vallée still doesn’t know what UFOs are

On a white restaurant tablecloth in San Francisco, under the glow of a domed ceiling of stained glass with images of laurels, fleur-de-lis and a ship, rested a portion of metal the size of a shallot. Around her, three men were having lunch one day in the summer of 2018. Jacques Vallée, a French computer scientist, was explaining to Max Platzer, editor-in-chief of a major aeronautical journal, how the metal had come into his possession. The story goes back more than four decades, he says serenely, to an unexplained episode in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

On a cold Saturday evening in late 1977, firefighters and police responded to calls for a rounded, reddish object with flashing lights hovering above the treetops in a public park, then dumped a luminous mass on the ground. When investigators arrived at the scene, they found a 4ft by 6ft puddle of metal, molten like lava, which ignited the surrounding grass before cooling. A total of 11 people from four separate groups gave similar accounts of the incident.


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A piece of that puddle now lay inches from Platzer’s plate. The mystery, Vallée said, was where the material originally came from. Metallurgical analyzes from the time showed that it was composed mostly of iron, with traces of carbon, titanium and other elements – essentially, a scrambled steel alloy of what looked like cast iron. It couldn’t have been satellite debris or equipment falling from a plane, Vallée pointed out; these would not have gotten hot enough to melt, and they would have dug into the ground. Nor could it be, for the same reasons, a meteorite. And there wasn’t enough nickel for a meteorite anyway.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue. Subscribe to WIRED.Illustration: Jules Julien

Could a hoax have poured the metal into place? Unlikely, Vallée said. This would have required an industrial furnace, as well as a means of transporting the molten material. Canvassing local metallurgical companies had yielded nothing. Thermite was a possibility; it burns hot enough to melt steel and would not produce a crater. But to create the cast iron-like material that Platzer saw in front of him, the author would have had to soak the puddle, and the water would have frozen, and there was no ice on the scene.

Vallée thought metal deserved a look with the latest technology. This is where the third man at the table came in.

Garry Nolan, who now eats a burger, was a professor of pathology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His specialty was the analysis of cells, particularly cancer and immune cells, but some of his techniques also worked on inorganic matter. His equipment could, for example, analyze a sample of metal at the atomic level, telling you not only what elements it contains, but also what variants, or isotopes, of those elements, and where they are inside the sample. . This, in turn, could offer clues to where the material was made – on Earth? somewhere else ? – and perhaps even its purpose.

Platzer was not one to expect to attend a UFO luncheon. He cut his teeth working on the Saturn V rocket, the launch vehicle that carried humans to the moon, and taught for three decades at the Naval Postgraduate School. But he had inquired about these two men. Nolan’s reputation was “impeccable,” he told me later, and Vallée’s was “exceptional.”

Vallée, who is now 82, has celestine eyes, a strong nose and a head of sterling hair that seems to riff on tinfoil hats. Beneath the rare hair lies a rarer spirit. His memories of a six-decade career as a scientist and technologist include helping NASA map Mars; creation of the first electronic database for heart transplant patients; work on Arpanet, the ancestor of the internet; developing networking software that has been adopted by the British Library, the US National Security Agency and 72 nuclear power plants around the world; and guiding over $100 million in high-tech investments as a venture capitalist.

Vallée’s longtime Rolodex contacts praise his “seriousness” (Federico Faggin, inventor of Intel’s first commercial microprocessor) and his “weightlessness” “no BS” (Paul Saffo, technology forecaster); they point out that it “keeps the balance” (Ian Sobieski, chairman of the Band of Angels investment group) and is “not a showboat, on the contrary!(Paul Gomory, headhunting director); they assure you that he is “very cautious” (Peter Sturrock, plasma physicist) and “wants concrete” (Vint Cerf, Internet Hall of Famer and Google VP). However, under this sober exterior, we will also say, beats “the heart of a poet” (again Saffo).

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