Part I of my conceptual review of "Anomaly - A Scientific Exploration of the UFO Phenomenon" by Daniel Coumbe


Here we review in two parts, in a style that is most certainly not palatable to the stressed-out readership of our day, Anomaly – A Scientific Exploration of the UFO Phenomenon by theoretical particle physicist Daniel Coumbe (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

Somehow a book published in 2023 has landed in my lap, in 2022. Well, of course there’s no real mystery, for despite what is printed on the first few leaves of the text, the book has appeared in late 2022 (October, I believe). Perhaps the publishers need to start populating their 2023 list…

This is one of those books that seem to be both timely, and to have emerged almost from out of nowhere—entering the scene quietly, but impactfully all the same. This is a book that should be standard reading for anyone just coming to the study of the UFO phenomenon, and part of what I want to do here is to explain exactly why that is. But I also want to review some of what’s in this rather short (one might even say terse) text, to highlight what’s new, what’s perhaps missing, and what’s questionable—or at least debatable (that is, in my view).

First, about the author, Daniel Coumbe.

Coumbe is perhaps the kind of person who you want to be involved in at least the scientific study of the phenomenon. He’s a PhD in theoretical physics who ended up at the prestigious Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, after having held a number of research and teaching positions at various universities in the U.S. and elsewhere. He seems to be no longer officially listed at the Institute, but rather at its host university, the University of Copenhagen (at least according to his ResearchGate profile—something one is never sure is exactly up-to-date).

Taking a look at his publications reveals a rather mainstream theoretical physicist interested in some of the most foundational and fundamental questions physical theory faces today. And that means that he looks into foundational questions at the frontiers of high-energy and gravitational physics, which places his thinking in the realm of what they call quantum gravity. This is just a kind of label that denotes an open area of intense research around the question of the compatibility of our best theory of gravity—Einstein’s general relativity (or GR)—with our most sophisticated theory of matter, which is dictated by quantum field theory (or QFT). Einstein’s theory imposes certain demands upon the behavior of matter and energy in space and time (or “spacetime” as physicists like to say), whereas QFT dictates the exact behavior of it according to a very specific—and puzzling—equation of motion. Because of the peculiarities of quantum mechanics, the quantum equations of motion for particles and fields (matter and energy) don’t straightforwardly evolve in spacetime itself. Rather, one must talk about a more abstract representation space—the “configuration space”—where the basic object (the quantum mechanical “wave” equation) lives. But what is gravity itself? Is it a matter field of some kind? Is it more like the electromagnetic (EM) field, which we describe in terms of fundamental particles (photons) mediating the exchange of energy between the EM field itself and other things (as when a radar wave bounces off a seemingly solid UAP)? If you try to subsume gravity under quantum field theory along these lines, you get a theory that doesn’t make any sense, and which isn’t well behaved at all. Why is this, and why can’t you simply turn gravity into a kind of quantum-gravitational field theory of matter? I said simply … the trick can in some abstract sense be done, but the results are far from simple or straightforward. The research area of “quantum gravity” offers various (often incompatible) proposals for how to resolve the problem. Often this entails reconceiving the problem itself.

This is all meant to say that Coumbe is perhaps exactly the right kind of theoretical-scientific mind you want taking a crack at the UFO enigma. He is expert in our best theory of matter and our best theory of space and time, which is provided by the Einstein theory of gravity. Space, time, and matter are perhaps the most elementary and therefore the most important theoretical concepts we have in physics today. Whatever the UAP are doing when they hop around at Mach 30+ like it was no big deal, they are doing it with an understanding of space, time and matter which we likely don’t have (I mean it’s possible GR alone can crack the motion mystery, but it’s probably not as simple as that, as several in my fundamental theory group are beginning to think). Or else something much more bizarre is in play. Coumbe is the kind of thinker who will try to apply conventional thinking to the problem of the physics of UAP, but who is open and clever enough to realize that we may (emphasis on ‘may’) be faced with phenomena that cannot easily fit within existing theoretical frameworks. He’s going to know what it takes to make the case for trying to step outside the parameters of current physics, for example, since that’s often what one must contemplate when working on the problem of quantum gravity as he does. But what about stepping outside the boundaries of current science as such? This is a much more subtle problem. It’s a possibility to which many in the UFO world are attracted. And it’s something that Coumbe only briefly addresses. So to this extent, Coumbe’s text might disappoint some of the more, shall we say, wide-ranging minds taken by the UAP enigma.

We have to start somewhere in an effort to understand the phenomena, however enigmatic they are. Even if we must end up abandoning our current theoretical paradigms (in physics or elsewhere), or potentially edge towards the true edge of science itself, it must start with a clear, a crystal clear, characterization of the problem(s) we face. And what we really must appreciate here is that paradigm change, whenever it does happen, does not often do so intentionally, or as such—as a “paradigm shift” highlighted in the minds of the scientists and thinkers involved in its development. Rather—and this is a fundamental point I must stress—it happens for specific reasons, in specific contexts, for certain specific problems undertaken in the context of an existing theoretical framework. Paradigm shifts are grass-roots phenomena: bottom-up, not usually top-down. Or at least the proposal for thinking about a specific problem or question in a new way is done against how such is conceptually structured with existing concepts. It starts with a concrete problem, and ends with the elaboration of a more abstract conceptual scheme within which to situate the problem anew. And that process of elaboration is where a new paradigm begins to take shape.

So the question is: where do we begin with the UAP enigma?

We most certainly should not begin by insisting that UAP must be so anomalous as to necessarily demand a Kuhnian paradigm shift. In practical concrete terms, paradigms must be made to fail, in specific ways, for specific problems—rooted in empirical data and the evidence of experience. We must drive our theories to the point of failure by attempting to appropriate the UAP phenomenon within existing frameworks. Then we see what happens.

So we have to start with the empirical data itself, and the experiences of those involved in a UFO encounter. This is the root of any science. The most basic question, then, is: so just what is the empirical data and the evidence of experience? How should we evaluate it, and what is it telling us? Enter Coumbe’s text: Anomaly: A Scientific Exploration of the UFO Phenomenon.

It is surely not the first such text to engage in a “scientific exploration” of the phenomenon. There have been many such texts which have attempted something of a purely scientific survey of and engagement with the evidence for the phenomenon. One thinks of Vallée’s early texts (very carefully “nuts & bolts” oriented) Anatomy of A Phenomenon (1965) and its sequel Challenge To Science: The UFO Enigma (1966). J. Allen Hynek’s seminal study The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (1972) brought the topic to a much wider audience, and introduced a system of classification and evidentiary evaluation for UFO encounters (something found in Vallée’s early work as well). The culmination of these scientific explorations has to have been the book which presented the findings of a panel convened in the late 1990s by the distinguished Stanford University scientist Peter Sturrock, called The UFO Enigma: A New Review of the Physical Evidence, published in the year 2000. So Anomaly really stands within a long tradition of scientifically astute treatments of the evidence for UFOs.

What is unique to the text is, however, its stark simplicity—even the elegance of its presentation. It is, as they say, deceptively simple, for the amount of analysis and data-processing that went into Coumbe’s book was considerable. It is clear that Coumbe has been working somewhat in the background of current ufology: Coumbe’s name is not generally known, nor has there apparently been any ufological work produced by him before this text. He presents as a concerned scientist, patiently observing and studying (at a distance) various important UFO cases and the analysis produced for them, crafting after some 5 years of study (he mentions the famous Times article of 2017 as a catalyst for his interest) a kind of summary text that tries to solidify—perhaps even codify—ufological evidence and shore up its analysis.

To this end, Coumbe proposes a new kind of epistemic filtration system that evaluates a reported UFO encounter in terms of four key factors: (1) (trained) eyewitness testimony; (2) single sensor data; (3) multiple sensor data; and (4) physical evidence—by which he means something (burns, scars, ground traces, ejecta) allegedly left behind by a UFO. This is then used to “quantitatively evaluate the strength of each case”. Let’s talk about this in some detail, since, for each UFO case that Coumbe chose to include in his (rather short) text, he actually provides the score it gets according to his system. As we will see, we can interpret this number as a kind of epistemic credence score, which scores can then be grouped into various epistemic credence “tiers” (as I’ll explain in a moment).

Let’s take a look at the first filter: eyewitness testimony. There is already a crucial judgment just right here with this filter, since not just any eyewitness testimony is admitted as valid; rather beyond this we’re looking for the testimony of those with some kind of relevant training which would raise the credibility of that testimony. So, pilots and certain military officers, and others with specialized training (ideally giving the witness extensive familiarity with the known phenomena of the sky) are those whose testimony are admitted first. But how do we evaluate it? Coumbe introduces a sensible method which looks at the quantity, quality, consistency and source of the testimony to come up with a more precise epistemic evaluation of the filter. The same evaluation is applied to the other filters as well.

Each sub-category of evaluation is given a number from 0 to 3 (a range, introduced on p. 8 without much explanation, that seems somewhat arbitrary), and since there are four sub-categories of evaluation for each filter, the total possible score for each filter is a number from 0 to 12. But surely eyewitness testimony, especially if it scores rather low in terms of quantity, quality and so on, shouldn’t be taken as on a par with the other factors—like single or multiple sensor data associated with the reported UFO. This would suggest that we ought to weight each of the four filters differently.

Only having eyewitness testimony isn’t very good evidence to go on in UFO cases, and even the best eyewitness testimony has to be considered inherently unreliable on its own. People are convinced that they see all sorts of things—and we know just based on general research on the issue that eyewitness testimony is very frequently problematic. Having multiple trained or expert witnesses all saying they saw the same thing (high quantity, quality, consistency and source) is excellent, but what makes it better is whether this gets corroborated by something non-subjective, non-first person: sensors of various sorts built to detect certain phenomena. Someone might feel heat, but a sensor measures it—and might also indicate something about the nature of the heat source itself. Coumbe therefore weights eyewitness testimony the lowest (assigning it a 1), and “physical evidence” the highest (assigning it a 4), with single and multiple sensor data ranking in the middle (2 and 3 respectively).

So the total score for each filter is just a sum of each of the four sub-categories of evaluation, multiplied by its assigned weight. The total score for a given UFO case as a whole, which gets scores on all four filters used to evaluate it, is therefore the sum of each of the weighted scorings of the individual filters, expressed as a percentage out of the total possible (perfect) score of 120 (which is just the maximum score for each sub-category multiplied by the four possible weights, added together).

Coumbe sets all of this out very plainly and concisely (skills the present author would do well to develop himself), and does so precisely as it should be done: as a preliminary epistemological foundation for approaching the evidence examined in the rest of the text. Foundations and definitions first; analysis next; hypotheses after that; conclusions (if any—even negative ones) last. So, if anything, this text supplies us with an excellent model of how a scientifically-oriented study (or “exploration”) of the UFO phenomenon ought to proceed. Cautiously. Carefully. Epistemologically cognizant. Honest. Coumbe perhaps manages in 162 pages to distill the very best of scientific “ufology” from the previous seven decades, giving us essence not excitement or exaggeration, sobriety not unrestrained speculation. He seems to have absorbed the humble disciplinary sentiments of Kant, who in his own philosophical explorations of the depths of the human mind cautioned against “running amok in the transcendent”—something so easily possible when the phenomena with which we are dealing are as elusive, evanescent, and arresting (and therefore inspiring) as UFOs so often are to those who encounter them.

So, what else is in this book? Plenty more. Let me give a quick (!) overview.

Part One of the text is entirely devoted to UFO case studies—a staple of this particular genre of ufological writing (and I like designating this genre “scientific explorations of the phenomenon”—‘exploration’ being the key term). What is interesting is the structure of his exposition here and throughout the text, which again serves to define a model of ufological writing: statement of the facts of the case; an analysis of those facts; and an accompanying appendix which contains all the required technicals that went into the analysis (statistical and evaluative methods, error calculations, relevant physical principles and mathematical formulae and the assumptions that went into producing the numerical results, and so on).

Having read this text quickly, in only a few days, I can say confidently that its audience is just the educated public at large; it’s not a book intended for specialists. Although, as there is no discipline, formally speaking, of ufology as such, most bookseven by the accepted “ufologists”aren’t all that technical and are usually written for general appeal. And though this might annoy some ufologists to say it, I would also hazard that not even those more academic articles found in ufological journals past (there are almost none today), had very many unreadably technical research papers in them. Although, I will admit that my standards are the many technical philosophy, philosophy of science, and straight physics journals which I always have had to trudge through during the course of my own research and writing. In many cases, papers here are simply impenetrable for the untrained—and for the trained, supremely challenging. (That’s a good thing.)

Part Two of the book—and there are only these two parts—is devoted to “The Bigger Picture”: Where Are All the UFOs? When Are All The UFOs? and What Does It All Mean? Rather lite questions! The bulk of this section is devoted to statistical analysis. It serves as both a prob&stat primer, as well as a survey of the many alleged correlations between UFO sightings or encounters, and other things like miliary bases, nuclear facilities—even (and this will no doubt surprise many) blood type of the UFO witnesses. Establishing correlations of significance (something that can be quantified but which is ultimately one of those things in science which is something of a subjective judgment call) is, one might argue, the very bedrock of science.

Correlations are what we want to explain and understand: how and exactly why one thing is associated with another. Even when we seem to be studying a singular phenomenon—say, the structure of the atom—when we really get down to it, at the bottom of it all is merely a structure of correlations which we are attempting to explain and understand. Correlations may be the only thing science ever studies—or can study (but we leave this deeper epistemological/ontological question for another day). Are the correlata related by some definite mechanism or causal relationship—or are they correlated on the basis of some third (unknown) factor to which each is independently related but which, because of this shared relationship, manifests a consistent correlation? Whenever there’s a thunderstorm, my joints might start to ache, but the thunder isn’t the cause of the aches and pains—rather something else which is correlated with both (a low pressure system) is the underlying cause (or at least provides the basic mechanism to explain the presence of the storm and my achy joints). So, as we’ve all been taught, just because there’s a correlation between x and y doesn’t tell us whether or that x causes y.

But it’s important to know how strongly correlated those x’s and y’s are, since we think the more strongly correlated they are, the more likely something links the two—whether through a direct causal connection between x and y, or via some common cause which leaves x and y themselves causally unrelated (except through the action of the third factor, that “common cause”—the low pressure system in my example). We don’t really want to investigate only very weakly correlated things (or things which appear to be correlated but which really aren’t even weakly correlated on close inspection of the data). We want to look at only the interesting cases—that is, the robust correlations. So, the first task is going about trying to establish the existence of robust (and hence interesting) correlations. That’s what Coumbe is up to in his fascinating Part II.

Let’s go back and look at some of the material in both parts of the book. There’s a lot that is interesting, and some which is worthy of a critical pause. But all of it’s worth reading. So, if you haven’t read the book, don’t read on—read the book first, and then come back to my review (so you can tell how well I’ve reviewed the book!)…

I was falling over myself in reading this book quickly and as carefully as I could. I simply could not put it down—not only because I was like “who the heck is Daniel Coumbe and why hadn’t we heard of him before?” but because of how direct and engaging his text turned out to be. Part I is a treasure trove of data and analysis. Let’s take a closer look.

Coumbe works through four UFO cases in detail. He does his homework. And does some data-gathering and data-processing legwork—something that establishes one as a bona fide ufologist (which I must admit that I am not: I am a philosopher of ufological matters—which is different, but no less important … well, at least in my humble view). Each case is chosen to help illustrate a particular type of case and what is involved in not only its epistemic evaluation (in terms of the credence we may give it, based on the quantity and quality of the supporting evidence), but also the scientific analysis of the data its evidence supplies.

Case 1 is the fascinating Japan Airlines Flight 1628 encounter, for which there is detailed radar data in the form of actual printouts of the radar target returns—an actual physical copy that one FAA official, Mr. Callahan of Boston, managed to secure, store and retain for many years following the incident. Coumbe obtained a copy of this physical record, and used it to generate an actual graph of the spatial trajectory of the UAP, plotted against the movements of the airliner involved in the incident. This may be a ufological first. The graph alone is profoundly important—revelatory.

preprint page from Coumbe 2023
You see the UAP jumping back-and-forth in space, as if its own mass was kinematically irrelevant. You see it at one point describe a strange kind of semi-circle, just as JAL 1628 began a somewhat desperate 360-degree evasive maneuver to try and avoid collision with what variously appeared to be (silhouetted eerily against the Anchorage, Alaska city lights below) a gigantic craft of some kind, which the captain said seemed to be several aircraft carriers in length. This was an unidentifiable craft sending radar returns to the JAL crew onboard their 747; the ATC tracking both the airliner and the uncorrelated target “identified” as the UFO; and sending back returns to an (unspecified) NORAD radar array, which, as the ATC controller called to confirm, had the unknown target on its scopes as well. All of this is well-documented and, because of the efforts of the FAA official who managed to secure the physical ATC radar printouts shortly after the incident (Mr. Callahan, as Leslie Kean recently told me in person, has since passed away), is a UFO encounter for which hard radar data records—analyzable by anyone who wants them—exists. Thus, Case 1 is an excellent example of a “radar-visual” case. Even so, Coumbe grades this case a 52 out of a possible 120 points in his system, which is a score of 43%.

Case 2 is the “Brazilian Fragments” case, which examines a set of alleged ejecta from a distressed UAP flying over Ubatuba Brazil in the mid-to-late 1950s. By now this story is well known in UFO circles. The exact circumstances are somewhat murky, and the letter that accompanied the mail package containing the fragments oddly deceptive (the letter’s author, notes a researcher Coumbe cites, p. 41, “was definitely not a ‘local fisherman,’ as the letter itself claims). But the basic story is that someone (allegedly a fisherman) caught sight of a seemingly distressed UFO in the skies over a lake. The craft (for that’s what it appeared to be) sputtered a bit, then at some point actually exploded into fragments that then rained down into the water below, and onto the shore, whereupon the (presumably stunned) fisherman collected the fragments (there were allegedly thousands) and sent them to a journalist. On 13 September 1957, this strange package found itself onto the desk of Ibrahim Sued, columnist for a Rio de Janeiro paper, O Globo.

The fragments were then sent around to various labs for more detailed compositional analysis. What was rather odd about the sample was its extreme purity: the samples were registering as just about 100% pure magnesium. The first two chemical analyses performed yielded results that indicated the samples were 100% magnesium; subsequent tests showed something more in the vicinity of 99.8% or 99.9% pure magnesium. In 1957, that’s not entirely impossible to obtain; what is odd, however, is that at that time only a handful of manufacturers on the planet could have produced samples of magnesium at that purity. And then there’s the impurities in the sample, that were discovered when more sophisticated equipment could be used. One curious impurity of note was strontium which, as Coumbe notes (p. 46), “some recent evidence suggests that adding strontium to magnesium suppresses oxidation, yielding a material with a higher combustion temperature.” Interesting. Coumbe speculates: “perhaps, then, strontium was intentionally added … for aeronautical engineering purposes?”—interesting but it would be nearly impossible to know this. It’s yet another clue in a frustratingly elusive puzzle of physical remnants of an alleged UFO.

The final clue from the Ubatuba fragments comes when we examine the isotopic ratios of magnesium found in the recovered fragments against what we think are those found naturally on Earth. Importantly, Coumbe throws some cold water here on the mild excitement some in the UFO world had when it was found that the isotopic ratios were anomalous (something Garry Nolan in his recent work on the samples highlighted). From a statistical point of view (for this is the only scientifically reasonable point of view to take when it comes to examining phenomena such as isotopic ratios: we’re confined to statistical analysis of large samples of material), the question is not just whether there is a measurable isotopic deviation between the alleged UFO samples and the accepted isotopic ratios of magnesium found naturally on Earth (which is itself a statistically derived figure obtained from many samples from various places on Earth). The question is whether this deviation is statistically significant. That is another matter entirely, for since we are dealing with statistical facts to begin with (isotopic ratios are inherently statistical facts derived, as we said, from large samples of material), we can only describe isotopic deviations as more or less statistically significant.

In other words, it’s uninteresting and scientifically unremarkable to find that there is an isotopic deviation in a few samples of magnesium from an allegedly anomalous source (such as a UFO). We have to know whether it’s a significant deviation, one worthy of further investigation. In the social sciences, as Coumbe explains, statistical significance starts at two sigma, or two standard deviations from the average or expected value of a quantity of interest. In particle physics—Coumbe’s own area of expertise—the threshold of significance, when discoveries are announced, is even higher: it starts at five sigma. Coumbe shows that what was found in the Brazil fragments is just inconclusive. Two out of the three more recent fragment analyses showed well under a 1 sigma significance. In only one lab analysis (done in 2017 by Centrum Labs in Austin Texas) was a two sigma deviation found—which, in the context of the other two, might make one suspicious that even this result is spurious. At the end of the day, Coumbe scores this case a 42 out of 120 points, yielding a grade of 35%. Not terribly compelling as a case overall, but certainly interesting in its details and valuable for setting the standard for physical evidence types of UFO cases—which is precisely the reason why this case was chosen. As with the JAL 1628 case, the Brazil fragments case is illustrative: the airliner case for “radar-visual” types of encounters; Brazil for physical evidence types of UFO/UAP cases.

Let’s therefore take a quick look at the two remaining cases which are examined for equally illustrative purposes: the Lonnie Zamora/Socorro New Mexico encounter and the 2013 Aguadilla object case caught on DHS aircraft cameras.

Case 3: Socorro, NM. We’re all (presumably) familiar with the Zamora encounter: the matter-of-factly Lonnie Zamora breaks off his pursuit of a speeding car to investigate a strange object that seemed to land—only to find not only a landed egg-like object on landing gear, but two beings in “coveralls” milling about the landed craft who are subsequently startled by Zamora’s approach, causing them to scurry back into the craft, which then ascends with rocket-like flames and dashes off out of sight. But in Coumbe’s careful retelling, it’s the subtle details of the UFO’s phenomenology that seems to count just as much as the bizarre beings accompanying the landed egg: a roaring “bright flame-like” object first sighted, which Zamora moves his car to locate whereupon he finds it coming into clearer focus as a “brilliant blue and orange flame, gradually descending. The flame had a thin, funnel shape,” Coumbe continues, which produced “no smoke” (p. 58). All of which description is quite fascinating—but something really only seen by one witness (Zamora himself, perhaps corroborated fleetingly by a gas station customer filling up minutes before). No corroborating radar data, or photos, or anything that terribly compelling (aside from the testimony itself) … except the physical traces the alleged UFO left behind. And that’s why this case makes Coumbe’s rather slim roster of UFO case studies: the object landed, making contact with the ground, and left a depression in the ground which was then measured. Can we weigh a UFO? As it turns out, yes we most certainly can. And we can use exactly the same method used to estimate the weight of dinosaurs. Rather “simple physics” as Coumbe points out: “put simply, we can estimate the weight of an object based on the surface area and depth of the imprint it leaves in the floor” since the pressure exerted by the object on the ground is inversely proportional to the downward force due to the object’s weight, in addition to the fact that pressure itself is inversely proportional to the surface area of the bottom of the object making contact with the ground (p. 62). We can weigh a UFO…

Doing the math indicated above, we get a simple result: the Zamora “egg” (presumably with the beings inside) weighed in, as it alighted onto the ground, at around 1789.7 kg plus or minus 509.2kg—quite a bit of error, but that’s not really a problem since all we want is a ballpark figure, just to get a sense of what we’re dealing with. It’s between 2500 and 5000 pounds. That’s pretty heavy, but not particularly remarkable: the weight of a small car, up to a Ford F-150 (in 2022 terms that is). Probably the weight of your average 1960s-era automobile. Now what’s important about Coumbe’s analysis is not just the plain-and-simple derivation of the actual weight range of an allegedly landed UFO using accepted methods in other areas of science. But what’s really important, illustrative and foundational for ufology going forward is the simple-and-straightforward reasoning he employs in order to rule out alternative hypotheses as to what the hell Zamora—a reliable witness if ever there was one—could have seen. Now, on the question of witness reliability, let’s pause for a moment…

What Coumbe could have done was take a look at the literature on witness reliability—it’s something that interests our criminal justice system, for very obvious reasons, and it is something modern psychology has examined in some depth. Human perception is notoriously unreliable; this is something realized even by philosophers thousands of years ago (East and West the world over, by the way), and well accepted as just one initial condition with which human epistemology has to begin. The architects of our modern (physical) sciences arguably managed to escape Aristotelianism precisely by critiquing in a serious way the exigencies of human perception (what was Galileo’s “ship and tower” argument in his Dialogues all about but the foibles of uncritical acceptance of human perception as it is given to us aboriginally—something that constituted the foundation of Aristotelian science). So we know that human perception alone is not very reliable as a source of data. It is data, let’s be clear, but it has to be positioned in a larger context of evidence, and critiqued accordingly. But Coumbe doesn’t really need to dive down into this literature on human perception—at least not immediately and for this text.

Clearly when it comes to eyewitness accounts of this-or-that, there is no doubt a scale of reliability that is, we might say, a function of the time during which one is having a perceptual experience: the shorter it is (and this is my off-the-cuff hypothesis) the more unreliable it will be (and hence the less credence we can assign to it, as reflected in Coumbe’s multi-dimensional UFO case scoring system). A fleeting glance of a hooded figure shrouded in darkness is one thing (it gets worse: a guy in a gorilla suit in the middle of the day walking through a crowd might be missed if the background perceptual conditions are right, as one famous study demonstrated). But a landing object enwrapped in blue and orange flames, alighting on the ground on extended landing gear, with beings in white coveralls milling around, who then become startled, enter what is presumably their craft, which then quickly shoots flames out the bottom before dashing away in the blink of an eye, leaving smoldering brush behind—well, that’s kind of hard to mistake. Such an extended perceptual experience is fairly reliable, especially from someone who otherwise is a perfectly well-functioning human being. And then there’s the physical evidence left behind: measurements of the soil impressions left by the craft, and an examination of the charred remains of brush still smoldering when Zamora’s backup finally arrived (the arriving officer on the scene found Zamora in something like a state of shock: famously Lonnie asks first to see a priest). Evidence from which actual weight calculations can be made. That’s compelling. And it’s what enables Coumbe to quickly discharge any number of competing hypotheses as to what Zamora could have been witnessing that afternoon in the New Mexico desert, just outside of town.

As it happened, NASA was testing some of their assets for launch into space—tens of kilometers away. And those assets (the Surveyor modules used in the lead-up to the famous Apollo missions) needed a helicopter to get carted around. What’s more, those assets’ weights are known—around 860kg. That’s inconsistent with the physical depressions made in the soil at the alleged landing site. What’s also inconsistent with the evidence, taking Zamora’s perceptions as evidence, is the actual appearance of the Surveyor modules: they look nothing like what Zamora claims to have seen: a smooth egg-like object sitting on extended landing gear, as opposed to the rather angular contraption of those landing modules. And so on and so forth. In this case it’s pretty clear that, unless Zamora hallucinated the whole thing (although how do you hallucinate five-thousand pound soil depressions or smoldering brush?), we’re not dealing with a NASA prototype. Or anything else mundane: how can you get, in the 1960s (or even today for that matter), a two- to five thousand pound smooth egg-like object to lift off the ground, aflame, then dash off into the distant mountains in the blink of an eye? At this point debunkerism devolves into a desperate attempt to save our conventional view of the world, of physics, of a human-centric universe, and so on … one starts to wonder whether the debunkers are a bit off their own rational rockers…

To round out this fascinatingly in-depth examination of the Zamora/Socorro landing case Coumbe looks at another bit of evidence found at the scene: small rectangular impression made in the ground, described as footprints. Using the same methods to calculate the weight of the landed craft, we arrive at an intriguing figure: about 42kg if the weight was distributed over two legs, or 84kg if distributed over four. So, it could have been a human-like creature, or perhaps a mountain lion. But what Zamora claims he saw near the “egg” were two human-like but diminutive beings scurrying about the craft—so the 42kg seems consistent with this.

Overall, Coumbe scores this case interestingly higher than either the Japan Airlines or Brazilian fragments cases, largely because of the quantity, quality and consistency of both the eyewitness testimony and the physical evidence which is largely consistent with that testimony. The score (p. 70) comes in at 67 out of 120, or a 57% (an enviable exam score for me when I was doing hard-core general relativity many years ago). Not bad—and perhaps rather surprising, given that this case has no known radar data to corroborate the presence of the alleged craft in the skies over Socorro, NM.

Case 4: The Aguadilla, PR Object. Finally—much to the likely consternation of a number of skeptics out there in the vast reaches of the debunking badlands—we have the highest-scoring case in Coumbe’s lineup: the Aguadilla object incident. Here we have a classic case of multiple sensors corroborating the (multiple) eyewitness testimony: there was primary radar contact, in addition to a very intriguing—even beguiling—extended FLIR thermal video of the object flying about effortlessly in the vicinity of the Aguadilla airport, having come in, seemingly, from somewhere over the ocean (to which it eventually returns). And while there was no physical evidence to speak of (other than the videos), the quality, quantity, consistency and the source of the evidence we have is fairly high in Coumbe’s estimation. So the Aguadilla case gets a 71 out of 120, or a 59%. There are two remarkable features of the evidence that we should remark on before we move to our review of the second part of Coumbe’s short text (one we hope not to overtake with our review), features which, unless they are simply false readings, rule out a great many more conventional hypotheses as to just what the hell this object could have been. Let’s look at the primary radar data, and that FLIR footage (or rather, you can do that by examining pp. 76-82).

From the primary radar data that Coumbe obtains, he generates a simple spatial plot of the UAP’s movements out over the ocean (i.e., away from a potential hotel launch site for Chinese lanterns, let’s note). Not many discussions of Aguadilla have noted that these primary radar returns (for the only uncorrelated targets on the ATC’s scope) indicate that a UAP was hopping around the open ocean near to the airfield at one to two times the speed of sound. In one “jump”, Coumbe finds that object to have traveled at about Mach 2.1; in another, it moves at about Mach 1.3. This for what would later be witnessed on FLIR (and yes, we’re making a continuity assumption which no doubt the skeptic will question), which you can see for yourself, as a flying spheroid doing between 85 and 90 miles per hour, even as it dips below the ocean surface (this towards the end of the released and confirmed DHS video).

Examining the FLIR video itself turns up phenomena no less puzzling: the momentary increase in thermal signature, which also seems to surge in physical size (volumetrically increasing), before splitting into two as its thermal signature intensifies. Yes: splitting into two, not unlike cellular mitosis (as Coumbe comments, p. 82). What are we dealing with? Certainly not a Chinese lantern. But it’s not clear what kind of an object could simply divide, and continue to move as if nothing had happened. (Kevin Knuth thinks it could be not a splitting into two, physically, but rather an optical-gravitational effect produced by some modification of the surrounding spacetime—although Coumbe interestingly tries to answer just such a possibility, with an under-substantiated assertion: “nor is there any indication that the second object is an infrared reflection of the first” … well, how is that argument to go, exactly?).

Whatever it is, it’s neither human-originated, nor necessarily manufactured. Maybe its presentation as a kind of cellular mitosis (purely as a phenomenological not biological fact) challenges our insistence on the nature/manufacture distinction, or the nature/intelligence dichotomy (that the processes of nature are unintelligent and “random” whereas those of intelligence are deliberate, nonrandom and therefore “unnatural” or artificial). It’s ultimately a bad, and philosophically unsophisticated, unsubtle dichotomy, one challenged in philosophy for centuries (but which still seems to linger). Maybe the object or “craft” is the intelligence guiding it. Maybe it is organismic in some way (Star Trek The Next Generation, that unbelievably rich sci-fi opera, toyed with the idea a few times—most notably in the episode “Tin Man” from its brilliant Third Season). We don’t really know, and may never know since we couldn’t really interact with the object itself, directly—only passively via radar and infrared sensors. If some UAP are capable of dividing themselves into two, and this is a technological process, then it could just be that with this level of subtle control over matter/energy, the nature/manufacture dichotomy just ipso facto becomes irrelevant: as we are building living forms up from the atomic and molecular level, if we suppose exacting control over the atoms and molecules themselves, well, then, what’s the difference here? I suppose dependency: matter/energy can do its own thing, unprovoked, as it were, by some intelligence—it acts independently. But intelligence may produce states of matter/energy that are utterly dependent on the whims of that creative agency manipulating it. But again, with this level of subtle control over matter/energy, it would stand to reason that the creators here stand in a relation of absolute control … which begs the question as to what the limits of such control would be or are.

And then, as with so much ufological speculation, we are well on our way down the rabbit hole of endless possibility. Kant: please don’t run amok in the transcendent. Please rein yourself in. But how? Well, by simply sticking to and stating the facts as plainly, as elegantly, and as directly as you can. Which is exactly what Coumbe tries to do. And I think he well succeeds.

In the second and final part of my conceptual review, we will work through Part II of Anomaly, which is devoted to the where, the when and the meaning of it all. (Much thanks goes out to Mark Rodeghier for cautioning me to be very careful with this part of my review, as I will endeavor to explain....)


  1. Thank you for wonderful work. "Coumbe perhaps manages in 162 pages to distill the very best of scientific 'ufology' from the previous seven decades, giving us essence not excitement or exaggeration, sobriety not unrestrained speculation." Here's a *must* read, for sure. Looking forward eagerly to your Part II !

  2. Great review of what looks like an important book. Thank you. As for the book's copyright being 2023: My publisher said they usually copyright a book for the following year to extend the life of the copyright!

  3. Interestingly, the jumping-back-and-forth-manner of movement of UFOs can help is to guess what it can be. An object, which moves in oblique spiral in 4-dimensional space and passing through 3-dimensional plane will look like as if it is jumping several times before it reaches its new location. From this we can guess that UFOs are objects which exist in multidimensional space. This however, don't explains,where they come from or what they are doing here.


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