OSU professor aimed to prove “We are not alone”

J. Allen Hynek, 1954

We are taking a little break from “Fridays filled with Fun Football Facts” to look at the bigger picture – a much bigger picture, according to Josef Allen Hynek, a former OSU professor, whose research inspired the Steven Spielberg film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Hynek was an astronomer who conducted independent research into Unidentified Flying Objects, or UFOs. Here’s his story:

Hynek was born on May 1, 1910, in Chicago to Czechoslovakian parents. He went on to attend the University of Chicago; he graduated with honors and was valedictorian of the class of 1931, and then went on to receive his Ph.D. in 1935. He came to Ohio State later that year as an instructor of astronomy, and he later taught in the Department of Physics.

During World War II, Hynek was granted a leave of absence to work at Johns Hopkins University, where he was reported as developing “proximity fuses” in its applied physics laboratory. In November 1950, he was named OSU’s Assistant Dean of the Graduate School. During that appointment, Dr. Hynek continued to teach both astronomy and physics, and to act as Director of the McMillin Observatory on campus. Hynek became well-known for his research with rockets, leading to more time away from campus on government projects. He resigned from Ohio State in January 1960, to take over leadership of Northwestern University’s Department of Astronomy.

Hynek inside OSU’s McMillan Observatory, 1940s

Dr. Hynek went on to pen The UFO Experience, which was published in 1972. In that book, Hynek describes three types of UFO encounters. The first kind is one in which a UFO appears, but leaves no evidence; the second kind is one in which a UFO leaves physical evidence, such as broken branches or burns. The third kind is one in which contact is made. In 1977 Steven Spielberg released his multi-million dollar movie inspired by Dr. Hynek’s book. Hynek was a technical advisor for the movie and made a cameo appearance.  The movie has grossed $300 million worldwide so far.

It seems that all of the publicity surrounding Dr. Hynek’s work ultimately embarrassed Northwestern University administrators, who called for his Center for UFO Studies to be kept entirely separate from the university. Hynek ultimately retired from Northwestern in 1978 and moved to Arizona to continue his work. He passed away in 1986.

Now, while we are on the subject of space and extraterrestrials, did you also know that OSU was also looking for life on other planets? Beginning in 1973, Ohio State’s radio telescope has been scanning for radio emissions from space as part of a project called “Big Ear,” the name of the telescope.

“Big Ear”, 1982

The Big Ear telescope was located on land leased from the Ohio Wesleyan University, near Perkins Observatory in Delaware, and was a joint project between Ohio State and Ohio Wesleyan. At the time, it was the only radio observatory in the world to continuously search for signals from space. The project was ultimately terminated when Ohio Wesleyan sold the land in 1996 to the Delaware Country Club so the club could extend its golf course. As for the big question: Did they hear anything? Scientists said that they did receive some signals. However, E.T. will now have to use another telescope to call for a ride home.

Filed by C.N.

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