How a Controversial Chicago Astronomer Influenced ‘Close Encounters’

A Chicago man who became a professor of astronomy at Northwestern University coined the term “close encounters.”

Dr. J. Allen Hynek was a highly respected scientist for decades before he received a credit as a technical adviser on Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Hynek died in 1986, but his life and legacy are explored in a new biography by Mark O’Connell called “The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs.”

O’Connell, who teaches screenwriting at DePaul University, wrote several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (including the fan favorite “Who Mourns for Morn?”).

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

    (Courtesy Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow)

  • Mark O’Connell (Credit: Lori Compas)

    Mark O’Connell (Credit: Lori Compas)

Below, an edited Q&A with the author.

Chicago Tonight: Has this been a lifelong interest for you?

O’Connell: Absolutely. My first conscious memory is from when I was about 3 years old, 1963, and for some reason my mom tuned in this new TV show call “The Outer Limits” and I remember being scared to death by the space aliens in the premiere episode, and that sort of set the theme for my entire life.

Also, my mom was a librarian at our village library [in Big Bend, Wisconsin] and she would take me in with her a lot of times. When she worked I always gravitated toward the UFO bookshelf.

Did Hynek’s feud with Carl Sagan lead Hynek to create the Center for UFO Studies [CUFOS]?

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the two, but I think it was definitely a factor, because Dr. Hynek’s first public announcement about the formation of CUFOS took place on national TV on “The Dick Cavett Show” right after Carl Sagan had just finished ridiculing all the UFO witnesses on the panel, and he [Hynek] basically waits for a quiet moment toward the end of the show and says “Well, I’m starting a research foundation,” which probably meant nothing to the people watching the Cavett show but it meant a lot to Sagan, because it indicated that Hynek had scientific support for his work.

Video: “Wild Chicago” visits the Center for UFO Studies in October 1990.

CUFOS is no longer in a storefront on Peterson Avenue in Chicago. Where is Hynek’s research currently?

Hynek’s career as a UFO researcher is in a bunch of beat-up old file cabinets scattered around between two basements and an attic in Chicago and Skokie. So it’s kind of a sad state of affairs. The people who are taking care of the files are very dedicated and sincere people but there’s only so much they can do, because there’s no money.

Were his inquiries into UFO research met with controversy in the academic circles of Northwestern University and elsewhere?

He was a superstar professor at Northwestern because in his heyday, during the ‘70s especially, he was just on TV constantly – he was on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow Show,” “The Tonight Show,” Dick Cavett. So Northwestern loved the attention that he brought to the university, but they didn’t always love being attached to the idea of UFOs. It was a complicated relationship.

Below, an excerpt from “The Close Encounters Man.”

THE INTOXICATING MIX OF FEAR AND FASCINATION that defined the public’s infatuation with science and with Earth’s heavenly neighbors reached a crescendo with the approach of Halley’s Comet in the spring of 1910. Here was a scientific phenomenon that nearly every human being on Earth could see with his or her own eyes in the night sky—the ultimate shared experience— and that a great many human beings feared. For while the exact time and location of a comet’s appearance could, by 1910, be accurately predicted by science, its actual nature and purpose was still clouded in myth and superstition.

It was established fact that Halley’s Comet appeared in our skies about every seventy-six years and established lore that its appearance—the appearance of any comet, for that matter— brought about certain calamity and suffering. In 1066, most famously, Halley’s Comet foretold the Battle of Hastings and the violent struggle for the British throne that ensued, and after that even Shakespeare submitted that the comet was a bad sign for a sitting monarch. This proved to be the case again in May 1910, when King Edward VII succumbed to failing health and passed away only days before the comet’s nearest approach.

Even worse, scientists discovered that all humanity was at risk of following Edward to his doom. Not only was it determined that Earth would be passing directly through the comet’s tail for a six-hour period on the night of May 18–19, but astronomers at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, utilizing the new technique of spectroscopy to determine the temperature and chemical composition of a luminous body by analyzing the spectrum of light it emits or reflects, found the tail to contain a deadly substance: poisonous cyanogen gas. French astronomer Camille Flammarion was distressed enough by the Yerkes findings to declare that “the cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

Finding themselves stalled out and stranded on a celestial railroad crossing with an express freight hurtling toward them, the people of Earth gave way to fear and prepared for the end. “Some people took precautions by sealing the chimneys, windows, and doors of their houses. Others confessed to crimes they had committed because they did not expect to survive the night, and a few panic-stricken people actually committed suicide,” reported science writers Gunter Faure and Teresa Mensing.

The most gullible bought “comet pills,” “comet umbrellas,” and gas masks, while the most faithful gathered nervously in houses of worship, prepared to meet their maker. Some, intent on going against the grain, were gripped by an inexplicable end-of- the-world euphoria: “A strangely frivolous mood caused thousands of people to gather in restaurants, coffee houses, parks, and on the rooftops of apartment buildings to await their doom in the company of fellow humans.”

One of those rooftops was in Chicago, Illinois, although its viewing party took place almost two weeks ahead of the global deathwatch of the eighteenth, and the guest list was rather small. On the night of May 5, Joseph and Bertha Hynek took their five-day-old son, Josef, to the roof of their West Side home to bask in the light of the comet. What the mood was on that rooftop, one can scarcely guess, but it must have come as some relief to Joseph and Bertha that they and their newborn son survived the fallout of the comet’s tail thirteen nights later. Nonetheless, little Josef, who was to be their only child, may have gotten a sprinkling of comet dust that night, because for the rest of his life, his path would be marked, and sometimes defined, by the appearance and movements of unusual heavenly bodies.

Destined to become a trusted spokesman for the space race, a paradigm-shifting pioneer in astronomical imaging, an authority on the study of UFOs, both lauded and reviled, and an unexpected cultural touchstone in the world of science fiction, Josef Allen Hynek could not help but spend much of his life and career out on a limb, reaching for the lights in the night sky. Born into a world where cunning and intelligent Martians built thousand-mile canals and spied on us through giant eyes, where scientific destruction could rain down on us from the skies without warning, where impossible flying ships could crisscross the skies with impunity, and where a spaceman was laid to rest in a small cemetery in north Texas after crashing his flying ship into a windmill, Hynek would, fittingly, grow up to embody the contradictory nature of scientific inquiry and investigation in the twentieth century, with its simultaneous dependence on and rejection of imagination and wonder.

It wasn’t just a boy who was born on May 1, 1910, to Joseph and Bertha Hynek. He was a spaceman.

Excerpt reprinted with permission. Dey Street Books, an Imprint of William Morrow.


Related stories:

Adler Planetarium Offering Free Admission for Aug. 21 Solar Eclipse

July 12: Are you ready to party like it’s 1925? That’s the last year Chicago experienced a solar eclipse like it will next month. To celebrate, the Adler Planetarium is hosting a daylong block party, and you’re invited.


Chicago Astronomer to Create Plan for Human Exploration of Mars

July 12: Adler Planetarium astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz will spend the next year figuring out how humans can get along while exploring one of the more curious planets in our solar system: Mars.


Neil deGrasse Tyson on Making Science Fun, Understandable

March 9: Neil deGrasse Tyson joins Chicago Tonight’s Eddie Arruza for an extended conversation about science and our place in the cosmos.