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All That Glitters is Not God

On the hunt for ESP, UFOs, and extraterrestrial life at the Ancient Astronauts Conference

Aliens, UFO,Aliens, UFO,

Still from the TV show, The Invaders, 1967

ABC Photo Archives/ABC/Getty

At the Ancient Astronauts Conference there was talk about the wonderful ball. It was said to be eight inches in diameter, 22 pounds in weight, made of stainless steel and capable of performing odd feats. Set in motion by a twist of the hand, it would wander around drunkenly for up to ten minutes, giving off little rattling noises. It would not fall off a table. It could roll uphill unassisted.

Terry Matthews, a 21-year-old pre-med student at Florida Junior College, discovered the wonderful ball last March. It was resting under a palmetto bush on an 80-acre tract of land near his parents’ home outside Jacksonville. I telephoned him for details.

“The outside is smooth but not really shiny; you can see that things have knocked up against it,” he said. “The Navy did a spectroanalysis and they said it’s made of 431 stainless steel, one of the hardest stainless steels known. With a fluoroscope they could see it has a half-inch-thick shell and three smaller spheres inside, thin wires or lines of some sort, and some fine dust or sand. It rattles if you shake it. Also it’s tripolar magnetic.”

Terry described the peculiar abilities of the ball.

“You can set it in the middle of a table – we’ve got a rosewood dining room table and we checked it with a spirit level and it’s level – and the ball will roll in one direction until it gets almost to the edge, and then it’ll stop and turn around and come back. It’ll get over toward the other edge, then stop and set out in a new direction. It follows a wild, irregular path. It’s as if it had a will of its own.”

News of the ball appeared in newspapers and on radio and television, but nobody could identify it. “I thought somebody would come forward and say, ‘Look, Terry, I know what it is and I’ve got two or three more down at the shop, come on down and have a look.’ But nobody did. That’s the weird thing to me. We’ve never said this is anything extraterrestrial. Chances are it’s man-made. But we go along with the speculation that it could be anything.”

Terry got plenty of letters. One man suggested the ball was a device used to measure ocean tides, but when immersed in water it sank. Someone else identified it as a valve used to manufacture pulp paper; this didn’t hold up either. An ITT investigator examined the ball, returned to Washington, consulted with his colleagues, and pronounced it to be a nuclear warhead.

The National Enquirer, a weekly tabloid with an interest in odd things, offered to fly Terry to New Orleans with the ball and display it at a panel they were sponsoring on Unidentified Flying Objects.

Terry took the wonderful ball in a bag to catch his plane. It set off the metal detector. The airport security people asked what it was.

“I don’t know,” Terry said.

“Don’t you have any idea?”

“Well, the ITT Corporation says it’s a thermonuclear warhead.”

Barred from the plane, Terry drove to National Enquirer headquarters in Cantana, Florida, where Enquirer experimenters put the ball on a pane of glass on the front lawn and found that it did seem to roll uphill, if only briefly. Excitement mounted. Terry flew to New Orleans and the Enquirer shipped the ball up to meet him.

On the five-man panel was J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astronomer who years ago worked developing image-orthicon devices for telescopes, then got interested in flying saucers.

Hynek’s career as a UFO detective was marred by a traumatic episode. In March 1966, the Air Force summoned him to Dexter, Michigan, to investigate reports that UFOs were hovering above a swamp. Hynek held a press conference and said the sightings probably were caused by a swamp gas that comes from rotting vegetation. The gas is popularly called foxfire and when it strikes oxygen it glows. For some reason this explanation struck millions of Americans as the silliest thing since the Piltdown man. Hynek was ridiculed by the press and public and vilified by flying-saucer fans.

He emerged from the experience a changed man – willing to look on the bright side, you might say. He began talking seriously about “contact” between humans and alien spacemen. He pronounced himself impressed by a star map drawn up by a third-grade schoolteacher in Oak Harbor, Ohio, that showed UFOs coming from the stars Zeta 1 and 2 Reticuli, 30 lights years away. He called government handling of UFO reports “a cosmic Watergate.” When Charlie Hickson and Calvin Parker reported in the fall of ’73 that they had encountered spacemen while fishing in Pascagoula, Mississippi, skeptics dismissed their story partly because their fishing spot had been in view of dozens of passing motorists and others who saw nothing unusual. But Hynek said, “I think they’re telling the truth.”

So in New Orleans, Hynek approached the wonderful ball with an open mind. Unhappily, the ball got sulky and wouldn’t perform. Rolled to the edge of a table, it fell off. This did not staunch Hynek’s optimism.

“We can’t be sure our table was absolutely level,” he observed. “We were on the tenth floor of a Holiday Inn. These were not the proper conditions for a laboratory test.”

The Ancient Astronauts Convention was held in late April in the Arlington Park Towers Hotel, an isolated dome an hour outside Chicago, bordered by an expressway and a racetrack. It drew several hundred seekers after the unknown, mostly from the American Midwest and neighboring Canada. I stood in the lobby with a tall black man from a TV station, an intelligent young reporter from a suburban weekly whose eyes were stitched with a perpetual look of “What do I have to do to get a real job?” and somebody who introduced himself as editor and publisher of his own magazine, explaining that he was there in person only because every member of his vast editorial staff was already out on assignment. We watched the conventioneers arrive. They were young and old, plump and lean, and seemed to have little in common except, perhaps, an expression of vague yearning. Otherwise they looked like people lining up for free thermos buckets at a shopping-center opening.

They had been drawn by a roster of speakers embracing a broad spectrum of pseudoscience: Ralph and Judy Blum, authors of a briskly selling paperback on flying saucers; Homer Lathrop III, astrologer and parapsychologist; John White, director of the Institute for Noetic Sciences (“noetic” means apprehendable chiefly, or only, by the intellect); Peter Tompkins, coauthor of The Secret Life of Plants, author of Secrets of the Great Pyramid, and a couple of books that lacked the word “secret” in their titles; and Brad Steiger, author and lecturer on ghosts, human aura, plant perception, ESP, telekinesis, space warps, time warps and whatever other weirdness.

… And, most important, Erich Von Daniken, Mr. Ancient Astronaut himself, the rising superstar of pseudoscience. His books, led by Chariots of the Gods?, have sold an impressive 25 million copies worldwide, spawning a movie and two American TV specials. His thesis is that space visitors mingled with earth people in biblical times and before, tinkering with early human civilization, culture and genetics. Von Daniken did not originate this fascinating idea, but chancing upon it in the course of his wide reading, he grabbed it like a vulture pouncing on a fresh dead rabbit.

Von Daniken cites three sorts of evidence for this: ancient mythology with stories about angels from on high; cave paintings of creatures with bubble heads and multiple arms; and huge earth or stone works like the pyramids and the desert markings at Nazca, Peru, which humans of early times could not have constructed, Von Daniken says, because they were too feeble and stupid.

A few months before the conference I read all Von Daniken’s books and checked his research to see what new insights they had contributed to our knowledge of these engaging subjects. After careful study I came to the conclusion that the answer was nothing. Zero. Virtually everything factual in the books was unimpressive; virtually everything provocative was false. So much of Chariots was simply wrong that it took me 20 single-spaced pages of typewritten notes just to list and comment on the errors. I took this list to Zurich, where Von Daniken lives, and talked with him about it. I also expressed some curiosity regarding his multiple convictions in Swiss courts for fraud and embezzlement, on one of which occasions a court-appointed psychiatrist had pronounced him a pathological liar. The resulting conversations in Zurich were animated, marked by a certain tension. Since then we have been less than the best of friends.

There was a commotion in the lobby when Von Daniken appeared. He stood in the center of a circle of gawkers, a broad-faced grinning man sucking an empty pipe. When he saw me his eyes narrowed.

“This ees the man who write bad thinks about me,” he said. (English is Von Daniken’s fourth or fifth language.)

“You’ve never read anything of mine, Erich,” I said.

“Oh, yes. The trobble is you haf no imagination. You don’t read science fiction.”

“Well, I’ve read your books.”

“They are not science fiction,” he replied and turned away. As I left he was explaining to a reporter, “Eech mytology around the verlt, eech olt religion, tells us the gots – in plural – were creating man in their own image. I belief thees gots were spacemens. …”

Gene Phillips, a portly, friendly man who organized the Ancient Astronaut Society and the convention, was standing by the registration desk. He is an attorney whose clients are mostly doctors – “It’s so damn boring I had to get into something like this” – and he explained that his interest in this exotic subject had been spurred by one of the Von Daniken television specials.

“It answered a lot of questions I’d had,” Phillips said with his perpetual smile. “I’d wondered how come the Mexicans and the Peruvians and the ancient Sumerians all had the same sort of legends. And you know, Cortez was able to conquer Mexico because the natives had a myth that a bearded god would come and deliver them. Where did that myth come from?”

Phillips formed the society, dues $8 to $50 annually, and put together the conference to spur membership. Von Daniken, in the States on a lecture tour for Bantam Books, agreed to waive his usual hefty fee and talk for free. Phillips explained that he saw the society as an effort on behalf of the little man, who he believes is being kept in the dark about the great truths of history.

“I’m a little cynical and I believe the average people aren’t told very much. The priests and the politicians keep things to themselves, because if the masses are kept ignorant, they can be controlled. Look at Watergate. I believed Nixon when he said there was nothing to it. I was taken in. I was lied to. Priests and governments are always lying to us.”

We were standing next to the convention symbol, a large reproduction of an “ancient cave painting” from Uzbekistan, U.S.S.R. An eerie likeness of a spaceman, it is the most impressive thing in the film version of Chariots of the Gods? “We must look and look again to grasp the significance of this prehistoric drawing,” says the film narrator. “A creature wearing the headgear of an astronaut, the helmet well attached to his spacesuit … connecting tubes … breathing apparatus … the trappings of a space voyager.”

Actually you don’t have to look all that hard to grasp the significance of the painting, because it is a hoax. It was admitted to be such by the Soviet scientist who “discovered” it. I asked Phillips if this bothered him.

“I heard it might be a fraud,” he said, “but then on the other hand, it does look like an ancient astronaut. Really, you have to keep an open mind.”

Down in the meeting room the conference was getting under way with Homer Lathrop III lecturing on Edgar Cayce, the magician. Lathrop spoke with his hands folded together at chest level, mortician style. “These were the beginings of the unfolding of the understanding,” Lathrop intoned hypnotically. “All this knowledge from Atlantis, from Babylon, from outer space, was destroyed. . . . The cabala is contained within the architectural structure of Chartres Cathedral. . . . Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. . . . Tycho Brahe had a brass nose. . . . This is fascinating, provocative.”

The next afternoon I stood at the bar and intercepted speakers as they happened by. One was Ralph Blum (Harvard; University of Leningrad; Fulbright, Ford and National Service Foundation grants) who with his wife Judy (Wadhurst College, England, and the Sorbonne) wrote Beyond Earth: Man’s Contact with UFOs. Blum looks younger than his age, which is 42. He has large, wet, sincere eyes, and like a number of flying-saucer enthusiasts is a psychedelic veteran. He says he first took acid in a Boston hospital experiment in April 1954 and later got friendly with Timothy Leary. One day while running an errand he opened the glove compartment of Leary’s car and out fell hundreds of pink packets of psilocybin. Blum scooped up handfuls and for years after, whenever taking one, toasted Tim Leary.

Blum seemed anxious to make it clear he hadn’t written his book, an enthusiastic and credulous account of the Pascagoula UFO incident, just to turn a quick buck. He described himself as an objective, investigative reporter.

“If you’re objective, why did you title your book Beyond Earth?” I asked.

“The salesmen thought it was a great title,” he answered.

Ernie Seegers, a traveling salesman from an electronics firm, dropped in for a beer. He said he had paid the $30 registration fee and was enjoying the speeches. His interest had been aroused when he picked up a copy of Chariots of the Gods? at an airport bookstore. “As a kid I thought about the impossibility of comprehending time and space. I asked myself, ‘What’s beyond the beyond?’ I lay up at night thinking about it. I stopped believing in religion.” Now he believes in Von Daniken.

I asked Ernie if his faith was shaken by the fact that Von Daniken is a convicted fraud and a diagnosed liar.

“Well, yeah, sure it is,” he said with a frown. Then he brightened. “But you have to remember, a lie may be in the ear of the beholder. If Von Daniken is a pathological liar, well, so is Nixon.”

Peter Tompkins appeared, another psychedelic pioneer. He has imposing eyebrows; they jut out like granite, and his eyes shine from the darkness beneath. He resembles a leopard in a cave. His book, Secrets of the Great Pyramid, is among the prettiest and most intelligent in a long chain of works seeking to prove that the Great Pyramid of Cheops is a repository of ancient systems of measurement, an observatory, a surveying device applicable to the entire lower Nile, a calendar covering the days of the year and the 26,000-year wobble of the earth’s axis – almost everything except what conventional archaeologists say it is, a tomb. Tompkins doesn’t have much use for those grubby archaeologists, or for other scientists either, and when we talked about them his eyes glowed still brighter.

“We live in a world of second-rate politicians running a Mafia racket, with scientists producing for them the weapons and methods they need to keep the people down,” he said with great intensity.

Over in the corner of the bar, Von Daniken was playing an electronic Pong game.

“These scientists are foul, and they’d better stop! They use their knowledge to blow up children in Vietnam and they’re building up a karma for themselves that – Jesus! I just hope they can turn around before it’s too late, so we can all live happily. I don’t have any use for a scientist who isn’t a lover.”

Tompkins said he first came to see things this way after dropping out of Harvard and serving in World War II. “When I got out of the war I realized the planet was being run by a bunch of total madmen. Crooks. Fiends. Cruel, aboriginal monsters, including most generals in the States. They ought to be in an asylum. I said to myself, ‘What kind of world am I in?’ “

Part of the answer came in Paris one morning. Tompkins had his tonsils removed. Nitrous oxide was the anaesthetic. Before he passed out Tompkins discovered that his soul could leave his body and wander around the room on its own.

Later he took mescaline – in order to write a judicious review of Huxley’s The Doors of Perception – and once again his conscious self left his body. This time it went over behind a refrigerator.

These experiences convinced Tompkins that humans are essentially spiritual, not physical.

“As you approach the edge of the universe you get relatively smaller,” Tompkins said. We were talking cosmology.

“Well, larger, actually,” I said.

“Okay, larger. It’s the same thing, really. When I take nitrous oxide I know that happens, and what’s more, I know who makes it happen.”

We were interrupted and I never did get to ask him who makes the universe work.

In a hotel room overlooking the racetrack, Von Daniken posed for photographs. The photographer asked me to hold a sheet of paper close to his face as a fill reflector.

“If I appear in this shot you can identify me as Erich’s ghostwriter,” I said, unwisely. Von Daniken has been accused of employing rather extensive editorial “assistance” on his books.

We all left the room in silence and took the elevator down. I got out at my floor. As the doors closed Von Daniken said between clenched teeth, his pipe acting like a tiny megaphone, “When you need a ghostwriter, Ferris, call me.” He never spoke to me again.

A startling oddity presented at the conference was a photograph of a woman who could not be photographed. It showed a woman sitting on the fender of a car, but where her face should have appeared was only a white smear. Brad Steiger displayed the photo. He said the woman had warned the photographer he was Wasting his time trying to take her portrait, and it turned out she was right.

After Steiger’s talk I fell into conversation with two elderly ladies who said they had driven down from Montreal for the conference. One had a long, thin face, the other a round, flat one; together they formed a human exclamation point.

“Do you think there are people whose pictures can’t be taken?” I asked the long-faced lady, who proved to be president of the Canadian Metaphysical Society.



“Because I’m a believer. I believe.”

“If it’s true, why does the proof always seem to fall through? I mean, I’ll bet if I go looking for this lady in the Brad Steiger photo, I won’t be able to find her. or if I can find her it will turn out that her photograph can be taken just like anybody else’s.”

“That’s because we’re not ready for the proof yet. Humans aren’t ready.”

“Then why show the photo at all?”

“You’re scientific, aren’t you?” She pronounced the word as if describing an unfortunate but not distasteful malady, like hemophilia.


“Yes. You’re scientific?”

She sat back with a firm smile devoid of malice.

I left and went to hear the big event of the weekend, a panel discussion among the assembled heavyweights. It was to include Von Daniken, Tompkins, Blum, Steiger and, most notably, James Beal, a remarkable figure.

Beal is outwardly undistinguished, with a thin, homely face, black goatee, red vest and an easy, self-deprecative manner. But he carries two weapons that make him something of a force on the pseudo-science circuit. One is his knowledge of negative ions, which he finds make people feel better. On the lecture trail he travels in a car with an ion-generating plate mounted in the roof above the driver’s seat, enabling him to drive 600 miles a day and arrive refreshed. Charged with life-giving negative ions, he sits quietly at the dais while his colleagues baste the rubes with tales of flying saucers and ghosts. Finally it comes time for Beal to unleash his second weapon – his stupendous monologue. It is monumental. It embraces medicine, telepathy, teleology and several of the physical sciences. It is so filled with facts there is scarcely room left for a verb. It blows all the other pseudoscience prophets off the stage. It leaves the audience awed. Nothing can stand up before Beal’s incredible rap. Whether it is absolute nonsense I haven’t the slightest idea.

This time Beal’s opportunity came early, when a belligerent questioner rose to challenge an offhand remark Beal had made about the chance that humans might one day regrow amputated limbs. In his cracked, pleasant, Mason-Dixon line accent, Beal let go:

“A number of people have been working on electromagnetic and electrostatic field effects in promoting healing. Dr. Robert Becker of the Veterans Administration hospital in Syracuse has promoted partial limb regeneration in animals above the salamander stage, such as rats, and has also determined that acupuncture seems to be intimately connected with the Schwann cell complex, which encases the whole nervous system of the body. Those papers are readily available and I have copies of them here. Also, Dr. Bassett at Columbia has obtained about ten times normal healing rates and we know of further work confirming these studies.

“I should mention further the remarkable bone regeneration techniques developed by Dr. Becker. Normally after awhile the action potential which creates regrowth and joining of bone quits, a cap forms over the bone and the action potential drops back to zero. To make bones reknit, it’s necessary to go in and scrape the bone. But with exposure to electrical fields a condition is created in some cases not unlike that obtained in malignancies and embryo tissue, cancer, pregnancy and advanced senility. …”

This went on for a few minutes, then Beal sat back like a blue heron digesting a fish. There was a stunned silence from the audience, which for two days had been hearing about spacemen and ray guns. Then the panel recovered and got on with the business at hand.

Blum told a story about a cop who had an alligator bite on his finger cured by a ray from a flying saucer.

The wonderful ball was discussed and a need for more information expressed.

Von Daniken talked, his voice coiling and uncoiling like the mainspring of a Swiss watch. “Eech mytology around the verlt, eech olt religion, tells us the gots – in plural – were creating man in their own image. I belief these gots were spacemans. . . .”

A black woman in the audience suggested UFOs come from modern Africa.

The moderator, Peter Reich, an “award-winning aerospace journalist” for Chicago Today, stepped in occasionally to mangle elementary concepts of radio astronomy, relativity and plate tectonics. Chewing on a mouthful of candy he refereed a discussion of quasars, by which he meant pulsars.

Later I talked with Brad Steiger. “Suspend belief when you talk to this tall, well-groomed man,” the San Francisco Examiner once advised, and indeed Steiger was well groomed in a red turtleneck, dark jacket and Star Trek razorcut. I told him I wanted to track down the woman whose face couldn’t be photographed. I thought Annie Leibovitz might like to meet her.

No problem, said Steiger. His associate, David Graham, had the woman’s name and address, and I could get it by calling Graham in Iowa on Monday.

“Well,” I said, “meaning no disrespect but I’ll bet he won’t. Something will go wrong. Something always does.”

“Oh, no. Don’t worry. David will put you in touch with her.”

That night I looked in on Von Daniken’s keynote address. An audience of several hundred listened intently – women in nosecone bras and print dresses, men with thinning hair combed straight back, straight forward, or in creative swirls, young men on the go in bright dacron sports jackets, a big blonde with a roving eye, a slim young lady with a gaze out of the twilight side of acid, a few dozen college students with the stunned look college can impart as efficiently as a nightstick.

“Eech mytology arount the verlt,” Von Daniken was saying, “eech olt religion. . . .”

I checked out. On the flight to New York I took a look at a book called The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, by E. A. Burtt. “Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, James, Bergson – all are united in one earnest attempt, the attempt to reinstate man with his high spiritual claims to a place of importance in the cosmic scheme,” Burtt wrote.

And that, in a way, seems to be the simple quest of the ancient astronaut enthusiasts, flying-saucer buffs, spiritualists and psychics who gathered in Arlington Heights: to rethrone “fallen gods,” as Peter Tompkins calls human beings, or failing that, at least to believe that somebody – if not God, spacemen – cares about us and the fate of our small planet. Kant failed at this task, his synthetic a priori knowledge kicked in the balls by the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry, and so far the devotees of the new nonsense have failed too. What depresses me is that so many of them, faced with preliminary failure, copped for such shoddy fantasies. It must be anguishing to believe, these days, that humans are essentially godlike, but the first lesson of anguish is that if you can’t handle reality, at least you ought to hold out for a decent dream.

Next day I phoned David Graham in Iowa for the name of the woman whose face cannot be photographed. No luck.

Graham said he had the name and address but would not release them because the lady craves privacy. Anyway she is a cranky old soul and I wouldn’t like her. Also the address is over ten years old and probably obsolete because she moves around a lot. And, she was over 70 when the picture was made; she might be dead by now. Goodbye.

Before hanging up Graham did consent to reveal a few details about his remarkable photograph. He said he made it at a spiritualist gathering in Iowa, with his own Polaroid camera. He was astonished at the outcome but didn’t try a second photo. Polaroid film is expensive.

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