it is the 40th anniversary of the Trans-en-Provence sighting of a UFO. On 8th January 1981, a sighting which was described in detail by Renato Nicolai, the French farmer who had the close encounter:
I have lived in Trans-en-Province at my current address for nearly 14 years. My wife and I live alone. She is the cleaning lady at the social security office in Draguignan. I have not worked since November 1979. I was previously an employee of the SCNI company. This firm went out of business and I was laid off. I receive a disability pension because I suffered from a heart problem since 1973.
Yesterday, January 8. 1981, I was busy around the house as I am practically every day. I was behind the house, which is built over a restanque (raised level). I was building a concrete shelter for a water pump. Behind my house on the same level is an expanse of flat ground. It is reached through a path along the base of the house.
It was about 5PM. The weather was turning colder. My attention was attracted by a slight noise, a sort of faint whistling. I turned around and saw a device in the air at the height of a big pine tree at the edge of the property. This device, which was not spinning, was coming lower toward the ground. I was only hearing a slight whistling sound. I was not seeing any flames, either below or around this device.
While it was continuing to come down, I went closer by walking towards the stone cabin above my house. When I placed myself against the wall of the cabin, I could see very well over the roof, since this cabin too is built over a raised level. I was on the higher level, about 1.2 m from the roof. From that position, I clearly saw the device resting on the ground. Right away it lifted off, still emitting a slight whistling sound. Reaching a point above the trees, it left at high speed toward the forest of Trans, that is, towards the northeast.
When the device lifted off, I saw four openings below, through which neither flame nor smoke were escaping. The device kicked off a little dust when it left the ground. At that instant, I was about 30 m away from the landing site. Later I went to the spot and I noticed a circle about 2 m in in diameter. At certain places along the circumference of the circle were traces like abrasions.
The device had the shape of two saucers, one inverted on top of the other. It must have measured about 1.5 m in height. It was the colour of lead. This device had a ridge all the way around its circumference. Under the machine I saw two kinds of pieces as it was lifting off. They could be reactors or feet. There were also two other circles which looked like trapdoors. The two reactors, or feet, extended about 20 cm below the body of the machine.
I have not felt any disturbance of the sense of vision or hearing
Such stories of aliens terrified me when I was a child. I hated Doctor Who with its daleks and cybermen. I hated stories of “flying saucers”. I once spent an evening avoiding a television version of War of the Worlds.
As the years have passed, the aliens have become an increasingly attractive option. If they have arrived here, their technology and knowledge is infinitely in advance of ours, and surely they would be more inspiring than the rulers of our world?
It was reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything that stories such as that of Renato Nicolai were not possible:
Space, let me repeat, is enormous. The average distance between stars out there is over 30 million million kilometres. Even at speeds approaching those of light, these are fantastically challenging distances for any travelling individual. Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of miles to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in Wiltshire or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a pickup truck on a lonely road in Arizona (they must have teenagers, after all), but it does seem unlikely.
Still, statistically the probability that there are other thinking beings out there is good. Nobody knows how many stars there are in the Milky Way – estimates range from a hundred billion or so to perhaps four hundred billion – and the Milky Way is just one of a hundred and forty billion or so other galaxies, many of them even larger than ours. In the 1960s, a professor at Cornell named Frank Drake, excited by such whopping numbers, worked out a famous equation designed to calculate the chances of advanced life existing in the cosmos, based on a series of diminishing probabilities.
Under Drake’s equation you divide the number of stars in a selected portion of the universe by the number of stars that are. likely to have planetary systems; divide that by the number of planetary systems that could theoretically support life; divide that by the number on which life, having arisen, advances to a state of intelligence; and so on. At each such division, the number shrinks colossally – yet even with the most conservative inputs the number of advanced civilizations just in the Milky Way always works out to be somewhere in the millions.
What an interesting and exciting thought. We may be only one of millions of advanced civilizations. Unfortunately, space being spacious, the average distance between any two of these civilizations is reckoned to be at least two hundred light years, which is a great deal more than merely saying it makes it sound. It means, for a start, that even if these beings know we are here and are somehow able to see us in their telescopes, they’re watching light that left Earth two hundred years ago. So they’re not seeing you and me. They’re watching the French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson and people in silk stockings and powdered wigs – people who don’t know what an atom is, or a gene, and who make their electricity by rubbing a rod of amber with a piece of fur and think that’s quite a trick. Any message we receive from these observers is likely to begin ‘Dear Sire’, and congratulate us on the handsomeness of our horses and our mastery of whale oil. Two hundred light years is a distance so far beyond us as to be, well, just beyond us.
So even if we are not really alone, in all practical terms we are. Carl Sagan calculated the number of probable planets in the universe at as many as ten billion trillion – a number vastly beyond imagining. But what is equally beyond imagining is the amount of space through which they are lightly scattered. ‘If we were randomly inserted into the universe,’ Sagan wrote, ‘the chances that you would be on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion’.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, pp 48-49
It may have been a UFO in Provence, but it was definitely one of a terrestrial origin.