On a dark September night in 1961, Barney and Betty Hill had a frightening experience in the mountains of New Hampshire. Later they came to believe that they had been captured and studied by beings from another world. During their ordeal on the spaceship, Betty saw a star map said to contain astonishingly accurate astronomical details. We look at what some ufologists see as proof of alien contact.
Here is a strange story.
On 19 September 1961 Barney (1922–1969) and Betty Hill (1919-2004) were returning from a holiday. Middle-aged, the Hills were respectable pillars of the community, living quiet, decent lives. They drove overnight from Montreal, Canada to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Their journey took them through the forested and deserted White Mountains of New Hampshire. Both observed a bright light in the sky under the Moon. As they drove, both believed it to be following their car, the couple rationalised it as an aircraft or satellite. Barney observed the light through binoculars, revealing it to be an odd-looking flying vehicle, a flying saucer with extensive windows, bright lights and variable geometry wings. It was clearly not of this Earth, and to Barney’s horror grinning humanoid beings were looking right back at him through the craft’s large windows. Anxious to escape this ominous presence, the Hills drove on at high speed…and then it was dawn and they were nearly home.
On their arrival, the couple were puzzled; their journey seemed to have taken a couple of hours longer than it should have. The Hills were worried by this missing time, more alarming still, they also had a selection of minor cuts, grazes and clothing damage that they could not remember receiving (other intriguing-sounding physical evidence claimed by the Hills’ supporters, such as odd areas of exposed bare metal on their car and strange “chemical” stains on Betty’s clothing have been lost to history). Frightened, the Hills began to suspect that something very odd had happened to them.
In the following months, Betty suffered from severe nightmares of a kidnapping. Betty was interested in UFO stories, and she began to believe that during their journey she and Barney had been abducted and taken on board a spaceship. Eventually the Hills sought help, initially from UFO investigators (who, it seems leaked the couple’s details to the press, the Hills had wanted their experience to remain private). Increasingly distressed, the Hills looked to more professional help. Hypnotised by a distinguished psychiatrist, Dr Benjamin Simon, both gave detailed accounts of what they believed had happened on their fateful drive. This is the most important points of their story as recorded by Dr Simon in 1964.
The Hills had been forced to stop their car by a landed spaceship and its crew who compelled their captives to board their vessel. Their kidnappers were small greyish-coloured men who seemed to be conducting a scientific investigation of earthlings. After performing a strange, bumbling but painful and degrading medical examination of the Hills (using technology which seems archaic now, such as the chart recorders the Hills’ vital signs were plotted on), the alien’s leader showed Betty a star map. The alien, who spoke English, told her that the map showed trade and exploration routes between stars and that our Sun and the aliens’ home star were marked on it (he pointed out roughly where he and his crew came from). The abducting aliens intended that the Hills would be unable to remember their ordeal, presumably using their advanced technology to block the couple’s memories. The dazed Hills were released and allowed to go on their way while the spaceship disappeared into the dark starry sky.
(It should be emphasised that Dr Simon believed that the Hills were utterly sincere but sharing a delusion.)
Since then this basic story has been repeated so often by others. The circumstances are the same; nighttime abduction by little grey men, bizarre and unpleasant medical tests, release, amnesia of the events followed by nightmares and eventual total recall under hypnosis. Retelling alien abduction reports and circulating rumours of government coverups of saucer crashes have been the meat and drink of UFOlogy since the 1980s (actually attempting to observe and analyse UFOs in the sky is a very minor part of UFOlogical studies it seems). As it is the prototype alien abduction narrative, Barney and Betty’s adventure has been hugely influential (it was was dramatised for TV in 1975 as The UFO Incident), inspiring thousands of flights of fancy in the years that followed. What makes this account more than just another tall tale that many people have copied is the claim that Betty Hill had astronomical knowledge unavailable in 1964. If true, this is truly astonishing, possibly suggesting that the Hill’s account really happened.
Under hypnosis Betty was able to redraw the map the alien leader had shown her. Betty was vague about what the map actually showed; sometimes she referred to as showing stars and planets. Her sketch was reproduced in books and magazines. In the late 1960s, a teacher called Marjorie Fish (1932-2013) tried to compare the map with real nearby stars and see if any matched. This would not be an easy task as there were about a thousand stars within 50 light years of the Sun. To make things easier, Fish made a series of sensible assumptions based on how similar to us the aliens seemed, suggesting their home planet was very similar to Earth. Based on data that was accurate at that time, she eliminated
- All non-main sequence stars (habitable planets are unlikely to survive their star’s transition to red giant)
- All variable stars (it is difficult to see how life could arise on their planets because the huge temperature variations)
- Stars of class F4 or higher (these would have much shorter lifetimes than our Sun, so less time for life to arise)
- Multiple star systems where the stars were too close together (stable planetary orbits seem impossible)
- M class red dwarfs (potential planets would be tidally locked)
After this sifting process, Fish was left with 46 stars. Using data from the 1969 edition of the Gliese Catalog of Nearby Stars, for nearly five years Fish painstakingly constructed several three-dimensional models of the Sun’s neighbourhood from wire and beads. She viewed these from every possible angle, hoping to find a pattern matching the Hill map, a long and very difficult process. It is impossible to criticise the effort Fish made. Eventually she found almost a perfect match! It seemed that the map drawn by Betty Hill accurately depicted the stars near our own. All the stars lay roughly on the same plane and the aliens apparently came from the Zeta Reticulum system. The view point was from slightly above the star Zeta 2 Reticuli.
This pair of G-type stars is only 39.5 light years away in the small and unimpressive constellation of Reticulum (the Net). A binary system, the two stars are at least 3750 AU (about 0.06 light years) apart, far enough a separation for each to have its own planetary system. From the planets of one star, the other star would be a brilliantly bright star about as 30 times as bright as Venus looks in Earth’s sky. It was not clear which of the pair was the aliens’ home star. No planets have yet been discovered around either star, see the truth about Zeta Reticuli.
Fish concluded “Since we did not have the data to make such a map in 1961 when Betty saw it, or in 1964 when she drew it, it could not be a hoax. Since the stars with lines to them are such a select group, it is almost impossible that the resemblance between Betty’s map and reality could be coincidental. Betty’s map could only have been drawn after contact with extraterrestrials.”
Alas, it is probably more complicated than that. Based on obsolete data, Marjorie Fish’s interpretation of Betty Hill’s map has been shown to be wrong. In the early 1990s the European Hipparcos (“High precision parallax collecting satellite) mission measured the distances to more than a hundred thousand stars around the Sun more accurately than ever before. Some turned out to be much further away than previously thought. Other research has looked at stars included in Fish’s research. Two, 54 and 107 Piscium, have been revealed to be variable stars, while Gliese 67 and Tau 1 Eridani are in fact close binaries. Then some stars discounted by Fish have turned out to be potential abodes for life after all, for example Epsilon Eridani is not after all a binary star. Using Fish’s own assumptions and more up to date data, six of the fifteen stars chosen by her must be excluded. The Fish interpretation falls to pieces at this point, and at some point Fish herself confirmed this (see update section at the end). As far as I know, this was first pointed out in an article Goodbye Zeta Reticuli by Brett Holman published in the November 2008 Fortean Times and the silence which has followed from supporters of the Hill’s account has been telling. Using more up-to- date details of nearby stars, one could probably come up with a reasonable match with completely different stars (no UFOlogist appears to want to do this), but that is beside the point, the whole idea that Betty Hill was accurately reproducing something she really saw is flawed.
Remember it was drawn from memory, so any correlation with the real stars is almost certainly the result of chance; the idea that this correlation can be tested and found to be accurate to so-many thousand decimal places is fantasy. I have never understood why it has ever been taken seriously, being based on what seem to me several big assumptions.
- Hypnosis is a real mental state which enables ‘lost’ memories to be recovered (to me it appear a kind of roleplaying game played by the subject and hypnotist).
- A hypnotised individual has perfect memory recall of what they have seen. (Note, for example, that Barney and Betty’s accounts under hypnosis disagreed about major details, especially in their descriptions of the aliens. Betty said they were hairless and wore grey or blue jackets and trousers, while Barney said that they did have hair on their head and wore shiny black uniforms with peaked caps which he compared to Nazi uniforms. It is interesting too that over the decades Betty’s story changed, dropping elements which later seemed silly like her aliens’ bulbous “Jimmy Durante” noses.)
- An individual can reproduce from memory dots on a map with accuracy down to the millimetre? (Does anyone know how often Betty redrew the map? Was each copy identical?) Note that Betty Hill herself appears to have been unsure just how accurate her drawing was. She wrote “As for the 8 background stars – I really do not know if they exist and in that position, or if I added them to try to show that the other stars were seen on the sky map in the background. I know I added them to show that stars were in the background; however, as to their position on the original skymap, I am not sure.”
None of these seem believable to me. I believe that the correlation with some real stars reported by Marjorie Fish is the result of chance. Betty Hill’s drawing is in no way at all proof of alien contact. I have no idea what really happened to the Hills on that September night but I am certain that the Hill Abduction case is not after all evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to our planet.
UPDATE: In June 2013 I was saddened to hear that Marjorie Fish had passed away. An obituary reports
As one of her hobbies, Marjorie made an investigation into the Betty Hill map by constructing a 3-D star map in the late 1960’s using several databases. She found a pattern that matched Mrs. Hill’s drawing well, which generated international interest. Later, after newer data was compiled, she determined that the binary stars within the pattern were too close together to support life; so as a true skeptic, she issued a statement that she now felt that the correlation was unlikely.
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)