J. Allen Hynek had his first science fiction short story published before turning 15. Though he grew up to be a scientist, not a writer, his life was defined by the sometimes razor-thin boundary between fact and fiction.
He helped develop the Hubble Telescope, but Hynek is best known for his role in the Air Force's decadeslong investigation into unidentified flying objects, during which he created a four-tier classification system of "close encounters."
In The Close Encounters Man (Dey Street), biographer Mark O'Connell presents Hynek as a "rational person looking at an irrational subject."
The cases he investigated ranged from the mundane to the outrageous—in one, a Wisconsin farmer reported meeting alien visitors who made him pancakes—to the truly unexplainable. Before his death in 1986, the naturally skeptical Hynek admitted to having personally witnessed two UFOs, saying he came to believe not all sightings were fakes, tricks, misidentified aircraft, or "swamp gas."
Steven Spielberg borrowed heavily from one of Hynek's books about the UFO investigations in his 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (an encounter with an extraterrestrial being, according to Hynek's system), and a whole subgenre of sci-fi owes a debt to Hynek's real-life work.
Was there a shadowy government conspiracy to hide the truth, as many of those stories allege? "You can cover up knowledge and you can cover up ignorance," O'Connell quotes Hynek as saying. "I think there was much more of the latter than of the former."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Close Encounters Man".