E.T., Phone Derrick Pitts

With his new stance on UFOs, the Franklin Institute astronomer would be happy to take your call

Franklin Institute astronomer Derrick Pitts is one of this country’s leading scientific stars. He’s been named one of the Top 50 African-American research scientists, and he’s a media force, having appeared on MSNBC, The Colbert Report and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson and hosted his own local weekly radio show on WHYY. So why, exactly, is he endorsing a book that is, well, pro-UFO?

Science is looking for ET in microbes these days—not via strange lights in the sky. But Pitts says the book UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record by Leslie Kean, pointed out to him by a colleague, motivated him to adopt a more … curious viewpoint. “I had the view, too, that UFOs were seen by hicks,” he admits. “But in this book you had really credible people reporting these experiences, and while I have no hard data to say what they report is an absolutely true experience, I came to think the stigma surrounding the subject is unfortunate.”

For the record, what Pitts endorses is the “unidentified” aspect of an unidentified flying object. “I have never seen a UFO myself,” he says, “and I am not saying that UFOs are ET spacecraft. I am saying [that] here, there is some mystery, and we should be able to address it scientifically, without all the stigma involved.”

Pitts’s endorsement will run on the paperback edition, which comes out in August, and he knows the stigma surrounding those three letters “UFO” could taint him in the eyes of some. Just saying there’s something worth looking at is usually regarded as verboten. “I don’t really care,” he says. “Because that’s not real science. The scientific viewpoint is to admit when we don’t know something and look for answers.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Philadelphia magazine.