First Contact

Garry Nolan is the man you call when there’s no Earthly explanation.

July 2023

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Garry Nolan at a computer with the universe in the background

Photo composite: Timothy Archibald; Background image: New Zealand Transition

Garry Nolan has published more than 300 papers over a 30-year career as an immunologist, but none like the one that appeared in the January 2022 issue of Progress in Aerospace Sciences. It wasn’t just that the article (and journal) had nothing to do with the typical interests of a Stanford professor of pathology—in Nolan’s case, cancer biology, pathogenic infection, and retroviral design. It was that the paper explored a topic that few academics of any stripe seriously consider in their work: the possibility of UFOs.

The paper revisited Council Bluffs, Iowa, where a luminous red mass was reported as having fallen to earth on a cold December night in 1977. The event—observed by multiple witnesses, including two who claimed to have seen a hovering object—left some 35 to 55 pounds of molten iron smoldering in a field, confounding investigators who ruled out meteorites, satellites, or aircraft as the cause. Nor did they find plausible signs of a hoax. 

Nolan, PhD ’89, and three co-authors used modern technology to reassess the materials. The results weren’t earthshaking. The metal, they found, was mostly iron with isotopically ordinary elements, albeit atypically mixed. Nonetheless, their paper was quietly historic. After positing possible Earthly explanations, Nolan and his colleagues noted that the iron could have been discarded fuel from an advanced aerial vehicle. It was the first—and to Nolan’s knowledge, the only—time a paper in a mainstream, peer-reviewed journal had seriously interrogated alleged UFO artifacts, though the authors were careful not to draw conclusions. The paper’s broader goal, Nolan says, was to present data in a manner that could be applied to other remnants of alleged UFO encounters, to create a pipeline of research that ultimately would bring scientific clarity to a realm in which it has been in short supply. “In good science, you work on what is possible,” Nolan says. “Slowly moving up the proof scale is the best way to do science.” 

At a time of heightened interest in UFOs, Nolan has become a point person on the topic—being quoted in newspapers, appearing on television, consulting with military officials, and founding a nonprofit to work on the implications of alien spacecraft on policy, science, and the economy—all while batting away the slings and arrows of skeptics. “If there are others doing this, they’re doing it more quietly because people are still afraid of the stigma,” says Leslie Kean, an investigative journalist who has covered UFOs for the New York Times and other publications. “I think he’s absolutely unique.” 

‘If you take a potential solution off the table and throw it in the garbage, you could spend the rest of eternity searching around on the table for the answer, and you threw it in the garbage.’

Nolan’s role at the Stanford School of Medicine, of course, is about something different altogether. He is known as a trailblazing biotech toolmaker, a reputation that stretches back to his days as a postdoc for Nobel laureate David Baltimore at MIT. There, Nolan co-developed a widely used system that harnesses retroviruses to deliver DNA to cells, an essential tactic in gene therapy. He realized that by creating platforms for other scientists, he could achieve an influence surpassing that of his own lab discoveries. “I’m not the world’s best immunologist,” he says. “But my tools are used by the world’s best immunologists.” Nolan’s more recent successes—spun off into several start-ups—have come in the realms of deep cellular analysis and imaging devices. “If Garry does something new, everyone is going to sit up and pay attention,” says Peter O’Toole, head of imaging and cytometry at the University of York, in England, who interviewed Nolan last year for his pathology podcast, Flow Stars.

Nolan’s pursuits may not have obvious overlap, but associates see them as expressions of a common urge to look beyond the status quo. “The fact that Garry is pushing the UFO subject forward, it comes from the same place that got him to push all these other technologies forward,” says Michael Angelo, an assistant professor of pathology and former Nolan postdoc. “It is all driven from the same thing.”

Nolan isn’t the first Stanford scientist to go deep on UFOs. In the 1970s, Peter Sturrock, today a professor emeritus of applied physics, hired a French scientist named Jacques Vallée—shortly to inspire Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—to join his astrophysics group. Wanting to better know his new associate, Sturrock read books Vallée had written on UFOs, which led him to a 1969 study, funded by the U.S. Air Force, that had effectively declared the whole subject bunk. But Sturrock couldn’t reconcile that conclusion with the evidence cited within the report itself. In 1982, he founded the Society for Scientific Exploration to bring attention to the topic.

Meanwhile, Nolan’s introduction to the field was experiential. In an indelible childhood memory, Nolan recalls seeing an apparent spacecraft above the woods while on his newspaper route in his hometown of Windsor, Conn. In another, as a 5- or 6-year-old, he awoke to alien figures in his bedroom. Decades later in a bookstore, he saw the cover of Communion: A True Story, Whitley Strieber’s best-selling account of his own alleged encounters with aliens. “I just remember having a near nervous breakdown because it was what I had seen as a child in my bedroom,” Nolan says.  

Portrait of Garry NolanPhoto: Timothy Archibald

Those experiences cemented his interest in the extraterrestrial, but they didn’t have much effect on Nolan’s day- to-day. Then, in 2012, he learned that a documentary film crew would have access to a tiny, mummified skeleton discovered a decade earlier in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Ata, as the skeleton was nicknamed, had an array of unusual physical characteristics—including 10 ribs instead of the usual 12, giant eye sockets, and an elongated skull—that had fueled rumors it was of alien origins. Nolan, who suspected the skeleton was terrestrial, offered his team’s services to clarify its provenance.

DNA testing soon established that the remains were of a girl, perhaps stillborn, with a constellation of rare mutations. But Nolan’s involvement had another purpose. “When I agreed to be in the movie, I was like, ‘OK, this is going to bring me to the attention of people who might really know what’s going on, and maybe people will contact me,’” he says. “And they did.”

Not long after the release of the documentary, Sirius, in 2013, two men stopped by his campus lab. Nolan declines to name them but says one claimed to be ex-CIA; the other, an executive with an aerospace company. They came carrying MRIs showing brain scans of pilots, intelligence agents, and others suffering from a host of ailments whose possible causes included alleged proximity to UFOs. They knew that Nolan—a pioneer in a technique called CyTOF that was revolutionizing cell analysis—had a powerful machine for blood analysis, and they wanted his help getting more data. 

Nolan signed onto the project. His path would bring him in contact with veteran UFO scholars—including Vallée, who would co-author the Council Bluffs paper—and governmental officials investigating UFO reports. One of them was Jay Stratton, who retired from the U.S. government in 2022 as the first director of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. He gave Nolan’s name to pilots who were concerned they’d been exposed to the propulsion systems of UFOs but were reluctant to speak with a military doctor. “He has just been one of the guys in my Rolodex, and he’s there anytime we needed him and his expertise,” Stratton says. 

One might surmise that a scientist would pay a reputational cost for embracing what was once largely seen as tabloid fodder. Nolan recalls a senior figure from the National Cancer Institute taking him aside in a bar around 2014 to warn him he was ruining his career. Nolan is an easy conversationalist, but he’ll throw niceties to the wind if someone tells him scientists should hold certain topics out-of-bounds. “That’s not how a scientist operates,” Nolan says. “If you take a potential solution off the table and you throw it in the garbage, you could spend the rest of eternity searching around on the table for the answer, and you threw it in the garbage.” He soon had the man in retreat.

‘If this isn’t bipartisan, I don’t know what is.’

Moreover, Nolan contends, the research payoff could be high. Take the discoveries that led to the microprocessor. “Just that little insight about how to manipulate semiconductors changed civilization,” Nolan says. “Imagine if there is a nonhuman intelligence here doing something extraordinary with physics and we’re ignoring it because we just don’t think it fits our equations.” Even when UFO inquiries hit dead ends for the paranormal, they can lead to progress elsewhere. The MRI scans delivered to Nolan’s lab in 2013, for example, showed activity in two areas of the brain, the caudate and the putamen. That inspired  Nolan to collaborate with Harvard scientists on research that has expanded awareness of their role in intelligence and intuition. 

It helps that Nolan has taken on his UFO work during a period when the subject is getting new respect. This new era arguably announced itself on December 16, 2017, when the New York Times ran a front-page story—co-written by Kean—revealing that the Pentagon had been running a covert UFO program for a decade. Since last year, the Director of National Intelligence has been required to submit an annual report to Congress on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena, the government’s official term for UFOs.

When Nolan appeared as the sole guest for the full hour of Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News last year, he got more grief for where he appeared than what he talked about—not that he cared. “I was more than willing to take the pelting,” he says. “If this isn’t bipartisan, I don’t know what is.”

Thus far, though, anyone waiting for confirmation of UFOs from the government is still waiting. The Department of Defense’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office “has found no credible evidence thus far of extraterrestrial activity, off-world technology, or objects that defy the known laws of physics,” the head of the office recently told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. 

It may turn out that whether you call them UFOs or UAPs, the most important letter is the one that doesn’t change. The many objects that witnesses report could end up with prosaic explanations should they ever lose the U and become identified. Or not. “I used to believe that it was all mythology,” says Kean. “And then, over the years, I came to really understand that that’s not the case. I’m absolutely convinced some of these objects are not made by humans.”

Nolan has a bifurcated stance. As an individual, he believes in UFOs—a conviction based on his memories and on things he has seen and heard in the years since he became immersed in this field. In June, he made international headlines after saying at a conference that he was 100 percent sure that alien intelligence had visited Earth.

But that was speaking from his gut. As a scientist, he knows the threshold of proof remains publicly uncrossed. “I don’t have something that I could put on the kitchen table that will float with anti-gravity that I can point my friends to,” he says. “I agree with you that the hard data is not in your hands yet, but don’t stop me from getting it.”

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at

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