A topic about outer-space and everything in it, from little green men to big spirally galaxies

UFOs Explained: It's the Alcohol Silly!

UFO Chart

A new low in UFO debunkery from The Economist, with the chart above suggesting that UFO sightings are simply a function of people drinking too much alcohol.

[T]he National UFO Reporting Centre, a non-profit, has catalogued almost 90,000 reported sightings of UFOs, mostly in America, since 1974. It turns out that aliens are considerate. They seldom disturb earthlings during working or sleeping hours. Rather, they tend to arrive in the evening, especially on Fridays, when folks are sitting on the front porch nursing their fourth beer, the better to appreciate flashing lights in the heavens (see chart). The state aliens like best is Washington—a finding that pre-dates the legalisation of pot there. Other popular destinations are also near the Canadian border, where the Northern lights are sometimes visible. UFOs tend to shun big cities, where there are lots of other lights, and daylight hours, when people might think they were just aeroplanes.

The numbers obviously have nothing to do with the fact that 'drinking hours' strangely coincide with the time of day that most people would notice something in the sky (night-time), but are not yet asleep. I totally expected that the highest number of sightings of things in the sky would be when people are asleep in their bedrooms... (/snark).

Flying Saucer Origins: Debunking Debunkery

NASA's Flying Saucer

Last week's planned testing of NASA's flying saucer lookalike, the 'Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator' (LDSD, pictured above), has inspired a few news stories discussing the iconic nature of the alien saucer image (see for example the BBC's "The Lasting Allure of the Flying Saucer"). On Sunday The Atlantic joined in with "The Man Who Introduced the World to Flying Saucers", a look back at the seminal Kenneth Arnold sighting in 1947 and the idea that the flying saucer mythos has its origins in a misquote:

On June 25, Arnold ended up at the offices of the East Oregonian, a Pendleton newspaper. He told reporters about his sighting. He emphasized the “unidentified” as much as the “flying objects.” He described their movements, saying that they flew “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.”

...Arnold himself, however, would say that he was misquoted — or, at least, taken out of context. Some argue that the entire idea of a flying saucer was based on a reporter's misunderstanding of Arnold's "like a saucer" description as describing a saucer itself—making it "one of the most significant reporter misquotes in history." A 1970 study reviewing U.S. newspaper accounts of the Arnold UFO sighting concluded that the term had been introduced by an editor or headline writer, since the bodies of the early Arnold news stories didn't mention "flying saucers" or "flying discs."

...Was it a "historical misquote," or the second thoughts of reluctant source? (Just after the sighting, on June 27, Arnold would tell reporters that "I haven't had a moment of peace since I first told the story.") More than a half century later, it's even more difficult than it was back then to determine the lines between phantom and fact. The first draft of history can be a rough one.

What is clear, in retrospect, is that, starting on June 26, the flying saucer—as an idea, if not an object—was introduced to Americans. Newspapers began using the terms "flying saucer" and "flying disk" (occasionally: "flying disc") to describe the objects Arnold had seen. And the concept spread; once the idea had been planted in people’s minds, they, too, began seeing saucers.

Readers of our Fortean anthology series Darklore would know that this 'debunking' of the Arnold flying saucer story is itself a bit of a myth. In "Return of the Flying Saucers" (in Volume 5 of Darklore, also available as a free PDF download on the DL site), Martin Shough examines the history of the sighting in detail and comes to the conclusion that Arnold probably did see (or at least, thought he saw) something disk-shaped - though not perfectly circular - on that day:

Arnold himself used both “saucer like objects” and “saucer-like discs” as shape-similes in his own original Air Force report typed by his own hand on or about July 08 1947. Once again, just as important as the fact that Arnold uses these phrases is the conspicuous fact that he does not use these terms in the context of any motion simile.

The Oregon Journal, June 27, said that Arnold “clung stoutly to his story that he saw nine shiny crescent-shaped planes”, but these words are not in quotes from Arnold, they are the writer’s. Where Arnold is actually quoted in the same article he says, “They were
half-moon shaped, oval in front and convex on the rear. I was in a beautiful position to watch them...they looked like a big flat disk [emphases added].” This describes the sort of shape Arnold drew for the Army Air Force, a flat plate with a trimmed off or tapered rear edge, and the “half-moon” clearly plays the same role here as the
“half pie-pan” in the description used by Arnold elsewhere: “half a pie-pan with a convex triangle in the rear”. The shape in Arnold’s drawing suggests that he may have had in mind a gibbous moon, i.e. between half and full; howsoever the reporter has interpreted “half ” to mean “crescent” (in some people’s imaginations “moon” and “crescent” might be almost synonymous) and neglected the rest of the description.

Kenneth Arnold Saucer Drawing

Shough argues that the morphing of Arnold's memory of the objects into 'boomerang-shaped' may have had its origin in a meeting with military officials a month after his sighting:

On July 31 1947 Army CIC officers Brown and Davidson exposed Arnold to what they called a “flying wing” photographed by William Rhodes in Phoenix, intimating that it was “genuine”. Arnold’s reaction is consistent with a tendency to seek the endorsement of conservative military authorities.

It's certainly a story that can be interpreted in various ways, but Martin's essay in Darklore 5 I think is one of the most authoritative histories available.


Beyond Planet X - Are There Actually Two Undiscovered Giant Planets in the Outer Solar System?

Movie still from 'Another Earth'

Back in March some astronomers were touting a new discovery that hinted at the existence of a 'Planet X' lurking in the outer Solar System, far beyond our ability for direct observation. Now, in a paper on arXiv.org, Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain have asked whether strange patterns in the orbital alignments of the dwarf planets beyond Pluto suggest the existence of not one, but two giant planets:

Small groups of the objects have very similar orbital paths. Because they are not massive enough to be tugging on each other, the researchers think the objects are being "shepherded" by a larger object in a pattern known as orbital resonance.

For instance, we know that Neptune and Pluto are in orbital resonance – for every two orbits Pluto makes around the sun, Neptune makes three. Similarly, one group of small objects seems to be in lockstep with a much more distant, unseen planet. That world would have a mass between that of Mars and Saturn and would sit about 200 times Earth's distance from the sun.

Some of the smaller objects have very elongated orbits that would take them out to this distance. It is unusual for a large planet to orbit so close to other bodies unless it is dynamically tied to something else, so the researchers suggest that the large planet is itself in resonance with a more massive world at about 250 times the Earth-sun distance – just like the one predicted in the previous work.

Read more: Two giant planets may cruise unseen beyond Pluto

Paper: "Extreme trans-Neptunian objects and the Kozai mechanism: signaling the presence of trans-Plutonian planets?"

Something Just Went BOOM* in the Galaxy Next Door

Gamma Ray Burst

There are a lot of very excited astronomers about today with the possible detection of a gamma-ray burst (GRB) in the closest galaxy to us, Andromeda (known under the Messier catalogue designation 'M31'). GRBs have been detected before, but never this close (Andromeda is 'just' 2.5million light years away). It's thought that the explosion has likely been caused by two colliding neutron stars (another possibility is a supernova, but the stars in that area are not thought to be large enough to nova).

But what are GRBs, and should we be concerned? After all, what happened to Bruce Banner actually paints GRBs in a *good light*...

Gamma rays are blamed for making Bruce Banner the Incredible Hulk. But what are gamma rays and what can they really do?

Gamma rays are the highest energy form of light. The rainbow of visible light that we are most familiar with is just part of a far broader spectrum of light, the electromagnetic spectrum. Past the red end of the rainbow, where wavelengths get longer, are infrared rays, microwaves and radio waves, while beyond violet lie the shorter wavelengths of ultraviolet rays, X-rays and, finally, gamma rays.

A gamma ray packs at least 10,000 times more energy than a visible light ray. Unlike the Incredible Hulk, gamma rays are not green — lying as they do beyond the visible spectrum, gamma rays have no color at all that we can describe.

Exactly how Bruce Banner survives his transformation is unclear. Just as high doses of X-rays are typically lethal, so too would an explosion of gamma rays kill the average person.

Gamma rays can knock electrons around like a bowling ball would bowling pins. These charged particles can then disrupt any chemical bond they come across, wreaking havoc on the delicate chemical machinery of the cell and generating molecular fragments that can act as toxins.

To put it gently, a gamma bomb in the real world would not turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. Rather, it would likely quickly turn him into a corpse dead from radiation sickness, if not incinerating him instantly.

In short: if a GRB hit us hard, it would kill all life on planet Earth. Gulp. Doesn't sound too good does it? Fortunately, GRBs are highly directional, and this one wasn't pointing at us (and additionally, even the galaxy next door is still a long distance away from us). As astronomer Robert Rutledge responded to a concerned person on social media, the basic rule of thumb with GRBs is "if you can get to the end of the sentence, 'Hey, what's going on?' You're gonna be fine".

Astronomers are awaiting detection of neutrinos here on Earth to confirm the event as a GRB - another possibility is that it is an ultra-luminous X-ray source (ULX) - it's still very early days (it was only detected a couple of hours before the writing of this post). The Heavy Metallicity blog is one of the first reporting this in layman's terms (as opposed to the more science-directed releases), and will be updated as more is known, so keep an eye on it and the Twitter hashtag #GRBm31 for new developments over time.

(* And by "just went BOOM", I mean "went BOOM about 2.5 million years ago...like I said, the galaxy next door is still a loooong way away)

Update: False alarm folks. If it's any consolation, we may still be obliterated by a gamma-ray burst anytime now.

Australian UFOs, More Than 100 Years Ago

Wandjina in Aboriginal Rock Art

by Andrew Nicholson

While Australia’s first UFO flap may have occurred in the winter of 1909, the skies above Australia have long been filled with unknown aerial objects that have left witnesses scratching their heads and clambering to adequately describe what they had seen.

Way back in 1868, Parramatta surveyor, Fred Birmingham, had an apparent encounter with “a machine to go through the air” while other early witnesses, untainted by the modern lore of UFOs and aliens, have reported celestial apparitions, aerial processions of vehicles, phenomenal lights in the heavens and strange meteors.

Are these reports of unknown aerial objects from the 19th and early 20th centuries UFO reports? Perhaps. But like today, many of these early reports continue to defy logical explanations.

Brilliant Star Appears in the Twinkling of an Eye

In an article titled "Strange Phenomenon" published in The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser on 18 May 1872, an eyewitness reported a brilliant

The Sport Model is Now a Classic: Robert Lazar, 'Area 51 Insider', 25 Years Later

In 1989, almost no one outside of Nevada had heard of a place called 'Area 51', except for a handful of aviation hobbyists; but nowadays if you stopped anyone by the street & brought up the name, it's more than likely they would immediately recognize it. Also known by the dryer term of Groom Lake test facility, or the far more captivating name of Dreamland, the oxymoronic world's most famous secret base has been permanently embedded in mainstream pop culture, and has been frequently portrayed in all manners of Sci-Fi content, from the blockbuster film Independence Day to the emblematic TV show the X-Files.

All that was almost single-handedly triggered by a man named Bob Lazar, who 25 years ago became an overnight celebrity after being interviewed in a local TV news channel by investigative journalist George Knapp, telling a bizarre story of dark secrets, underground labs & recovered flying saucers that managed to captivate the imagination of the entire world, and light the fires of conspiracy theory with a high-octane fuel, not unlike the type Lazar employed in the jet-engined cars he used to build & run in the sandy roads of the Nevada desert —his initial jump to a modest fame, before he became a household name in every UFO buff's home.

Knapp, the only reporter who seems to be capable of getting Lazar in front of a TV camera, managed to convince him in making a new interview to commemorate the anniversary & retell the story of what he (allegedly) saw while he was working on an ultra-secret section of Area 51 called 'S-4'. That's where, according to his story, the United States government was attempting to reverse-engineer a ... Read More »

UFOs in Norway: Are the 'Hessdalen Lights' Sparks From a Giant Geological Battery?

Hessdalen Lights
(Photo by Leif Havik, copyright Project Hessdalen)

Are the 'Hessdalen Lights', strange luminous aerial phenomena (some might even say the word 'UFOs'...) observed for many years in the Hessdalen Valley of Norway, the equivalent of sparks created by a natural geological battery? That's one of the theories suggested in a story in this week's issue of New Scientist, in which reporter Caroline Williams spoke to some of the researchers who have returned year after year to study the anomaly:

Sometimes the lights are as big as cars and can float around for up to 2 hours. Other times they zip down the valley before suddenly fading away. Then therea re the blue and white flashes that come and go in the blink of an eye, and daytime sightings that look like metallic objects in the sky. It is little wonder that when they started appearing up to 20 times a week in the early 1980s, UFOlogists hailed the Hessdalen valley as a portal to other worlds and flocked there to celebrate.

But for an international team that has been studying the mysterious lights since then, the valley harbours something much more exciting than flying saucers. If they can work out what it is about the place that powers such incredible light displays, it may not only help explain mysterious lights in other parts of the world, but also open up the possibility of storing energy in a radical way. It is a big if, but the team will be heading back to Hessdalen in the summer to test out a bunch of theoires on what is generating the lights. Armed with clues from recent lab studies, plus a bank of new instruments and sensors, they could find that this is the year it all starts to make sense.

The small group of Italian, Norwegian and French researchers who have been working together (part-time) on the mystery for the last 14 years have have noticed a few curious things about the Hessdalen Lights: while they make no sound and don't seem to be overly hot (no evidence of burn marks where they contact trees and the ground), they do seem to sterilise the ground where they land, as there is an absence of soil microbes at areas of contact. Furthermore, the researchers have found that they sometimes get strong radar echoes "from unseen entities" even when no lights are visible.

The combination of all these clues has researchers thinking that the Hessdalen Lights are a kind of plasma, formed from ionised gas. When the gas ionises, it forms "a cloud of ions and electrons which release energy in the form of light when they recombine". This light is not always in the visible spectrum though, and plasmas can be cool enough to touch. Even more interesting, plasmas are known to kill bacteria. And a plasma cloud would also account for the strange daytime sightings of 'metallic objects' flying through the sky - such objects would in fact be very dense plasma clouds beginning to emit light.

However, to ionise gas usually requires temperatures around the 10,000°C mark...something like a lightning strike. Therein lies the problem: in Hessdalen the lights aren't linked to thunderstorms, and appear on sunny days and clear nights. This has researchers mystified. "There must be an energy source somewhere that has the power of a lighting strike," electrical engineer Bjorn Gitle Hauge says. "What can electrify and drive a ball of light as big as a car for several hours?"

There are a number of theories. One is that strong winds whipping through the valley might create static electricity on the mountains. Another theory is they are powered by radioactivity - specifically, decay of radon in the atmosphere (though radioactivity tests have failed to find any evidence for this). One other theory is that the valley acts as a giant battery, due to its unique geology: it is literally a "valley of two halves", as the rocks on one side of the river are rich in zinc and iron, while those on the other side are rich in copper. With the possibility that the river water between has sulphur in it, researchers have asked whether the natural geology of the valley make it "a perfect battery".

"To test the idea, Jader Monari (of the Institute of Radio Astronomy in Medicina, Italy) and Romano Serra (from the University of Bologna, Italy) set up a pair of rocks from opposite sides of the valley as electrodes, and dunked them in river sediment to mimic a battery. They found that a current flowed between the two. "It was possible to light a lamp," says Monari.

Monari suggests that this unique geology contributes to the lights in two ways. First, it supplies the bubbles of ionised gas, formed when sulphurous fumes react with the humid air of the valley. Second, it forms electromagnetic field lines in the valley that could move the bubble around. "This electrical field creates a path that could be the 'main raod' of the lights inside the valley," he says.

The amount of theories has some researchers worried though. Computer engineer Erling Strand, who began the scientific study of the lights some three decades ago with 'Project Hessdalen', says he thinks "the theories we have now are based on too few hard facts. It can damage the research." Nevertheless, the idea that the phenomena have some basis in electrical charges is supported by other observeations, such as an observed connection between the aurora and the Hessdalen lights - observers have found that they are particularly impressive during auroral displays.

For those that would like to know more about the Hessdalen Lights, watch the documentary below. And of course, check out the feature in the latest issue of New Scientist.


You Monkeys Are Not Ready for ET Contact!

It is quite possibly every middle-aged geek's wet dream, aside of a working hover-board: That fateful day when humans finally get to shake hands, claws or tentacles with ambassadors from another world; the watershed moment when we'll finally know for certain that we're not alone in the universe, and a new chapter --or rather, an entire volume-- in the history of our species would commence.

I've been ready for that moment all of my life, ever since I heard that seminal 5-tone sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but what about humanity as a whole? That's what Gabriel G. De la Torre, a professor of psychology from the University of Cádiz in Spain, sought to find out. His conclusions: We still need a looot of growin' up to do before we can hang out with the big boys of the galactic playground.

De la Torre is a corresponding member of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and has been part of several committees related to space-oriented projects. In a paper published on the IAA's Acta Astronautica titled Toward a New Cosmic Consciousness: Psychoeducational Aspects of Contact with Extraterrestrial Civilizations, he analyzed the preliminary results of a written questionnary he applied to 116 college students from Spain, Italy & the USA, to assess whether our current level of awareness would be capable of handling the deep psychological impact, of discoverying and/or contacting an extraterrestrial civilization. His concern is that several cultural factors --religion in particular-- would tend to skew our opinion & expectations about the aliens; are they friends or enemies? conquerors or saviors? Like anything else we interact with, there would be an unconscious tendency to anthropomorphize these non-human entities.

We estimate that this type of event will have not only a social effect but also on both consciousness and biology as well. Some authors [16] believe that an anthropocentric vision can influence the benevolent or malevolent perception of a possible EC.The variables that produce these misperceptions or interpretation biases with regard to this type of event are related to what we called modular aspects of cosmic consciousness.

I must say that after reading De la Torre's paper, I found it something of a mixed bag. Yes, organized religions tend to color the prejudice of a great percentage of the population --although it must be pointed out that all the participating students in his study were living in Christian nations, and that he initially focused on the 80 of them who were from Spain, where Catholicism still has a great influence-- but I think most Grailers would agree with me when I say you can also find a lot of biased opinions among non-religious individuals. When Louis Pasteur was trying to support the case for germ theory, arguing that diseases like cholera or anthrax were caused by a whole realm of tiny organisms which are invisible to the naked eye, I hardly suspect whatever resistance he encountered was fueled by the lack of mention of microbes in the Bible…

What's more, De la Torre seems to follow the party-line assumption that alien contact has yet to occur, even though a significant amount of his study subjects considered UFOs "are a real phenomenon that explains that beings from other worlds are visiting us today;" and yet further along on the paper he states that although an open contact would be the most likely scenario, "a covert or unconscious contact is another possibility we should not discard." If De la Torre is so preoccupied with the social & biological effects of alien contact, perhaps he should pay more attention to Jacques Vallee's 'cultural thermostat' theory of UFOs, and his ideas of how this phenomenon acts like a control system slowly shaping our cultural, and perhaps even physical evolution.

Not that De la Torre is a hard materialist per se, mind you. There's a part in the paper where he gives a little shout-out to Roger Penrose & Stuart Hameroff's quantum consciousness theory, and he even speculates whether consciousness may play a bigger role in the structure of the Universe than we're currently aware of. Like I said, mixed bag.

In the end I guess the matter is something of a paradox: Nothing could ever fully prepare our world for the cultural shock of ET contact, and realizing it's not just us floating about in all this 'wasted space'; and yet facing that truth would greatly accelerate our shift from a local awareness to thinking in a much, much broader scale. Like Richard Dolan & Brice wrote in their book After Disclosure: The People's Guide to Life After Contact, when they equated it to parenthood --no matter who you are, you're NEVER ready to become a parent, but when the time comes you learn the ropes as you go along.

While he tries to continue with his research, applying his little questionnaire to more students from other nations, De la Torre has already found a deficiency in astronomy & space-related knowledge among the subjects studied so far; he proposes that aside from scanning the skies in search of that long-waited ET tweet, SETI should also focus some of its efforts in devising strategies to improve the education of astronomy is school curricula.

Extensive education outreach and efforts to increase awareness of Space related topics and existent relationships between Cosmos, Earth and life can be extremely helpful. SETI can take an important role in this regard.

That's all well & good, but if we're REALLY serious about achieving that cosmic consciousness of his, how about we start including some magic mushrooms in school lunches, too? ;)

William Shatner Goes Boldly Into the Topic of UFOs and Alien Abductions on Larry King

Kirk vs Gorn

"Don't beam me up, aliens". That's what William Shatner – the man who played Captain James T. Kirk in the original series of Star Trek - might be saying each night after researching the topic of alien abductions for a novel he is currently working on. In a conversation with Larry King (embedded below), the original captain of the Enterprise noted the work of Harvard professor John E. Mack on the topic, before veering into other fringish topics such as the mysteries of quantum physics.

When King first asks Shatner whether he is writing a sci-fi novel involving UFOs, the 83-year-old actor hesitates, then answers "yes". King then asks him to explain why he paused before answering, and Shatner's reply references John Mack's troubles after delving into the subject:

The hesitation is this: do you remember a man by the name of John E. Mack? John E. Mack was a psychiatrist, a tenured professor at Harvard. Was given by a friend of his, an opportunity to interview some of the people who said "we've been abducted by UFOs". After 200 interviews he concluded they were right...

He almost lost his tenure at Harvard. He lost his wife and children over it. And he walks out of the door not too long after that, and he's hit by a hit-and-run driver and killed.

There's a bit of hyperbole in there (e.g. John Mack was killed by a drunk driver in 2004, some ten years after the publication of his book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens), but that's part of the package with good old Bill. Great to see him still producing quotes that are sure to make rationalist geeks froth at the mouth (he's previously hosted shows looking into paranormal mysteries, such as Weird or What).


The Curiosity Rover on Mars May Have Just Taken the Best Selfie Ever

Curiosity Rover's Selfie on Mars

Sure, you may have some cool selfies, but do you have one of you on another planet?! Here's the latest self-portrait from the Mars Curiosity Rover (click for larger version), just to help us all remember the mind-blowing fact that we have a robot driving around on the surface of another planet...

If you're wondering how the rover can take a selfie without any visible 'arm' in the shot, it's actually stitched together out of 75 separate images. For more information on this, see this 2013 post from Emily Lakdawalla where she explained a previous selfie taken by Curiosity.

(Image reprocessed by @Doug_Ellison)

Update: There's another very cool wide-angle Curiosity selfie!