Are there really such things as UFOs?
In 45 years of consciously looking, I’ve never seen one. But they seem awfully popular just now.
Well, of course. UFO is a pilots’ acronym, it stands for ‘Unidentified Flying Object’. Once a UFO becomes an ‘Identified’ flying object, it ceases to have any special significance. Virtually anything seen in the sky can go unidentified, until there is an explanation for it.
What a UFO is not, necessarily, is evidence of visitation by aliens, either from other worlds or from our own future world. No UFO has ever been officially identified as being from another world, or from the future. As I go on to explain, there are classes of these phenomena that fit within a range of normal events.
Many silly, credulous or malicious people want to make this connection with The Other, however. Humanity has a deep-seated and desperate longing for contact with a higher power, that overrides commonsense rationality. Psychologically it is a feeling of unfocussed disempowerment that probably relates to our early relationships with our parents. We want to be nurtured, to be watched over. We yearn for someone infinitely more powerful and capable to look after our needs.
It is unsurprising that the world’s three great religions – I exclude Buddhism, as it is not strictly speaking a religion – of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, arose as monotheisms (belief in one all-powerful divinity) in desert countries. They represent the triumph of the life-giving but vengeful Sun-god over polytheistic (pagan) belief systems that mainly arose in northern climes, investing natural phenomena with spiritual powers.
(Sadly, Christianity eliminated that other famous solar cult in meso-America, the Aztec.)
The idea of alien visitation is attractive, but statistically difficult. Quantum physics offers the uneducated the exciting possibilities of faster-than-light travel, ‘action at a distance’ (the habit of fundamental particles to be observed in two different places at once), ‘wormholes’, extra dimensions, parallel universes and so on, as clever ways of avoiding the obvious problem of distance. Our nearest galactic neighbour is four light years from the sun (a light year being the rather long distance light travels in one Earth year; no propulsion system even theoretically invented approaches anything like the speed of light.
If life had evolved on as many as one in a billion planets throughout the observable universe, making the odds against winning the Lottery look positively inviting, even so 99 per cent of it is so far away, it would hardly be worth bothering to look us up. Only immortals could contemplate spending a thousand years aboard a spaceship, just to get here. For what? To counter this, it has been suggested that aliens live in hidden cities on the Moon, or Mars, or Titan – even under the North Pole. Or that They are already here! (There is a point at which the desire for an uber-dad shades into paranoia.)
Then, life as we know it takes many forms. Only one of the millions of evolutionary steps life has taken on Earth in the past billion years has ever, so far as we know, developed science-based technology to the point where it can send an unmanned probe to rendezvous with a comet, or with Pluto – a mysterious planetoid it has taken our little ‘New Horizons’ explorer ten years to reach, although it is far from the most distant object in our own solar system. Human evolution and history have progressed only by fits and starts. The element of chance introduced by evolution and history increases the odds against there being other civilizations out there… well, astronomically. (Paradoxically, I agree, it also shortens them. Luck can break either way.)
The one relatively solid piece of evidence we have of an actual alien visitation lies buried in the Old Testament accounts concerning the appearance to Moishe (Moses) “in a burning bush” of the enigmatic character known to us as Yahweh, who somehow becomes identified as the embodiment of the solar deity of the desert-dwelling Hebrews. This is an entity that makes some very strange demands on his initially unwilling hosts, including that Aaron, Moses’ brother who is appointed as the go-between, has to wear a protective coat made from gold – which, as we know, is an effective shield against gamma radiation.
Yahweh is in some accounts attended by the Eloim, the ‘Shining Ones’ – now equated with angels, the so-called Fall of Satan (God’s favourite angel) being to do with forbidden cross-breeding with the natives; he requires a high-carbon diet (all his ‘meat’ offerings have to be served well-done) and he has access to significantly higher technologies – the ability to fly, again on a column of fire; to ‘smite’ the enemies of Israel with what sound remarkably like battlefield nuclear weapons, and to give modern dietary advice.
I mean, what would you think, if you were intellectually free to think anything you liked? Early science-fiction? Even science-fiction has to be based within the canon of evolving scientific and technological ideas, it doesn’t invent stories entirely in a vacuum of ignorance. Certainly, then, the appearance of a superbeing out of a burning bush must count as early evidence of a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, however much the story may have gained in the telling.
And that’s the problem with UFOs. Nobody believes the explanations either way! If you’re a sceptic, all UFOs can be explained, identified. There just isn’t conclusive evidence yet. But what we know of the universe will explain them away rationally and sensibly. If you’re a believer in alien interventions, the absence of any more rational explanation must imply a supernatural or other-worldly cause. Anyone trying to offer a less-than-perfect account must be hiding the truth!
What are the main categories of explanation?
I’ve spent the morning watching the sky on our walk through the park. It’s almost a perfect day, apart from two things. It’s been really busy up there, dozens of airline flights bearing holidaymakers messily westwards. Their vapour trails have been dispersing in the wind at 30,000 feet, there’s a thin veil of manmade cirrhostratus covering the entire sky, cutting down the sunlight (but also helping with the global warming problem).
And below that, dozens of tiny, fluffy white clouds are swarming around in small shoals, that I identify thanks to Wikipedia as the dispersing remains* of altocumulus floccus. Small clouds formed around ice crystals can move and change shape very quickly relative to other clouds, depending on varying windspeed and direction at different altitudes. The angle of the sun may give these evanescent microcrystalline structures the appearance of shining lights, that may be seen within other clouds they’re passing through; while they sometimes seem to be flying in formation.
The angle of the sun again is key to the observation of shining lights in the evening sky, that are not stars. Down here, it’s getting dark. But high above you, the rays of the setting sun are still blazing across the sky, brightly illuminating anything in their path. Your ‘moving bright light’ could be a distant aircraft, a helicopter, a weather balloon – small clouds, high-flying birds – that are reflecting sunlight and not projecting their own light source, as you want to imagine.
2 Atmospheric distortion
I was reading an account today of many people sighting a UFO last week in the Pacific sky off California. Hey guys, smell the coffee… didn’t we just have a close planetary alignment between Venus and Jupiter?
Venus accounts for a lot of UFO sightings, it’s the third brightest object in the sky after the Moon. The Earth’s atmosphere gets thicker and dirtier the closer it gets towards the surface of the planet, looking toward the horizon puts the maximum amount of atmosphere between you the observer and the far distance. Think how the moon looks really big coming up, then resolves into something less scary the greater the inclination. Density of air and pollution haze create different kinds of optical distortion, from green moonrises to the desert mirages beloved of cartoonists (you’re seeing stuff over the horizon); while the heat of the sun causes the air to dance about, creating an illusion of movement.
3 Observer disorientation
…may possibly account for the ‘line of lights that rearranged itself into a pattern’ phenomenon. Ever seen fishing boats working at night? If it’s dark enough you probably can’t tell where the sea ends and the horizon begins, especially from a clifftop.
4 Shaky camerawork
Disorientation also accounts for apparently anomalous movement of objects when filmed. I spent five years in fulltime education, studying (amongst other things to do with Photography, Film and Television) the physics of optical lenses. Cheap camera lenses are getting better but there’s a list of the types of distortion you can get with them, from barrel-distortion (wonky round the edges) to lens-flare and tiny flaws that can be made worse with a little sunlight hitting across them at an oblique angle.
Tracking an object across the sky is a skill few possess: nearer objects seem to move faster than distant ones, look bigger. Watch a tree or a phone pole you’re passing in a car, when you go round a bend… oops, where’s it gone? It wasn’t over there before! Cameras are dumb, they can only see what you are pointing them at. They can’t put things in context, relative to parts of the scene they can’t see. You can.
Camera movement can create the illusion that it’s the object that is moving. The further away an object is, the harder it is to track it, especially on full zoom. A long lens will flatten the perspective (planar distortion) and make it harder to keep the subject in focus. The low resolution of cameraphones equates to the low resolution of high-speed film emulsions: images are grainier, details lost.
So what, you ask? So, confronted with poor quality, partial images containing little information, what does your brain do? Right, it makes stuff up. It’s how brains work. Be glad of it: without it, your ancestors would’ve been eaten by half-glimpsed tigers.
5 Things in the sky
And, let’s face it, there are things you can see in the sky. You can make your own list.
Many UFO ‘sighting’ photos are risible fakes: anyone can chuck a frisbee or a metal dish up in the air while your mate takes a grainy snap, hey presto, an alien visitation. The famous Roswell incident followed publication of a photo taken by a farmer in New Mexico of a UFO that is quite clearly the pair of the circular wing mirror glimpsed in a press photo of the farmer proudly posed next his truck, the metal disc suspended by fishing line from an overhead cable.
You can also see that he is desperately, dirt poor. ‘UFO farming’ is a way of life for some.
Who would want to be seen to be so gullible as to believe it was a visiting spacecraft?
6 Plane sailing
Other UFOs have been identified as experimental aircraft. Okay, the world’s airforce boffins have tried all kinds of shapes, ‘fly-by-wire’ computer technology in recent years has enabled them to virtually forget the old concept of aerodynamics that demanded a plane looked like a cigar-tube with wings, nowadays they can fly a brick. The world is a crowded place and it’s getting harder to keep these things secret from the public gaze.
So let’s not automatically assume the authorities are covering-up the arrival of the ambassador from the planet Zarg. Sometimes it’s better for them to put it out that you’ve seen just that, knowing no-one will believe them!
7 Things in Photoshop
Yes, you can fake anything using what is now highly clever freeware. In my day, you had to pay through the nose for this stuff, now there’ll be a ‘Create Your Own UFO’ phone app. Signs of fakery can still be detected, however. Shadows not falling at quite the same angles, trees and buildings looking a bit transparent, clouds not looking to be quite where you expect them, mismatched shading… effects you recognise from Steven Spielberg movies.
8 In the mind?
Arguably Britain’s most notorious UFO sighting took place in December 1980. Rendlesham forest was just off-base for Cold-War American airmen stationed at Woodbridge and Bentwaters, in Suffolk. So seriously was the report taken that John Burroughs, one of the first servicemen to observe the phenomena was subsequently granted an invalidity pension after claiming the experience had given him PTSD. You have to be pretty seriously damaged to get anything out of the military.
Strange lights and sounds, at least two different ‘craft’ coming and going, beams of light, a mysterious orange ball, marks on the forest floor, increased radioactivity levels and even two alien-looking creatures, one of whom had a ‘silent conversation’ with RAF Wing Commander Gordon Williams were observed over a period of days by a number of US servicemen and ‘disaster preparedness personnel’ who went to investigate, until the whole affair was locked down by the Ministry of Defence.
The airbase was a store for nuclear weapons, and a technician who investigated underground installations in the location of the sightings reported finding old cables still carrying internet signals – unexpectedly dating from the early 1980s, but not technologically impossible, as the US military first created the internet.
Could the whole incident have been a diversionary tactic dreamed up by the KGB to cover their espionage activities in the forest? An elaborately staged theatrical event, cooked up either as a defensive measure to cover genuine secret activity, or by the kind of bored and mildly inebriated country yokels who sneak out at night to make crop circles?
Could there be another explanation, to do with experiments we now know about, testing weaponised LSD on military personnel? Or was it an outbreak of the same kind of crowd-sourced hysteria experienced by C17th French nuns, brought on by Cold War paranoia? (I’d go crazy, sitting on enough U235 to vapourise Russia…)
How the hell should I know?
I’m just a rational sceptic waiting my chance to be bogld.
*Later observation shows I was wrong about the little clouds dispersing, by about 4 p.m. they had all joined up (see photo, copyright me 2015) and now it looks like rain! (I hope not, I have an outdoor concert to perform in, in about an hour.)