|Graphical representation of one of the ubiquitous black triangle UFO sightings, this time near Amsterdam, Holland and during daylight hours, Black triangles feature in a large number of reported sightings.|
Immediately your friends, acquaintances and colleagues discover that your hobby is amateur astronomy, you can prepare for the two main predictable questions: what do you think about black holes, and have you ever witnessed a UFO? Well here’s what I think: I love black holes though I’ve never directly witnessed such a beast, and yes, I’ve seen a UFO that may or may not have originated on another world. Oh, and I believe in them both despite never observing the former with my own eyeballs. There you are, a sceptical amateur astronomer who is prepared to place his lack of professional reputation and total lack of funding on the line and lose nothing apart from any meagre credibility in the astronomical community.
My friends’ former question about black holes is, of course a perfectly commendable scientific query about an actual astronomical entity, although still the subject of much speculation rather than fact. On the other hand, the enquiry about UFOs raises another subject altogether. It’s commonly referred to, often in a derogatory fashion as ‘ufology’ and involves a whole battery of educational disciplines including, physics, astronomy, biology, sociology, psychology, history and religion, not to mention some aeronautical engineering, just thrown in for some good measure. Just like religion on its own, it may well be that astronomers, whether amateur or professional are not necessarily the best qualified individuals to comment and encroach on another field of research.
Granted, ufology generally conjures up a whole smorgasbord of fact, fiction, wild speculation, the paranormal, the super-natural, hearsay, conspiracy theories, vivid imaginings, plain old charlatanry and sheer profiteering by certain so-called ‘experts’, but these are not the exclusive domains of ‘ufology’. It may well turn out that what we think of as our current scientific grasp on reality (whatever that word means) may not be so firm after all. There is, of course the whole cosmos set out before us. But there is also a whole cosmos set out within. As Carl Sagan (1980) noted we are the Cosmos with consciousness. In defining reality, we really need to establish which reality we’re talking about as the cosmos has surprises and characteristics that look increasingly beyond our measure.
On the subject of black holes, astronomers are qualified to make valid professional comments as their field of study has gathered overwhelming (albeit indirect) observational proof of the existence of them, and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, one of the foundations of modern physics, has predicted their existence since 1915. Indeed, most astronomers now believe that there is a black hole of super-massive proportions at the centre of each galaxy, including our very own Milky Way. The enormous velocities of stars at its centre as they rotate around something with a gargantuan mass is indirect evidence from mathematical calculations that this object, known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced ‘A-star') must be something with the density of a black hole.
Leaving astronomy to one side for now, my thoughts, views and beliefs about UFOs, unlike my studies of black holes go one step further. I’ve actually seen one, in the flesh, perhaps not up close and personal, but a “Close Encounter of the First Kind” in the night sky nonetheless. So what did it look like, this object over my home area of Teesside in north east England? Well, I’ve made a graphical representation for illustration purposes using free Stellarium Planetarium software, a favourite tool for amateur astronomers. In the true spirit of astronomy and science one has to be sceptical before making extraordinary claims. Such claims do after all, require extraordinary evidence.
Before I go further, I’d better repeat the commonly held definition of the acronym 'UFO': a guided spacecraft of non-human origin, emanating from either beneath the Earth, its oceans or an alien world. The proper definition of 'natural or unnatural unidentified aerial phenomena' is somewhat more useful. As I mentioned earlier, it is probable that what I saw may very much have been of terrestrial origin, but as an amateur astronomer I can certainly discount what I know it wasn't.
|Teesside Night Sky on April 27, 2009 with|
superimposed UFO, as witnessed at 11.30pm local
time. Image courtesy of Stellarium Free Planetarium Software.
It was about 11.30pm local time on April 25th, 2009. The weather was coming in cold, and I’d just packed up my large Newtonian reflecting telescope and deposited it, along with its eyepieces in the garden shed. The ‘seeing’ in fact had been excellent, a wonderfully clear night with few clouds. I was finishing my astronomical observations and sketching early as I was at work the next day. In politically correct fashion before I retired into the house, I stood in the back porch doorway enjoying a late cigarette (smokers, astronomers and dog walkers do provide the field of ufology with some excellent observers if they are bold enough to put their heads above the parapets and endure the crossfire).
All of a sudden above the apex of next door’s roof I noticed a large V-shaped formation of five orange-red lights evenly spaced slightly east of zenith and moving extremely slowly in a north west-south east direction. Mesmerised, I began to realise that the lights were actually attached to a single object as they moved in an unchanging and even distance from one another. With no noise the object crept at low velocity across the rest of the sky finally disappearing over the south eastern horizon in ten to fifteen minutes.
The lights were fixed on the object’s periphery, which was black and solid, eclipsing background stars, so it couldn’t have been a high flying formation of RAF aircraft. Judging altitude and spatial characteristics in the atmosphere at any time is very difficult with the naked eye, especially at night but I would estimate height in thousands rather than hundreds of feet and size in a couple of football field dimensions.
People always ask witnesses why they don’t take photos with digital or phone cameras. The problem is that even really bright planets like Venus hardly show up. Even fainter objects with low surface brightness stand no chance on cheap CCD devices. Long exposure DSLR cameras with large CCDs chips for high resolution, and tracking motors if necessary are required. Only a lucky small minority of the population possess such sensitive equipment. The other problem is psychological. You’re quite simply stunned and shocked at seeing something that most scientists will say doesn’t exist. Finally, if these two things don’t stop you publicising your sighting then usually the public ridicule factor will. After that, well, you just ‘double think’ your sighting away. You actually start to believe it didn’t happen.
Artist's impression of the much-rumoured TR-3A 'Black Manta' US spyplane, and a possible candidate for my own sighting.
There were anonymous sightings of this object from Durham City down to Middlesbrough in the south according to the internet (about thirty miles), and to this day I cannot confirm what the object was. Some have suggested a stealth blimp, the mystical stealth ‘Black Manta’ TR-3A black ops aircraft or similar… or even an alien spacecraft. The fact is I really don’t know.
The only person I told the next day was my wife and it would be three years before I told anyone else. I toyed with the idea of blogging it for a while but my site was trolled and it wasn’t worth the hassle. At that point I wanted my identity keeping anonymous anyway. Providing witness testimony of UFO sightings, you put yourself in the court of public and scientific opinion, cross examined by debunkers instead of lawyers (like I used to be, and there is a major difference between debunkers and sceptics).
So let’s rule out from an informed astronomical perspective what it definitely wasn’t. My blog readers were most generous in totting out the usual post replies: the lights were planets, swamp gas, satellites, meteors, aircraft, blimps etc., all from the point of view of this amateur astronomer, demonstrably untrue.
One of the most stunning phenomena commonly misinterpreted as a UFO is when the manned International Space Station (ISS) passes overhead, especially when Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft have been docked to this orbiting space outpost (or the NASA Space Shuttle before America decided to utilise tax dollars to fund and subsidise the banks and the greedy rather than something useful to humanity such as the manned space programme). Its appearances can be researched and predicted, as can those of most satellites, via a little work and the use of websites such as Heavens Above where the celestial position of particular satellites is exquisitely and accurately portrayed for any location on Earth. The ISS is so bright, is so huge and has such a high velocity that it would be so easy for the uninformed occasional visitor to the night sky to regard it as a guided alien spacecraft.
And then of course there are the planets, two of which are so bright that when literally hanging in the sky above the horizon they can transfix and mesmerise the observer. This is especially true of the Earth’s sister planet Venus, which is only about 30 million miles distant, with a stifling atmosphere of carbon dioxide and a high albedo due to highly reflective lemon-coloured sulphur dioxide clouds. It shines as the third brightest object (after the Moon and Sun) in terrestrial skies at magnitude –4.3. Jupiter, although not quite so bright, can have a similar effect on the observer. When Venus and Jupiter join together in the night or twilight sky at conjunction, then even I have been startled as they both hover above the trees at the bottom of our garden.
Other easily explained reports of UFOs include comets, such as the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, C/2006 P1 Comet McNaught in 2006, and Comet 17P/Holmes in October 2007. To the uninitiated, they could all have been mistaken as being of alien origin – which indeed they are, of course, although strictly natural in formation.
Then there are meteor showers such as the Perseids in August each year. The apparent point of origin (or radiant) of this shower lies in the constellation of Perseus and, with a peak rate of over one hundred meteors per hour, it can resemble a squadron of attacking Mosquito aircraft. They are caused by grains of sand-sized debris (normally from the tails of comets through which the Earth has passed during its orbit around the Sun) entering the atmosphere at immense velocities. Friction with the atmosphere causes them to melt and glow white-hot.
Again, a small amount of research in one of the summer editions of the popular astronomy magazines such as Astronomy, Astronomy Now or the BBC’s Sky at Night Magazine soon enables the reader to predict the appearance of such meteors. Fireballs are less common, but once again are (larger) cosmic debris entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high velocity, causing their outer layers to melt and glow white-hot. When they fall to Earth over the planet’s polar ice caps, they stand out easily against the white snow and ice, and can be discovered by scientists and collectors as meteorites, ranging from pebble size to the size of a television set.
Despite the fact that the majority of sightings can be explained away as either astronomical or terrestrial phenomena, even the most ardent sceptic must admit that there is a minority of reports that defy scientific explanation. As an informed astronomer at home with and knowledgeable about most aerial phenomena and the night sky, I would have to place my own sighting in this, what UFO researcher Stanton T Friedman calls his “grey basket”.
So what do I think the object was? Well, before I even mentioned the alien hypothesis someone had already written “well they can’t get from there to here because of the distances” as though both ourselves and other speculative intelligent species will be limited to human 2014 propulsion technology forever. I was even told by one informed debunker that serious astronomers do not see UFOs. That’s because in true Orwellian fashion they don’t want to lose their credibility, funding or in the last resort witness black helicopters outside their bedroom windows. Double thinking is so much easier on one’s bank account. But what a corrupt and anthropocentric view of reality. Have we not learned, even now that mankind and its technology is not the centre of the cosmos?
My intuition is that the craft was probably some sort of “black operations” aerial vehicle developed in one of the well-known, well-publicised and admitted-to locations (even observable on Google Earth, albeit with a very old image) where new kinds of military aircraft are developed by the US Air Force, probably Area 51/S4 etc. Now before debunkers charge me with being a lunatic conspiracy theorist consider this: through lucrative aerospace contracts with hundreds of companies including well-known names such as Northrop-Grumman, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems Limited and Boeing the US military spends the equivalent annually of the GDP of a small developed country on funding secret military programmes that show up on no publicly available accounts.
Rumours abound of stealth aircraft currently under development including the famous TR-3A or “Black Manta”; if other reports are to be believed it’s huge and triangular. Now debunkers will tell you straight away that governments can’t keep secrets because they are so inefficient. Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at Mountain View, Pasadena, California’s Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and someone for whom I usually have high regard when it comes to his expert subject astronomy, always trots out the line in debates that the US government being accused of keeping secrets is the same government that makes such an inefficient mess of running the US Postal Service. This however is totally irrelevant, the Department of Defense has nothing to do with the US Postal Service, and even if it did the fact remains that sometimes for decades top secret aircraft such as the U2 spy plane and the Stealth Bomber were kept hidden. When it comes to military intelligence and the CIA the US government does operate at a quite unbelievable efficiency level. If it wasn’t a secret ‘black ops’ military aircraft then having exhausted all other options and employing Occam's Razor, I would have to conclude that what I saw was indeed from another world.
Seth is also disappointed that there are no nuts, bolts, boosters or ash trays from alien spacecraft in the Smithsonian Institute, on show to the general public, and yes it is a shame. But that is always assuming rather narrow mindedly that aliens are present only in what may be prove to be our very small sub-set of reality or realities. In any case, if they exist in our four dimensional space-time and are as solid as the table in front of me, some scientific humility is required. Remember that for the whole of human history and for hundreds of millions of years before we crawled from the slime, a fish called the Coelacanth was thought to have become extinct in the late Cretaceous. Until one showed up in 1938, alive and well with some healthy brethren in the Western Indian Ocean.
Some or all of this may seem and sound shocking from an amateur astronomer. And it is. But scepticism does not mean that you can’t speculate ‘out of the box’. Albert Einstein and Nils Bohr were the science geniuses of their day in their work in the areas of relativity and quantum mechanics. As ‘out of the box’ thinkers did they honestly ever think that theirs was the last word in physics? I doubt it. Certainly Einstein suffered the same ridicule amongst the scientific establishment of the day as ‘out of the box’ thinkers today. Whether it’s UFOs or questioning anthropogenic global warming going ‘anti-contemporary paradigm’ is a career-buster. And yet science moves huge leaps forward only when practitioners remove their self-imposed strait-jackets and prejudices (often linked to funding constraints and credibility) and take us all to fresh paradigms. Without funded free thinking we will always be stuck, relativity-speaking in 1915. Clearly, debunking is not the same as true scientific scepticism that should be the cornerstone of the scientific enterprise.
Debunking is close-mindedness, prejudicial and in its most extreme form represents institutionalised professional bullying whether the subject is string theory, UFOs or religion. It is proffered as a response by individuals who believe that our current level of understanding of the cosmos is somehow complete. Just like the physicists of the late nineteenth century they think we now know everything there is to know and that we are at the peak of the evolutionary pyramid. In mitigation they do have careers, funding, and credibility from years of what may turn out to be meaningless work to protect. You’ve heard of String Theory? Well it has been on the go for half a century and decade after decade has promised a Theory of Everything that includes the Holy Grail of a unification of gravity and the electro-weak and strong nuclear forces. Despite any real progress apart from an ever increasing number of hypothetical dimensions and mind-boggling mathematics there is not one jot of evidence to verify it. Yes, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has led to Peter Higgs being awarded a Nobel Prize for predicting the Higgs Boson, the force carrier of mass, and fair play to him, but the challenge to String Theorists is simply “Where are the Gravitons” that as the force carriers of gravity their theory predicts. Infact it’s not a theory, it’s just a hypothesis, no more valid than the hypothesis that aliens are or have visited Terra Firma. And yet funding the careers of research scientists and maintaining the credibility of their associated institutions is not a problem.
Ultimately this whole narrow-minded shebang is an extremely arrogant view of the universe, and you may have heard it before somewhere. It’s that good old anthropogenic bias again, the same pre-Copernican disposition that had us believe we were at the centre of the universe for millennia. And no other intelligent life on any of the billions of other worlds that, thanks to NASA’s Kepler mission and an army of exoplanet hunting astronomers, we now know actually know exist. Surely when it comes to UFOs and terrestrial alien visitations, the most rational place to be (as in any arena where we have low or controversial levels of evidence) is in the agnostic position.
By the end of the first century AD, the Ancient Romans probably though they were at the top of mankind’s technological game, they were after all superb engineers and physicians. However, what would they have thought of one of our Stealth aircraft flying over the Colosseum whilst watching gladiator fights or Christians being butchered? They would probably have been told by the priests that it was magic or down to the gods. Or they were imagining it. Likewise, who on planet Earth right now can state categorically that our scientific knowledge is perfect and that races that haven’t destroyed themselves with greed and corruption cannot travel the vast gulf of interstellar or intergalactic space as easily as we can walk into the next room? In a universe containing billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars and a magnitude greater number of planets can anyone seriously believe that there won’t be a vast number of technological civilisations that may have been on the go for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. And just look at how far our puny technology has developed in only four centuries since the time of Galileo. Who really believes that our (albeit powerful) theories are the pinnacles of knowledge? They are all, including Einstein’s ground and paradigm breaking work, still only incomplete theories. And is it really so outrageous to think that some of the millions of UFO sightings aren’t ‘real’ (whatever that means if we extend the conversation to include multiple dimensions, relativity, warps in the space-time continuum or quantum physics).
Physics (including its sub branches of cosmology, astrophysics and astronomy) is often referred to as the ‘queen of the sciences’. And there is no doubt that in society generally scientific subjects have much more kudos than the humanities. A firm proponent of science and science literacy and having science qualifications, I am in the fairly rare position of also being a Sociology graduate. As hinted earlier in the post, can science and physics explain everything about the cosmos of which we are part? It could just be that scientists possess notions of a little too much self-importance when it comes to their views on all aspects of the unexplained and indeed the cosmos generally. Astronomy may be a character building and uplifting subject but I don’t believe it explains everything. I for one wouldn’t use it to describe the economic, social or psychological worlds.
Finally, in a court of law, corroborated multiple witness testimonies are enough to convict an individual of homicide. The expression is that the defendant committed the crime “beyond reasonable doubt”. Why is the same legal gold standard not used by science and society when it comes to the witnessing of UFOs? MUFON, a US-based organisation propounding the scientific study of UFOs states that there are more than 70,000 UFO sightings each year. They also state that this represents only ten per cent of the total number of sightings (the rest go largely unrelated due to a variety of reasons most notable of which is the ridicule factor).
Are just under one million individuals per annum simply deluded, habitual liars, attention and publicity seekers or out to make a quick buck? I can only speak for my own sighting and myself. And the answer is, in my case, ‘no’.
You can listen to my weekly astronomy segment LIVE on Podcast UFO on Art Bell's Dark Matter Radio Network each Wednesday at 8.00pm Eastern or 0100 UTC/GMT Thursday.
You can listen to my weekly astronomy segment LIVE on Podcast UFO on Art Bell's Dark Matter Radio Network each Wednesday at 8.00pm Eastern or 0100 UTC/GMT Thursday.
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