The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘spacecraft’

The Denver UFO: Yup, It’s Unidentified… So What Does That Mean?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 18, 2012

Over the last few days there has been a media sensation built up around a UFO in the Denver, Colorado area.  Here’s a closeup of the object in question:

Image source

The story has garned a great deal of attention, as evidenced by this video clip from a local news station…

Indeed, the news team does a so-so job of investigating this UFO, though there is a lot of sensationalizing in the report (surprise, surprise!), but there is one point I would like to emphasize in greater detail which this report totally glossed over.  That is the fact that this thing, whatever it is, is unidentified… as in Unidentified Flying Object.  Repeat after me three times: unidentified flying object… Unidentified flying object… UNIDENTIFIED flying object!!!

I want to be very clear on this point because, as I expected, the Internet is already abuzz with talk of alien spacecraft, government cover ups, and conspiracies galore.  And those leaping to this dubious conclusion (that the thing is “obviously not of this world”) are committing what is known as an argument from ignorance – that is, in one breath they will admit that we don’t have enough information to conclude what it is, but then in the next breath they will say, quite emphatically, that it HAS to be an alien spacecraft.

And such thinking contains a direct contradiction: the argument basically says that because we don’t know, then we know.  With reasoning as loose as this, one can “justify” the existence of leprechauns, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or Invisible Pink Unicorns!  What the heck is wrong with saying “We don’t know” and just leaving it at that?

Incidentally, while the possibility of a plane or helicopter has been ruled out, it is likely that the object in question is a bug of some kind.  There is a very good article on this point over at the Illuminutti blog…

… OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. …

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

“Mysterious Planet-Sized Object” Is… A Planet!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 9, 2011

A couple of days ago I came across this article titled “Mysterious planet-sized object spotted near Mercury” and it contained some shocking images.  I reproduce some of these images and related commentary from the article below…

The mystery image of a “cloaked alien ship”… the Romulans, perhaps?

… Theorists have seized on the images captured from the “coronal mass ejection” (CME) last week as suggestive of alien life hanging out in our own cosmic backyard. Specifically, the solar flare washing over Mercury appears to hit another object of comparable size. “It’s cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it’s cloaked,” YouTube-user siniXster said in his video commentary on the footage, which has generated hundreds of thousands of views this week. Now, how this user was able to determine that the object was “obviously” a cloaked spaceship with no other natural explanation remains as much a mystery as the object itself. …

Note the staggering level of argumentation from ignorance here.  I like to call this sort of reasoning (if you can call it that) from various UFOologists the “alien-of-the-gaps”, because much like the related “god-of-the-gaps” argument from ignorance, what they do is find some kind of strange image and/or phenomenon for which they do not have en explanation and then they immediately give it an explanation unsupported by evidence.  In short, because they don’t know what it is, they know it’s aliens!  Huh?!

This, of course, is a direct contradiction and points out just how ludicrous the general argument from ignorance can be.  If the object is an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), then by definition it is unidentified – which means that you admit right off the bat that you don’t know what it is!  So if you don’t know what it is then how can you suddenly turn around and, seemingly without any kind of scientifically-valid or evidence-based reasoning, state that it is an alien spacecraft?  Using such loose argumentation, I could just as easily claim the object in question is Santa Claus (but no, that would be silly).

Of course, a little more research shows that astronomers actually have figured out what this “mysterious planet-sized object” is hanging around next to the planet Mercury.  It seems the answer is that the object is… the planet Mercury itself.  Here’s a fuller explanation from the article…

Of course, there’s another scientifically sanctioned explanation for the curious images, though we’re not certain that skeptics and UFO enthusiasts such as SiniXster will endorse it. Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries put the question to scientists in the solar physics branch at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). They’re the people who analyze data from the Heliospheric Imager-1 (HI-1)–better known in this context as the camera that shot the footage in question.

Head NRL group scientist Russ Howard and lead ground systems engineer Nathan Rich say the mysterious object is in fact Mercury itself. And what we’re seeing in the footage is the equivalent of Mercury’s wake, “where the planet was on the previous day,” as it travels through the solar system on its natural gravitational path:

To make the relatively faint glow of a coronal mass ejection stand out against the bright glare of space—caused by interplanetary dust and the stellar/galactic background—the NRL scientists must remove as much background light as possible. They explained that they determine what light is background light, and thus can be subtracted out, by calculating the average amount of light that entered each camera pixel on the day of the CME event and on the previous day. Light appearing in the pixels on both days is considered to be background light and is removed from the footage of the CME. The remaining light is then enhanced.

So there you have it.  The object in question is basically an artifact that results from the combination of taking multiple images of that region in space over multiple days, the planet Mercury moving in that time, and processing the light in the image to enhance the coronal mass ejection to make it more visible.

What stuns me about situations like these is just how quickly so many people are willing to invoke magical thinking and jump to conclusions (the “cloaked alien ship” explanation) in the absence of any real evidence.  What is it about openly and honestly admitting that sometimes the most truthful answer is simply “we don’t know” that disturbs so many people?  That, to me, is the real mystery.

 

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! :D

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 31, 2010

Every Halloween, when I’m not having fun at a party or handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, I like to take some time to listen to the 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” by Orson Welles. I do this for two reasons: 1) it’s a great story – full of suspense & the appropriate amount of spookiness for the season, and 2) it’s a wonderful lesson in skepticism.  In fact, it is perhaps the first, best example of a widespread media hoax (however intentional or unintentional it may have been) with ensuing mass hysteria that we have in the United States, because so many people tuned in and took the story of the Martian invasion of Earth literally.  Invaders from Mars?  It was no wonder there was a panic!

Having said that, I’d like to share with you two things:  the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and an excellent article by Joe Nickell on the various truths & myths concerning this event. Enjoy! :)

War of the Worlds by Orson Welles

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Area 51 Unveiled by CIA Veterans

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 20, 2010

In a quickie post for all you UFO & alien buffs (whether you are a skeptic or believer), here’s a bit of news that is guaranteed to give the conspiracy theorists among you absolute fits.  It seems that some former workers at Area 51 (yes, that “Area 51″) are now going public with the work they conducted there many decades ago.  And none of it involved crashed alien spacecraft or bodies of ETs near Roswell, etc.

Apparently, there was a real conspiracy to cover-up research on experimental aircraft such as the A12 and SR71 reconnaissance planes.  And it did involve scaring witnesses into shutting up about what they saw, confiscating photo equipment, and even paying off some people with hush money (to the tune of $25,000 per person – in the 1950s and 60s!)

Read the entire article here. Here are some highlights…

After nearly five decades, guys like James Noce finally get to tell their stories about Area 51.

Yes, that Area 51.

The one that gets brought up when people talk about secret Air Force projects, crashed UFOs, alien bodies and, of course, conspiracies.

The secrets, some of them, have been declassified.

Noce, 72, and his fellow Area 51 veterans around the country now are free to talk about doing contract work for the CIA in the 1960s and ’70s at the arid, isolated Southern Nevada government testing site.

Their stories shed some light on a site shrouded in mystery; classified projects still are going on there. It’s not a big leap from warding off the curious 40 or 50 years ago, to warding off the curious who now make the drive to Area 51.

The veterans’ stories provide a glimpse of real-life government covert operations, with their everyday routines and moments of excitement.

Noce didn’t seek out publicity. But when contacted, he was glad to tell what it was like.

“I was sworn to secrecy for 47 years. I couldn’t talk about it,” he says.

In the 1960s, Area 51 was the test site for the A-12 and its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, a secret spy plane that broke records at documented speeds that still have been unmatched. The CIA says it reached Mach 3.29 (about 2,200 mph) at 90,000 feet.

But after September 2007, when the CIA displayed an A-12 in front of its Langley, Va., headquarters as part of the agency’s 60th birthday, much of the secrecy of those days at Area 51 fell away.

Advance warning to UFOlogists: Sorry, although Noce and other Area 51 vets say they saw plenty of secret stuff, none make claims about aliens.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists will say, all of these explanations are just part of the bigger, wider cover-up to conceal the Roswell aliens from us… right?  I can almost hear the conspiracy nuts getting out their aluminum foil hats :)

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More iPhone/Touch Fun – Fake Your Own Ghost/UFO Photos!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 4, 2010

In keeping with the melding of modern technology with good ol’ fashioned skepticism, I’ve found out about a few neat iPhone/Touch apps that are, in my opinion, a must-have for any skeptic.  These apps allow one to take photos and manipulate them into giving the appearance of having captured images of ghosts and/or UFOs & aliens. And while such photo manipulation is not proof positive that ghosts & aliens do not exist, when such manipulation is so easy to accomplish it should give one cause to pull out their Occam’s Razor in an effort to slice away the b.s.

Using these apps, take a look at how I added a ghostly spirit and alien UFO to a couple of my photos…

So what sort of goodies are available at the iTunes store for such skeptical fun?  Read on…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Pale Blue Dot — An Alien View of Earth

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 24, 2010

Recently we celebrated the 20th anniversary of a remarkable photograph that was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it began its long, slow exit from our solar system.  That photo was of the Earth, and the image was immortalized by astronomer Carl Sagan in his book called Pale Blue Dot. For a fuller story on this image, I suggest reading up on it all at this excellent NPR story.

Here’s the photo, and Sagan’s eloquent words about it…

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Posted in space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Failed Missile Launch a Russian Roswell Incident?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 11, 2009

In a story that is making the rounds on the Internet, a UFO was spotted in the skies over Norway.  It took the form of a strange, spiraling bright light high in the sky that had a mysterious glow to it.  Here’s a photo of the UFO…

And a Youtube video about the phenomenon has gathered a whopping 1.9 million hits in just a single day!…

Needless to say, this is a very interesting phenomenon, with some – to say the least – very interesting explanations being offered by various people for what it could have been.  These, as the reporter in the video above, range from the relatively mundane (such as a failed Russian missile launch) to the usual nonsense from the woo-crowd (alien visitors) to the outright bizarre (a rogue black hole).  So, in the absence of solid evidence, what is the most likely explanation?

Perhaps this news article can shed a little light on this mystery…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

New Phenomenon to Explain UFOs

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 28, 2009

I posted earlier – in Texas Fireball Mystery – about how many people use the default explanation of aliens to explain UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects), and this is often due to a tendency for people to argue from ignorance due to our lack of knowledge of the natural world. Well, according to new research, another naturalistic candidate to account for many UFO sightings has been discovered… high-energy electrical discharges called sprites.

sprite

According to the article on the sprite-UFO research…

“Lightning from the thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite,” said Colin Price, a geophysicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “We now understand that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft.”

Researchers have detected the flashes between 35 and 80 miles (56-129 km) from the ground, far above the 7 to 10 miles (11-16 km) where usual lightning occurs. Sprites can take the form of fast-paced balls of electricity, although previous footage has suggested streaks or tendrils.

The cause or function of the flashes remains murky, but Price suggested that they could explain some of the UFO reports which have cropped up over the years. That might provide some solace for UFO enthusiasts disappointed by human-caused hoaxes in the past.

Here is some really awesome slow-motion footage of a sprite discharge from LiveScience.com. In addition, here is a neat Youtube video…

And another good one of some video footage of sprites caught from the ground…

These are some pretty amazing discoveries concerning electricity & lightning in our atmosphere, and I think they are extremely cool! However, they aren’t alien. It is worth noting again that when confronted by something you see in the sky that is unknown to you (hence the Unidentified in UFO), it is best to simply state the obvious: you don’t know what it is.

To jump immediately from the unknown straight to aliens visiting the Earth and government conspiracies to cover up The Truth is bad not only because it promotes a lack of critical thinking & healthy skepticism, but it can also lead us away from real discoveries, such as the most recent research on sprites.

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Texas Fireball Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2009

This last Sunday, there was an interesting anomaly in the skies over Texas, which appeared as a fireball in the morning over the Lonestar State – see the story here. In addition, here is some pretty cool footage of the event…

Now there is a lot of speculation about what caused the fireball. Some people think it was the debris of a recent satellite collision re-entering the atmosphere, but authorities have refuted this story since the path and timing of the fireball was inconsistent with the orbits of the two satellites. It seems, given the evidence at hand, that the best candidate for explaining this fireball is that it was simply a meteor.

meteor

However, true to form, there are already a number of woo-meisters out there coming up with all manner of nonsense to explain this event. These range from alluding to some kind of government conspiracy to cover up the falling satellite debris to insisting the fireball was aliens visiting the Earth!

For example, the folks over at AboveTopSecret.com are going overtime on this, spinning their CT wheels into a frenzy. Here’s just a taste of some of the nuttiness…

Same ol’ Tesla Flying Machine that been around for years now. The trail cover seems to be diminished at this low level pass. A ball of electrostatic discharge surrounds the craft in any case. In some ways its a flying radio antenna and who invented radio: Tesla. Unlock the books of electricity dudes before we hear more about global warming and have to be Illuminati jerkers.

So TWO Satellites and Two Nuclear submarines crash into each other in the space of a week while a plane carrying a 9/11 campaigner who’s husband was killed on 9/11 dies in an air crash because the plane was on autopilot.

Okay great…

Hope the fire in the sky was not a sign from the AC as predicted in the Bible.

so yeah, they probably wont make headline news because im sure there are government threats made to people, intimidation and what not. check out james gilliland iwebsite http://www.eceti.org and look at the black helicoptor vids and what he says about them. so yes i believe there have been crashes, but the government just wont come out and say, “yeah we have retrieved crashed UFO’s from other planets, taken some technology..oh and have a good day” check out the links. i’ll i was trying to do with this thread was see if this could possibly be one of those incidents. does anyone have pictures of the debris that fell to substantiate the fact it is a satellite? if not, its still unidentified. Just because our government says thats what it is, doesnt always mean its true. Someone show me identifiable pics of fallen satellites and ill shutup

Can we talk about the video? Either my eyes are getting older, or, seconds before the object reaches the tree line, it is deflected off course.

Can a meteorite do that? Or something else that is trying to correct it’s course?

It’s very clear that it’s original line of trajectory was altered.

The reporter just concluded a live report with CNN and he mentioned that NASA just contacted the TV station
? He mentioned that right after CNN asked if any governement agency has asked for the video.

There was a report on one of the news stations that some debris had been located and was “turned over to government officials” but I doubt that will ever surface. Now all the reporters are telling everyone not to touch anything they find.

Now everyone this afternoon is saying it was a meteor???

I have a problem with the whole “meteor” theory.

A: We track these things. One astronomer being interviewed said it had to be the size of a pickup truck. We didn’t see this coming? Something the size of a pickup truck isn’t being tracked by NORAD?

B: It changes trajectory. It’s very clear in the videos and undisputable. I’m no physics expert, nor will I succumb to any stupid “magnetic deflection theory” or “thermal barrier wave theory” or “a tornado made it change course”.

Okay, to be fair there are some skeptics at that site who are calling the woosters to task for their nonsense, but sadly they aren’t in the majority. Note the mentality by those proposing a government cover-up or implying the fireball was somehow “intelligently driven” (i.e. an alien spacecraft).

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term “UFO”. A UFO is, by definition, an Unidentified Flying Object. This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is – it doesn’t mean that it’s a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus. It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is. Plain and simple.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic. Usually, the argument goes something like this: “Well, it couldn’t be anything else but an alien ship!” Right?

Wrong. Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the argument from ignorance or the god-of-the-gaps, and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. Times too innumerable to count have shown us the errors of this form of reasoning, and it is one of the most common mistakes made by pseudoscientists of all stripes.

In the past, strange & unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the “god-of-the-gaps”. In humanity’s ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly “miraculous” events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God. In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our faulty reasoning, but the bogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance. Rather than explain what we don’t know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more of us are using a new religion of “UFOlogy” to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology. Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the “god-of-the-gaps” argument but “alien-of-the-gaps” instead.

In exploring the universe around us, it is important that we employ a healthy balance of wonder & skepticism. Perhaps there are intelligent aliens out there (I’d like to think so), but wanting it to be true doesn’t make it so. Better to wait until there is solid evidence to reach that conclusion – besides, having the hard facts behind your convictions is so much better than wishful thinking.

So what’s the best response when confronted with something that we don’t understand, such as the Texas fireball? In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: “We don’t know.”

Posted in aliens & UFOs, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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