Saturday, April 2, 2016

WSJ: UFOs Don't Exist Because "No One's Seeing Them On Smart Phones" Not Quite!

Today we go from an April Fool's spoof (yesterday's post) to actual written remarks about UFO non-existence in a Wall Street Journal piece. It is always embarrassing when someone or other writes a book, or makes an assertion in the media, that very soon after is upended. Ask author and former State Dept. staffer Francis Fukayama about that after he wrote his tome, 'The End Of History', then had to swallow his proclamations whole after 9/11 and "history" suddenly got revived -  on radically different terms.

IN a similar way it seems WSJ author Steven Poole ('Secret History', Jan. 16-17 p. C10) as well as the author he was reviewing (John Higgs, 'Stranger Than We Can Imagine') allowed their hubris to run ahead of reality and word craft. Basically, the duo came to the same conclusion that - hey - UFOs never existed in the first place, and were merely the projection of our fears and desires.

Not quite. The UFO I observed in North Miami back in 1962 was definitely no projection, having been also observed by a dozen others. As recounted in one of my first blog posts (Dec. 4, 2007) it  appeared "as a brilliant orange disc, at least the same diameter as a full Moon, moving rapidly from north to south. It hovered for two to three seconds...before darting away."

As a seasoned sky observer, even at the age of 16, I was able to quickly eliminate all known man-made or natural objects from consideration. The exceptional luminous and dynamical behavior allowed this. Nevertheless, to this day I am not prepared to pinpoint a specific hypothesis in any dogmatic sense, though up until recently I have gravitated toward an operational craft of unknown propulsion and design. Certainly, no man-made craft I'd ever seen did what this object did. A next day Miami Herald report that an "unknown" was spotted near Miami International Airport imparted an even more valid frame of reference, especially that it was "traveling at over 400 mph".

Then there was the most cited case from Edward U. Condon's 'Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects', the case from McMinnville Oregon (see image) which I'd already explicated in some detail based on two of the researchers' findings, see e.g.

Included within that discussion is the original definition of UFO given by Prof. J. Allen Hynek, astronomer at Northwestern University, from his book, UFOs- A Scientific Inquiry:

“A UFO is the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky, the appearance, trajectory and general dynamic behavior of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified, after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one were possible.”

Given Hynek's definition, the logical explanation for why fewer UFOs are being reported is that more people are better educated to discern what they are seeing in the night skies. In other words, they no longer mistake Venus or Jupiter at their brightest or the occasional artificial satellite for a UFO.

It is not, as Poole implies, because they no longer exist. Actually, his exact words are as follows:

"If UFOs really were infesting our airspace there would be plenty of crowdsourced evidence"

This is taken to be because "we all have smart phones now".

Uh, yes, many of us do (I don't) but we use them mostly for selfies and some other forms of navel gazing and grazing (or 'sexting' in the case of misguided teens).  But I'd warrant very few have them trained on the heavens - so why the hell would they see anything? The UFO I spotted along with about a dozen others in FLA was visible for barely 4-5 seconds at most. And, if you didn't look up, you'd have missed it completely (as dozens of others did). Since there are 360 degrees of open sky visible in azimuth on any given night (90 degrees in altitude), and a person-  by biological construction - doesn't have the eyes of a fly, it is doubtful he can see all those sky areas at once. That means he is bound to miss something if not looking at the exact area where a UFO manifests.

But my point here is it is folly to make the argument Poole does that just because millions or billions have smart phones they'd have faithfully captured any objects that are truly unidentified - like the McMinnville object or what I witnessed in 1962. Again, no instrument of any sophistication is any use unless it is specifically trained on where the alleged phenomenon is.

Let's also concede time is a factor in these teen years of the 21st century and you can't compare the time pressures now with the much slower pace in 1962. That left us more time to gaze at the starry skies and was one reason I became involved in astronomy and later astrophysics in the first place. Back then there were no computers, no cell phones, no video games, and the TV had basically three networks which only stayed on until about midnight. The radio was our main entertainment (usually WQAM in Miami was most popular) and the telephone the primary instrument for teens to communicate. (Unless your parents had to use it, and generally there was only one phone per home).

The point again is that back then it would be far more plausible to see something in the sky  -known or unknown  - because people took the time to LOOK there, since there were few other activities competing for one's time!

Another remark by Poole is also somewhat comical:

"Flying saucers now look a little parochial beside the routine discovery of exoplanets."

But exoplanets are still not validated to be actual abodes where humans (or sentient aliens) can live, a point he conveniently omits. In addition, most laymen haven't the foggiest notion of how exoplanets are actually detected, so yeah ..they'd seem more exotic. As for "flying saucers" - Poole here reverts to the most popular, debased usage, i.e. "UFO" equals "alien spacecraft."   which as we saw Hynek's UFO definition disallows. In other words, once you use the term "flying saucer" you are no longer writing about UFOs, but an identified entity adhering to a specific hypothesis of origin..

He ends his take by writing:

"UFOs were once the future they are now just a part of the history of our desires and fears."

Again, wrong. So long as there is a visible, accessible sky and there are people who know little about it, i.e. can't even distinguish a planet from a star, from a satellite, there will be UFOs - because people will not have reached the level of observational sophistication to make determinations. What Hynek and I mean by "UFO" Poole is thinking "flying saucer" and little green men.

What we really need, as opposed to fancying ourselves such a superior breed in outlook that we're beyond inquiry into UFOs, is to develop means and methods that might finally uncover what has attracted curiosity - not just over one century - but many.

Solar physicist Peter Sturrock has perhaps contributed the most in this sphere via his  (2000) book: The UFO Enigma: A new Review of the Physical Evidence, Warner Books. The book is an outgrowth of the findings of a scientific panel formed to provide an evidentiary consensus for what would constitute: a) acceptable physical evidence for UFOs - especially in train with the extraterrestrial hypothesis and b) how that evidence might be obtained. None of the panel members were lightweights, and most had serious backgrounds in either astrophysics or plasma physics. Left unsaid too, is that most who "roll their eyes" harken from the less quantitative sciences, like psychology, sociology or anthropology. 

Also left unsaid is that most astronomers and astrophysicists take the UFO phenomenon far more seriously than the corporate mainstream media would have you believe.

Reports of UFOs, as Sturrock indicates, can be at least subjected to statistical tests (e.g. z-test, chi-squared)  against a stated null hypothesis: e.g. that the phenomenon is as likely to be caused by random meteorological or other agents as artificial craft from "another world".

In terms of a comprehensive scientific process of investigation, Sturrock notes the following aspects are all of use (pp. 94-95):

 i) Mechanical – A continuous or brief mechanical pressure distorts the soil, and this can be measured by a penetration instrument.

ii) Thermal – Measurement of the quantity of water in the soil as compared to other nearby control samples, allows determination of the amount of energy required to reduce the water content to that level.

iii) Magnetic: Some soils have a high magnetic remanence. In this case it is useful to examine the magnetic pattern of the soil with the help of magnetometers either in situ, or in a laboratory.

iv) Radioactive residue: Soil samples can be analyzed either in situ, of in the lab using recovered samples.

v) Physico-chemical: Samples from the trace region and control samples (recovered far from trace region) can be analyzed for molecular, atomic and isotopic composition.

Even if only photographic (or video) imagery is available, numerous physical analyses can be applied (cf. p. 178-179), such as attending to:

Basic film properties (to see if the profile is compatible with the imagery obtained)

i) Measurement of the diameter of the film’s crystals
ii) Obtaining the Modulation Transfer Curve (plot of response vs. spatial frequency)
iii) Obtaining spectral sensitivity curve (log of sensitivity vs. wavelength in nm)

Image Analysis:

i) Linear measurements made on an enlarged print – in tandem with elevation angles made using a surveyor’s transit of the location and objects in the vicinity (buildings, Mountains etc)

ii) Micro-densitometry scans: e.g. using the Joyce Loebl Recording Micro-densitometer to ascertain variations in optical density in the print. The result is obtained as a scan through the disc image (of the UFO for example)

iii) Black and white enlargements on different wavelength sensitive papers: Comparison between UFO (disk) images on panchromatic and blue-green paper may show features visible in one, that are not evident in the other (cf. Fig. 25-7, p. 185, with dome on disk visible on panchromatic image (a) not visible on blue-green sensitive paper (b).

iv) Computer-based contrast enhancement: e.g. digitize negatives using a scanning densitometer. Comparisons of enhancements using various filters (e.g. blue, green, orange, etc. ) show differential detail that must be accounted for. (E.g. Figs. 25-9, 25-10, and 25-11 on pages 188-89).

Digital enhancements may include high-reverse contrast images of the disk itself, e.g. Fig 25-20 on page 207 of Sturrock, which discloses the left side of the particular disk is not a circular extension of the rest of disk – but is rather flattened to some unknown extent.

All of the above are eminently doable in terms of available modern  technology. All that's required is the right confluence of circumstances - that is, an encounter or proximate sighting of a UFO which allows all or most of the preceding to be applied.

Sturrock's book, to be sure, is not an easy read for the layman. But for those- say in the "soft" sciences - who think or believe that the "UFO" is the province of mental misfits, 20th century parochialism or those inhabiting "La-La land" it delivers an excellent wake up call. Alas, most of those would -be skeptics likely would not be able to navigate even the most rudimentary chapters.

Whether the WSJ's Poole falls into this category is another thing, but his column reference to UFOs being a "parochial" phenomenon and an anomaly of 20th century history and paranoia is not designed to inspire confidence.

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