Science outreach, crossing the mainstream divide, and “Chasing UFOs”

24 05 2012

Hosts James Fox, Me, and Erin Ryder during the filming of National Geographic’s “Chasing UFOs.” (Credit: David West)

I know there will be quite a lot on this here at the Astrowright blog in the coming weeks and months, but to begin very briefly, I’m excited to report that I’m set to appear on/host a National Geographic series next month (somewhat sensationally) entitled, “Chasing UFOs.”  

The project zeroed in on the “top 5%” – the most bizarre or inexplicable – of all alleged unidentified flying object cases in history.  However, unlike previous programs, in addition to firsthand interviews, we physically travel to the site of each alleged event, whether on a mountaintop or in the Amazon, to see if any material evidence exists to support extraordinary claims.

Aside from the “field adventure” component, the show’s presentation is novel in that three different viewpoints are represented in each case – skeptic, believer, and “agnostic.”  I’m thrilled that NatGeo has endorsed including someone like me on a project like this – essentially allowing the scientific/skeptical viewpoint to be heard. 

This is ultimately why I decided to engage in the project in the first case. 

For those who have been reading this blog for any length of time, it is obvious that I sit squarely on the skeptical side of the fence.   (In my view that’s the side that history ultimately bears out.)  However, I’m also comfortable enough in my own “scientist” skin to be willing to dive into any question, even if it has been (perhaps justifiably) shrugged off by mainstream academia.  This is particularly true when it concerns something for which there is a great deal of public interest and that exists in such close proximity to my personal passions – planetary science and space exploration.  In my view, the important thing to note is that people curious about UFOs are asking the right sorts of questions:

  • “What is going on in the night sky?”
  • “Are we alone in the universe?”
  • “What is the possibility of extraterrestrial life?”

-And with pseudoscientific, speculation-riddled and archaeology-confounding programs out there like “Ancient Aliens,” if scientists refuse to engage in mainstream media and contribute to the conversation, the conservative scientific viewpoint will rarely (or worse, never) be heard or explained.  If it is obvious to an astronomer that a flashing “UFO” is simply light from Venus on the horizon taking a long path-length through the atmosphere, and he or she doesn’t bother to explain it, science doesn’t stand a chance in the face of a passionate “talking head” declaring it to be proof of extraterrestrial intelligence in our own skies.  We fail twice – first to capture an excellent learning moment and secondly in that we ultimately succeed only in disenfranchising a curious public with respect to the scientific establishment.

As anyone in the sciences knows, STEM outreach needs all the help it can get.  We have to engage.  (And who knows?  I’m open to the possibility that people have really seen something extraordinary if evidence backs it up, though I would be just as excited were it to be exotic high-altitude electrical phenomena as opposed to green men from Mars.)

So, here goes.  Set the time circuits for June 29, 2012 at 09:00 on the NatGeo channel.  I haven’t seen the finished product myself, but I know what we did and guarantee it to be an action-packed, thought-provoking ride. 

Tune in and please feel free to let me know what you think!

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Space spirals, UFOs, and modern rockets

28 08 2010

Space spiral over Norway, December 09, 2009. Credit: Jan Petter Jørgensen via Vaeret

Many of us remember the splash made when a mysterious (and somewhat terrifyingly bizarre) spiral was seen in the sky over Norway late last year.  Admittedly, at first glance, it looks like a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

However, take a closer look.  It appears to be dusk.  The wild, spiral display is still in sunlight, even though the ground is not.  This indicates that the spiral is something not just up in the sky but rather in orbit (extremely high altitude).

Then, once you’re able to peel your eyes from the spiral, you’ll notice that a spiraling blue contrail is visible behind the centerpoint of the design, and this seems to indicate a rocket of some kind.  Once you’re there, you’ve got it figured.  The trick is that the above display is in 3D, not a flat plane as it first appears.  The blue contrail is coming at the photographer from extreme distance, as is the spiral, it would seem.

Keep playing the thought experiment forward.  A spinning rocket?  What would a spinning rocket venting a material of some kind into space look like from the Earth?

And there you have it.  It came out days later that the display was caused by a Russian nuclear missile test.

Fast-forward half-a-year, and we have the momentous launch of the first Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX:

Falcon 9 liftoff, June 04, 2010. (Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

Then, not 24 hours after the launch, another spiral!

Space spiral as seen over Australia. June 5, 2010. (Credit: Baden West)

Like Norway, UFO reports were filed all over Australia.  Unsurprisingly, it was confirmed as the Falcon 9.

So, it seems that, as a globe, we really need to get with the times.  We launch space rockets, and we’ve been doing it for the better part of a century.  Strange displays in the sky, while admittedly doomsday-looking (ever seen a solar eclipse?), will only become more commonplace with time.

What’s the take-home here?  In the future, count on a lot less “U” next to the dazzling “FO,” and take it to heart before calling 911 to tell the dispatcher about it.  =)





Differences between SETI, Astrobiology, UFOlogy

17 08 2010

Based on some recent feedback, I’m tempted to pose a question to the cyberverse:

  • What differences do you see, if any, between SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Astrobiology (study of locations and potential biochemistry of extraterrestrial life), and UFOlogy (study of UFOs)?

I ask this as a general point of discussion because some have expressed concern that working toward a preconceived methodology for xenoarchaeology, like I’ve been working on, will confuse Astrobiology, SETI, and the more pseudoscientific UFOlogy in the public mind.

So, what do you think?  Just how different is your perception of SETI, Astrobiology, and UFOlogy?  How legitimate a scientific pursuit are each?  How illegitimate?

Clearly, all three concepts are related.  Without Astrobiology, SETI and UFOlogy cannot logically exist.  UFOlogy implies “ETI,” but it makes some pretty incredible assumptions that in my mind remove it from the realm of hard science, or even speculative science, for that matter.

So, have at it.  Comments welcome.








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