Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Analyzing the unidentified

Some of you may have seen the piece done on 60 Minutes a few days ago about UAPs -- unidentified aerial phenomena -- which most of us call UFOs.

It was brought to my attention by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who sent me a link where I could watch the entire segment (it's about fifteen minutes long, and well worth the watch).  What stood out to me was that now that the government has gotten seriously interested in these reports, we're finding out that they're (1) common, and (2) bizarre enough that even a skeptic would have trouble coming up with a sensible scientific explanation.

One particularly compelling example is from the commander of the F/A-18F squadron on the USS Nimitz, David Fravor.  Fravor and three others saw a bizarre UAP in 2004 that included "multiple anomalous aerial vehicles" performing maneuvers including descending 25,000 meters in less than a second.  Best of all, the sightings were backed up by radar tracking.  It started when they noticed an area of roiling whitewater in an otherwise calm sea, and went in to investigate.  Fravor says:

So as we're looking at this, her [referring to Lieutenant Alex Dietrich, who was in another plane flying at Fravor's wing] back-seater says, "Hey, Skipper, do you..."  And about when that got out, I said, "Dude, do you, do you see that thing down there?"  And we saw this little white Tic Tac-looking object.  And it's just kind of moving above the whitewater area...  The Tic Tac's still pointing north-south, it goes, click, and just turns abruptly.  And starts mirroring me.  So as I'm coming down, it starts coming up...  It was aware we were there...  I want to see how close I can get... vAnd it's climbing still. vAnd when it gets right in front of me, it just disappears.

Seconds later, the object (or one like it) was caught on radar tracking -- by the USS Princeton, which was sixty miles away!

If this was just one isolated report, it'd be curious enough, but former Navy pilot Ryan Graves says this kind of thing happens every day.  Pilots have been reluctant to speak up about it because of the chance of facing disbelief and ridicule.  But thanks to people like Luis Elizondo, formerly of AATIP (the Pentagon's now-defunct Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program), who has worked to get video and audio evidence of UAPs declassified, the phenomena have come to the attention of the powers-that-be (and not just via such dubious conduits as The History Channel).

It worked.  Senator Marco Rubio, at the time head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked for a complete (and unclassified) report to be given to the Senate on these sightings by next month.  He said, "I want us to take it seriously and have a process to take it seriously.  I want us to have a process to analyze the data every time it comes in.  That there be a place where this is catalogued and constantly analyzed, until we get some answers.  Maybe it has a very simple answer.  Maybe it doesn't...  Anything that enters an airspace that's not supposed to be there is a threat."

People who are dubious about these reports having an extraterrestrial origin naturally lean toward it being evidence of advanced technology from rival governments, especially Russia and China.  While I am certainly not ready to leap at "aliens" as the answer either, the idea that the sort of thing Fravor and Dietrich report is Russian or Chinese surveillance technology just doesn't make sense to me.  I grant you there are undoubtedly tech programs over there that we here in the United States don't know about, but we're not talking about technology that's ten years ahead of us; what these reports detail (and Fravor and Dietrich's story is just one of hundreds) comes right out of Star Trek.

I find the whole thing fascinating.  I am reminded, of course, of the line from astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson, "Remember what the 'U' in 'UFO' stands for.  It stands for 'unidentified.'  Well, if it's 'unidentified,' that's where the conversation stops.  You don't say something is 'unidentified' and then go on to say that it 'must be' anything."

But it leaves us with a mystery.  I don't agree with Tyson's opinion that the conversation should stop here.  Surely such an apparently common phenomenon warrants serious inquiry.  I'm also not ready to jump to Marco Rubio's stance that what we're seeing is a threat; if these things -- whatever they are -- have the capabilities they appear to, they're technologically advanced enough that if they'd have meant us harm, they'd already have done it.  I more tend to agree with investigative journalist Leslie Kean, who said, "Most sightings that people have – Oh, I see something in the sky! – those kinds of sightings can usually be explained: the planet Venus, airplanes, comets, shooting stars, birds.  Let’s say five to ten percent are the cases that any conventional explanation can be ruled out; those are the cases that are of interest.  Those are worth investigating."


Too many people think of chemistry as being arcane and difficult formulas and laws and symbols, and lose sight of the amazing reality it describes.  My younger son, who is the master glassblower for the chemistry department at the University of Houston, was telling me about what he's learned about the chemistry of glass -- why it it's transparent, why different formulations have different properties, what causes glass to have the colors it does, or no color at all -- and I was astonished at not only the complexity, but how incredibly cool it is.

The world is filled with such coolness, and it's kind of sad how little we usually notice it.  Colors and shapes and patterns abound, and while some of them are still mysterious, there are others that can be explained in terms of the behavior of the constituent atoms and molecules.  This is the topic of the phenomenal new book The Beauty of Chemistry: Art, Wonder, and Science by Philip Ball and photographers Wenting Zhu and Yan Liang, which looks at the chemistry of the familiar, and illustrates the science with photographs of astonishing beauty.

Whether you're an aficionado of science or simply someone who is curious about the world around you, The Beauty of Chemistry is a book you will find fascinating.  You'll learn a bit about the chemistry of everything from snowflakes to champagne -- and be entranced by the sheer beauty of the ordinary.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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