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David Darling's Newsletter #17


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December 5, 2003



Contents


1. Meanderings
2. My take on UFOs
3. Bookends



1. Meanderings

Let me take this opportunity to wish all of you and your families the very best for Christmas and the New Year - wherever you are and whatever your beliefs. I'm grateful to you for visiting my website, buying (if you have!) my books, and, in general, listening to my ramblings on life, the universe, and anything else that the first two don't include.

If you haven't checked out the front page of my website in the past week or so, take a look and see. I've changed the "latest news" section so that you now get a picture and the first part of articles of interest on astrobiology, astronomy, spaceflight, archaeology, science in general, and other strange discoveries (really, anything that takes my fancy), from sites around the world every day. There's then a link to each of those sites if you want to read further. Let me know if there's anything you think I could do to improve this service or if you have any ideas for the website in general: the website exists for your benefit. I'm always keen to add new entries to the on-line encyclopedia, so please send me your thoughts and contributions (which will all be properly credited) for this too. And do consider registering as a member of my new bulletin board. We already have some interesting threads going and a small band of regular visitors. But more users, more threads, more ideas will always be welcome.



2. My take on UFOs

It's with a slight feeling of trepidation that I offer you my humble thoughts on that wonderfully murky modern contentious subject of UFOs. I know that some of my readers are mildly to strongly sympathetic to the notion that some UFOs offer good evidence for extraterrestrial visitation, while others would rather have their tongues stapled to the floor than entertain the idea that UFOs were anything other than "Unsubstantiated Fantastic Ovoids" (thank you Roget's Thesaurus!) Is it possible, while remaining true to science, to occupy a middle ground between these positions? Sure it is. For one thing, if UFOs are defined as pretty much anything unexplained that gives the appearance of flying or being capable of flight, then a whole lot of phenomena come under that umbrella. UFOs don't have to equal flying saucers or, for that matter, anything artificial, although they might. Of course, they could all be a combination of mistaken identities (satellites, clouds, Venus, fireballs, etc) and hoaxes. But enough people report seeing them, apparently sincerely, that science has a duty to consider them, even if it's under the pretext of why so many people claim to be eyewitnesses to, and/or believers in, the extraterrestrial hypothesis. It's at least a psychological if not a physical if not an intelligently-directed phenomenon. Anyhow, I want to kick off with my own UFO sighting.

It was a wild and windy night . . . Well, no, actually it was a clear, fairly mild, Moonless night. But it was certainly atmospheric. Let me give you the preamble. It was in 1969 (coincidentally around the time of the first Moon landing . . . hmm!) and I was 16 and living in the Peak District of Derbyshire, England. Check out this map. See where it says Coombs Reservoir, in the middle of the map, just below Whaley Bridge? (I grew up in Little Hayfield due north, also shown on the map.) That's where this incident took place. There'd been a rash of UFO sightings in the north of England around this time and, together with a friend, I got intrigued and wanted to find out what was going on. The local paper had been carrying stories of strange lights in the sky for several weeks and, being space enthusiasts, we thought it might be fun to do a bit of our own detective work and try to find out what was at the bottom of it all. We started by interviewing a woman who had seen one of these mystery lights while hiking near Kinder Downfall – an amazing flow of water that just hurtles off the edge of a sheer drop and is often blown back up again high into the air. Then we decided we had to actually go out, into the countryside at dead of night, to see what might be happening for ourselves. So, we set up camp in the valley by Coombs Reservoir, which was close to the center of the activity, and made our way up onto the moor around midnight. It was coolish but not cold, clear, and dark – atmospheric almost to the point of being surreal. The stars shone with an intensity I'd never noticed before. And once we were away from the relative security of the wooded valley, on the exposed windswept moor, we both felt suddenly very isolated and afraid.

We were expecting something to happen – and, right on cue, it did. Over the far horizon we saw a single bright, white light moving oddly, meandering its way silently across the sky. It was clearly no ordinary aircraft or satellite. Nor was it any familiar celestial object such as a shooting star or a bright planet. Its movements seemed controlled but unpredictable. And then without warning, the object split and there were two lights, apparently coming closer to us. By now, we were excited, nervous, and egging each other on almost to the point of hysteria. The mother ship, we were convinced, had released a scout craft that was heading straight toward us, dipping lower and brightening as the distance between us rapidly narrowed. Then, with terrifying effect – I shiver as I remember it – both lights abruptly went out. The craft had seen us, it would soon be upon us, and inevitably we'd be abducted! Charging like wild things, we leapt over peat bogs, vaulted over dry-stone walls, tearing our clothes and skin on barbed wire, and hurtled down precipitous slopes at manic speed. My friend turned his ankle and, gasping, we eventually limped, three-legged, back to the all-too-flimsy protection of our tent. After that, every noise in the wood startled us back awake, and we must have looked a sorry, bedraggled sight when we emerged, damp and bleary-eyed, into the gray light of dawn.

I'm telling you this because it's my only personal experience of a UFO – and it was very vivid, very persuasive, absolutely authentic. So what had we actually seen? Well, as it happens, I can tell you, but only for one reason.What compelled us to do it I don't know, but as the Sun rose we made our way back – slowly and, in my friend's case, somewhat painfully –; to the spot where the strange lights had seemed to buzz us the night before. I think we were too tired to be scared any more and we'd both realized by then, a little sheepishly, that we'd over-reacted. At any rate, the mystery quickly and rather tamely resolved itself. Behind the far hill that we'd seen and taken as the line of the horizon over which the UFOs danced, was another, more distant hill down which ran a winding road. The rest you can guess: our flying saucers were nothing more than headlights zigzagging this way and that, sometimes disappearing behind obstacles, at other times separating before coming together again, as two cars, one close behind the other, shifted in relative position along our line of sight.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not using this example as a way to dismiss all eyewitness accounts of strange lights in the sky. Some descriptions that I've heard myself directly from people whom I trust to be telling the truth simply can't be explained away in such banal terms. But I can testify to this: on that night, 24 years ago, I felt as if I'd been catapulted into another world in which alien spacecraft and intelligent creatures from other stars had somehow emerged from the realm of fiction and speculative imagination into that of hard-edged fact. During the moments of greatest excitement up on the moor I actually felt as if I were becoming a different person – a different person in a different reality. My mind was wrestling with the problem as I fell asleep in the tent that night. And it clearly continued to wrestle with it for the few hours that I was unconscious, because in the morning I'd come to terms with the problem. I was thinking rationally again. Maybe the UFOs were real. Somehow that now seemed acceptable, logical. On the other hand, maybe we'd gone over the top. The rush of adrenaline had ended and I could see that we might have been carried away by hysteria. And so it proved. But if we hadn't bothered to go back and check by the cold, sober light of day, who knows? Perhaps the story I've told you would have had a very different ending. And perhaps, with the passage of years, my childhood tale would have grown in elaboration and become another curious addition to the annals of the unexplained.

UFOs could be a lot of things. If we adopt Occam's Razor (i.e. don't make unnecessary assumptions), we start by eliminating the most mundane possibilities and then gradually working our way to the more exotic: hoaxes, misidentifications of familiar objects, hallucinations, more unusual but known objects both natural and artificial (bright meteors, reentering spacecraft or rocket stages, experimental planes), very unusual and poorly understand natural phenomena (ball lightning, earthlights). And only when we've absolutely eliminated all these options do we, as scientists, entertain the outre – including the possibility that some UFOs are evidence of extraterrestrial spacecraft. I don't know, personally, whether any object on record can definitively be said to fall into the last category. But I'll add a couple of remarks concerning this possibility. First, the idea of extraterrestrial spacecraft in the solar system isn't far-fetched. Indeed, the possibility that Earth is under surveillance by interstellar probes is real and scientifically justifiable. After all, if humans are already discussing the prospect of sending high-speed probes to the edge of our planetary system and beyond, why shouldn't other civilizations, if they exist, which have been monitoring Earth from afar (by the kind of equipment we'll also have available over the next few decades!), have already dispatched robot spacecraft our way. See my encyclopedia pages on extraterrestrial probes and interstellar probes.

Second, there are some very sensible, well-thought-through projects in train that are attempting to test systematically the extraterrestrial hypothesis – the claim that some UFOs are of alien origin. One of these is a collaboration between the retired aerospace engineer T. Roy Dutton and the astronomer Eamon Ansbro. Another is connected with the Hessadalen Project that focuses on earthlight activity in Norway.

In my view, the UFO phenomenon deserves scientific attention and it's unfortunate that most professional scientists steer clear of it because of the more extreme elements of the ufology fraternity. Its thorough investigation would certainly tell us a great deal more about ourselves, might well shed valuable light on little known natural meteorological and geological effects, and just might – though I'd personally say the probability is low – help built a case for the presence of other intelligence.



3. Bookends

Looking for something to stuff in your oversized stocking at Christmas, or to help hold your door open? Then consider one of my space books: The Universal Book of Astronomy, The Complete Book of Spaceflight, or Life Everywhere.

Have a great holiday season!

Until next time,
Best wishes,
David Darling