Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 117: Eyewitness Accounts and UFOs, Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus


Human memory,
UFO reports, and their
Reli’bility.

Finally, a new episode is out. I saw Dr. Elizabeth Loftus talk at TAM this year, and I asked her to come on the podcast to discuss her research into human memory and how malleable human memory is, with implications for UFO reports.

I tend not to discuss UFO = aliens much on my blog or podcast. That’s because so much of the claimed evidence these days has mostly to do with eyewitness reports which I really find fairly unconvincing. I also find the Argument from Authority angle – that this was a report made by a “trained observer” or someone with “impeccable credentials” – very off-putting, for it really doesn’t mean their memory is any better than anyone else’s, it’s just an attempt by the proponent to make it sound more trustworthy.

What Dr. Loftus discusses in the roughly 15-minute interview are some of the details of her research over the past three decades into how much human memory can be manipulated. She hasn’t studied UFO reports in particular, so could not directly comment on that, but she is familiar enough with them and with the topic of how to interview a witness and how manipulate memory in general that she could comment on it.

Do to ongoing ridiculously large and numerous time commitments, I’m not sure how many episodes I can put out this month, so it’s possible that this one is it. Hopefully not, but we’ll see.

February 17, 2014

Interview for a Japanese Program on the Apollo Moon Hoax


Introduction

Two weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese production company, asking me if I’d be willing to do a short interview for a program that they are producing – and probably broadcasting – around March or April. In Japan.

I agreed, and I was sent a few different questions to get an idea of what I should prepare. I had only heard of some of them, so I did some research and, as a way to prep, I wrote up “brief” responses. Obviously I wasn’t reading while being recorded, but it was a way to organize my thoughts.

And get a free blog post. So, here are ten interview questions and my responses, as prepared. On the show, they weren’t all asked, and a few additional ones were, so I don’t think I’m pre-empting anything by putting these online. Please note that the questions were originally in Japanese, translated into English, and I have edited them a bit for grammar.

Interview Questions and Answers

1. Why did the moon landing conspiracy surface? Did it start with the 1976 book written by Kaysing Conspiracy?

For anything before the internet era, it’s really hard to pin down the start of anything — all you can do is find the earliest example, but there could always be something before that that you simply could not find.

Bill Kaysing’s book in 1976 was the first book to claim that it was a conspiracy, yes, and the very fringe Flat Earth Society was one of the first organizations to do so in 1980.

However, there are various people who were NASA watchers back during the Apollo era who have variously claimed that even in the late 1960s, there were some people who were claiming that it was all a hoax. But, in terms of contemporary, printed material with a definite copyright date, Kaysing’s book was the first.

2. Do you know what the initial reaction to Kaysing’s book when it was just released was?

[No …]

3. Following the book’s publish, the movie, Capricorn One, was released. Do you think the movie was released because of the public’s initial reaction to the Kaysing’s book?

It’s likely it was written due to general hoax sentiment, not due to Kaysing’s book in particular, but it would be interesting to have gotten a contemporary interview with writer-director Peter Hyams to learn his motivation. He said, “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have . . . came from a TV camera.”

It’s important to mention that NASA actually helped with the production of the movie, loaning them equipment as props, including a prototype lunar module. If NASA were trying to cover up an Apollo conspiracy, one might think they would not have helped make a movie about them covering up a Mars landing conspiracy.

Do you know how much attention the book and movie received at that time? Was there any media coverage about it?

I don’t know about the book, but the movie became one of the most successful independent films of 1978.

4. The conspiracy theory surfaced in the 70s, and media brought it back again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as FOX’s TV special program, “Conspiracy Theory” and the book, “Dark Moon,” which are about the moon landing conspiracy. Why do you think the media covered this topic again after decades?

I’m not sure, but the 1990s saw a resurgence of missions of the Moon and Mars by the United States. People who believed in the hoax could then use that to gain traction. And, if you find a sympathetic producer, or even one who thinks that they can get ratings by making something so sensational like the FOX docudrama, then you can get your show made.

5. The points that conspiracy theorists bring up: Despite the fact that there was a large amount of thrust, there was no blast crater left on the moon.

There’s no real reason to have expected a “blast crater” in the sense of an explosion. There was some disturbance of the ground under the nozzle, but it was a blast as in a blast of air.

You can also use very basic math to show why you wouldn’t expect one: If you use the specifications, you can show that the pressure under the engine was only about half a pound per square inch. The average adult when walking exerts about three times that pressure. When you clap your hands together, you exert more pressure than the lunar module’s engines did on the surface of the Moon.

If astronauts did land, there should have been a large amount of dust floating around, yet we can see no sign of dust on the space suits or their surroundings.

There actually shouldn’t have been. This is a case where your every-day experience on Earth does not prepare you for what to expect on the Moon. If I take dust and blow on it in this room, it billows out and slowly falls down after swirling around for a long time.

But, there’s no air on the Moon. Any particle that’s kicked up will go up and then drop right back down. There’s no air to suspend the dust. In fact, you can go to movies of the lunar rover and see it kick up dust and fall right back down to the surface which requires the vacuum of the Moon rather than an air-filled sound stage on Earth.

6. About the “identical background” claims on Apollo 16 mission footage, how do you dispel this claim? Some people (such as Phil Plait) have said that it’s just a simple error with the video. They say that Erick Jones, who is the editor of the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, says that those two clips were taken about only a few mins apart. According to our research, the “identical background” video clips were taken from the NASA-sponsored documentary video, “Nothing so Hidden.” And the documentary is produced by other production company outside of NASA. Therefore, our understanding is that it’s an error on editing stage of production: the production company took wrong clips and audio and used in the documentary. What do you think of our theory?

Makes sense. This is an innate problem with conspiracies: You have to suppose this vast maniacal group of people trying to hide the truth, so you can’t trust them on anything. And yet, this claim requires you to trust an original claim that was shown to be in err and not trust the correction.

There was a lot of footage taken on the Moon, a lot of audio and video. Stuff gets mislabeled, put in the wrong box, or edited wrong in production of documentaries afterward. Despite all attempts, the people involved were only human, and mistakes are bound to happen. You shouldn’t contribute to a conspiracy what simple human error can very easily explain.

-How did NASA usually archive footage back then during the Apollo project

[Explanation courtesy of "Expat" of the Dork Mission blog, who worked with the BBC during the Apollo era on the Apollo missions.]

Everything was transferred to 16mm film, by the kinescope process. A contractor, The AV Corporation of Seabrook (just a few miles from JSC, or MSFC as it was then known) handled all media requests. They had a pretty good catalog. No doubt there were also copies for internal use. By the time I made a documentary about Skylab, AVCorp was out of the picture and NASA’s own film editors worked with me to search the archive.

If mastering on film seems illogical by today’s standards, it wasn’t back then. The point is that film is independent of TV line standards. In those days transcoding between the US and European standards was a highly imperfect process. All our documentaries were produced on film anyway, so a video release would just have been a nuisance for us and the end result would have been degraded.

As late as 1981, when I was location producer for the BBC coverage of STS-1, I had BBC engineers getting on my case and refusing to transmit images shot by a US-based ENG (video) crew. We had to go through a ridiculous pantomime pretending that it was a film crew instead. By the time we sent the material back to London via satellite, how could they tell?

-For what purpose did NASA produce these documentary videos of the Apollo project?

A better question would be, why wouldn’t they? Practically every government agency has a public relations department, tasked with disseminating their work to the public and gathering support and more funding. In addition, Apollo returned a lot of useful science that we’re still using today – including myself in my own research – but it was also a world-wide public relations endeavor to prove that the United States was better than the Soviets. Of course you’re going to make documentaries and put out material to make people aware of it and such a triumph of human engineering.

7. Why do these theories continue to surface even until today? Do you think it’s because we now have easier access to footage from space? Is it a sense of distrust of NASA?

I think there are a lot of reasons. One is of course a distrust of government. Another reason is that people like to think they know secrets, and a conspiracy is a big secret.

Another reason is that a lot of the lines of evidence that people point to for the hoax are not easily explained because they are contrary to our experience on Earth. For example, one claim is that there should have been stars in the sky because the sky is black, so it must have been night like on Earth and at night you can see stars. But, the sky is black because there’s no atmosphere, it was actually daytime, and the cameras were set to properly expose the lunar surface and astronauts for day. You can’t capture photos of stars with those settings. But, the time I just took to explain that was much, much longer than just throwing out the, “there should be stars!” claim and it’s much easier given our every-day experience to think that there should be stars, rather than take the time to understand why there aren’t.

8. Why hasn’t NASA given their opinion on the Apollo moon-landing hoax ever since 2001? (What is the reason NASA doesn’t answer the conspiracy theorists?)

I would guess because they don’t want to give it any more publicity. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation for NASA:

a. If there is no official statement, conspiracy people will point to that and say that NASA won’t even defend themselves.

b. But if there is an official statement, then conspiracy theorists will say that NASA took the time to respond to them so there must be a controversy and they must be hiding something and you can’t trust anything the government says anyway.

c. In addition to that, Congress will wonder why they should be paying NASA to respond to ridiculous claims, and so NASA risks having their budget cut.

This happened maybe a decade ago when NASA was going to pay James Oberg, an American space journalist and historian, to write a book dispelling the hoax claims. And NASA lost-lost-lost: First, conspiracy people said it was a disinformation campaign; second, Congress wondered why NASA was spending money to do this; and third, when NASA cancelled it because of the outcry on all fronts, the conspiracists claimed NASA cancelled it because it really was a hoax.

Not Related to the Moon Hoax

9. There are still images taken by the Voyager of Saturn that Dr. Norman Bergrun, as author of “Ringmakers of Saturn”, claimed to show a UFO. What do you he possibly mistook it for? This is an example article about Dr. Burgrun’s claim.

Bergrun’s process was to take photos that were published in things like newspapers and magazines, put them under a microscope, and take a photo of them through the microscope’s eyepiece, and then look for weird tings. When going through that process, you are going to find weird things. Every example of a spaceship or alien or whatever that he has can be VERY easily explained by dust or gunk getting in the photo, or uneven illumination, or film grain, and the anomalies he found do not appear in ANY other version of the images.

In fact, one such example that Bergrun points to as a UFO is a bright speck in the bottom of an image, except the bottom part of that image is clearly NOT part of the image that Voyager took because the rings cut-off about 20% of the way from the bottom. This shows that the photo he’s using is a reproduction, including blank area, and he’s pointing to image anomalies caught in that duplication.

- And there are the 1996 infrared photos by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1996 [SJR-- actually, 1995], and some people insist that that is a UFO. What do you think of it? What do you think it possibly is? The refereed photos are shown here.

They look like moons to me. Each exposure was 5 minutes long, and stuff moves in 5 minutes. In fact, one of the outer-most moons that’s within the rings, Atlas, goes around Saturn every 14 hours. In the time that photo with Hubble was taken, it went about 0.6% of its orbit, which would mean it should be a bit elongated. Every moon interior to it would be even longer because they would have moved farther in its orbit in the same amount of time.

10. In addition, there is now footage that NASA releases to the public on their homepage, and this footage or stills sometime show space debris or mini-jets that NASA has captured. Then, some people look at those debris or mini-jets, and introduce them as UFOs on the Internet. Why do you think people often do that?

I think people “want to believe.” They are going to look for any sort of anomaly or object they can’t explain and then say that, because they don’t know what it is, it is aliens. In skepticism, we call this an “Argument from Ignorance” – they are ignorant of what it really is, so they make up what it is in a way that fits their preconceived ideas.

Final Thoughts

The interview was more focused on the origin of the conspiracy and a bit more on general conspiracies than on debunking particular claims made by hoax proponents. I have no idea how I came off on camera – this was my first “real” moving-picture-type interview other than for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science that I did at TAM last year that has yet to be put online (but apparently they ARE working on it!). We’ll see.

They might send me a DVD copy when it comes out. I know my mom wants a copy.

January 16, 2014

Quadcopters Mistaken as UFOs, Redux

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 4:44 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Short post, so I’ll dispense with the usual subject headings. Several months ago, I wrote a blog post wherein I surmised that many (not most, not all, but many) UFO reports might, in fact, be hobby “toys” (albeit expensive ones). “Toys” as in quadcopters and related flying remote controlled craft.

Numerous comments that I did not permit through were from some very ardent UFOs = aliens proponents, and others who entirely missed the point and were off-topic. Some comments that were submitted argued that no one could possibly mistake a quadcopter flying a few 10s m (~100 ft?) up with lights on the bottom as a UFO.

They are wrong.

And to show they are wrong, I provide two anecdotes. Before you scream, “anecdotes aren’t evidence!” the knee-jerk reaction in this case is wrong. The claim was made that quadcopters and related craft could not be mistaken as UFOs. Therefore any single anecdote where they are will falsify that claim.

The first example came after the second, temporally, but it’s the shortest. I was at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, last week, and it was night. I was waiting for the bus, while enjoying a lovely gelato (they use the word “lovely” a lot here). I looked towards the beach because I saw something odd out of my peripheral vision. I turned to see dancing lights, about five of them, hovering, moving slowly, then changing direction quickly, and generally performing acrobatic feats that certainly “no terrestrial craft could do!” Fortunately, it passed in front of a tree and so I was able to instantly recognize that it was a few meters away rather than thousands, and surmise that it was a quadcopter. I had fallen victim to the phenomenon myself.

The second anecdote is a bit more frustrating and emberassing because of what caused it. For my Australia trip, I ended up getting a DJI Phantom quadcopter because it was compact, sturdy, easy to travel with, and had a built-in holder for my GoPro camera. Unfortunately, I did not realize that there is a known issue with them suddenly deciding to fly away, no longer responding to the controller.

I was flying it the third night I was in Melbourne, just up in my friend’s sister’s tiny backyard, in the dense neighborhood of Albert Park. Was doing fine, was getting nice video and stills of sunset over the beach (~800 m away) and the city (opposite direction, several km away), when the quadcopter just darted off towards the beach. The control did not work. I’ll spare you the agonizing search and flyering and just jump to the fact that we DID get it back two days later. It landed on the garage roof of a house about 500 m (~0.3 miles) away, and the father and children recovered it about 10 minutes later. It now has my name and phone number in big characters on the hull.

But, while flyering and narrowing down where it landed based on neighbor reports, several said they thought it was a UFO. Yes, they used those initials, U-F-O. One even remarked that she had said out loud, “Wow, UFOs are real!” when she saw it flying overhead because all they could see were the green and red lights on the bottom.

So, there you have it. Again: I’m not saying that people who mistake these as aliens are stupid, that they are ignorant. Nor am I saying that every UFO sighting is a quadcopter or related craft.

However, I think that it’s very telling what happened in these two cases, and that it shows people need to be ever more careful in jumping to the UFO = aliens conclusion without considering all the much more likely – and very terrestrial – explanations.

October 21, 2013

Podcast Episode 90: Investigation into Billy Meier’s Alleged Foreknowledge About Stuff About Jupiter and Saturn


Investigating
When people knew what about
Jup’ter and Saturn.

I’ve been doing some research on and off for this episode for quite awhile and finally had enough to post it: Episode 90: “Investigation into Billy Meier’s Alleged Foreknowledge About Stuff About Jupiter and Saturn.” The shownotes for this episode are extensive with lots of references. It’s been scheduled as Episode 90 for about two months. I decided to do it because I found it an interesting scavenger hunt, despite the fact that UFO-related posts are among my least-read blog posts.

The blog entry I reference towards the end of the episode is from January: “How Astronomers Are, According to Popular Press, Constantly Discovering the Same Thing.” I recommend looking through it because it’s a good example that has nothing to do with the Meier case where even peer-reviewed, professional science papers will sometimes ignore work that has shown the same “new” thing before, and it’s a good example of how press releases can play up various “discoveries” … even if they’ve been made before.

The podcast episode also has a few notes at the end, and there’s some feedback clarifying the discussion about why oxygen isotopes are important for understanding where objects formed in the solar system.

 

Given what’s happened in the past when I’ve talked about Meier’s material, I’m going to reiterate my comments policy: Comments need to be on-topic, and I make the final decision of what comes through; I do not owe you an explanation if your comment is not posted, my comments policy is pretty clear. Any comment to this post needs to be specifically about this podcast episode.

If you’re going to dispute material in it, you need to provide specific references and be specific about what you are disputing. You need to be succinct. That means no lengthy essays. That means no posts with numerous links to random stuff. That means no links to videos about trees — no embedded videos period, I will remove them and I will remove posts that are simply a bunch of random links to Meier material, especially if they do not support the specific thing you are refuting / referencing. That means not debating whether trees in a video are real or models.

This episode is specifically about certain claims about Jupiter and Saturn, whether those claims/statements were true, and whether it was known or openly speculated before Meier’s writing that they were true or existed, which is what the claim is for Meier’s prophecy: “… with literally dozens of other such documented examples of Meier’s having published specific, accurate information years, and even decades, before terrestrial scientists, the case must be recognized as being authentic based on these irrefutable facts alone.” It is not the claim that this stuff was known on Earth but Meier didn’t have access to that information so he still got it from ETs — and if that’s what is going to be claimed now, then that is an unfalsifiable and unverifiable claim and is moving the goalpost.

October 15, 2013

A New Revelation on UFOs and More Evidence They Aren’t Aliens

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 11:18 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Introduction

I tend not to write that much on UFOs = aliens. Of the now 25 posts (including this) that are tagged “UFO” on this blog, very few actually deal directly with the issue. The reason is fairly simple: There’s no new evidence, and what evidence there is, leaves much to be desired.

Let me be very specific about my terms here: When I say “UFO,” I mean an “unidentified flying object.” As in an object, in the sky, that appears to be flying, that is unidentified. When I say “UFOs = aliens,” I mean the belief that about half Americans share that UFOs are alien craft. Obviously the former is real. The latter is what people argue about.

Primary Evidence

The vast majority of UFOs = aliens “evidence” is in the form of eyewitness reports. UFOs = aliens researchers often tout these from “highly credible” witness despite those witness accounts claiming things that are impossible for them to know: Height, speed, and size of the “craft.” For details on why that is impossible, I will direct you to my Podcast Episode 2.

But, briefly, all you can do is measure the angular speed and size of the object, but without knowing the physical speed or size or distance, you cannot convert the angular measurement into a physical measurement. Ergo, anyone who states they saw a craft that was, for example, a mile wide, 100 miles up, and traveling at 5000 miles per hour is wrong (intentionally or not). They have no way of knowing if it was that far away or just something that was 100 ft up, 1 ft wide, and traveling at 50 ft per hour instead. (This is, again, unless they have an independent way of measuring the actual value for one of those or have a solid frame of reference, such as if it went behind a tree, then you know it was at least as far away as that tree.)

The primary other evidence for a UFO = alien craft typically is in the eyewitness stating they saw the craft do something that is impossible for terrestrial aircraft (which hopefully readers recognize as a classic argument from ignorance (you don’t know something, therefore you assume it’s something by default)). For example, the object would be seen to stop, or hover, or dart in various directions much faster than an airplane could.

Another common claim is that the craft is silent. Therefore, it’s either very far away, or it’s some sort of anti-gravity non-engine propulsion (usually one or the other is claimed by the witness, not either-or).

Very often, no physical craft is ever seen. It’s just lights in the dark night sky. And the lights are constant, not blinking like an airplane.

I’m Building a Toy

A few months ago, I saw some amazing video done by a guy who put a camera on a quadcopter and flew it over Niagra Falls. Since I do a lot of landscape photography, this seemed like a very neat new/different approach that I could get into: Fly the camera over the landscape and take shots from vantage points I couldn’t possibly get to. (Note that quadcopters have been around for nearly 100 years.)

I’m opting for a build-your-own approach and the parts are finally shipping (except for the flight control board, which is still on back-order). In the meantime, I’ve been learning how to fly on a mini version, the Blade mQX. With the Blade, I’ve been able to fly several hundred feet up, and my starting point is 6000 ft above sea level.

I’ve also been able to dart all over the place. For photography – and especially videography – you don’t want to do that, but it’s a good way to learn how to really control the craft, to do crazy things with it. And with something cheap like the Blade with several spare parts on-hand, it’s okay if I crash (and you will crash if you haven’t flown one before). Here’s just one of many videos on YouTube showing the kind of flying you can do with a quadcopter.

One issue with quadcopters – or at least something that I’m mildly worried about – is what happens if I don’t know which way is forward anymore? I’m getting bright orange propellers for the back and bright green for the front, but 500ft up, will I see that? So, I got running lights to put along the arms. Again, green and orange. That way, hopefully I’ll be able to see which way is forward and which is backward. That way, when I push the controller for it to go left, it goes left instead of right or away from me or towards me or in some other direction. Other people just put one light at the end of each arm, under the motors.

Put These Together: UFOs = Quadcopters

Take a look at this video of a quadcopter with a few lights flying at night. He went a bit out there in terms of lighting, but the effect is fairly clear: This is the kind of behavior described by many UFOs = aliens eyewitnesses:

  • The craft is silent (if you’re more than 100 ft away, you can’t hear a quadcopter).
  • The craft is lit.
  • It performs aerobatics.

You can also cut the power for the lights. You can zoom it up. You can bring it down. You can also build a hexcopter (6 arms) instead and light only three legs, giving you three lights for the typical “triangular craft.”

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying that aliens / ETs do not exist.

I’m not saying that some UFOs could be alien / ET craft.

I’m not saying that all UFOs are actually hobbyist heli/quad/hex/octo/etc. copters.

What I am saying is that there is an extraordinary claim (those lights in the sky that I don’t know what they are are actually extraterrestrial craft) that lacks ANY extraordinary evidence (eyewitness arguments from ignorance). That argument from ignorance is commonly of the form, “No terrestrial aircraft could possibly do what I saw that UFO do!” That argument from ignorance also frequently contains meaningless conjecture on the size, distance, and speed of a few lights in the sky.

What I am saying is that quadcopters and similar toys that a lot of people build and fly for fun are out there (for some reason my brother is now getting into it, and my dad’s been thinking about it for awhile, and now I’m building one), but many people have never heard of them (I hadn’t until a few months ago). And, if you put lights on them (which many do) and fly them at night for fun (which many do), they behave exactly the way that these eyewitnesses say their UFO did in those kinds of UFO = aliens cases.

What I am saying is that I would not be surprised if many UFO reports are actually hobbyist aircraft like these.

July 7, 2013

An Ancient Crash-Landed Spacecraft on Mars?


Introduction

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

Mars Feature, ~13.3°N, 115.5°W

So claims the website “UFO Sightings Daily.” I was alerted to it by Sharon’s Doubtful News site.

I know I said my last post would be my last pre-TAM post, but given that my workshop is on image analysis and how to investigate image-based claims, well, this one was easy and I thought I’d write about it. And I’m going to assume for purposes here that you’ve gone to one of those two links and read a bit about this.

Investigating the Claim: Find Original Images

The first step to investigating a claim like this is to try to find the original image, or the location of the image on the planet. Fortunately, this is a feature on Mars, and the website has provided the coordinates: about 13.5°N and 115.5°W.

As an astro/geophysicist who got his Ph.D. studying images of Mars to study craters, I know of many different ways to find images of locations of Mars. My normal go-to website is Arizona State University’s Mars Global Data portal. It’s fairly exhaustive, letting you use a (admittedly small) map of the planet to find images from over half a dozen different image sources at a huge variety of resolutions. I do not use things like Google Earth because of the way it resamples and stretches images and I don’t like that it caches everything on your computer, taking up hard drive space, and it does not have all the latest data.

What I did was go to the “Webmap” of CTX data. CTX stands for “ConTeXt” Camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has a very large, almost global coverage of the planet at a very good ~6 meters per pixel scale. Probably around 70-80% coverage at this time (it’s still in operation and returning data). It’s my go-to source for stuff like this and my work in general. After finding the area, here’s the most zoomed-in you get on that area.

The slanted rectangles are approximate image footprints. By clicking the mouse-arrow tool and then clicking on them, little thumbnails show up below the map. You can click on them to bring up the image on its own page. Of the two that might cover the area, it’s CTX image G01_018494_1930_XN_13N115W that has the feature in the upper third of the image.

You can use the Flash-based zoomer, or you can use any of the browse formats to get a smaller version (though larger than the thumbnail). This CTX image has a pixel scale of about 5.5 m/px, but it looks somewhat grainy. I would guess this is due to possibly photographing through a mild dust storm, or they didn’t expose the camera long enough. However, the feature itself is clearly visible.

MOC, THEMIS, Viking, and HRSC have also all taken photos of the feature, visible through the webmap interface, all with different resolutions. THEMIS took a color image, and HRSC has an image at 12.5 m/px.

If I had to guess, it’s that the THEMIS image is what’s used in the Google Maps version shown on the UFO site, and that Google has also just colored it a rusty orange.

Investigating the Claim: Positive or Negative Relief

Various persons on the UFO page and other places that this is being reported say that it’s a positive feature, meaning that it comes out at you like a hill. Others, like on the Ghost Theory site claim that it’s also positive relief, but that the shadows have been played with in the area.

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Mars Object with Context and Craters Identified

Given that we can go to numerous original images and not ones that have been mosaicked together, we can look at the shadows of other features. To be scientific, you can use the sun angles given in the data on the ASU site for each individual image. Or, you can just look at the craters. Craters are negative features, going into the surface. Shadows will be on the side facing away from the sun, while highlights will be facing the sun. Using the shadows on the craters, we can clearly see that the shadows of this feature match, and so it is a negative relief feature.

Already, that negates claims made on these sites that it’s a space ship or a big rock. Despite the claim in the article: “This structure also does not go under the ground, but instead is laying on the surface of Mars.” As will be a bit of a theme during our TAM workshop (1A!!!!), when someone says “This is NOT [something],” that should be the first thing you check on.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Crater?

The default for a hole in the ground on most solid solar system objects other than Earth is an impact crater. And you can get highly elliptical impact craters.

However, this does not look like an impact crater: (1) There is no raised rim, (2) there is no ejecta, (3) the walls are very steep, and (4) the floor looks flat (though no topography data is available). Taking these in order …

1. All impact craters start with a raised rim. These do erode over time, but it takes time. Looking at other craters in the same images, they all have raised rims but the floors look like they’re infilled (they’re not as deep as they should be … remember, I got my Ph.D. studying Mars’ crater population). Given that this is on a very young surface (lack of large craters), it’s very unlikely that such a rim would erode to literally nothing: The ground is flat, and then it drops down into this feature. Not an impact crater.

2. All craters eject material when they form. There is no evidence of ejecta – either present or fossilized – and again with the youth of the feature, this would be very surprising for an impact crater.

3-4. Impact craters that are small are bowl-shaped and have characteristic slopes to their walls. This looks much steeper than you’d get with an impact crater, more typical of what I’ll discus later. Similarly, all small craters are, as I said, bowl-shaped, and this lacks that bowl on the floor. This could be explained by infilling so, in itself, that’s not a reason to discount it being an impact crater. Given the other points, it’s fairly conclusive.

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Geologic Context

This is on the massive volcanic province of Mars known as the Tharsis region, or Tharsis bulge, or just Tharsis. Massive volcanos resurfaced large parts of it as recently as about 100 million years ago — yes, if the dinosaurs had telescopes and spacecraft in orbit, they would have seen active volcanoes on Mars.

Volcanic vents are fed by lava tubes. When lave tubes are evacuated, they are hollow. You can walk through some in Hawai’i. When they’re hollow, they can collapse. Again, check out Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i.

When they collapse, you can get individual craters (“pit craters”), or if a large portion of the tube collapses, you get graben – a linear feature with a flat floor and very steep sides – typically steeper than an impact crater. (You can get graben other ways, but this is one of them.)

Mars Object with Broad Context

Mars Object with Broad Context (click image to embiggen)

With that in mind, look elsewhere in the CTX, HRSC, or THEMIS images. You will see graben. In fact, there’s a large, long one a few 10s miles/km north of the feature in question. In fact, between that graben and this feature, there’s another one that looks similar to this feature. In fact, this feature runs parallel to other nearby graben. In fact, there is a very shallow graben leading right into the west end of this feature, in the same direction as the long axis of this feature. In fact …

Investigating the Claim: What Is It? Collapsed Lava Tube?

… that’s what this very likely is: A portion of a collapsed lava tube. It makes sense given the geologic setting. It makes sense given the orientation relative to other obvious graben in the area. It makes sense given that it’s unlikely to be an impact crater.

I think another possibility (less likely in my opinion) is that it’s a large volcanic vent – another type of crater, a “volcanic crater” (AKA caledera). The reason I think this is less likely is that I don’t see evidence of magma coming out of it – there isn’t anything radiating away. Topography data would help settle that, but given that the flows immediately north and south of it appear to continue as though it doesn’t exist, and then this feature is just right on top of them, I think it’s more likely to be the collapsed lava tube.

What It’s Not

Not a spaceship. Not a big rock. And yet, with the headline of, “Ancient Structure On Mars,” you get all sorts of commenters on the UFO website exercising their amazing powers of pareidolia:

“It even has windows along the sides! It could be a building but more likely it is a vehicle.”

“I sent an email with a photo showing what I believe are tracks, lines of holes in the sand, behind the object, (behind meaning at the fat end). It might be that wheels there are complex, not round but different from wheels on Earth, due to the soft sand. They might have deep knobs on the tires, or something like that.”

And from the original post itself: “Notice the evenness of the lines. The balance of the indents that go all the way down the sides. The back seems thinner a bit than the front…if it is the front. This structure shows lots of signs of being an a spaceship that has long since been abandoned on Mars.”

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. Good to get the juices flowing and prolong my crappy sleep schedule.

The bottom-line here is that this appears to be a very natural, volcanic feature on Mars. To someone who’s a geologist or knows what they’re doing, anyway. I love that Google and other companies make these things available, that NASA is one of the most open space agencies in the world with releasing their image data, and that people love to pour over these images. It helps increase the interest in space exploration and you really do get cases of laypersons finding features that turn out to be major discoveries, like natural bridges on the Moon.

The downside is that this stuff also happens — people see something they don’t understand, and they leap to wild conclusions. And, with the internet, it can very quickly gain traction. An oft-quoted Mark Twain line is, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.”

I’m not accusing the UFO Sightings Daily website of lying. But, the quote can easily be adapted to replace “lie” with “misunderstanding” or even “paranormal claim.”

Also, as I’ve talked about before, it’s MUCH easier to spread a misunderstanding – or to have the misunderstanding – than to figure out what’s going on. I’ve spent >1800 words going through this claim. Granted, I could’ve probably cut it in half by just cutting to the chase, but it’s late and I’m being verbose and I wanted to do this logically and thoroughly explain my argument. Meanwhile, I’m sure the UFO folks are on to their next Mars pareidolia.

So why do this? Because the more people who are trained and armed with the tools to investigate stuff like this, the harder that misunderstanding is to propagate, and the faster people will be able to call them on it.

July 3, 2013

Preview of #TAM2013 Workshop 1A: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”


The Amazing Meeting www.amazingmeeting.com #TAM2013

WORKSHOP 1A • HOW YOUR CAMERA LIES TO YOU • 8:00-9:30A.M.

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”

 


Introduction

As I announced a few months ago, and is now apparent at the top of the official schedule, I will be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.”

I’ve now presented two drafts of the workshop in talk form at the Denver and Colorado Springs Skepticamps, and Bryan (the co-presenter) and I have met a few times and are near a final version. As such, I want to give a preview of what you can expect if you come (and if you’re going to TAM and will be there Thursday morning, you should definitely go to this workshop!).

Original Description

First, we’ll take you through a brief history of photography, from daguerrotypes to polaroids to cameras around Mercury, to learn about how images are taken and processed. In the next phase, we’ll show you processing tips and tricks and what Photoshop is really doing when you tell it to “Reduce Noise” or “Auto-Levels” and how every processing step can introduce more anomalies. During the last third of the workshop, we’ll go through numerous examples of claimed paranormal, supernatural, or alien images and take you through how to analyze them to figure out what’s really going on. This workshop will be interactive with the audience being asked to guess what manipulation has been applied and how they would start to analyze each new image for what may be really shown.

That was the description that I wrote back in January when originally planning this. I’m a very linear thinker. The idea of talking about how cameras work, then anomalies that take place due to how they work, and then paranormal claims based on those anomalies made total sense to me and is probably still how I would do it if I were teaching a university course.

Revising

Bryan is a much more abstract thinker. His talks are frequently a lot of pictures up that he and Baxter just talk through and discuss, sometimes forgetting that they even included them in the presentation. The workshop has ended up being something of a mesh of the two that I think works out better than either extreme.

Here is a revised description:

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

Rough Topic List and Outline

There’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to fit in this workshop. Heck– I’ve done two podcast episodes dedicated to this material and most of the stuff I discussed in them didn’t make it into the workshop. This could easily have been four hours long if I had my way, but I don’t think anyone would want to go to that. So, Bryan and I have settled on a few of the anomaly types that we think form the majority of ghost-type and astronomy-type claims out there (and can also be applied to other claims), then I get to talk about how astronomers process photographs, and then we’ve settled on five hoaxes to round the workshop out — two ghost-type, three astronomy.

I should preface this list that it is still subject to revision, and it may be truncated if we run short on time. But, as currently planned, the topic list of anomaly types is:

  • Double Exposure
  • Forced Perspective
  • Long Exposures & “Night Mode”
  • Obstructions in the Optical Path
  • Optical Reflection and Refraction
  • Lens Flares
  • Hot Pixels
  • Noise
  • Pareidolia
  • Finite Resolution
  • Compression

Examples of these include, but are by no means exhaustive: Cities on Mars and the Moon, ghosts, reptilians, geoglyphs, orbs, UFOs, and Planet X.

Interactivity

Workshops, as opposed to TAM talks and panels, are meant to be interactive. Or at least, they are supposed to be (many aren’t *cough*ScienceBasedMedicine*cough*).

We have some planned, besides the obvious, “Please interrupt us if you have a question!” and questions at the end, and send any feedback to us at this email. One is where we ask if anyone can find the ghost in some images. Another is for all the hoaxes, asking the audience to spot the red flags and what the steps of investigation should be or could be. During some of the anomalies discussion (bulk of the workshop, probably the first ~50-60 minutes), we’ll be doing a live photography demo and asking in some of the cases what you/they (the audience) thinks may be going on — even though we’ll be giving the broad category (like, “crap on the lens”), the question of exactly what’s going on is still not always obvious.

Final Thoughts

This should be a really cool workshop, one that I don’t think has been done at TAM in a long time, if ever. You have a pro and semi-pro photographer (I’ve sold some stuff!) and this year’s only TAM presenter who’s an actual astrophysicist (me!). We’re also the first workshop, a great way to launch your TAM-affiliated activities.

So, if you’re going, come to the workshop! Ask questions ‘n’ other things! There may be delicious prizes!

If you’re not going, but you think this’ll be interesting, help spread the word (Twitter, Facebook, direct e-mailing to friends who are attending, sky writing, smoke signals, etc.).

March 2, 2013

Podcast #67: Russian Meteor Conspiracies


I first said I wouldn’t do it, then I did it: Chelyabinsk meteor conspiracies! The episode is just a tad longer than the last one at a bit under 25 minutes.

The topics covered, besides setting the scene and what’s really known about the meteor, I talk about the coincidence of time; the coincidence of location; the conspiracies of missiles, UFOs, and Planet X; whether it was sent by some p—ed off deity; and the unfortunate scam that’s cropped up.

Besides all that, there’s a bit of feedback that lends itself to one of the (yes, of the two!!) puzzlers. And a quick announcement or two (depending on how you count ‘em) rounds out the episode. One of those announcements is that I will only be doing two episodes this month. Somehow I managed to put out 4 last month despite writing 3 grants, but this month is just insane along with 8 days of travel in the latter half. Sorry.

Remember that Expat will be on the next episode talking about some of the conspiracies related to politics, secrets, and engineering of Richard C. Hoagland. If you have something you really want me to ask him, feel free to send it in (or comment below).

October 28, 2012

When You Worry that Any Bone Tossed Will Set Off Conspiracists: NASA Video on Fomalhaut b


Intro

Sorry the blog’s been a bit bare lately. As mentioned in my podcast, I’ve been very busy the last two months. Hopefully things will die down a bit in mid- to late-November after most of my stuff is due, such as three faculty applications.

Anyway, this is just a short, fun, and scary post ’bout a video that NASA’s animation group recently posted: “Zombie Fomalhaut b: Study of Hubble Data Revives a ‘Dead’ Exoplanet.”

Halloween

For those of you who live outside of normal society, three days from today is October 30, my father’s birthday, and the day after that is October 31, the Big Candy holiday of Halloween. The dead and scary and related are celebrated and ultra-conservative Christians protest it as worshipping a guy named Stan. Or maybe they left out the “a” and meant Satan. Anyway …

Fomalhaut b

Fomalhaut is a star – a rather bright star as seen from Earth that’s about 25 light-years away. It made headlines in 2008 with the potential discovery of an actually imaged planet around the star. Following convention, the planet was termed Fomalhaut b.

Fomalhaut b

Fomalhaut b

However, controversy came earlier this year when, despite the apparent solid observations in visible light, it was difficult if not impossible to be seen in infrared light. It should have been prominent in IR light (which is where most people actually go for direct-exoplanet imaging) because planets are “warm” and so glow relatively brightly in the IR while stars are much brighter in the visible. Hence, the lack of an IR detection raised some significant issues.

But, a recent reanalysis shows that it probably is real, it’s just smaller than previously thought. And follow-up observations are being made. That’s what you can get from the neat-o 2 min 08 sec video I linked to.

Conspiracy

If you watch the video, it’s obviously meant to be humorous and in the spirit common to Halloween in the US. But, if you watch the last 10 seconds, they show a disk-shaped 1950s-style UFO passing by Earth.

Yes, obviously it’s meant to be Halloween-y. But I guess when you’ve been listening to and watching conspiracy people for any length of time, you worry that ANY sort of thing like this from any “official” government body, especially NASA, is going to be latched onto and taken as an admission or a leak or whatever to support their ideas.

Take John Glenn. He appeared on an episode of Frasier and he stated:

“Back in those glory days, I was very uncomfortable when they asked us to say things we didn’t want to say and deny other things. Some people asked, you know, were you alone out there? We never gave the real answer, and yet we see things out there, strange things, but we know what we saw out there. And we couldn’t really say anything. The bosses were really afraid of this, they were afraid of the War of the Worlds type stuff, and about panic in the streets. So, we had to keep quiet. And now we only see these things in our nightmares or maybe in the movies, and some of them are pretty close to being the truth.”

Richard C. Hoagland, Face-on-Mars-guy extraordinaire, has used this many times to support his conspiracy claims. And yet, if you actually WATCH the episode, the entire point was to show the comedy of an argument between two of the show’s main characters, Roz and Frasier, that they are so self-absorbed in their own squabbling that they miss the sensational statement by John Glenn.

Conspiracists such as Hoagland, Mike Bara, or David Wilcock miss the entire point that this was a scripted show and not an off-the-cuff admission of ET life. Expat over at the Dork Mission blog has a good summary and goes into a bit more detail about this than I do above.

Final Thoughts

To return to my point, the NASA video is funny, and it shows how science works: This is a process of finding evidence to support a claim, testing it, and trying to figure out what’s really going on. The video was released just a few days ago obviously in the spirit of a US holiday. But just as the Frasier show was clearly scripted comedy but was used by UFO nuts, I worry that a few animation guys having fun may also be used by conspiracy / UFO folks to support their own claims.

October 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 52: The Mystery of Phobos 2


The year was 1989, and the second of a twin spacecraft – the first having failed two months after launch – was close to its target: Mars’ moon, Phobos. Just before it was to launch its two landers to study the surface of the moon, something went wrong, and all contact was lost. The last image it sent back just before it lost contact was of a thin, cylindrical object — a UFO mothership — that must have blasted it out of the sky to hide from the Earthlings the closely-guared Illuminati secret that Phobos is actually a gigantic spaceship.

… or at least, that’s what they want you to believe.

Episode 52 addresses the “mystery” of the Phobos 2 spacecraft, and the conspiracy story that has been put together over the years that I relayed above.

Besides the somewhat shorter main segment, there are two New News items, Feedback, Puzzler (answer, no new one), and one tiny Announcement. Next episode should go up on or about October 16.

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