Dec 10 2009

The Spiral Lights of Norway

As many of my readers/listeners know, I am an amateur birder. What this means is that if I see a bird at my feeder (or anywhere, for that matter)  it immediately captures my interest. If my camera is handy, I will reach for it as fast as I can (having a permanent picture to consult makes later identification much easier). Of course, if I see a bird I cannot identify I don’t assume it is the controversial ivory-billed woodpecker, and I certainly would not claim it is a phoenix or something supernatural.

Likewise, if you look up into the sky and see a light or even an object you cannot identify, that is an interesting experience, and is certainly worth grabbing your camera. But (as skeptics are fond of pointing out) your inability to identify the object does not mean it is an alien spacecraft.

It does mean, apparently, that local news stations will show up to grab some video and interview witnesses so they can write headlines like, “Local witnesses baffled by UFO.” To the media, any strange light in the sky is a UFO.

While the mind-candy pop nonsense of the media is a constant annoyance, I actually don’t mind this particular manifestation (depending on how far they take it). It’s a fun game – identify the unusual lights – and now with the rapidity of the news cycle, there is often an answer within a day or so, and it can actually provide a nice skeptical lesson.

The most recent round of this game took place recently in Norway – with a very unusual spiral light. You can watch the video here (and the brief BBC article also gives away the most likely solution). These spiral lights are cool – certainly not something you see everyday.

Birding has taught me to pay attention to small details – the length of the beak compared to the body, the presence of small hairs around the beak, a blush of color along the sides, etc. These details are often critical in identification. The same is true with these “lights in the sky” games – the details often give huge clues as to their origins. In this case, if you look closely (actually you don’t have to look that closely) you can see a smoke trail leading from the ground all the way to the pinwheel pattern of lights.

In addition to the media making some hay from the unusual sightings, UFO proponents are often quick to jump on them. Nick Pope, former UFO analyst for the UK Ministry of Defence, is quoted as saying:

“My first thought was this was a meteor, a fireball, or debris from an old satellite burning up in the earth’s atmosphere.

“But the spiral motion makes this unlikely. This is truly bizarre. It’s a real mystery.

“A meteor or a fireball would simply travel in a straight line but for something to spiral in this way appears to go against the laws of physics.

“Some may think it is the Northern Lights but they illuminate the sky with a green glow.

“This is completely different from any image of the Northern Lights that I have ever seen.

“It’s ironic that something like this should happen the very week after the MoD terminated its UFO project. It just goes to show how wrong that decision was.”

This is classic mystery mongering. A few unlikely explanations are tossed out, just to make it seem like all natural explanations are being considered. UFO proponents like the “defies the laws of physics” bit, as it makes it seem like aliens are the only possible explanation. And then of course there is the appeal to put more resources into researching UFOs.

Mystery mongering is often combined with anomaly hunting – looking for features that seem, superficially, to be unusual and then using them to eliminate any prosaic explanation.

In addition to the UFO crazies, we now also have the conspiracy nuts. (The two groups are not mutually exclusive.) To the conspiracy crowd everything even slightly unusual that happens is part of a dark conspiracy, briefly showing itself to those in the know. Over at the David Icke forum (of reptilian overlord fame), we learn that the spiral pattern looks like a portal opening, or like a projection. So either we are about to connect to the Stargate universe, or the government is testing out some mind-control or hoaxing technology, all to facilitate the eventual take over of the one-world government.

The pinwheel pattern aside, these lights would look like a straightforward night rocket launch. We then learn that this sighting took place over a military base. The BBC reports that Moscow has confirmed there was a failed launch of a missile from a submarine in that area that night. A finned rocket spiraling out of control would fit the video we see perfectly.

Not much of a mystery.

But it is important to remember that if we never learned the nature of the lights, that would still not make them alien spacecraft or a government conspiracy. There are potentially many rare, unusual, or unique occurrences that would be impossible to determine just by analyzing the lights themselves. In recent years there have been many UFO flaps following the release of large floating lanterns. For people who are simply not aware of the existence of these lanterns (increasingly popular at weddings and other events) there is no way to make sense of the silent floating lights.

There are also ultralight aircraft, dropped flares, re-entering satellites, flashes from satellites, and flying saucer shaped mylar balloons. Perhaps the most challenging are the one-off unusual events – pranks or hoaxes, or just bizarre accidents.

When one concludes that an object is something fantastical (alien craft or government conspiracy) from the fact that they cannot identify it, the unspoken major premise is that they should be able to identify it, if it were something mundane. But this is a terrible premise.

Even a birder may have a hard time identifying an exotic species they have never seen before. And there are occasional “weirdos”  – mutants or uncommon variants that you are unlikely to find in a birding book. That doesn’t make them fairies.

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