Jan 28 2009

Obama’s UFO

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Comments: 27

The interwebbies is full of discussion about the alleged UFO that was filmed by CNN just prior to Obama’s inauguration. You can watch the video here, along with some amusing commentary by a UFO believer.

edit: The Youtube video was removed, so watch this version here.

When I first saw the video my immediate reaction was that this blurry object that flies across the screen was a bird, or perhaps an insect closer to the camera. After looking more closely, and hearing various commentary, I am convinced that these are the most likely explanations – and of the two I think it is most likely a bird.Watch the video carefully. Despite the narrators description that the object moves in a straight line, it is not moving in a straight line at all. It is moving in a sinusoidal wave, which means it is bobbing up and down slightly as it flies. This is exactly how a flapping bird moves through the air (and why I think it’s a bird and not an insect).In fact the narrator mentions that it looks as if some flapping is visible, but he dismisses this as an artifact of the camera. I disagree – I think we are seeing the blurry flapping of wings.

The narrator dismisses the bird hypothesis because it would have to be too big. However, it is clear that the object moves in front of the Washington Monument, therefore setting limits on how big it could be. The problem of estimating size, distance, and speed of objects against the sky is that there is no reference for perspective – but when a flying object moves in front of a more distant object, we get some perspective. In this case we can see that the object is relatively small. It is probably the size of a large bird, like a crow. Perhaps it is even larger, like a hawk.

Also – watch this version of the video. At normal speed and continuous play it looks even more like a bird. You get a better impression of wings flapping and the feel of the movement. It’s a bird.

This video also reminds me of the whole rod phenomenon – videos that allegedly show “rods” flying across the camera’s view. “Rods” are insects, close to the lens and moving fast enough that their image is blurred and spread out. The insect body becomes a rod and the fast wing flapping becomes a sinusoidal blur around it.

This video is similarly burred into an elongated shape, although it is not moving as much relative speed as an insect close to the  lens so it is not as spread out as much.

Video and camera artifacts are interesting in and of themselves, and it is always amusing to see people misinterpret them as mysterious or paranormal phenomena. They provide frequent fodder for sloppy news programs looking to fill a slow news day, and for dedicated UFO conspiracy theorists.

And they give skeptics something fun to examine. I admit I am endlessly fascinated by how people can turn a bird into a mystery. The Youtube narrator is classic – searching for anomalies, dismissing obvious evidence, and failing to see the forest for the trees. That is the real interesting phenomenon here.

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