A topic about outer-space and everything in it, from little green men to big spirally galaxies

Comics Legend Jack Kirby Worried That Our Attempts to Contact Aliens Might Attract a 'Tiger'

Galactus Attack

In recent times, somewhat of a divide has formed in the ranks of scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). One side is championing the idea of 'Active SETI'; that is, instead of passively searching for signals from elsewhere, as we have been for decades now, this faction wants to start broadcasting our location to the cosmos in case anyone out there is listening as well. The other side thinks this could be a rather bad idea, given the Earth's own history of civilisations being taken over by other, more technologically advanced cultures.

This debate, however, is hardly a recent development. In 1972 and 1973, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes. Placed aboard each were gold-anodized aluminium plaques - now referred to as the 'Pioneer plaques' - which featured a pictorial message to any extraterrestrial species that might intercept the probes. The plaque imagery depicted a human male and female, as well as a series of lines emanating from a point, intended to act as a guide to our Sun's location in the cosmos (the lines represented the Earth's distance and position from pulsars, allowing aliens to triangulate our position). For even more detail, an illustration showing our position within our Solar System was also included.

The idea for the plaques was championed by 1970s science celebrity and educator Carl Sagan, and it was he, along with SETI pioneer (no pun intended) Frank Drake, who designed the content of the pictogram.

Pioneer Plaque

But not everyone was happy about this decision being made without public consultation. Comics legend Jack Kirby - who just six years previous had created the comic-book character of Galactus, an alien that devoured planets - denounced Sagan's move. Kirby's thoughts were outlined in a response to the Los Angeles Times, which in 1972 had approached a number of artists, including Kirby, asking for their own ideas on what should have been included on the plaque. Kirby made clear that he thought providing a map of our location was a dangerous move, as we can't predict that actions of any alien civilisation that might find it:

I would have included no further information than a rough image of the Earth and its one moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between 'discoverers' and 'discoverees,' history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter (Pioneer) plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear trail to our door.

My point is, who will come a-knocking - the trader or the tiger?

So what content would Jack Kirby have put on the Pioneer Plaques and sent out into space to represent the Earth? The diagram he provided to the Los Angeles Times is simple, and as promised, has no 'location data' for interested aliens. Instead, it shows idealised illustrations of man and woman, greeting any aliens who might be looking at it simply with a friendly smile and wave. Kirby explained:

It appears to me that man's self image has always spoken far more about him than does his reality-figure. My vision of the plaque would have revealed the exuberant, self-confident super visions with which we've clothed ourselves since time immemorial. The comic strip super-heroes and heroines, in my belief, personify humanity's innate idealism and drive.

Kirby Pioneer Plaque

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Is It Really a Good Idea to Try and Contact Extraterrestrial Species?

Alien attack in the movie Independence Day

While we are all now familiar with SETI - the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, by searching the skies looking for alien broadcasts - in recent years a lesser known aspect to that quest has been generating plenty of debate. A number of researchers - including one of SETI's most well-respected and recognised scientists, Seth Shostak - have been arguing that a comprehensive approach to searching for aliens should include us trying to make contact with them, referred to as both 'Active SETI' and METI (Messaging to ET Intelligence).

But is this really a good idea? Should we be shouting out our location to the cosmos, when we don't know the intentions of any alien intelligences lurking out there? This is one of the major criticisms of Active SETI voiced in a recent paper on arXiv.org, "Reviewing METI: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments".

The author, John Gertz, points out that in the medical sciences, any proposed experiment must pass ethics review boards. Some experiments are deemed to be too dangerous, or unethical, and are rejected. And yet, "astronomers face no such ethical reviews, since theirs is normally an observational science only", he notes. But "when it comes to METI, which is not observational but manipulative, and on which may hinge the very fate of the world, perhaps they should."

In the paper, Gertz lists and critically evaluates the most common arguments in favour of an Active SETI approach, but finds them wanting:

Whenever one hears a “scientist” assert that ET must be altruistic, or that ET surely knows we are here, or that the closet ET civilization is at least 'x light years' away, ask to see the data set on which they base their conclusions. As of today, no such data set exists. In the absence of any evidence whatsoever, whether one believes that the extraterrestrial civilization we might first encounter will be benign, in the fashion of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or ET, or malicious, asin Ridley Scott’s Alien, or robotic, or something else entirely is strictly a matter of one’s personal taste. SETI experiments seek to learn what actually resides or lurks out there in the universe. METI plays Russian roulette without even knowing how many bullets are in the chamber.

It would be wiser to listen for at least decades if not centuries or longer before we initiate intentional interstellar transmissions, and allow all of mankind a voice in that decision. The power of SETI has grown exponentially with Moore’s Law, better instruments, better search strategies, and now thanks to (Russian billionaire) Yui Milner’s visionary investment, meaningful funding. The advances are so profound that it is reasonable to say that the SETI of the next 50 years will be many orders of magnitude more powerful than the SETI of the last 50 years.

[Seth] Shostak, perhaps METI’s most articulate proponent, knows this and has widely predicted that we will achieve Contact within the next two decades. So why can he and his fellow METI-ists not wait at least until then before initiating transmissions?

What do you think? Should we shout out to the cosmos and see if anybody shouts back? Or is it safer not to tempt the fates?

Paper: "Reviewing METI: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments"

(h/t Norman Redington)

Kickstarter: Help Investigate the 'Most Mysterious Star in the Galaxy'

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In October last year, the discovery of strange fluctuations in the light of the star KIC 8462852 (also referred to as "Tabby's Star") led to suggestions that it could be an observation of something that an alien civilization might build (ie. an 'alien megastructure').

Since that time, there's been plenty of debate as to the validity of the observation - but what would be the most help in resolving the mystery is to actually gather more data from observations of the star. And that's exactly what the scientists involved want to do - but that requires telescope time, and that comes at a price.

Enter a new Kickstarter, devoted to the most mysterious star in the galaxy:

The star was discovered with data from the Kepler space telescope, but Kepler has moved on to a different mission and cannot observe it anymore. But for us to understand what is happening -- we need more data and we need your help!

We are using the Kickstarter platform to build community of people interested in working on this mystery with us. What are astronomers doing next? We need more data! Are you wanting to help? To learn? Join us!

This Kickstarter project will secure observing time on a global network of ground-based telescopes so we can catch the star when its brightness dips again. When will the dips occur? What will the dips look like? How long will they last? And last but not least, what is it passing in front of the star to make these dips?

Only with these new data, and the answers to these questions, will we be able to test theories out on what is happening around this star!

Interested? Head on over to the Kickstarter page to find out how you can help out.

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I Know What I Saw: On the 'Unreliability' of UFO Eyewitnesses

I Want to Believe

Over on her blog at National Geographic, science writer Nadia Drake - the daughter of SETI pioneer Frank Drake - has taken Hillary Clinton to task for recent comments made about UFOs. "There’s enough [UFO] stories out there," Clinton remarked during an FM radio show interview, "that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up."

Drake notes her disappointment "that influential people are helping fan the flames of conspiracy theories", saying it was "unhelpful and irresponsible for Clinton" to be "teasing the public". Hillary, she says, is wrong to put any stock in eye-witness reports:

Check out the decades of research that have been done on the reliability of witnesses testifying in court. In these situations, our brains often fill in or edit details based on preconceived biases or post-encounter information—and then we subconsciously convince ourselves that our memories are accurate when in fact, they’re not.

This is where Clinton’s reasoning about people sitting in their kitchens making stuff up falls apart. Beliefs are potent. The brain is a powerful tool, and it can lead us to some incredibly wrong recollections and conclusions. And in these situations, assuming there’s safety in numbers is foolish (for more on that topic, start with the Salem witch trials).

Drake is right, of course, that eye-witness testimony can be flakey, and we should be very cautious in trusting it. However, to swing to the extreme and simply write off the vast number of sightings is also misguided.

Consider, for example, the eye-witness reports a few hundred years ago of an obviously ridiculous 'phenomenon': that rocks fell from the sky. For a very long time these reports of meteorite falls were dismissed as fanciful, or at the very best a confused sighting of some other phenomenon. It wasn't until a confluence of factors around 1800 - ranging from influential publications to bizarre meteor showers - that opinion began to shift towards the belief that rocks did indeed fall from the sky.

One of those incidents was the 'Wold Newton Meteorite' fall in England in 1795, near the home of magistrate Major Edward Topham. Topham was acutely aware of the controversial nature of such incidents at that time, and thus “as a magistrate, I took [the witnesses] accounts upon oath”. Topham had some choice words for those who chose to dismiss these reports. “I mean not to enter into any literary warfare with those sceptics, who think it much easier to doubt every word of this account than to believe such an event could take place,” he remarked. “There is no shorter way of disposing of any thing than to deny or disbelieve it”.

Once the reality of meteorite falls became established, the historian Eusebius Salverte pointed out that scientists' failure to recognise the truth of the matter for so long was borne out of "a predetermination to see nothing, or to deny what we had seen."

And another meteor controversy that ran parallel with the 'rocks from the sky' debate was also often dismissed based simply on the supposed fallibility of eye-witnesses. When a large fireball tore across the sky over England in 1719, a witness reported that it...

...made so strong a light while it was in its greatest extent, that for a moment the Moon, which was above a day past the first quarter, and all the stars, seem'd to disappear by the superiority of this new light; and at that moment one might have read the smallest print by it. While it was throwing itself into this beautiful stream, I thought I heard a noise of hissing, like what is made by the flying of a large rocket in the air, but I heard no other noise.

Others too heard similar noises when the bolide lit the sky that night. But the famous and influential astronomer Edmund Halley (whom Halley’s Comet is named after) was quick to dismiss these claims as “pure fantasy”. Halley’s reasoning was based in hard science: from various ground observations of the bolide’s flight, he had been able to triangulate the height of the fireball. At more than 60 miles distant, Halley noted that it would have been impossible for anybody to hear the fireball at the same time as seeing it: as sound travels at ‘only’ around a fifth of a mile per second, it would have taken some five minutes to hear anything related to the event.

But over the years, people kept reporting this same 'impossible' thing. In 1784 Thomas Blagdon gathered a number of similar reports, but suggested that they might best be explained psychologically, as being the result of “an affrighted imagination”. And yet the reports kept coming. Almost 200 years after Halley's 'debunking', the famous astronomer W.F. Denning would note that "hissing and similar noises…may be dismissed as imaginary…[an] observational illusion… They are either imaginative or due to causes not directly connected with the phenomena observed". In 1932, C.C. Wylie, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa, illustrated once again the dangers of using the words “without doubt” when he wrote that “the explanation [for meteoric sounds] is without doubt psychological”. In fact, even after the turn of the 21st century, I have seen skeptics dismissing these reports as nonsense.

But it turns out that these noises are real, and have even been recorded. Much is still unknown about them, but these 'electrophonic meteors' are now theorised to emit VLF (Very Low Frequency) electromagnetic waves - which travel at the speed of light - and transduce sound in objects near the witness, or perhaps even within their head.

Why did it take more than 200 years - during the great age of science no less - for scientists to recognise that witnesses were reliably reporting the phenomenon, and it was they who were wrong? Firstly, electrophonic meteors were said to exhibit impossible behaviour (instantaneous sounds). Also, they occurred suddenly, without notice, usually to witnesses alone or in small groups, often in remote areas and/or in the middle of the night, who provided the often dismissed 'anecdote' rather than more desired 'evidence'. They were extremely capricious in the manner in which multiple witnesses in the same group might report different sounds (or no sound at all). And for a long time, the fireballs themselves were unidentified objects - without a solid understanding of what they actually were (i.e. rocks falling from the sky), the mechanism behind the production of such anomalous sounds remained a mystery.

Sound familiar?

I'm all for being skeptical of eyewitness reports of UFOs. But let's not be so silly to dismiss them all out of hand without investigating the truly perplexing ones. Otherwise we might be missing out on something very important (and that certainly doesn't have to mean 'alien craft').

Alien Planet Passes in Front of Our Sun

Just in case you needed reminding of how knee-tremblingly epic our Sun is, NASA has released video of yesterday's Mercury transit as shot by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. And it is full. Of. The. Awes.

Less than once per decade, Mercury passes between the Earth and the sun in a rare astronomical event known as a planetary transit. The 2016 Mercury transit occurred on May 9th, between roughly 7:12 a.m. and 2:42 p.m. EDT.

The images in this video are from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.

Music: Encompass by Mark Petrie

For more info on the Mercury transit go to: http://www.nasa.gov/transit

The music is excellent, but can someone also do a version with John Murphy's 'Adagio in D Minor' from the Sunshine soundtrack?

The Uncanny Vallee: Face to Face with a UFO Legend

The ride through the desert countryside is smooth and pleasant, and I try once again to take a shot of the arid landscape with my phone. It's my first visit the Southwest of the United States, and the novelty of the scenery feels almost dreamlike. Add to that the fact I'm riding shotgun with Greg Bishop, host of Radio Misterioso and author of Project Beta --who up until now I'd never met face to face, despite the fact we've known each other and interacted online for almost 10 years-- and that the two of us are driving to the 25th International UFO Congress, at the We-Ko-Pa Resort and Conference Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, to watch the Jacques Vallee --arguably the most notable figure in the UFO field living today-- make his first re-appearance at a public UFO event since who-knows-how-many years (last time he spoke at a public UFO event, he was literally booed out of the stage!) all while listening to Greg's curated collection of weird-ass music, and the surreality of it all reaches 'Fear and Loathing' levels; to the point I almost feel the pressing need to yell "we can't stop here! This is saguaro country!"

Well, the name of the game on this road trip is not Gonzo Journalism, but Guerrilla Advertising: One of the reasons Greg and I decided to travel to Arizona and attend the congress, was because we wanted to promote an anthology of UFO essays Greg had previously posted online on the now-defunct blog UFOMystic, which he's now self-published under the title It Defies Language! --Greg came up with the oxymoronic name, BTW, through the use of the cut-up technique created by William S. Burroughs, one of his personal heroes.

I became involved with It Defies Language! back in October of 2015, when Greg and I were chatting on Skype and I decided to show him some of the caricatures I'd doodled through the years of some of our mutual friends (Micah Hanks, Nick Redfern and others); it was then that Greg asked me if I'd be interested in doing some illustrations for his book, the same way Mike Clelland did for the late Mac Tonnies' The Cryptoterrestrials. Imagine you were the biggest Star Wars fan in the whole world, and then you received a call from J.J. Abrams inviting you to participate in the new trilogy. Of course he had me at 'Hello'!

Consider also how I was unemployed at the time and with nothing to do but worrying about my murky future, and you can see why Greg's invitation was a lifeline which helped me focus on other things besides my dwindling bank account and my self pity. He gave me absolute freedom and only made minor objections to my ideas a couple of times; in return I drew illustrations for every chapter, and even ended up designing the covers for the book. By then I was heavily invested in It Defies Language! and wanted to help Greg in any way I could to ensure its success. So when we learned Vallee was going to the IUFOC we saw it as the perfect opportunity for killing two birds with one stone: Meeting Vallee --whom he had been in brief contact previously, in a failed attempt to invite him to Radio Misterioso-- and attempting to have a private conversation, where we would give him a copy of the book as a token of appreciation; while at the same time preparing flyers, bookmarks and even a few posters I printed in Mexico, which we would use to promote the book among the other speakers and attendees.

* * * * *

Saying the International UFO Conference is the Comic Con of UFO-related symposia is a double-edged compliment. While it is true the IUFOC is the largest event of its kind in the world, its current number of attendees don't even come closer to what Sci-Fi/Fantasy events were gathering in the mid-nineties. And while those gigs keep getting bigger and bigger, it's not preposterous to presume UFO-related conferences are going the way of the dodo. On an article for New York Magazine in 2014, Marc Jacobson pointed out to the dwindling attendance and aging demographic found at the annual MUFON conference in New Jersey, "a far cry from the thousands who attended the MUFON conference in the late 1970s, after Close Encounters of the Third Kind introduced extraterrestrials to the mainstream moviegoer."

Where Jacobson was dead wrong in his piece, however, was in equating the disappearance of UFO conferences to an overall decrease of public interest in the topic, which couldn't be farther from the truth. As I pointed out on The Daily Grail's comment section, Jacobson failed to take into account the Internet's impact in the way people interested in UFOs go about finding new information. In the 70's or 80's, live conferences and the journals published by the civilian UFO organizations were indeed the only game in town when it came to getting the freshest news and updates from researchers; but in 2016, when you can find almost anything about the topic freely online, and researchers are regularly invited to podcast shows, many in the younger generations don't see the point in spending up to a thousand bucks and almost a whole week of their vacation time, so they can sit on an auditorium to listen to a speaker for 45-60 minutes --and without even the chance to press PAUSE in order to play a round of Candy Crush.

That's why online conferences and pay-per-view video streaming are more than likely the way these events will survive in the digital age; if at all. But here's the thing: When you come down to it, the reason why spending all that money and free time is worth your while, is because of what happens AFTER the presentations are over. Getting to see people in the field you always wanted to meet in person is something you will definitely NOT get from your laptop --or even your Oculus Rift.

On the list of people I'd never met before, there was for example ... Read More »

Today I Learned: There is Such a Thing as 'Meteorburn'

Chelyabinsk meteor

Today's accidental research find: some people were actually sunburnt by the Chelyabinsk meteor of 2013 (okay, maybe that should be 'meteorburnt'). Of 1113 witnesses who were outside during the event, some 415 reported feeling warm, 315 "hot", while 25 (2.2%) noted the heat was so intense they were 'sunburnt' by it. One of those, Korkino resident Vladimir Petrov, reported sunburn "as severe as causing his skin to peel off some time after the event".

Additionally, 180 people reported that their eyes hurt during the event, with 70 of those temporarily blinded, and 11 receiving retinal burns.

Interestingly though, it is a bit of a mystery as to how the fireball could have 'sunburnt' people on the ground:

The estimated UV dose resulting from the passage of the Chelyabinsk fireball would not have exceeded 200 W at a range of 30 km, and yet reports of suffering sunburn and skin peeling, the latter requiring a minimum dosage of at least 1,000 W, were reported—indeed, the sensation of feeling heat was reported at ranges in excess of 100 km from the Chelyabinsk fireball path. Clearly, this is an area requiring continued investigation. (Reference: "Electrophonic Sound Generation by the Chelyabinsk Fireball", by Martin Beech)

Other odd experiences during the event included so-called 'electrophonic sounds' (sounds heard at the same time as the meteor, even though it was too far away to hear instantaneously), and odd smells including a sulfur scent. All in all, the sort of thing Charles Fort would have enjoyed very much....

Update: It seems 'meteorburn' is not a new thing! Martin Kottmeyer sent in this report of a huge fireball seen over England in 1719 that has many parallels with the Chelyabinsk meteor:

“Sitting at the fire-side about eight a clock at night, the Moon shining then very bright, and the sky clear, not the least cloud to be seen, on the sudden there appeared a very great light far brighter than the Sun at noon-day, accompanied with so great an heat, that the arm of mine which was next to the window burnt for many hours as if it had been scalded. There was so great a smoak, that I thought, and so did many others, that all the ground had been on fire; but we soon perceived that it was in the sky.

...Some minutes after this (I should think at least seven or eight) we heard a report like a great cannon (much greater than ever I heard.) It shook the house and windows very much. About a minute after, there went off to our thinking, about thirty, not so big. They sounded just as the Tower-Guns did, when we were in Mincing Lane, but shook the house and windows much more.

Witness testimony of this fireball also included reports of electrophonic sounds; one account mentions "I thought I heard a noise of hissing, like what is made by the flying of a large rocket in the air".

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TED Talk: The Most Mysterious Star in the Universe

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One of the big controversies in astronomy this year has been the "Astronomers Discover Something 'You Would Expect an Alien Civilization to Build', and SETI Wants a Look" story. For anyone wanting to better understand the scientific story behind this topic, check out the TED talk above by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian.

Something massive, with roughly 1,000 times the area of Earth, is blocking the light coming from a distant star known as KIC 8462852, and nobody is quite sure what it is. As astronomer Tabetha Boyajian investigated this perplexing celestial object, a colleague suggested something unusual: Could it be an alien-built megastructure? Such an extraordinary idea would require extraordinary evidence. In this talk, Boyajian gives us a look at how scientists search for and test hypotheses when faced with the unknown.

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Vallee Collector's Edition Crowd-Funding Campaign - Last Chance to Order a Copy

Golden Orbs from 73BCE

Late last year we linked to a crowd-funding campaign to help fund high-quality UFO research through the sale of a collector's edition of Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck's Wonders in the Sky.

Though the campaign didn't reach its financial target before the end date, Jacques was encouraged enough by the amount of interest from collectors to go forward with the publication of the limited edition, and while doing so started a secondary campaign for those that might have missed the chance to grab a copy first time around.

That second campaign is now at 97% of its target funding (just $385 short of its goal), with only two days to go before it finishes. So if you want to grab your own copy of this special edition from one of the legends of ufology (only 500 copies will ever be printed), you can help get this crowd-funding campaign over the line by heading to the IndieGoGo page and making a pledge now.

We have re-launched our campaign based on the initial success with early collectors, who have already reserved the first 150 books. Their contributions have enabled us to finish the research and the layout for the book, which is now being printed in China, with an expected release date in the US of late May 2016.

Wonders in the Sky is a collector's limited edition book by world-leading UFO researchers Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck, which presents the scientific research and artistic beauty of 424 UFO sightings prior to the Industrial Revolution. This is the new benchmark in UFO research.

Under our contract with the initial publisher of the paperback edition of Wonders in the Sky (Tarcher-Penguin) we have agreed no more than 500 copies of this exceptional, Limited Edition will ever be printed.

The text has been augmented with many new cases, a new round of analysis of all previous cases, and stunning new iconography in high-resolution color.

Jacques tells me has just reviewed the final proof of the book, and printing will take place next week - so those who have ordered themselves a copy should begin receiving their books in late May and early June. Get in!

Link: Wonders in the Sky: A Breakthrough in UFO Research

The First Martian: A Short Film Inspired by Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot

Delivery from Earth is a sweet little science fiction short film that takes its inspiration from Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. The film...

...was the winning entry of the Lockheed Martin / NM Film Foundation filmmaker grant. A science-fiction short film about the first human born on Mars, told from the perspective of a Navajo family living in Gallup, New Mexico.

(h/t @elakdawala)