Stormin' Bob Swanson

Blogging Bob

I Wanna See a Flying Saucer

SOCSD space camp

Because I teach astronomy (in fact, I’m currently teaching an asynchronous online summer section of “Descriptive Astronomy”), I am sometimes asked my opinion about UFOs. Well, yesterday the government released its preliminary assessment about UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). If anything should be able to shed some light, it is a government report, right? While you are welcome to read the full 9-page assessment for yourself, essentially the answer is, “we don’t know.”

This past week, I had the pleasure of teaching about the Moon at SOCSD’s (Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District) Space Camp. As I was wrapping up my program, one of the campers (Annie) came up to me and told me that she was completely fascinated by weather (I had done a virtual weather presentation for her school science club back in the Spring) and astronomy. In fact, she described herself as a mini version of me (a girl version, she was quick to clarify).

Of course, this was extremely flattering. I gave her the following advice, “The curiosity that drives your fascination about weather and space — don’t ever lose that.” While I’m sure that other professionals retain childlike curiosity into adult life, I can only speak from my experience as a scientist. That childlike curiosity is what drives the scientific method and results in progress in science. I told her to question everything, including (and especially) things that she herself believes to be true. I explained that this is the reason why I have the slogan, “This machine surrounds certainty and forces it to think again,” around the sound hole of my guitar.

guitar sound hold

What I didn’t tell her is that, at the end of one’s questioning and investigating, “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. Professional scientists can spend years, even careers, chasing down questions and, if honest, have to shrug shoulders at the end of the journey. While that may seem unsatisfying to some people, for scientists it comes with the gig.

The human mind has a hard time handling uncertainty. All too often we find ourselves falling into the trap of, “I don’t know so therefore the answer must be . . . . ” While the UFO (UAP) report is not conclusive, it does offer up (page 4 of the document) several possible explanations for the reported observations — Airborne Clutter, Natural Atmospheric Phenomena, USG or Industry Developmental Programs, Foreign Adversary Systems, Other.

It reminded me of one of my own videos about critical thinking, “I Can’t Believe I Believed That (Facts & Fallacies in Physics and Astronomy).” In the second half of the video, I tackle a YouTube video which purports to have video evidence of an alien flying aboard NASA’s SOFIA aircraft. You’re free to watch the video for yourself, but the important lesson is that, when faced with something that cannot be readily explained, the best approach to getting at the truth is to take a step back, set your biases to the side as best you can, and think about all the possible explanations. Not all explanations should receive the same weight in your mind however. Preference should go to the explanations that can be tested as well as falsified. If an explanation cannot be tested at all, it has very little value. Perhaps the most important lesson from the video is — wanting something to be true is different from something actually being true.

Of course, sometimes even setting your biases to the side is not sufficient. Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes — someone else who can look at the problem from a fresh perspective that you may not have considered. (In the first part of the “I Can’t Believe I Believed That” video I relate my own eye-opening experience courtesy of a former student, Aaron Freppon — an experience that truly changed the way I teach.) There is a reason why scientists often work in teams and, ultimately, their findings are vetted and reviewed by peers before publication. And even if a scientist’s work gets through the rigorous process of peer review, the fact that it is now in public view in front of the entire scientific community allows for any number of “fresh sets of eyes” on the problem.

Since I was talking about the Moon this week at Space Camp (and we just had a full moon on June 24), it brought to mind how easily we can fool ourselves. Ever hear of or experience the “full moon illusion”? Essentially, it is the not-uncommon experience of the Moon appearing to be bigger when it is on the horizon than when it is higher in the sky.

USA TODAY weather focus graphic from June 19, 2008.

The best explanation would appear to be that it is a psychological effect. When the brain sees an object, it is trying to immediately tell what it is, how big it is, and how far away it is (I imagine this was useful to our ancestors on the African savannah when they were hunting or trying not to be hunted). We judge the size and distance of the unknown object using context clues of known objects in our field of view (buildings, trees, etc.). When the Moon is on the horizon, there is plenty of context. However, when the Moon is higher in the sky, those context clues are not in our field of view.

Want to change your perspective when you next experience the “full moon illusion”? If you are alone or in company that is used to your peculiar scientific curiosity, turn around and view the moon upside-down through your legs (like you are the center of a football team hiking the ball to the quarterback). That change of perspective should confuse your brain enough that it will keep it from fooling you — the moon on the horizon will look about the same as it does higher in the sky. But don’t take my word for it — test it (notice that this “explanation” for the full moon illusion has a testability component) next time the moon is full (7/23).

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