Considering the amount of ground covered in each 1-hour Chasing UFOs episode, it isn’t always possible to present the science of each investigation in a comprehensive way. So, for those who wish to learn more about the science behind Chasing UFOs, read on!
Roswell, Legends, and the Argument from Ignorance
Attempting to separate the fact from the fiction surrounding the famed “crash” incident at Roswell, New Mexico is fun as well as treacherous, culturally-speaking. Peering into the mythos, it quickly becomes clear that many aspects of the story have come to take on a life of their own, which hints at the idea of the common fallacy, the “argument from ignorance.”
For those who are unfamiliar, understanding this type of fallacious argument is very important when it comes to dealing with unknowns and explaining the difference between a compelling narrative and a scientifically-conclusive statement.
For example, in this context if someone sees a strange light in the sky and assesses that it does not appear to be any known aircraft, it is tempting to then conclude something based on this assessment. Such a conclusion could be (and often is) that, “If it isn’t ours, it must be someone else’s. Therefore, this strange light is evidence in support of visitation from another world.” However, this is not a scientific statement. Failing to know something does not conclude anything.
The farthest anyone could scientifically take this scenario is to (presuming there is hard evidence to analyze) say that the light does not appear to relate to known aircraft based on movement or physical attributes. However, this is far from demonstrating that alien life has evolved, created spaceflight technology, crossed the gulf of space, and entered our atmosphere. The next step would be to see if the phenomenon repeats itself and collect additional hard evidence.
Questions that must be relentlessly addressed and pursued before scientifically even entertaining the notion of ET are:
- Can the light be related to an aircraft we are familiar with in an unfamiliar scenario or context, (e.g., thrust diamond patterns in rocket or jet exhaust as seen at night)?
- Can it be aircraft we are simply unfamiliar with?
- Can it be atmospheric in nature?
- Can it be astronomical in nature?
- Can we rule out recording equipment malfunctions?
- Could the apparent light be hoaxed?
If any of the above answers are “Yes,” one cannot scientifically proceed to the so-called “extraterrestrial hypothesis” until completely ruling them out, especially considering that the existence of extraterrestrial life of any sort has yet to be scientifically demonstrated (see: astrobiology). If one does, they’ve just committed an argument from ignorance.
Analyzing Ted Lohman’s “UFO Crash” Video
When viewing the (literally) spectacular video featured at the beginning of this episode, several features stand out:
- Perhaps the most important feature is that the apparent “object” is glowing. This is deserving of specific mention. We aren’t aware of many things that glow in broad daylight and fly. However, there are a few, and the most likely candidate is a rocket, which emits glowing plasma as a result of the combustion of propulsive fuel. In this view, the apparent object is actually the exhaust plume itself being emitted from the back of a missile or rocket, which is being “washed out” by the brightness of the flame. (This is doubly true if the camera is sensitive to infrared wavelengths, as military officials have claimed.)
- The presence of a faint exhaust contrail is visible being left behind the object, which is also strongly suggestive of a rocket.
- Upon close inspection the “object” expresses some asymmetry. It narrows and is fairly blunt on the left side as opposed to the right, which is also consistent with something being emitted from a nozzle, left to right.
- The object’s dimensions and shape subtly change over time, which an exhaust plume would do as a rocket travels through, and the plume interacts with, the atmosphere.
- The absence of any audio is conspicuous, where the familiar roar of a rocket motor might be immediately conclusive. (Was it left out on purpose to inspire mystery?)
- After the object impacts the second time and comes apart, glowing debris is scattered, which is consistent with burning fuel.
In short, there is no reason to question the rocket hypothesis until the object bounces. Admittedly, rockets aren’t typically designed to bounce. However, that doesn’t mean that a bounce is impossible and certainly doesn’t eliminate the rocket possibility outright.
As is featured in the episode, James and I had a spirited debate regarding whether or not a bouncing ballistic object could be cylindrical, or if it needed to be disk-shaped. This was amusingly abbreviated as the “pencil versus pancake” argument. Particularly if under their own power with an appreciable degree of momentum, cylindrical objects do and have bounced, whether planes or rockets. Now, it is also true that “pancake”-shaped objects might also bounce, as people are familiar with in the context of skipping stones, yet this is an anecdotal rather than scientific statement.
Again, in light of the evidence as detailed above without additional compelling evidence to the contrary, there is no scientifically compelling reason to question the hypothesis that the object captured on film is likely a rocket exhaust plume as viewed during an unusual missile or rocket bounce and crash. (To claim otherwise and invoke extraterrestrial technology is, again, to commit an argument from ignorance.)
Frank Kimbler and the Planetary Fingerprint
During the course of conversation about the metal fragments Frank Kimbler discovered at his proposed “crash site,” one of the aspects mentioned regarding his analysis was a possible chemical irregularity in the metal’s composition.
Without delving too deeply into planetary geochemistry, each chemical element found in nature comes in multiple forms, called “isotopes.” Different isotopes of a chemical element relate to the number of neutrons in an atom’s nucleus. While the presence of protons determines what element an atom is, (for example, oxygen versus iron), adding or subtracting neutrons creates lighter and heavier versions of that same element. This may be familiar in the context of “Carbon-12” versus “Carbon-14.” They are both Carbon, yet Carbon-14 has two extra neutrons as compared to Carbon-12, making it radioactive and useful for age-dating of archaeological sites.
In any case, the relative amounts of isotopes for a given element can be unique from planet to planet in the solar system, (and by extension, possibly even between solar system to solar system.) This may be thought of as a sort of planetary “fingerprint.” Analyzing these isotopic ratios is the method by which planetary scientists can help to determine whether a meteorite came, for example, from Mars or the asteroid belt.
With this in mind, when subjected to an initial test, the magnesium isotopes found in one of Kimbler’s metal fragments appeared to indicate a non-terrestrial isotopic fingerprint. However, without further testing, such results could also have been the result of natural and statistical variability in the laboratory analytical process. So, while ultimately not conclusive of an extraterrestrial “find” without further analysis, communicating the idea of elemental isotopes and their role in helping scientists currently determine geological material of extraterrestrial origin makes this segment an important one!
Thermal Infrared Surveys and the “Witching Hour”
I’d like to offer a quick note on our evening infrared surveys in this and other episodes. As was also the case during our Fresno FLIR investigation (“Dirty Secrets”), the logic behind such surveys is that impacts or other terrain disturbances often affect the vegetation in a given area, either by removing plants (scraping/scouring) or by crushing them. These changes can be persistent over decades and even centuries, as evidenced in one example by altered plant growth along wagon tracks that remain visible to this day in the Great Basin region of the United States.
Different plants and plant densities release heat to the environment at different rates, meaning that as an area transitions from day to night, the difference in heat loss between plant types when looking in thermal infrared may reveal patterns of ancient disturbances. This is one of the reasons, (which did not receive much attention in a given episode,) why our surveys often continued from daylight into night. We were seeking to be present for the “witching hour,” when differences in heat loss rates might reveal patterns indicating historical disturbances of the terrain.
Rebar Find in the Roswell Survey Grid
One of the most significant discoveries during the Roswell field investigation (that did not ultimately appear in the episode) was that of finding a vertical piece of oxidized rebar driven into the ground in our survey grid. Those who are familiar with professional land surveying will recognize that driven rebar is highly suggestive of benchmarks and survey markers, which surveyors use to mark reference points in the environment. In these cases, the rebar is intended to prevent the marker from moving around with time, and an identifying cap is often affixed to the top of the pipe or pole with a unique alphanumeric identifier.
Unfortunately, any benchmark cap was no longer present in the case of our rebar discovery, making definitive identification impossible. However, while not conclusive of anything extraordinary, that the area was important enough for someone to survey is coincidental and at the very least intriguing – not to mention the whole-in-one serendipity of having placed our own survey grid in exactly the same location!
The Air Force Button
Doubtless the most sensational discovery during the Roswell investigation was the late-night unearthing of a military coat button. I’ll admit – the find was very exciting, particularly considering how many hours we’d been outside that evening.
Upon reflection and further analysis, however, it turns out that while the presence of a military button agrees with both the extraordinary allegations as well as the official military account of the event (see: Project Mogul), the button’s characteristics also conflict with a couple of key elements common to all versions of the Roswell story:
- Buttons of this nature were included on more formal uniform coats, which don’t necessarily make sense under a “hands-and-knees” recovery operation scenario. Field recovery personnel would not have been wearing more formal uniforms.
- The button was sent to an expert historian from the National Button Society during post-production, who concluded that the button (based on the manufacturer and button-backing) was at earliest from the year 1949. This is a full two years after the alleged Roswell crash and recovery.
The presence of nearby tin, as seen in the episode, is indicative of more conventional (likely farming) activity in the area. With this in mind and due to the age mismatch and condition of the button, the possibility of a provincial explanation, such as it having been deposited much more recently from the likes of a surplus coat worn by a civilian, cannot yet be ruled out.
Wrapping Up Roswell
Ultimately, determining any truth to the more exotic allegations at Roswell will only become more difficult with time, either because the simple reality is increasingly obscured by entrenched, fantastic lore or more exotic truths are increasingly hard to verify as witnesses die and memories change with age.
Even to those who find the “weather balloon”-style explanation of the Air Force’s Project Mogul untenable, (which is a difficult argument in its own right), ruling out more extraordinary but terrestrial explanations for the crash and recovery are essential prior to entertaining any extraterrestrial hypotheses. If not a weather balloon, why could the event have not been a rogue rocket from a test gone awry at nearby White Sands Missile Range, a downed aircraft with an atomic weapon aboard, or even a crashed test of classified supersonic aircraft employing breakthrough materials technologies? At least as far as scientific conclusions are concerned, definitive answers to these questions based upon physical evidence are in my opinion required before warranting a gaze up toward the stars in search of answers.
Ben McGee is a member of the Chasing UFOs team. A true skeptic by nature, Ben is Chasing UFOs’ resident scientist.
Get to know Ben and the rest of the Chasing UFOs team, Fridays at 10P et/pt. And be sure to check back to the blog Friday night for Ben’s post-show wrap-up.