Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Hunting the Northern Lights in Norway

Join me in search of the northern lights in Norway this coming February (2012) aboard the Hurtigruten ship MS Midnatsol. Inspired partly by Joanna Lumley’s evocative BBC TV programme, more people than ever are travelling north to see what is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular phenomena in nature.
These luminous wisps and curtains of light tripping like phantoms across the polar skies are caused by atomic particles from the Sun bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere and making it glow. Aurorae occur around the poles because the Earth’s magnetic field funnels the solar particles down onto the atmosphere in the polar regions. Hence you need to travel north to see them at their best – and one of the prime places for aurora watching is the clear, dark skies of Norway.
I will be aboard the Midnatsol as it cruises the fjords from Bergen northwards to within skiing distance of the Russian border and back again for 11 days from February 22 to March 3 (see Northern Lights Astronomy Voyage 2012). If you are unable to make that date, Dr John Mason is accompanying two other trips, departing January 20 and March 15.
As well as observing sessions on deck I will be giving six lectures on various aspects of astronomy – not just aurorae but the Moon, planets, comets and of course the myths and legends of the constellations. And you will be able to participate in the day-to-day life aboard the Midnatsol, the biggest and newest of the fleet of Hurtigruten ships that acts not only as a tourist ship but also as a lifeline to the small towns along the coast of Norway.
I will be at the Telegraph Cruise Show at the NEC Birmingham on October 29–30 so come along to hear more!
* For more about what causes the aurorae and what you can expect to see, download the summary of my talk Fantastic Lights:

Friday, 28 January 2011

AstroFesting in London... and chasing the fantastic Northern Lights in Norway

The annual feast of astronomy called AstroFest is just a week away, and I for one can’t wait. We have probably the most exciting and varied programme ever, which is saying something given the quality of recent line-ups.

The Saturday afternoon session is already sold out – no doubt something to do with Professor Brian Cox, the poster boy for astronomy in the UK. As well as his talk on the Big Bang, Brian will be signing copies of Wonders of the Solar System, the book that accompanied his first TV series. A second series, called Wonders of the Universe, is in production. I am consulting on the tie-in book for that one.

Other top speakers this year are Ed Krupp from the Griffith Observatory and planetarium in Los Angeles who is a world expert on prehistoric sites of astronomical interest. He has visited over 1,900 of them around the world – can there be any left he hasn’t been to? As well as talking about stone-age astronomy in his entertaining way, Ed will be gently poking fun at the misguided beliefs that the world is scheduled to end on 2012. You can see an extended version of his talk here (scroll to 7 minutes in to get to the start):

Another popular visitor is Chuck Wood, who for many years has run the Lunar Picture of the Day website Chuck was one of the team at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona in the 1960s that helped map the Moon in preparation for the Apollo landings. I well remember looking with awe at the crisp, accurate charts they produced, which were far in advance of anything that had been seen before. The nomenclature of lunar features that they introduced remains the official standard.

Among other highlights, I’m looking forward to introducing Helen Keen, a comedian (comedienne?) who is going places and who can make rocket science funny. She has been entertaining audiences from the Edinburgh fringe to the National Space Centre in Leicester and the Science Museum in London and we are delighted to welcome her to AstroFest.

UPDATE: See photos from the show here:

Chasing the lights
Beyond that, on February 20 I am off again to the Arctic to see the northern lights again with the Norwegian coastal line called the Hurtigruten. 
This year’s voyage on the MS Trollfjord is twice as long as last year, starting in Bergen and going to within skiing distance of the Russian border before returning south. Also this time we include a visit to the newly refurbished Northern Lights Planetarium in Tromsø, which I am particularly looking forward to. On board ship, I'll be giving six lectures including one about the northern lights and leading on-deck observing sessions, weather permitting.

Three weeks later I’ll be back in the Arctic again in pursuit of the magical lights, this time with Cruise and Maritime aboard their classic (i.e. rather old) ship Marco Polo:

Let’s hope the northern lights, and the weather, cooperate.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Talks in October

Two talks this month, both on UFOs – a subject I occasionally write about but rarely talk about since some deeply sensitive souls get upset when told there’s nothing to it.
The first is at the Fortean Times UnConvention on October 23. I’m told this is a great event but have never been before. The speaker line-up certainly looks impressive. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Helen Keen’s presentation, It IS Rocket Science. At the end of the second day, I am apparently doing a UFO-bashing session with Dave Clarke, Peter “Mad Dog” Brookesmith, and, er... Nick Pope. (How did he get in there?)
My talk will look at the facts of the Rendlesham Forest incident, still regarded by some as among the best UFO cases ever. Like the story of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the UFO believers have long-since abandoned the facts of Rendlesham and decided to “print the legend”. This talk will be an attempt to go back to the facts and deconstruct the legend.
Then three days later, on October 26, I’ll be at Skeptics in the Pub in Cambridge to give a more general talk titled UFOs: Fact or Fantasy (go on – guess which of the two it is). This is a potted history of UFOlogy from Kenneth Arnold to the present day, of course including Rendlesham. I’ll include a primer on common causes of UFO sightings, and end with the conclusion that the government really has told us the truth about UFOs, i.e. there’s no evidence for anything unusual beyond perhaps a few ill-understood atmospheric phenomena.
Those who are demanding UFO “disclosure” from the government find such a scenario impossible to contemplate. Their sales pitch is that we’re being shielded from the truth because governments fear mass panic. As is so often the case in UFOlogy, the truth is quite the opposite: the “disclosure” crowd are keeping the truth from the public because they are the ones who will be discredited, not the government.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Talks in September

I’m giving two talks in September. The first is on Tuesday September 14 when I’ll be opening this season’s series of lunchtime lectures at the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House. The subject is Comets, in which I’ll be explaining how astronomers learned the true nature of these ghostly visitors to our skies and how they helped us understand the Universe about us. I’ll end by looking forwards to the approach of comet Hartley 2, which should be visible with binoculars or even the naked eye in October and will be visited by NASA’s EPOXI mission (dreadful name) in early November. The talk starts at 13.00 and doors open around 12.30.
I’ll be giving up my lunch for the second time in that same week when I kick off the Royal Society’s autumn series of lunchtime lectures on Friday September 17. This time it’s my favourite subject, Pictures in the Sky, about the origin and history of the constellations. It’s at the Royal Society headquarters in Carlton House Terrace, starting at 13.00 (but aim to get there around 12.30).
Both are free, and you can reserve seats for the Royal Society talk in advance.


Monday, 6 September 2010

New light on the Rendlesham UFO incident

AS its 30th anniversary approaches, the world-famous Rendlesham Forest UFO Incident, widely regarded by UFO enthusiasts as among the top ten cases in the world, appears to lie in tatters following a series of damaging revelations and reversals.
Most of us, of course, thought the case was dead and buried in the late 1990s when James Easton, a dogged researcher now sadly retired from UFOlogy, obtained and published the statements made by the military personnel who were involved in the first night of sightings just after Christmas 1980. The sightings took place over at least two nights in Rendlesham Forest outside the USAF base at Woodbridge in Suffolk, and according to some versions involved contact with a landed craft of unknown origin.
The statements proved that, contrary to such sensational claims, the USAF security police who went into the forest on that first night did not come within touching distance of a landed craft, they were not mysteriously out of radio contact for an extended period, and the flashing light they were chasing was indeed the lighthouse at Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast, as a local forester and local police had originally suggested.
As a result of this new information Easton, originally a believer in the case, became one of its most outspoken critics. Even Jenny Randles, who had written the first book on the incident, Sky Crash, terming it “the world’s first officially observed, and officially confirmed, UFO landing and contact”, reversed her stance.
My own involvement with the case had begun a decade earlier, after it became the front-page story in the News of the World in October 1983, nearly three years after the events had taken place. I was able to find mundane explanations for all the major aspects, which I published in 1985Easton’s independent research provided gratifying support. However, many dedicated UFO believers still refused to give up their faith in the case.
Further revelations
What has stirred the pot lately are further revelations by another researcher, Dr David Clarke, a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. Clarke was responsible for obtaining the release of the official government files on the case in 2001.
Following this release of documents he interviewed several military and civilian participants who were privy to what had happened behind the scenes but had not spoken out before. Perhaps most important of these was Simon Weeden, the civil servant at the Ministry of Defence who dealt with the memo reporting the sightings written by Lt Col Halt, the USAF deputy base commander. Halt had himself witnessed unusual lights on the second and best-documented night of events in Rendlesham Forest, and it was the release of his official memo in 1983 that propelled the case into the headlines.
Clarke’s interviews, like the government files, confirmed that the Ministry of Defence had never taken the incident seriously, had never bothered to investigate it in depth at the time, and that there was nothing to be covered up, despite what the conspiracy theorists had hopefully claimed. Some of the information garnered by Clarke made its way into print, but much of it remained unpublished until just recently.
In response to renewed calls from Rendlesham advocates that the British and US governments should release whatever information on the case they were withholding, Clarke finally put his full findings into circulation in early September on his blog.
Halt’s boss speaks – and not kindly...
As well as demonstrating that there was nothing more to release, at least on the UK side, the revelations contained another dramatic development that the believers had not anticipated: a long statement from Col Ted Conrad, Halt’s superior officer at the base. Conrad had remained silent until now, not wishing to criticize a fellow officer publicly. However, that was about to change.
Conrad revealed he and some other high-ranking staff on the base had gone outside to look for the hovering UFOs that Halt was reporting over the radio, but failed to see anything unusual at all. Halt has often claimed that Conrad did witness strange lights in the sky, but this claim – like many Halt has made in the years since he left the Air Force – is evidently untrue. Had Conrad really seen anything of note, one supposes he would have taken more action than did Halt, who simply turned round and went back home.
Conrad also contradicted two of the favourite claims made by the conspiracy theorists: no further report was submitted to the US or UK authorities beyond the Halt memo, and there was no interrogation of the witnesses by OSI. Some over-imaginative TV reconstructions have shown frightened witnesses being subjected to a harsh grilling by fearsome intelligence men, including injections with sodium pentothal. “I was in a position to know about the OSI,” Conrad assured Clarke. “The OSI commander kept me informed of any ongoing investigations they had.”
In his correspondence with Clarke, Conrad not only expressed regret at the way Halt had handled the UFO affair but also attacked him for suggesting that the US and the UK had been engaged in a cover-up of the facts. “Halt should be ashamed and embarrassed,” declared an obviously dismayed Conrad.
This was not the first time that Halt’s conduct over this matter had been criticized by his superiors. Wing Commander Gordon Williams, who was in overall charge of the base at the time, had earlier dissociated himself from the Halt memo. In an interview for a pro-UFO programme called I Know What I Saw, Williams admitted: “It [the memo] had some things in there that I don’t think we were prepared to defend.” In other words, he wasn't going to defend the indefensible.
And back in 1983, when Col Sam Morgan replaced Ted Conrad as base commander, he listened to Halt’s tape recording, discussed it with him and concluded, as he told writer Phil Klass, that it was “just a bunch of guys screwing around in the woods”. (I have always thought that was a fitting epitaph for the Rendlesham case.)
Halt’s iffy affidavit
Halt inflicted more damage on himself and the case in June this year when he issued a notarized affidavit summarizing his recall of events, ending with the declaration the objects he had seen “were extraterrestrial in origin”.
Unfortunately this affidavit, compiled from 30-year-old memory and clearly influenced by the numerous interviews he has given to the media in the meantime, contains many statements at odds with what we know actually happened, as I explain here.
How can we be so sure what went on that night? Because Halt made a tape recording during his foray into the woods which was released into the public domain shortly after I published my explanation of the case. Thanks to this remarkable tape, we can listen in to a major UFO sighting as it happens. I have analysed the contents of Halt’s tape in detail here and there is nothing on it that I find truly inexplicable.
However, what I do find inexplicable is why Halt did not go back and listen to the tape (or at least read my transcript of it – he has a copy) before committing himself to a notarized affidavit. Did he not think that investigators would compare the two? Or did he hope that a notarized statement made with the benefit of hindsight and flawed by failure of memory would take precedence over his descriptions made at the time? In practice, the errors in this affidavit mean that it is worthless as evidence and make Halt look an unreliable witness.
There is much to be written about the dramatis personae in this mystery story of a UFO chase in and around a forest on a dark winter’s night: the genuinely baffled, the delusional, the manipulators and the manipulated. But it is a story in which we see the workings of human intelligence, not extraterrestrial. It is a rare privilege to have a front-row seat in the development of a modern myth that will doubtless outlive us all, and I will be returning to it in future posts.

Read about my expedition into Rendlesham Forest with Evan Davis of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: The truth is not out there.

Rare public appearance!
For those who missed my talk about the Rendlesham case at the Fortean Times Unconvention in October 2010 (or even for those who did make it) you can see a video here