Thursday, December 28, 2006

UFOs And The Belt Of Orion

A few people were at the lakeside park, waiting for the slo-mo celestial event. My camera atop tripod was ready. I had a small flashlight to check the camera’s settings and also some reference notes for changing the exposure as the event progressed.

It was a warm night. At least I wasn’t standing outside, alone, in the snow as I had done on another similar occasion, trying to keep warm while recording the darkening moon.

As the event progressed, a young man, a college student, asked me if I knew much about the night sky. I told him I was somewhat familiar with it, having taken amateur astronomical photos before.

When the moon was in total eclipse, the stars appeared brighter, thanks to the drastically reduced lunar “light pollution.” I pointed out to the college student the prominent stars in the Orion constellation that form his belt, a trio of radiant diamonds, seemingly perfectly aligned.

The student was caught off guard. Apparently he had never paid much attention to the heavens. If my memory serves me, he said he had moved from a big city to Plattsburgh to attend college. Unlike the generally rural environs of the Plattsburgh area, a metropolitan beehive is encased by manmade light pollution. Its night sky is obscured, even hidden. Seeing the belt of Orion for the first time, so clear against the black sky, startled the big city transplant.

“Are you sure those stars are always like that?” he asked me a bit nervously.

Between the dull red moon and Orion’s belt, he acted as if he was witnessing a sign of the Apocalypse. I reassured him that there was nothing supernatural about the alignment of the star trio.

Most likely he had been conditioned by television and movies to think of the stars as random light points that never formed a pattern. How many times has a cheesy sci fi show or movie portrayed the universe as a sheet of black velvet dotted with pinprick holes held up in front of a strong light? The points of radiance are all the same intensity, forming a sloppy pattern that really doesn’t match what someone observes while scanning the clear heavens during darkness.

But that college student’s reaction didn’t surprise me. I had witnessed a similar reaction years before in college. This time the college student was a friend. The two-year college we attended was located in the middle of rural nowhere. To pass the time I would watch the cows grazing on the hillside out my dorm window.

One freezing winter evening I stopped by my friend’s dorm. I found him at the end of the hallway, staring out the large window. I inquired what he was looking at. The sun had set, its last rays still illuminating the horizon with bluish light. He pointed at a couple of intense lights hovering in the distance. They seemed to be spinning, changing color.

I told him that it was a couple of planets, Venus or Jupiter, whatever. The lights seemed to be spinning due to turbulence in the upper atmosphere.

“Those aren’t planets!” he declared. He didn’t utter the term, but I knew what he was thinking: UFOs. As in alien spacecraft.

I mentioned to him that the two lights weren’t moving, they seemed to be remaining in the same place, just like planets. If there were any movement, it would be from the planets slowly following the sun, setting behind the horizon.

But my friend wouldn’t buy my explanation. So I left him there, staring at what he thought was extra-natural, not of nature.

So when skeptics say that many UFO sightings can be explained by observer bias and a lack of awareness about the night sky, I would have to agree after what I’ve observed.


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