Mirages

Steuart Campbell. The UFO Mystery Solved, Explicit Books, 1994.

Excellent stuff, I thought, as I read through the first few chapters on the development of the UFO myth, how we can be deceived by ordinary phenomena seen in unusual conditions, the limitations of human eyesight, and so on. Plenty of basic science and sound common sense.

Then I came to the part where he starts to go on about mirages. He asserts that, under certain conditions, they can so magnify the images of stars that they can be easily seen in daylight. He claims that there is no 'clear and comprehensive theory' of mirages and that study of the subject has been neglected. However, he ignores the chapter in the Condon Report which gives a survey of the literature on mirages, together with a description of the basic theory, which includes the appropriate equations, tables of refractive indices, diagrams, and drawings and descriptions by observers. An account is also given of the more sophisticated theory devised by Sir C. V. Raman. (Viezee, William. 'Optical Mirage', in Gillmor, Daniel S. (ed.), Scientfic Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, Bantam Books, 1969, 598-654)

The rest of the book, as you might guess, is devoted mainly to attempting to explain a number of well-known UFO reports as astronomical mirages. These explanations range from the barely plausible to the utterly absurd.

Campbell's technique for explaining UFO reports seems to be as follows. He has a computer program which, when given the date, time, latitude and longitude of a sighting, calculates the azimuths and elevations of the bright stars and the planets. Campbell then checks to see if one of these objects was in the general direction of the UFO as indicated by the witness and explains the sighting as a mirage of that object. Thus he concludes, for example, that the Socorro saucer was no hoax, but a mirage image of the star Canopus, so enormously magnified that it scared the daylights out of an experienced police officer.

The famous Newhouse film, shot at Tremonton, Utah, on 2 July 1952 was intensively studied for Project Blue Book. The general conclusion was that the best explanation was that the objects were birds. But yes, you've guessed, Campbell says that they were mirages of stars, even though it was full daylight and the objects were at an elevation of about 70 degrees.

Campbell's assertions are utterly at variance with accepted theory on mirages, which says that they must be very near the horizon. Multiple images are sometimes seen, some of which may be inverted, but they are stacked vertically and they certainly do not cavort about the sky. No stars can be seen in full daylight, with or without mirage effects, and the only daylight planet is Venus, which can sometimes be seen if you know just where to look.

When Campbell submitted his explanation of the Livingston (Scotland) clos-encounter case of 9 November 1979 as a mirage of Venus to The British and Irish Skeptic, the editor demanded "at least one reference to an article in a refereed scientific journal where magnified undistorted superior mirages have been observed..." The author was indignant: "I considered that ... it was not reasonable ... to make demands which were not customarily made in his journal ... he was demanding evidence of phenomena which (it seemed likely) I was myself providing."

In Campbell's hands the theory of optical mirages is infinitely elastic. The constraints which it imposes on the conditions in which mirages appear, and their appearances and positions in the sky are inconvenient for his pet theory, so he merely hints that the theory must be wrong, but without giving any coherent account of exactly what is wrong with it.

Many UFO reports can be reasonably explained with reference to stars or planets, without the need to invoke mirage phenomena. Natural explanations of UFO reports should always be welcomed by those who take the subject seriously, but they must be sensible and reasonable explanations, based on sound scientific principles. Campbell could contribute much to research into unusual phenomena if only he could rid himself of his strange fixation on mirages and look at the evidence objectively.  -- Reviewed by John Harney, from Magonia 50, September 1994.


1 comment:

Strelnikov said...

Ah, yes the old "I have one tool and I use it for everything" gambit. Reminds me of Mr. Klass' use of ball lightning in "UFOs Identified."