5X5 Episode 59

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5X5 Episode 59
Sprites and UFOs
25th February 2009

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5X5 58 5X5 60
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Show Notes

Sprites and other atmospheric phenomena mistaken for UFOs[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5. This night we're talking about sprites in the atmosphere, or how natural phenomenon are often confused for UFOs.

B: In 1989, scientists discovered classes of electrical discharges high in the atmosphere that were previously unknown. One of these types is called sprite, which is an electrical discharge that can take place 35-80 miles above the ground, well above conventional lightning bolts, which occur 7-10 miles above the ground. And they're quite extraordinary looking, and at some point after they're created, they can actually travel at I think 10% of the speed of light. And this professor, Professor Colin Price at Tel Aviv University claims that these sprites may in fact be the cause for a certain percentage of UFO sightings.[1]

J: And also, Bob, there's a lot of a lot of phenomena that happens in the atmosphere that are mistaken for UFOs. One of the examples that we've discussed on the show—actually a couple examples that we've discussed on the show would be... one of the planets that's in a closer orbit to earth; another example could be... actually the moon, which I was very very surprised a couple of years ago to learn that is often mistaken for some type of space craft.

R: I believe you learned that on this very show.

J: I think I did.

R: Yeah; people can be really surprised at how things that they assume they would never be fooled by, you know, when you look at it through certain atmospheric conditions or just... maybe you're a bit tired; it's late at night. It's amazing exactly how easy it is to fool us with natural phenomena.

E: That's right, and we had President Jimmy Carter on the show two years ago, to discuss his sighting that he had back in 1969. And he, to this very day, is convinced that it was not a natural phenomenon; that he saw something. Didn't say it was an extraterrestrial or anything like that, but... all the indications were that it was the planet Venus. Judging by the time of day and the position of the bright object in the sky. So even someone like an ex-President can be fooled by naturally occurring phenomenon in the sky.

S: But of course, if you look at some of the very interesting, like these sprite phenomenon, which are very cool, by the way. I've seen images taken either from satellite or the shuttle at the electric discharges, essentially in the upper atmosphere; they're very beautiful. But if you see something like that and you say, "Oh, that's a UFO; it's unknown", and start to speculate about alien spacecraft, you're going to miss the fact that this actually may be a very fascinating natural phenomenon. Sometimes even though something is natural, like electrical discharge in the atmosphere, that can also be an extremely fascinating scientific phenomenon. But you may miss that if you're distracted by the pop explanation of UFOs

B: In fact, sprites are actually just a piece of the puzzle here; there's other atmospheric discharges that were unknown until relatively recently that they all kind of dance across the sky in this unusual way, which could be part of the reason why people see the moving light and interpret it as UFOs. And they've gave them usual names like elves, goblins and trolls as well. And it's—like Steve said, it's an interesting new phenomenon; we've only known about it for a couple decades, so it can't hurt to look a little deeper and try to find a naturalistic explanation rather than jumping to, you know, the "cool" UFO conclusion.

s: Of course, there's an atmospheric, or an alleged atmospheric phenomenon, called "ball lightning", which is still somewhat controversial. And this would be rather than a lighting strike, a ball, if you will, or luminous glowing sphere that can, you know, be of various reported sizes. But it really hasn't been documented that it definitely exists so far. But this...

R: Although you can make a similar thing using your microwave. But yeah, it's never really been observed in nature—

J: (chuckles)

R: I'm serious. You can do it in your microwave. Google it. Don't. Don't. Ask your parents first, kids.

S: (laughs) So there we have a genuine scientific controversy masquerading as sort of a fake pop controversy. The take-home message here is if you see something unusual in the sky, natural phenomenon need to be explored thoroughly and there's a lot of interesting stuff happening up there, so don't jump past that explanation and leap to the UFO assumption.

J: And don't try to simulate things in your microwave.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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