Episode Three: Do You See What I See
As a species, our ability to lie, to imagine and embellish is one of our most extraordinary traits. It is thanks to the human capacity for imagination that we have walked on the moon, built the great pyramids of Egypt and painted masterpieces such as the Frescos of the Sistine Chapel.
It is also this imagination that enables us to create and share stories, stories that although almost always bear some form of fabrication, can often be said to reveal certain truths about ourselves.
And yet, the notion of truth is the most elusive of things. For some it can be a cause for annoyance, the frustration at finding not everybody sees things the way they do, for others it can mean the difference between life and death.
At times the truth can be hard, a bitter pill that might force us to even deceive ourselves in an attempt to escape from it. And sometimes this self-deception can be so potent that sheer belief alone can serve as a satisfying substitute for the truth itself.
The great physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle tells us that we can never know both the momentum and the position of a particle at any one time. In other words, you might say, we can never know the whole truth, only an approximation of it.
The concept of objective truth becomes even murkier if we also accept that we cannot understand anything without first taking into account the mechanism through which it is observed.
And so, although the truth may well be out there, it begs the question, does it even exist?
Throughout history we have concocted stories of strange apparitions in the sky, of gods and monsters that might either threaten or protect us. In modern times, these stories are most commonly associated with UFOs.
Although the term had come into use early in the twentieth century it wasn’t until the summer of 1947 that the phrase really caught the public imagination. In July of that year, an American recreational pilot named Kenneth Arnold, claimed to have been followed by nine ‘saucer like’ objects whilst flying his plane over Mt. Rainier in Washington State.
In a world still deeply traumatized by the second World War, the United States Air force were unwilling to take any chances and swiftly set about establishing two things: just what exactly were these strange objects and more importantly, to what extent did they pose a threat to national security.
On this occasion Arnold’s story proved of little concern. However, the ensuing publicity led to an unprecedented influx of claims from hundreds of others citing similar experiences of their own. Although the Air Force was happy to ignore the civilian reports, it proved a little harder to dismiss those reports that had come from their own trained personnel.
To this end, in 1948 the US Air Force recruited a man named Josef Allen Hynek to act as scientific consultant on a newly established unit called Operation Sign. The purpose of the unit was to create a localized repository for all suspected UFO sightings with the ultimate aim of generating rational and scientific explanations.
For Hynek, a Doctor of Physics and Astronomy from Ohio State University, and a committed man of science, the opportunity to dispel the emerging myths of little green men, was too good to turn down.
And for the first few years, this is exactly what he did. But then something changed.
As the years went by, Hynek noticed a pattern creeping into his work. He had discovered that although the majority of cases were fanciful and easily dismissed for every twenty claims he received, there would be at least one that was impossible to explain. He termed these cases his Unknowns.
What’s more, Hynek realized that in spite of Operation Sign’s initial intentions, the project had rarely followed his own strict principles of scientific method. Namely, that every case should be approached with complete disinterest and without bias.
It became clear that even if a UFO were to land on the road in front of his superiors they would have refused to believe it. It soon dawned on Hynek that his job had not been about investigating the UFO reports at all; it was purely to debunk them.
On the night of July 23rd, 1995, a group of amateur astronomers headed out into the Arizona desert to a strip of land just south of Phoenix known as Pekola Ranch. After a few hours observing various galaxies and star clusters one member of the group turned his attention to the constellation of Sagittarius. His name was Thomas Bopp. Peering into the lens, as the desert air began to chill, Thomas spotted something strange far out in the depths of space.
Approximately 400 miles away in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, astronomer Alan Hale was recording the brightness of a series of comets he had been tracking for the past couple of months. After taking the measurements he needed, he too turned his telescope to the constellation of Sagittarius. And sure enough, he also spotted something unexpected. Something that did not to correlate with any of his established charts.
Unbeknownst to each other, Alan and Thomas had simultaneously made the same discovery, a discovery that would change their lives forever.
Roughly 577 Million Miles from the two astronomers, a 40km wide mass of rock, ice and dust was hurtling through space at approximately 100,000 miles per hour relative to the earth. It was as if Sagittarius himself had launched an arrow straight through the heart of the solar system. That arrow was soon to become known as the Hale Bopp comet.
By March 1997 any casual observer would have been able to see the comet blazing its trail for the last 14 months but the best was yet to come. As the earth spun into the evening of March 24th, people all around the world, turned their eyes to the sky, and braced themselves for one of the most spectacular astronomical events in the history of mankind.
For those of us watching in Great Britain, the occasion didn’t disappoint. For those of us located around the border of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, it was about to become a very memorable evening indeed albeit for a somewhat different reason.
Just exactly what occurred that night over the dark misty moors of the British Peak District has never fully been accounted for. It has since become known as The Howden Moor incident and is a mystery that remains to this day, Unexplained.
Howden Moor, located in the aptly named Dark Peak region of Britain’s Peak District has long been associated with the strange and mysterious. The wild and misty moors have become known for a number of peculiar sightings ranging from the ghosts of planes, people and even UFOs.
With more than 50 aircraft believed to have crashed in the region, over the years, at the cost of roughly 200 lives, it is easy to see how such tragedy might weave its way into the local folklore. But nothing could have prepared the local community for what was about to unfold on the evening of Monday, March 24th 1997.
With the Hale Bopp comet coming to it’s brightest and most prominent point, thousands had ventured out into the cold spring air to witness the spectacle and the conditions could not have been more perfect. Up above the comet blazed while a bright full moon hung in a cloudless sky.
With so many people pre-occupied with the comet, for the For the officers manning the control room of Ecclesfield Police Station in the city of Sheffield, it was proving to be a very quiet evening. But all that was about to change.
The first call came in at just after 10.15pm. Two farmers from near a town named Bolsterstone reported a low flying aircraft travelling in a southwesterly direction. Moments later, after the plane had appeared to hit the ground, orange glow was seen followed by several plumes of smoke rising into the air.
In the nearby village of Strines, local gamekeepers Mike and Barbara Ellison were watching TV when they heard a terrific explosion coming from the direction of the moors. After reporting the crash to the local police, Mr. Ellison was joined by Community officer PC Mick Hauge as they attempted to find the location of the explosion. Although the search was unsuccessful, they too reported seeing an eerie red glow in the sky just to the south of the moors.
At around the same time Police Special Constable Marie-France Tattersfield and her husband Steve were also driving near the town of Bolsterstone when suddenly what looked like a four-seater aircraft flew directly across their path. Marie-France noted the craft was unusually low and extremely bright and later described the incident as the strangest thing she had ever seen. As the aircraft continued on it’s path directly in front of them it disappeared behind some trees, and a tremendous boom was heard coming from the same direction.
As the phone calls flooded in to the police control centre a bizarre picture was starting to emerge. Witnesses reported seeing a triangular object as wide as the street passing overhead, others recounted seeing strange pink and red lights hovering in the sky. Many reported hearing a loud bang or boom followed by an eerie orange light glowing in the distance.
There were also reports, including from one from a retired RAF officer, of two tornado fighter jets flying extremely low as if they had just been scrambled for an unexpected operation. His report also noted how unusual it was for them to be seen at that time of night.
One lady, described by Police as a clear-headed reliable witness who was familiar with the night sky, reported seeing an aircraft shaped liked a long cigar, which looked as if it was on fire. The aircraft did not have wings, made no noise at all and appeared to be glowing.
Local Businessman Dan Grayson recounted seeing a bright light that moved off before splitting into two and disappearing over the horizon. Shortly afterwards a search and rescue helicopter flew over the exact same area.
Perhaps strangest of all was the 11pm reported sighting of an unknown man seen wandering the A57 road by the passengers of a minibus. After flagging down the bus the man requested a lift back to Sheffield but was refused on account of his strange behavior. The man, dressed in dark brown clothes was described as being in some distress and smelling strongly of diesel. The young man who reported the incident, a jet engineer in the Royal Air Force later reported that the pungent smell of diesel was remarkably similar to the smell of aviator fluid.
Whatever occurred that night was enough to convince the South Yorkshire police to send over 200 Personnel to conduct a 50 square mile search of the Pennine Moorland. The search, which cost over £50,000, lasted for over 15 hours but failed to yield any significant findings.
Seeking a rational explanation for the events, head of the police operation, Chief Inspector Christine Burbeary, reached out to the many Royal Air Force bases that operated in the area. However, they informed her that there had been no military aircraft flying that night that would have explained the reports of the low-flying plane and the “explosion.”
The following day, a formal statement released by the Ministry of Defence, declared unequivocally, that no military exercise of any kind had taken place the previous night.
The official South Yorkshire police records categorise the incident as “unexplained”.
Due to the extortionate cost to the public of the seemingly needless rescue operation, it fell to local MP for Sheffield and Hillsborough, Helen Jackson to seek some more concrete answers. More than a year later her questions were put to then Defence Minister George Robinson and Home Secretary Jack Straw in the House of Commons. But her questions were met with a familiar reply.
The MOD maintained their official stance that there had been no cover up over this incident and no aircraft were scrambled that night to intercept a UFO. Indeed it is a court martial offence to break the sound barrier over land, an occurrence that might have explained the loud bangs described by many of the witnesses.
Although there is no photographic evidence of the night in question, two mysterious sounds were picked up by microphones located at a British Geological Society research post in Leeds.
According to senior seismologist Glenn Ford, the two bangs had without doubt come from the direction of Sheffield. After further examination the sound signal was found to be indicative of two separate sonic booms, sounds that could only have been caused by high-speed aircraft.
Most startling however is the claim allegedly made by a radar operator from the local Royal Air Force Base in nearby Linton-upon-Ouse. The operator claimed to have tracked a UFO on the night of March 24th for over ten minutes before it shot off his radar screen and disappeared. The claim was later retracted, and an official statement later put out by RAF Linton-upon-Ouse declaring:
We are the only people in this area who would be flying above the region, and we were not practicing last night. We can confirm nothing was picked up on radar either.
It is not without exaggeration that the Hale Bopp comet is considered the most widely observed in our history. With the growth of the Internet in the 90’s and as well as rapidly improving devices of communication, never before had the planet been so interconnected in its awareness of such an event.
Also taking into account the popularity of shows such as the X-Files, it would be easy to classify the Howden Moor Incident, not as evidence of an alien visitation but rather little more than the workings of the human imagination fuelled by our collective excitement over the Hale Bopp comet.
The sightings of strange aircraft nothing but the self-deception of people who wanted such an event to be true, coupled with our insatiable desire to attach reason and purpose to a set of disparate and mundane events.
Or is there something else entirely that might explain the events of that night, something far more unnerving?
In 1998, two psychologist named Arien Mack and Irvin Rock, published a paper for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, entitled Inattentional Blindness. Building on the earlier work of cognitive psychologists, Ulric Neisser and Robert Becklen, the paper included the results of a series of simple experiments that highlighted a fundamental deficiency in our sense of perception.
The study concluded that due to our brain’s natural tendency to band multitudes of objects and stimuli into single groups we might often fail to notice even the most obvious of stimuli, even if it occurs directly in front of us.
Is it possible that due to the public’s hyper-vigilance and heightened awareness of the sky above, that they were suddenly receptive to seeing an unusual object flying overhead, an object that might otherwise have passed them by completely unnoticed?
Perhaps in the manner of the apocryphal story detailing the moment that Christopher Columbus approached the shores of what would later become known as the Caribbean. Having never seen such ships before it is said the people of the island were completely oblivious to the huge ships approaching and only registered them after noticing strange disturbances in the water.
It is widely accepted that, in a physical sense at least the world we see around us is not a truthful depiction. Rather it is the result of a combination of both the limitations of our brains and the extraordinary way in which we have evolved to best suit our environment.
Take for example, the appearance of colour. An extravagance that only exists because of the way our brains interpret varying wavelengths of light.
And although some may disagree, being able see the world as a collection of solid and manageable materials, as opposed to the vibrating mesh of sub-atomic particles that it really is, would seem superficially at be of much more use to us.
To counter these deficiencies we have developed technologies that enable us to detect and observe the things that we might otherwise be unable to see. Things such as gravity waves and the Higgs Boson.
And yet for all our technological ingenuity, we are still unable to account for what makes up over 80% of the known universe. The answer to what exactly constitutes Dark Matter, the substance believed to be responsible for this deficit, remains perhaps the biggest prize in physics.
And if you take the view that technology is only an extension of the human experience, and therefore susceptible to the same limits of perception, it’s possible that some aspects of the universe might forever remain invisible to us.
And if you consider the possibility that two species, having evolved in different ways, might look at the universe and see two completely different things, it begs the question just what exactly is it that we are looking at?
It is a thought that brings to mind, perhaps the biggest question of them all, is the truth out there or is it merely just in our heads?
© Richard MacLean Smith
1.Heisenberg, W. (2000), Physics and Philosophy, UK: Penguin
2.Hynek, J. A. (1998), The Hynek UFO Report, UK: Souvenir Press
3.Mack, A. & Rock, I (1998), Inattenional Blindness, MIT, http://journalpsyche.org/files/0xaa59.pdf
4.Clark, D. & Jeffrey, M. (2000), Howden Moor Incident, Dr. David Clark, http://drdavidclarke.co.uk/secret-files/howden-moor-incident/
5.Hale, A. (1995), The Discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp, Nasa, http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/discovery.html