A Skeptical View:
Close encounters of the skeptical kind Like many other scientists, I have been accused by True Believers of ignoring 'evidence' for UFOs. Daniel Caton Special to The Observer Published: Tuesday, October 6, 1998 Section: VIEWPOINT Page 13A "Have you ever seen anything in the sky that you didn't recognize?" This is one of the most common questions I get when I have the opportunity to show the stars to a group. There is usually a gleam in the questioner's eye, a reflection of the hope that there is something out there we are keeping secret. So, have I seen anything outside the usual? Well, actually, yes. Thrice. Like many other scientists, I've been accused by True Believers of ignoring the 'evidence' for UFOs. However, the important difference between my sightings and theirs is not the sighting but the reaction. Skepticism instead of obsession. There is a difference between an open mind and one that accepts all theories equally. And, quoting Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." My first encounter of the First Kind occurred as I was driving home from the observatory late one night. On a straight stretch of road I became aware of a beacon-like light extending up from the horizon about a third the way to the zenith. I slowed the van to a stop and turned off the headlights. Still there. I turned off all the lights and got out. Still there a faint, narrow fan of light, slightly to the south of due west. I kept it in my sight until I turned south, and picked it up again after resuming my westward travel toward Boone. It stayed off my port bow until lost in the glow of the town. I would sight it on two more occasions, always while alone (thus feeling some of the angst that UFO sighters experience!) My students would kid me about it and call it "Caton's Light." What was it? I don't know, but I know what it wasn't likely to be: an alien spacecraft, Elvis' return, an angel making a landing. We must apply Occam's Razor the criterion that says that we must accept the simplest explanation that will suffice. It may have been related to the gegenschein an faint glow sometimes seen in the direction opposite the sun. Maybe a distant spotlight or the occasional aurora seen this far south. It would be fun to figure it out and write it up for a journal article but, in "Skeptical Inquirer" rather than the "National Enquirer." Sadly, like UFOs, Caton's Light is difficult to study since it appeared randomly and not recently. On the other hand, there are some phenomena that are repeatable enough to investigate. In our area there are the Brown Mountain Lights mysterious luminaries seen from several vantage points around the Linville Gorge. A year ago I began an investigation of this phenomenon, allotting a small amount of time to the project. On the trips so far I've only seen one Light that was unexplainable a soft, bluish horizontal beam clearly under the tree canopy in an area devoid of roads. My second Encounter.. What are these lights? Swamp gas at 3,000 feet? Probably not. Perhaps some kind of geological 'Certs Effect' of stressed rocks (chew some of those wintergreen breath mints in front of a mirror tonight for a glimpse of some physics only recently explored!) Or, some kind of electrostatic discharge, a bigger version of the flash seen when pulling your socks off in the dark on a dry winter night. Further study may tell, but again, I don't think the Lights are likely to be ET taking a Parkway cruise. The trouble with this kind of work is that it is difficult to do and brings few rewards. I would not bet tenure or promotions on such speculative research. Yet it is important, not only for whatever knowledge to be gained but to show that science does investigate the 'paranormal.' The real downside is that after something is proved to be natural or nonsense it will in all likelihood still live on as a legend anyway. What is the point of research if the results are ignored? You simply can't have it both ways if you want us to investigate then you will need to accept our best conclusions until they are overturned that's the game of science. This is what drives us away from studying and debunking pseudoscience. At least in mainstream science my results will be (rightly) challenged by peers, and on the basis of logical reasoning. Not mocked by those who are arguing from authority ("I say [begin ital]it works[end ital]"), confusing correlations with causality, generalizing from anecdotes, ignoring the bulk of the evidence, and cutting themselves on Occam's Razor. And my third Encounter? To be continued ... mail: firstname.lastname@example.org (http://www.acs.appstate.edu/dept/physics/Encounters.htm)
24... The name 'earth light' comes from a modern theory put forward by Paul Deveraux in 1982, that the lights are made by the earth itself. This theory shall be explored in detail a little later. The main theories at the moment seem to be: They are produced by a series of tenuously linked events, e.g. the landscape, current weather conditions, the geology of the area, etc. They are caused by tectonic faults in the earths crust. They are the souls of the dead. They are simply misinterpreted normal events, e.g. Fireflies, aurorae, red-sprites etc. They are mis-observed man made objects: Car lights, town lights, torchlights, fireworks, flares, reflections off metallic objects etc. They are deliberate hoaxes. They are actually secret government weapons. They are alien spacecraft/beings. They are the effect of some type of sub-atomic reaction (e.g. the rather suspect 'vorton' model). Being a scientist (an Astrophysicist/Cosmologist), I would have to say that the last theory is fairly unlikely. Although I do accept the fact that a 'macro-quantum' event could be responsible, due to the huge energies involved in sub-atomic physics, it would have to be a very well controlled reaction. If a reaction is involved, it is almost definitely some type of chemical reaction. There are also explanations for the sub-categories of earth lights, which I shall go into later, (this is only the introduction!). Types Of Earth Lights & other related/mysterious lights EARTH LIGHTS; Earth lights, spooklights, nim-nim lights, ghost lights, mystery lights, cemetery lights, nocturnal lights. Possibly earthquake lights. WILL-O'-THE-WISPS; Will-o'-the-wisps, ignis fatuus, fox fire, fata morgana, foolish fire, fairy lights, corpse candles, elf light. ST. ELMOS FIRE; St.Elmo's Fire, other atmospheric luminescence. LIGHTNING EFFECTS; Ball Lightning, sprites, blue jets. A General Explanation Of Each Type. 1)Earth lights. Earth lights are the main phenomenon being investigated on this website. They are usually in the form of orbs of light, but can be in the form of luminous vapours, spheres with fiery tails, or have no distinct size. They may also appear as plumes or flames, although these forms are rarer. Although the usual sightings are of orbs of light, these vary in size, luminosity, and colour. Many reports of the lights are from a distance, and so the size cannot be determined - however, close up sightings usually put the balls between about 15cm-60cm (1/2ft-2ft). The luminosity can be startlingly bright (lighting up the night sky, for example), very bright (illuminating nearby objects), bright (about as bright as a torch), or even fairly dim (like a candle). Sometimes, the luminosity of the lights can change as they move around; they may decay (and eventually vanish), pulse, or gradually increase in brightness 'till they explode! Just about every possible colour light that you can imagine has been reported, including ones that change colour as they drift along. However, the most frequently reported colours are blue, yellow/orange/amber, or white. More infrequently reported are the red or green lights. They may last for a few seconds to several minutes, although cases of about 30 seconds are most common. They may also be audible. The movement of these orbs varies greatly from sighting to sighting. Usually, they just drift about like vapour, but sometimes they may swoop from high in the sky back to the ground, skip about, jolt erratically in any direction, or any combination of these. There may also be any number of these occuring simultaneously. In general, the lights, when seen, usually 'haunt localized regions' (as most websites tend to say!), indicating possibly that they are terrain/geology related. The fact that so many sightings describe completely different types of 'behaviour' indicates that the sources for each of these sightings may not be the same in every case. However, the lights are almost invariably of similar sizes, tend not to go higher than 100m or so, and are usually of the amber drifting variety. The interesting fact is that they stay 'fairly' close to the ground (in about 80% of cases). This would appear to indicate that the origin of these lights is the ground itself. However, this doesn't account for the few cases where (so called) earth lights appear at extremely high altitudes (sightings by airline pilots for example). The lights are usually seen at night, although this may be due to the fact that any source of illumination is easier to see in the dark!!! There are a great number of sightings in deep forests or glades (especially of the so called 'will-o'-the-wisps', discussed next), which would tend to support this theory. Spooklights/Ghost lights. The term for earth lights generally used in America. Comes from the belief that the lights are ghosts. Nim-nim lights. The term used for earth lights in Australia, especially ones on Aboriginal lands. Comes from the name of the hotel where they were first observed by white men. Mystery lights. Term used for example by the Salt Lake Tribune a good way to name unidentified lights. From myst(ical)-covered. Cemetery lights. Mysterious lights seen in cemeteries. There is [one?] famous example. Nocturnal lights. A term used to describe the lights, as they often appear at night (and perhaps only at night in some places). Earthquake lights. Earth lights apparently generated by earthquakes (certainly seen at the time of earthquakes). List of synonyms for 'earth lights' and other unexplained lights. This is most probably the largest collection of synonyms for earth lights anywhere in existence. Certainly it is that I know about! Anyway, here goes: Earth lights, Spooklights, Ghost lights, Mystery lights, Nocturnal lights, Nim-nim lights, Cemetery lights, Treasure lights, Night suns, Foo fighters, Fiery dragons, Luminous vapours, Fiery coruscations, Burning shields, Fiery drakes, Devil's bonfires, Amber gamblers, Strange lightning, Mysterious flares, Ghostly lanterns, Bodhisattva lights, ORBS, Strange meteors, Fluffy fire, Unctuous vapour, Blazing stars, Phantom effluence, Luminous columns, Ghost beacons, Luminous Clouds, Flying flame, Sparkling fires, Flaming torch, Money lights, ALP, Geophysical meteors, Ghost beacon, Elf-fire, Ghostly lights, Rocket lightning, Fieballs, Earthquake lights. Will-o'-the-wisps, Ignis fatuus, Fox fire, Fata morgana, Foolish fire, Fairy lights, Corpse candles, Elf light, Will-with-the-wisp, Wisp, Friar's lantern, Meg of the lantern, The swamp ghost, Bramaracokh, Peggy with the lantern, Fairy death lantern, Jack-o'-lantern, Peg-a-lantern, Flickering fire, Spunkie, Death light, Walking fire, Fools fire, Lambent flame, Fetch lights, Dead man's candles, Walking fire, Fair maid of Ireland, Friar's lanthern, Friar Rush with a lantern, Ball of wildfire, Going fire, Fire of destiny, Robin Good-fellow, Hob-lantern, Fairy-lantern, Puck-lantern, Corpse light, Corposant, Corpo Santos, Dickepoten, Teine sionnii, Teine side, Fairy fire, Sean na gealaige, Jack of the bright light, Laim na lasoige, William with the little light, Feu follet, Irrlicht, Blud, Eskuddit', Fetch candle. (That's 95 found in total!) Others: Sprites, Blue jets, St. Elmo's fire, Leaders, Ball lightning. Thanks to R.C. for providing most of these synonyms!!! 2)Will-o'-the-wisps. Will-o'-the-wisps are small sources of light usually seen on swamps, marshes, mires or in deep woodland. They are different to earth lights in that they are usually small and no brighter than a torch. They are almost always extremely close to the ground as well (not going more than about 10ft in the air). They were feared in mediæval times because they often led travellers astray, as the follower would believe they were town lights, or lights of a rescue party. These lights have led to the phrase 'being pixie-led', and 'fairy lights', as it was often believed that they were mischievous fairies or pixies. They are sometimes found on cliffs as well, luring ships to their doom. These lights are almost always blue, for reasons unknown. They are heavily described in folklore not just for their 'mischeivous' properties, but for their mineral locating abilities as well. Miners in cornwall and the peak district believed that coal & silver etc. (and especially copper) could be located by the presence of a blue vapour above the site where they are to be found. This was believed up until about the 19th century, possibly even hanging on in the earlier parts of this (now last) century (20th). A good example of this fact can be observed in Bram Stokers 'Dracula'. Dracula is seen to be locating something at the beginning of the book by 'blue vapours'. The most common explanation for will-o'-the-wisps has always been ignited marsh gas, i.e. methane or phosphene. This has been disproved in every modern experiment, because these gases both produce a hot yellow flame (I should know, I almost 'ignited' a friends face whilst burning methane in a chemistry experiment once!) whereas will-o'-the-wisps are usually blue and cold. This points to a different type of chemical reaction, possibly the same type as used in bioluminescence. Will-o'-the-wisps will always be closely associated with earth lights, but aren't strictly the same thing. For this reason, I shall cover will-o'-the-wisps on this web site, but separately to earth lights! 3)St. Elmo's Fire. St.Elmo's fire is often confused with and/or offered as an explanation for both earth lights and will-o'-the-wisps. However, St. Elmos fire is not the same phenomenon as has been explained by science. It is an electrical luminescence often observed around masts or other high 'poles'. There are many forms of explained luminescence in the earths atmosphere, for example: aurorae, gengenschein, counterglow, astronomical objects, high altitude energy discharges and lightning. Although these aren't 'mysterious', I shall run through the explanations for these effects (concisely) and maybe how they were found out, because it may help us in our search for an explanation for the lights that we can't explain currently! 4)Lighting effects. Although we can explain the effect of lightning (just), there are still some lightning related phenomena that we don't understand. These are: Volcanic lightning, ball lightning, and sprites and blue jets. Volcanic lightning. This is simply lightning that occurs in volcanic eruptions. I shall provide some links to other sites that deal with this, as I know very little about it. Sprites/blue jets. These are discharges that occur above lightning storms, and were only discovered very recently. They HAVE been explained, but because the science is extremely new, it is still slightly vague. I shall discuss the theory briefly, and provide some links to sights that deal specifically with this subject. Ball lightning. This is the one that we are more interested in, because the effect observed is VERY similar to earth light sightings, with one minor difference. Ball lightning is, as the name suggests, balls of lightning produced in a thunderstorm. They usually occur after intense flashes of lightning, and are usually described as 'balls of fire' 1-100cm large, and not usually lasting more than a few seconds. These balls have very similar properties to earth lights, except ball lightning tends to explode rather violently. They may have exactly the same process going on behind them, except that the power involved in ball lightning is much greater. An example of ball lightning: 5)Earthquake lights. Earthquake lights were included in the synonyms for earth lights, but deserve their own explanation for reasons that shall become apparent. Earthquake lights are lights that are observed during earthquakes near the faults involved. What is interesting is they can take on exactly the same characteristics as earth lights, it's just that these are earth lights occuring during earthquakes! This is extremely interesting because the two major theories of earth lights both say that earth lights occur due to faults in the earths crust! Thus, you can see the relevance to earthquakes. It is apparent that as the vast majority of earth lights aren't observed during earthquakes (for example in Britain, where we very rarely even get earthquakes), however it should be noted that these theories have been put forward because it has been noticed that earth lights almost always occur where there is some type of fault (major or minor) in the ground nearby! This means that we (may) need just as many geologists as chemists/physicians working on an explanation for earth lights! Here's a link: http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/eyewit.html. Earthquake Lights. An eye-witness account of earthquake lights. As you can see, I am using the term 'earth lights' in two different contexts: 1)As a general term for many different types of unexplained lights, & 2)As a specific term for lights that have the properties listed above. As many of these lights seem related, I shall cover them all on this page, but I shall specialize in 'earth lights' and 'will-o'-the-wisps'. I shall therefore try to use the term 'earth lights' in it's specific sense only. ------------------------------------------------------ The Most Famous Cases. The three most famous cases of earth lights are: Hessdalen Valley Lights. Hessdalen Valley, Norway. The Longdendale Lights. At Glossop, Derbyshire, U.K. The Marfa Lights. Marfa, Texas, U.S.A. Hessdalen Valley Lights. Hessdalen is a 12km long valley in mid-Norway, about 30km NW of Røros. The phenomena of lights in the valley started about 1981. The area has become famous as one of the only decent places where proper scientific research has been carried out, by a team at Østfold College, led by Erling Strand MSc.EE. The lights started unexpectedly, and with no apparent reason. They appeared just about anywhere in the valley, including by peoples homes, although they were mainly to be seen just underneath the ridges of the nearby mountains. For reasons unknown, the lights generally occurred more at night time, and in winter (it should be noted that winters in Norway are usually mainly night time, so this would probably be the reason!). The lights that appeared seemed to take on many different shapes, including spheres and cones. They also had practically any colour, although the main ones observed were white/yellowish-white. There were two other distinct types of light recorded in the valley, mainly bluish 'flashes' and conglomerations of three or more lights stuck in a shape (usually a triangle) containing two yellow/white lights, and one red. The lights are continuing to appear, and as far as I know, the research is still going on. See http://www.hiof.no/crulp/prosjekter/hessdalen/index.html for more info. The Longdendale Lights. The High Peak in Derbyshire gives rise to one of the greatest earth lights sites in the U.K.. The 'Longdendale Lights' have been witnessed for centuries in Longdendale valley itself (along which the A628 runs) and the surrounding area (E.g. Hayfield, a few miles south). Here there are crags and hills with names such as 'Shining Clough', and 'Lantern Pike'. In fact there are many tales of women who carry lantern in the night (for example 'Meg O' Th' Lantern', and 'Peggy Wit' Th' Lantern'). The lights are generally called 'Devil's Bonfires' by the people of the valley. In this name you can see the echoes of the old fear that the lights used to present to local folk. There is the well recounted tale of the lights seen by the Crowden Youth Hostel in 1982, which has even made T.V.! One local resident tells of how he's seen the lights in the area (which contains 'Shining Clough') over 30 times in the 16 years he's been living there. See this page for more info. The Marfa Lights. The Marfa lights are the most famous unexplained lights in America. Occuring in the Chianti mountains that surround the small town of Marfa, the lights attract thousands of tourists a year. Although they have been debunked by most scientists as car headlights on the nearby highway, I feel that this is a little harsh, as some of the photos clearly show the lights ascending vertically, and I have never seen a car do that! Whatever, the local people tend to account the lights to spirits of the dead, as is fairly common in america for some reason (indian graves, slaughtered railroad men, tragic family deaths, the list is endless!). Usually these lights are of the yellowish orb variety, the most common form of earth lights. The Marfa lights have actually been observed for over a hundred years now, and so the car-light theory goes even more out of the window, because there were only a handful of cars at around 1900. Still, the Marfa lights are well followed on the internet, and the best page would probably have to be the 'official' one at www.marfalights.com (see below). http://www.MarfaLights.com. The 'official' Marfalights homepage. Plenty of information for tourists, and a video of the suspected lights.
Copyright (C) 2001Dr. Sten Odenwald