Weird Things in the Attic

Written by NASA Astronomer Dr. Sten Odenwald

Astronomy Cafe

I have always been attracted to strange and unusual events in the world around me ever since I was an impressionable child reading science fiction, UFO literature and everything I could lay my hands on about ESP. My family is from Sweden, and there are many 'stories' in my family of weird events and hauntings. As a scientist who is afraid of the dark, I still find myself drawn to these subjects, but in a more controlled way. One of my two favorite books which I still read from time to time, are William Corliss's Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena, and Frank Edwards Stranger than Science. As a scientist, Corliss's book is a great read, and combined with other things I have run across in my research life, it really puts me in a very 'altered' frame of mind sometimes.

Anyway, here on this page are some of my favorite 'mysteries' studied with my usual scientific approach to anything I encounter that seems out-of-place. Hope you enjoy my musings! I have tried to capture the history of each phenomenon and in some cases how science has 'closed out' these mysteries or actually incorporated them into even more refined understandings of the physical world. It is this latter part of the journey that I fully enjoy. How many other of the mysteries in my list will also join the ranks of the known in the near future? Here is my personal ranking of the status of each phenomeno:

SOLVED:This means that scientists now have a complete answer for the phenomenon and no longer consider it either supernatural, or part of some New Physics to be learned. It's just old physics in a new package.

ACCEPTED: This means that scientists at least accept that this phenomenon can occur, but are still trying to understand how it fits into our current framework of science. They may have explanations for a few examples but perhaps not all of the accounts that are known or have been witnessed.

INCOMPLETE: The phenomenon has been so poorly documented, or is surrounded by so much folklore, that it is hard to identify if there really is something physical going on or not. Meanwhile, scientists have their careers full of more concrete phenomena that have far better data, so progress in understanding this phenomenon will take considerable effort, especially in quantifying what is going on and not relying exclusively on 'eyewitness' anecdotal evidence which is known even in a court of law to be unreliable. Scientists may have offered explanations, but they do not seem to apply to all examples of the phenomenon at least if you ask the 'believers'.

When people are unfamiliar with the night sky, it is common to misidentify a number of perfectly natural, though physically obscure, phenomena. here are a hundred FAQs I have received at Ask the Astronomer from people that think they have seen something unusual in the sky, and wonder what it might have been:

Strange Sky Sightings FAQs


Rocks from the Sky

Status: SOLVED! This phenomenon always used to get people worked up and excited. Up until the mid-1800's scientists scoffed at the idea that rocks could fall from the sky. It wasn't until the mid-1900's that the Berringer Crater in Arizona was proved to be a meteor impact crater! Notes


Ball Lightning

Status: ACCEPTED! For hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands, witnesses have sworn that they were beset by luminous balls of light that bounce around and vanished, sometimes with a bang. By the late 1900's, ball lightning is an accepted natural phenomenon. In some circles it has became the 'rage' of the physics community. Notes

Singing Sands

Status: SOLVED! William Corliss reports in his book that there are several places in the world (one in Nevada) where sands move and cause musical or 'booming' sounds. In recent years, scientists finally discovered how the sands 'sing'. If you should hear sands sing on some remote dune, I bet you'll still feel like you are in the presence of something mysterious and sublime Notes

Spook Lights

Status: INCOMPLETE They are usually globes of light seen after sunset on long stretches of railroad track, or dark narrow country roads. Their descriptions are so cloaked in spooky ghost stories and anecdotes that it is hard to make sense of what is going on. Still, if I ever saw one of these on a dark back road, I would probably scream and run the other way!! Notes

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Status: INCOMPLETE: Stories about people that literally go up in smoke have been around for years. Will you be the next victim after you read this page? Scientists still can't make heads or tails of what's going on. Has everybody gone completely wacko in reporting these incidents, or is there really something to them? The Skeptical View

Lightning Sprites and Elves

Status: ACCEPTEDMariners and other people who spend time outside during thunder storms have sometimes reported seeing a flash of light from the top side of a thunderhead cloud streaking away from Earth. Thanks to modern technology, 'sprites' are now the subject of some exciting research into plasma physics. Notes

Flying Saucers

Status: INCOMPLETE. People have been reporting strange things in the sky for centuries. Today, we get even more reports because the average person is no longer attuned to nature, so everything looks 'strange' even cloud formations and meteors.


Status: INCOMPLETE. I used to like this subject, but these days it is so bogged down in nonsence that you can't separate the cream from the milk.


Status: INCOMPLETE Big Foot, Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, is there anything to these stories? Well...scientists did find Coelacanth 'living fossils' off the coast of Africa, so perhaps there are other surprises 'out there'...or perhaps not!