Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Shadow Chasing

I recently got back from a more than two thousand mile trip, from San Diego up to Rexburg, Idaho, near Idaho Falls. The reason, of course, was to observe the Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017. It was the first time I'd actually seen a total eclipse. Way back when I was a student at Northwestern, my buddy and I took a Greyhound bus from Chicago to the Florida panhandle, near Tallahassee, to see the total solar eclipse of March 7, 1970. We got there with a few hours to spare, and found a park where lots of telescopes had been set up. Unfortunately, it was cloudy. We saw the shadow approaching on the clouds, we saw it get dark. We saw the edge of the shadow, we saw it get light again. And then we got back on the bus for the two day trip home.

As everyone knew, for this eclipse hotel rooms and campgrounds anywhere near the path of totality were long sold out. A few rooms, the kind that would normally go for about $75, were offered at $400, $600, or more. We ended up sleeping in our cars, as planned, for just one night. We found a nice temporary eclipse campsite set up on private land, with porta-potties (the most important concern!). We looked at the map in Fred Espenak's Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017. As best we could tell, we were sitting right on top the eclipse's center line. One fellow consulted some high-precision NASA eclipse map, then his GPS, and announced we were one-quarter mile south of the exact center. He proposed to walk up there to observe the eclipse right on the center line. I replied that this was close enough for me. The duration of the total phase would be 2 minutes, 18 seconds.
And closer....
Rexburg, Idaho: totality is getting close...

Ta-da!!!! The solar corona is clearly visible. The star Regulus is seen near the bottom, at left.

And this time, the weather in Idaho was just perfect on eclipse day. I set up an Orion SkyScanner 100mm Dobsonian scope with a Thousand Oaks solar filter, which gave crisp images of the partially eclipsed sun. The solar filter comes off during totality, and I saw extremely fine detail in the solar corona. I had the impression I was seeing some sort of bizarre neon display, such was the color and texture of the corona. The star Regulus was conspicuous, twinkling rapidly. Then I moved over to the Canon 20d DSLR camera, and snapped these photos using a 200mm zoom lens.

Solar prominences are visible at the top just as totality is ending, and we see the "Diamond ring".

So far as I am aware, nobody reported seeing any UFOs during totality, unlike the major total solar eclipse in Mexico City in 1991 (see chapter 21 of my book UFO Sightings). As soon as totality had ended (third contact), I heard vehicles starting and quickly driving off. They were trying to beat the expected heavy traffic. We stayed until the eclipse had actually ended; very few others did that. We could see highway US 20 from our campsite, and the southbound direction, toward Idaho Falls, quickly became congested, traffic practically at a standstill. It remained that way for about two hours. When we saw that traffic was moving again, we got on the road, but encountered more congestion on the way to Idaho Falls, where we stopped to eat dinner. 

Idaho Falls

After taking a little tour of the park by the falls, we got on I-15 heading south. The closest hotel reservation I could get at a normal price for that evening was in Tremonton, Utah, just south of the Idaho state line. The drive from Idaho Falls normally takes about two hours. That evening, it took six.

Actually, Tremonton, Utah was the site of a classic UFO film. On July 2, 1952, a  Navy Warrant Officer named Delbert C. Newhouse got a 16mm Kodachrome film of "About a dozen shiny disk like objects" that were "milling around the sky in a rough formation."  Project Blue Book reached no definite conclusion about it.  “All they had to say was, ‘We don’t know what they are but they aren’t aircraft or balloons, and we don’t think they are birds.'   William K. Hartmann concluded in the Condon Report (case 49) that 

The visual observations and film are not satisfactorily explained in terms of aircraft, radar chaff, or insects, or balloons though the films alone are consistent with birds. Observations of birds near Tremonton indicate that the objects are birds, and the case cannot be said to establish the existence of extraordinary aircraft. 
I didn't see any flocks of birds around Tremonton, but I suspect Dr. Hartmann is correct, although many UFOlogists today would disagree.

 Eclipse watchers: Brent Beckett, Shawn Carlson, Keña Castañeda, and Yours Truly.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

MUFON Unravels

A few years ago, MUFON - the largest UFO group in the U.S., and probably the world - seemed to be riding high. Its motto is, "The scientific study of UFOs for the benefit of humanity."  Its TV show Hangar 1 on the "History" Channel was attracting attention and new members, in spite of being soundly denounced for its sensationalism by practically every serious student of UFOlogy. Today, MUFON has hit a very rough patch, and seems to be skidding out of control.
This year's problems began with a big controversy over John Ventre, MUFON's Pennsylvania State Director. Ventre already had a reputation for not being the sharpest blade in the drawer, for example suggesting that Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared because it was abducted by extraterrestrials. In May Ventre posted some racist comments on social media, and when challenged on them, he did not back down. He instead went on a bizarre rant about how UFOs are actually "demonic" and claimed that the people who came out against his racist rant were in fact a conspiracy of atheists and ancient astronaut theorists who have been deceived into worshiping demons. At first MUFON director Jan Harzan disavowed all responsibility or concern for Ventre's postings on social media, despite the general consternation about them. Finally, Harzan wrote,
After discussion with MUFON Leadership it has been determined that it is in the best interest of both MUFON and Mr. Ventre that he be removed as State Director of Pennsylvania. This is effective immediately. MUFON does not condone racial discrimination in any form and has always provided equal opportunity to all regardless of race, religion, sex, age or national origin and will proudly continue to do so.
Ramtha, a  35,000 Year old Lemurian Warrior, is a MUFON Insider.
But Ventre still apparently remains as a member of MUFON's Inner Circle, another MUFON absurdity that has received absolutely no attention until just now.
The Inner Circle status is attained with a donation of $5,000 or more.  Whether you have had a UFO sighting or are just interested in UFOs, you are welcome to join. With your donation comes all of the perks and benefits offered by the title.

Inner Circle members provide advisory guidance to MUFON and are included in annual conference calls, attend private functions during the Symposium, and afforded reserved seating at MUFON events, and much more!

So that's it: all it takes to become a member of MUFON's Inner Circle is to contribute at least $5,000 a year. In addition to Harzan and Ventre, J. Z. Knight - famous for her supposed "channeling" of a  35,000 year old warrior from Lemuria named "Ramtha" - is also a member of MUFON's Inner Circle, and presumably provides "advisory guidance" to the organization. Knight has been accused of unleashing  "drunken racist homophobic rants" to her large following.

Another bone of contention was the blatantly unscientific and irrational content announced for MUFON's 2017 Symposium in Las Vegas, the "Case for a Secret Space Program." In the weeks leading up to the Symposium, rumors were flying about a supposed "disclosure announcement" that was supposed to occur in conjunction with the Symposium. Of course, nothing of the kind occurred.

Among the speakers was Bill Tompkins, who claims to have designed giant secret space ships that we have launched to defend against hostile Reptoid aliens; Corey Goode and Andrew Basiago, who claim to have been teleported to Mars; and Michael Salla who spoke about Nazi saucer bases in Antarctica. No halfway rational person could possibly take any of this seriously. Richard Dolan posted to Facebook a long and very diplomatic apologia for appearing on the same panel and stage with such obvious crackpots:
I want to make this point as clear as I can. My opinions (and yours, for that matter) don’t mean very much. What matters is the evidence that can be brought forward for these stories. I hold it as possible that there is something in these accounts that is true. After all, I believe that radical technology is being withheld from us. I believe the ARV [Alien Reproduction Vehicle] story and more. But if a story gives me no chance to confirm or deny its basic claims, then it’s essentially useless to me as a researcher.
(Yet Dolan had no reservations about participating in Jaime Maussan's absurd extravaganza promoting the Roswell Slides in 2015.)

This is from the website of Michael Salla, one of the speakers at this year's MUFON Symposium.
Rich Hoffman was MUFON's State Director for Alabama and Assistant Director for Mississippi. He has been a member of MUFON since the organization began in 1969. Without making any public statements, he resigned from those positions, as well as his staff-level position as MUFON's Director of Strategic Projects. When I asked him for his reasons, he cited the blatantly unscientific nature of this year's Symposium, and his concern that MUFON keeps moving farther away from genuine scientific investigations. MUFON should be concentrating on investigating fewer but better cases, he suggested, instead of casting a bigger net to drag in larger numbers of sightings of lights in the sky and other low-grade cases. Hoffman has a "real job" working for a defense contractor, and while he sometimes finds it difficult to justify his leadership position in an organization that investigates UFOs, he found it impossible to defend belonging to an organization suggesting that there is a "secret space program," and that people are being teleported to Mars.

James Clarkson, MUFON's Washington State Director,  wrote "With Regret - Why I Must Leave MUFON Completely." He cited MUFON's unwillingness to deal decisively with John Ventre's racist rant, the absurdity of having J.Z. Knight as a "MUFON Insider," and
long-term burnout and a growing sense that MUFON as a serious UFO investigative organization no longer exists. I suspect that I am not the only State Director suffering from a deep malaise while watching MUFON become an income-generating enterprise. The triggering event for me was the lack of an immediate dismissal of John Ventre from his State Directorship after his racist outburst on Facebook, or at least an immediate statement that Ventre’s comments were not acceptable coming from a leader of MUFON.
Robert Powell, MUFON's Director of "Scientific Research," while making no public statement, suddenly notified MUFON of his resignation just as this year's farcical Symposium was about to begin.  Powell's most recent major case was the promotion of an infrared video taken from an aircraft in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico in 2013. It now appears quite likely that the airborne objects caught on the IR video were hot air wedding lanterns. However, Powell and his colleagues dispute this identification.

Researcher Nick Redfern was labeled a "hater" by Harzan for objecting to Ventre's rant; Redfern then severed all ties with MUFON. Following all this, UFO researcher and filmmaker Paul Kimball wrote on his blog of the "complete implosion of MUFON."

When Harzan was interviewed on Kevin Randle's podcast,  he spoke of the need to balance the needs of the organization with fidelity to sources and scientific accuracy. In other words, MUFON's membership doesn't want to hear caveats and uncertainties - they want exciting stories about aliens, and they will drift away if they don't get them.

Actually, MUFON's problems go back quite a bit farther.  There is the matter concerning John Carpenter, a licensed clinical social worker who was MUFON's chief investigator of "UFO abductees,"performing hypnotic regressions of supposed abductees. The deal apparently involved Carpenter giving or "selling" his files on "abductees" he had hypnotized to multimillionaire investor Robert Bigelow in the late 1990s, files that were supposed to remain confidential. This generated much controversy when it was revealed. In 2008 and 2009,  Bigelow gave MUFON  about $345,000 to finance its "Star Team," intended to be a rapid-response team to travel to UFO "hotspots" as sightings break out, and hopefully capture UFOs in the act.  (Apparently Bigelow thought that information in MUFON's files would be helpful in his venture Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow "told Coast to Coast years ago that he hoped to imitate UFO propulsion systems in his own spacecraft.")  The deal quickly turned sour, although neither party has said much publicly about just what happened.  Researcher Norio Hayakawa has compiled a "look at the organization," questioning just what has become of all that (and other) money.

It is difficult to predict what the future holds for MUFON. Harzan is a businessman, and will do what he must to increase revenues. I suspect that we will see a lot more "retail UFOlogy" (bread and circuses for the crowd), and less "serious investigation" - of which there has been precious little of late.