Seventy years of UFOs

Fortean Times 355

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s seminal UFO encounter, on 24 June 1947. That was the event that gave rise to the term “flying saucer”, and kicked off a media frenzy that led to copycat sightings around the world … and a whole new subgenre of science fiction. As such I devoted several pages to Arnold’s sighting and its repercussions in my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year.

The Kenneth Arnold sighting also provides the central theme of the latest issue of Fortean Times, pictured above (FT355, July 2017). To my surprise, I received three extra copies of this last week – something that puzzled me until I looked at the contents and discovered there was a six-page article by myself in it. I actually wrote this (and submitted it to FT) at the beginning of last year, before I’d even had the idea of writing the Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. In fact it was while writing the article – about the pulp magazine editors Ray Palmer and John W. Campbell, and the way they blurred the boundary between science fiction and fortean-style non-fiction speculation – that I realized I could write a whole book on that sort of thing. Although the magazine article (called “Astounding Science, Amazing Theories!”) took such a long time to appear, it does fit the theme of this particular issue very neatly – including a couple of references to the Kenneth Arnold sighting and Ray Palmer’s role in publicising it.

The main Arnold-related article, however, is not mine but one by Nigel Watson. Called “Was it a bird? Was it a plane?”, this focuses on other potential explanations of the sighting besides the extraterrestrial hypothesis – in particular the possibility that the objects Arnold saw were saucer-shaped or flying-wing style military aircraft. Arnold was flying a light aircraft himself at the time, and Jenny Randles has a one-page piece in her “UFO Casebook” column about other similar aircraft-based UFO sightings. The Kenneth Arnold links don’t stop there, either. The magazine’s lead feature, by Brian J. Robb, is about the conspiracy theorist Fred Crisman – who had connections with Kenneth Arnold, Ray Palmer … and the hollow-Earth theorist Richard Shaver, who also features quite prominently in my own article. In passing I also mention L. Ron Hubbard (who started out as a protégé of Palmer’s upmarket rival, John W. Campbell) – and there’s a link there, too, since the “Building a Fortean Library” column in this issue happens to feature a classic biography of Hubbard.

So there are plenty of reasons to buy this month’s issue of Fortean Times – and my article is just one of them!

Hot Science

Hot Science - Destination Mars
Icon Books’ Autumn catalogue includes the first two titles in a new series called Hot Science. I’m very pleased (and honoured) that one of these is by me – Destination Mars, pictured above. The other title is Big Data, pictured below, by Brian Clegg.

As the catalogue says, “Hot Science is a new series exploring the cutting-edge of science and technology … for popular science fans who like to go that little bit deeper.”

Here is the back-cover blurb from Destination Mars:

When the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon in 1969, many people imagined Mars would be next. Half a century later, only robots have been to the Red Planet and our astronauts rarely venture beyond Earth orbit.

Now, Mars is back. With everyone from Elon Musk to Ridley Scott and Donald Trump talking about it, interplanetary exploration is back on the agenda and Mars is once again the prime destination for future human expansion and colonisation.

In Destination Mars, astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May traces the history of our fascination with the Red Planet and explores the science upon which a crewed Mars mission would be based, from assembling a spacecraft in Earth orbit to surviving solar storms. With expert insight he analyses the new space race and assesses what the future holds for human life on Mars.

Destination Mars is published on 6 July 2017, followed by Big Data on 3 August 2017.

Hot Science - Big Data

Freaky Times

Freaky Times
If there really was a magazine called Freaky Times, I’d buy it – especially if it only cost £1.50, which is the price tag on the one pictured above. Actually this is a screenshot from a recent video game called Barrow Hill: The Dark Path , which I bought after seeing a full-page advertisement for it in last month’s Fortean Times (a magazine that bears an uncanny stylistic resemblance to Freaky Times – or perhaps it’s the other way around).

The original Barrow Hill game came out ten years ago, and I found it enjoyable to play but nothing really special. That’s essentially my verdict on this belated sequel, too. It’s probably slightly more fun than the original, with more immersive graphics and more interesting characters. The style is reminiscent of Jonathan Boakes’s Dark Fall series, or Daniel Peach’s Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting which I wrote about last year . But those games have fascinatingly original storylines and vast, intriguing settings to explore, while the Barrow Hill games are shorter, with more mundane locations and a plot not too different from a hundred other games you can find on Steam. But if you like first-person adventure games (as I do) and wacky New Age weirdness (as I do) then you’ll enjoy playing Barrow Hill: The Dark Path anyway.

The main developer behind the Barrow Hill games is Matt Clark of Shadow Tor studios, but Jonathan Boakes’s name also crops up several times in the end credits. In fact he seems to have been the one behind the Freaky Times mock-up pictured above (and there’s another shot of it below). After a bit of Googling I found this post on his blog, which describes the design as “a little nod to the Fortean Times”. And right at the bottom of the cover he’s slipped in a reference to the “Dowerton ghosts”, from his own Dark Fall games!

Freaky Times

Shortwave Nostalgia

Lafayette HA-350
Here is one of the most prized possessions of my high-school years – a Lafayette HA-350 amateur band receiver. In the days before home computers, amateur radio was a popular pastime among nerdy teenagers – right up there with reading comic-books (in fact, early issues of Marvel Comics featured occasional appearances by a group of young “radio hams” called the Teen Brigade). Nowadays, amateur radio is recognized as a valid educational activity – with, for example , astronauts on the ISS regularly using it to make contact with schools all round the world. That’s an opportunity I would have loved to have had – but as it was, teachers in those days tended to look down on amateur radio, just as they did on comic books, as a waste of kids’ time.

I didn’t have enough perspective at the time to dispute that view. In hindsight, however, it really is a very educational pastime. I had a map of the world on my wall with pins in it showing all the countries I’d listened to – giving me a much better understanding of geography than most teenagers have. I didn’t have a licence to transmit – you had to understand Morse code for that – but I was an avid listener and a member of the International Short Wave League (my membership ID was G-14007 – I was very pleased with the “007” part). Amongst other things, the ISWL ran a QSL bureau, through which radio hams would send you cards acknowledging reception reports you sent them.

Here are a few examples. To start with, four countries I bet most teenagers in 1972-3 wouldn’t even have been able to find on a map – Monaco, San Marino, U.A.E. and Oman:

QSL cards Monaco Oman etc
Now for some DX (i.e. long-distance) countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Australia and Malaysia (in these days of satellites and the internet, it’s easy to forget that radio waves normally travel in a straight line – so hearing someone on the other side of the planet is an impressive feat):

QSL cards DX
In geopolitical terms, the period we’re talking about was the height of the Cold War – but as a shortwave listener, I had no difficulty hearing both sides of the east-west divide. Here are two cards each from the USA and the USSR:

QSL cards USA USSR
It was in the context of shortwave listening that I first saw my name in print – with an SWL report in the September 1973 issue of Practical Wireless magazine (reproduced below). The YV5 prefix that appears three times in this list refers to Venezuela, while 4X and 4Z are both Israel. The last two are from Africa – 5U is Niger and 6W is Senegal. In the course of 1973 I heard no fewer than 303 different prefixes – as you can see from my entry in the “ladder” printed in Short Wave Magazine in March 1974.

SWL magazines 1973

Lunar Research

Moon books and films
About a year ago I did a couple of posts on my old blog (here and here) showing some of the books and DVDs I had the pleasure of “researching” for my Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. Now I’m working on the follow-up. It’s not really a sequel, except that it’s for the same publisher and involves a similar mix of science fiction and real science (though no pseudoscience this time).

The general subject will be easy enough to guess from the “research” materials pictured above. My book is going to have a Unique Selling Point … but I don’t want to divulge that until its finished!

HMS Soyuz

Black ArrowWhen I first started reading about space travel, as a child in the 1960s, it was “common knowledge” that Britain would be the third country to launch a human into orbit, after the Soviet Union and the United States. In hindsight, I guess this extrapolated from the fact that we were the third to explode an atom bomb (in 1952) and a hydrogen bomb (in 1957). But when it came to spaceflight, the British government just wasn’t in the same kind of rush it was with nuclear weapons.

We did manage to launch an unmanned satellite using purely indigenous technology – the Black Arrow rocket, which put the Prospero satellite into orbit in October 1971. But that wasn’t third, behind just the Soviets and the Americans – it was sixth, after the French, Japanese and Chinese as well. And it was a one-off – the next Black Arrow to come off the production line never left the ground. It’s on display in the Science Museum in London, as you can see in the above photograph (the picture shows just the upper stage and payload shroud – the latter being partially open, which is why the rocket looks slightly bent).

Several British-born astronauts have been into space, starting with Helen Sharman in 1991. But until very recently, they all did so with the blessing (and investment) of someone other than Her Majesty’s Government. It was only in December 2015 that the first truly British-sponsored astronaut – Major Tim Peake of the European Space Agency – made it into orbit. Of course, that doesn’t detract from the fact that Major Tim is a true British hero (or a true European hero, if the word “British” is too jingoistic these days). He’s even set to get a couple of mentions in my next book. I’ll provide more detail about it in a future blog post, but for the moment I’ll just say that it’s on a spaceflight-related subject, and it’s due to be published by Icon Books this summer.

As of last month, the Soyuz capsule that carried Tim Peake to and from the International Space Station is also on display in the Science Museum, on the same floor as the Black Arrow rocket. I went to see it yesterday, and a couple of views of it can be seen in the picture below. This wasn’t the first time I’d come face to face with a Soyuz re-entry module – I saw one at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow in 1997. But I’d forgotten how tiny (and vaguely Victorian-looking) they are!

Tim Peake's Soyuz

As reviewed in Fortean Times

Pseudoscience review
The latest issue of Fortean Times (FT350, February 2017) contains David Clarke’s great review of my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction. It’s the first time any of my books has been reviewed in that magazine – or in any printed, as opposed to online, media for that matter. But it was worth the wait – David describes the book as “excellent” and gives it a score of 9 out of 10. I’ve put a teaser of his review in the picture above, but you’ll have to buy the magazine to read the whole thing – or better still, just buy my book!

Actually it’s a big relief to see a good review in FT, as that’s pretty much the book’s target audience. In other words people who are fascinated by wacky ideas like UFOs, ESP and conspiracy theories, but with a sense of amused detachment rather than a passionately pro- or anti- attitude – seeing them as popular entertainment on a par with science fiction. I’ve been reading FT on a regular basis since 1993, and I’ve still got every issue I’ve ever bought. That huge collection may take up a lot of space, but it was invaluable when I was researching this book – Fortean Times is mentioned no fewer than 55 times in its 180 pages!

Two of the regular features in this current issue focus on subjects covered in my book. David Hambling’s excellent science column on page 16 has all the latest news about the EmDrive – an alleged “reactionless” propulsion device which I discussed in Chapter 6: Space Drives and Anti-gravity. Whether it proves to be pseudoscience or real science (hopefully the latter), the EmDrive certainly follows in the footsteps of countless science-fictional space drives.

Then on pages 52 to 53, the “Building a Fortean Library” feature focuses on the Shaver Mystery of the 1940s, with its mind-controlling subterranean super-beings. I covered that in some depth in Chapter 3: High-Tech Paranoia – along with such topics as shapeshifting reptilians and the strange world of Philip K. Dick.

Photographing the Moon

Closeup of Vallis Alpes region

About six months ago I got interested in photographing the Moon, and I’ve been posting some of the results on Facebook. Mostly I’ve used a simple telescope webcam, which can produce high-resolution images of relatively localized areas such as the one above (showing the lunar north pole at the top and the Alpine Valley at the bottom, with the craters Aristoteles and Eudoxus to the east of it). Then a few days ago I posted a wider field of view using a DSLR on the same telescope, and Rhodri Evans asked how that compared with using the DSLR with its own lens.

That prompted me to try a few tests last night (with the Moon at first quarter). For anyone who may have just stumbled across this blog, I should stress that I know almost nothing about astrophotography, so please don’t take this as “best practice” advice. On the other hand, it does give an idea what a beginner can achieve with bottom-of-the-market equipment (I’ll give details of the hardware and software at the end of the post).

To start with, here is a picture of the Moon taken through the 75-300 mm lens that came with the camera. This uses the highest zoom (300 mm) at f/16, 1/250 second exposure, ISO-800 (settings visually optimized using Live View). It’s the sort of picture anyone with a DSLR could take.

Moon with DSLR

Now here’s a single frame taken with the same camera attached to the telescope (i.e. effectively using the telescope as a long telephoto lens). My telescope has a focal length of 600 mm, but I used a 2x Barlow lens as well, which doubled the focal length to 1200 mm (i.e. four times the camera’s own lens). The telescope aperture is 120 mm, which I guess makes it f/10, and again I used a 1/250 exposure and ISO-800.

Moon with DSLR and telescope

I also took a short movie (20 seconds, 500 frames) using the same settings, and stacked the result into a single image using Autostakkert. The result is a definite improvement (I tried the same trick with the camera-only shot, but in that case it made things worse).

Stacked image with DSLR and telescope

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of those three photos. The telescope is an improvement on the camera alone, but stacking is what really works the magic.

Comparison of Moon photos

As I said at the start, I normally use a small astronomical webcam to capture images, because it’s so easy to use. Optically this is identical to attaching the DSLR to the telescope (aperture 120 mm, focal length 1200mm with the 2x Barlow lens), but the field of view is much smaller because the sensor array is tiny (4.8 mm rather than 22.3 mm). For the same reason the image drifts across the screen more quickly (I don’t have a tracking mount), so I only have time to grab a 10-second video, or 300 frames at 30 fps. Nevertheless the results – such as the example at the top of this post – are impressive after stacking in Autostakkert.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of that picture with the same area seen in the single-frame DSLR+telescope and DSLR-alone images:

Comparison of Moon detail

For reference, my telescope is a Skywatcher Startravel-120 refractor on an equatorial mount, which cost me £389. There are plenty of other good telescopes available around this price. The webcam is a ZWO ASI120MC, which at around £170 is pretty much the cheapest astronomical camera on the market. Similarly my DSLR is from the bottom of the market – a Canon EOS 100D, which I got complete with two zoom lenses for just £379.

The ZWO camera came with two pieces of software – SharpCap for capturing videos and Autostakkert for stacking – but they’re both freely available online (here and here respectively). In the examples shown here, I used GIMP (also free) to crop, rotate and contrast-enhance the images.

Space-Age Nostalgia


Here are two items I bought in W. H. Smith’s recently. The first is a special (and very expensive) issue of the BBC Sky at Night magazine about the Apollo missions, and the second (a much better deal at the same price) is a repackaging of a 2008 Discovery Channel series about NASA spaceflights from Mercury to the Shuttle, together with another magazine. Presumably both items were put out for the Christmas gift market – mainly as a nostalgic treat for people of my generation, I guess, although it would be nice to think some youngsters are interested in the subject too.

I learned quite a lot from both items, particularly about the earlier and later missions. Although I was always interested in space, it was only in a vague, general way up until the Apollo 8 mission. That happened shortly after my 11th birthday, and it was the first one I really got drawn into – in the sense that I knew the astronauts’ names and avidly followed every little phase of the mission. This really intense awareness continued through Apollos 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, but then started to get murky again after that point.

Not for the obvious reason, though. You might think, “well, of course, everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions” – but that wasn’t it at all. I’ve got files of newspaper clippings I carefully cut out about Apollos 14 to 17, as well as Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz test project. I’ve got some photos and fact sheets about Skylab that I sent off to NASA for (as well as another batch about Apollo from a few years earlier). But I never absorbed the huge amounts of information about those later missions that I did for Apollo 8-13 – for the simple reason that the information just wasn’t there to be absorbed.

In the early 70s Britain only had three TV channels, and they were all in the “general entertainment” category. There were no purely factual channels, no 24-hour news channels … and of course no internet. The TV gave blanket coverage to things like Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, but later missions had to compete for airtime with soap operas, sports, comedy shows and the like. Key space events were still covered – live – but they had a frustrating tendency to happen when you were at school, or otherwise indisposed. People didn’t have video recorders in those days.

So it’s an over-simplification to say that “everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions”. It was the mainstream media that lost interest – and in the 1970s, that was the only kind of media there was. We’re so much luckier today!

Pseudoscience and Science Fiction


My most recent book was published by Springer a couple of months ago, although for some reason they’ve given it a copyright date of 2017. It’s called Pseudoscience and Science Fiction and it’s part of their ongoing Science and Fiction series. Aimed at “science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans”, the series encompasses both fiction and non-fiction, with the latter primarily looking at how “real” science is featured in science fiction.

But what about the pseudoscience in science fiction? I felt there was a gap in the market that needed to be filled, particularly given the numerous overlaps between pseudoscientific beliefs and popular SF tropes. I had great fun researching this, and Pseudoscience and Science Fiction is the result. Here is the publisher’s blurb (I had nothing to do with the last paragraph!):

Aliens, flying saucers, ESP, the Bermuda Triangle, antigravity … are we talking about science fiction or pseudoscience? Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.

Both pseudoscience and science fiction are creative endeavours that have little in common with academic science, beyond the superficial trappings of jargon and subject matter. The most obvious difference between the two is that pseudoscience is presented as fact, not fiction. Yet like SF, and unlike real science, pseudoscience is driven by a desire to please an audience – in this case, people who “want to believe”. This has led to significant cross-fertilization between the two disciplines. SF authors often draw on “real” pseudoscientific theories to add verisimilitude to their stories, while on other occasions pseudoscience takes its cue from SF – the symbiotic relationship between ufology and Hollywood being a prime example of this.

This engagingly written, well researched and richly illustrated text explores a wide range of intriguing similarities and differences between pseudoscience and the fictional science found in SF.

Pseudoscience and Science Fiction has its own page on the main website, but here are some Amazon links (the “look inside” preview is particularly generous, if you want to get a flavour of the content and style of the book):