Monday, September 22, 2014

UFOs in Portsmouth?

I'm quoted in the Portsmouth News and the Daily Mail this week commenting on a UFO (unidentified flying object) seen in Portsmouth. I sent my comments in an email to Portsmouth News reporter. What was printed in the story was this: 

' Given that the pictures show a dark object against a daytime sky it's clearly not an astronomical object. Many "UFO sightings" are actually the planet Venus, but this one can't be that.  
The distances in space are so vast that it's just not possible for aliens to be visiting Earth, so any interpretation suggesting this is an alien spacecraft is clearly wrong. '

So what were these statements based on? Here's some more extended explanation I sent to the reporter about the vastness of space: 

The nearest star is more than 3 light years away - meaning it would take more than 3 years to make the trip even at the speed of light. Most stars which are visible in the night sky are within about 1000 light years of Earth. That's considered close on astronomical scales, and that's a distance which takes 1000 years to travel even at the speed of light. 

 Most people don't understand just how fast the speed of light is. If they look at the length of one of their arms, light travels that length in 1 nano second (1 billionth of a second). It travels the distance between the Earth and the Moon (which took the Apollo astronauts 3 days to cover) in just over 1 second, and reaches the outer edge of our Solar System in about 5 hours (a spacecraft has been on its way there from Earth since 2006 and is only just arriving). 

 Light travels at about 10 million times faster than the typical speed a jumbo jet. 

 In order to make a spacecraft travel even close to the speed of light would take vast quantities of energy - many many many times more than any energy source we are aware of (including carrying entire stars along with you to power your spacecraft). 

Supposing you could accelerate your spacecraft fast enough - then any collision between such an object and even a microscopic piece speck of rock in space would cause it to explode. 

 Physics really tells us that interstellar travel is just not possible, despite how much fun the stories and films about it are. 

Here's the picture of the #pompeyufo people were sharing online. I still think it looks like a cloud based on this picture! 
People might (and do) object to these statements about it not being physically possible for aliens to visit Earth. In Science Fiction new physics is invented to get around the problems. The most famous example is warp drive (e.g. in Star Trek) which gets around this by warping space time so that the distance between two places is made much smaller. My problem with invoking this is that we might as well then invoke magic. We can imagine ways to bend our current knowledge of physics to get around the speed limit of light, but it doesn't mean it's actually going to be possible. The energy source is I think the biggest stumbling block - it's not like we just need to find something with a bit more energy than rocket fuel, it's something with billions and billions of times more energy, and which doesn't immediately disintegrate us at the same time! 

 If you are keen on aliens, the positive news about the size of the Universe is that there are so many stars in the Universe I find it implausible to believe we're the only life in it, but the sad thing is that the distances between stars, let alone between galaxies are so vast, that I also find it implausible to believe that any civilisation would/will ever be able to work out a way to travel between them. 

And if they did I think the last thing they would do is to buzz Portsmouth, UK and then disappear without trace. 

I still think it's a cloud. 

Update 24th Sept: I was wrong about it being a cloud - the whole thing was faked as a publicity stunt for a SciFi event happening this weekend in Portsmouth. 


  1. Someone on Twitter (@TheVixxster) tweeted me this morning claiming the whole thing was faked to raise interest in a SciFi conference happening in Portsmouth this weekend. Guess I was wrong that it looked like a cloud. @TheVixxster claims the image was photoshopped by @Matthometown.

    1. My mistake - @TheVixxster points out she did not say @Matthometown did the photoshopping, just that he knows more about it. Certainly more than I do!

  2. With our current technology -- today -- right now -- if only we had the financial incentive to do so, we are capable of building staged fission and fusion propulsion systems which could propel a ship to the nearest star-systems, and then return it to Earth, all in less than the average life-span of a human being. Do you happen to have a spare few billion pounds sterling you wouldn't mind parting with? Because, if you did, we could start in on that project first thing tomorrow morning. Seriously, yes. We could do that -- today -- right now. But, there's just no way that any possible alien species, which might belong to a civilization perhaps as much as a billion years, or more, older than our own could ever develop a means of deep-space travel significantly beyond our current abilities, and discover means for effectively dealing with and getting around everything that presents itself as a problem to our primitive technologies, huh?

    All of your arguments would be absolutely equally as valid, and equally as logically sound, had you made them back in the 1920's about the possibility of traveling to the moon. You know? Right at the same time that Professor A. W. Bickerton of Canterbury College was making pretty much all of the same arguments in support of why man would absolutely never, ever travel to the moon using rockets as a means of propulsion? It may surprise you to discover that, as it turned out, Professor Bickerton was wrong.

    Tell me: Did NASA engineers 'invoke magic' in order to come up with ingenious solutions which very effectively got around all of the, at the time seemingly insurmountable problems, that Prof. Bickerton had previously foreseen and pointed out?

    By the way, do you know what Prof. Bickerton said about those crazy enough to speculate on the impossibly fanciful notion of future rocket flights to the moon? He said:

    "This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd length to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists working in thought-tight compartments."

    Except that, of course, less than half a century after he said that, we did exactly what he claimed would always be impossible.

    Let me wrap up by leaving another quote -- one of great wisdom, this time:

    "If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, [s]he is almost certainly right; but if [s]he says that it is impossible, [s]he is very probably wrong."- Arthur C. Clarke

    There's great wisdom and great truth in that statement. ...And, I'm not sure why anyone would ever want to be 'very probably wrong.'

    1. I don't agree the argument was valid for discussing travel to the Moon in the 1920s. The leap from trains, and early flight in the 1920s to being able to send a rocket to the Moon is many many orders of magnitude less than the leap needed between our current tiny tiptoes into spaceflight and interstellar travel.

      For interstellar travel we either need to spend thousands of years enroute, and/or use an almost infinite energy source, along with magic protection for interstellar dust, or a magic method to bend space time (which also needs almost infinite energy).

  3. Story about the people behind faking the above "UFO" picture: