Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Video on the History of and Evidence for the Aurora Steal Plane

January 24, 2023

Here’s a very short video on the American SR-92 Aurora stealth plane from the Future Machine Tech channel on YouTube. This suggests that Aurora was developed as a black project by the American air force in the 1980s as a replacement for the SR-91 Blackbird spy plane. During the ’90s there were sightings of mysterious UFOs dubbed ‘black triangles’ because of their shape and colour. The Aurora fits this description exactly, and many of the sightings of such UAPs may be of this mysterious, but definitely not extraterrestrial, aircraft. The video mentions a tracking image of it flying across the Pacific on its way to America, probably to touch down at the very top secret research base at Groom Lake, Area 51. The aircraft leaves a very distinctive contrail, which has ben described as ‘doughnuts on a rope’ and may have been tracked flying over Belgium according to an article back in the 90s in the defunct UFO Magazine. I’m putting this video up because I and some of the great commenters on this blog have an interest in UFOs, although we differ in our views of the phenomenon. Some UFO sightings are almost certainly of top secret military aircraft. Others are hoaxes, some of which may be perpetrated by the intelligence agencies for their own purposes, one of which may be the deliberate destabilisation and discrediting of UFO research groups and investigators. Some, as suggested by French-American astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee and the late journalist of the paranormal, John Keel, may be paranormal in origin, beings from other dimensions. Others may be real alien spacecraft. People over here have also had sightings of the Black Triangles, and so it’s quite possible that they’ve quite a glimpse of this classified plane.

Poul Anderson and Ideas about Terraforming Venus Before Carl Sagan

December 21, 2022

This might appeal to readers of this blog, who aren’t fans of the late astronomer, Sceptic and presenter of the blockbusting TV science series, Cosmos. I put up a drawing I’d done of Sagan a week or so ago along with a piece explaining why I thought he was a great TV personality. While Sagan was a brilliant astronomer and space scientist, some of the readers of this blog were less impressed by his attitude towards the UFO crowd. Sagan was a fervent rationalist, who saw it as his mission to attack ideas he thought were irrational, and particularly the paranormal. He was one of the founders of the Sceptical organisation, CSICOP, or the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, along with the stage magician James Randi and the mathematician Martin Gardner. One of Sagan’s last works was The Demon-Haunted World in which he worried about the tide of irrationality creeping over America and the world and foresaw a time in which the New Age would have taken over completely, leading to a new Dark Age and people earnestly consulting their horoscopes each morning.

Some commenters remembered how Sagan had been wheeled on TV in the 1960s to debunk UFO encounters. They didn’t like his superior and condescending attitude towards the experiencers. Now I’ll admit that I don’t regard UFOs as nuts and bolts alien spacecraft. Much of the imagery and the basic plot of UFO encounters seems to come from science fiction and supernatural encounters with gods, demons and fairies before then. One of the alternative views of the UFO phenomenon is the psycho-social hypothesis, which sees it as an internal psychological experience which uses the imagery of contemporary culture. In previous centuries this was of fairies. Now, as belief in the supernatural has declined in the West, the imagery is from science fiction. But both the imagery of fairies and alien spacecraft represent the same theme of encounter with a cosmic other. Some UFO writers and researchers like John Keel and Jacques Vallee believe that there is a genuine paranormal phenomenon at work, and that the force that was previously responsible for encounters with fairies and so on has simply now changed to using that of space craft as society has changed. See Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse, for example. Many UFO encounters can be explained as misidentification, hoaxes, and sightings of top secret military aircraft. I’m also convinced that some are due to the intelligence community deliberately messing with people for their own purposes. In one of his books, Vallee suggests that the Cergy-Pontoise abduction in France may have been faked by French intelligence as an experiment to see how people would react to a real alien encounter. And then there’s the case of Paul Bennewitz, a defence contractor in the US who was driven out of his mind by a pair of intelligence agents at a nearby USAF base. Bennewitz thought he had got in touch with an alien held captive at the base. The pair claimed to be whistleblowers and fed Bennewitz a whole load of spurious documents apparently confirming it, and then told him that it was all fake. It’s a tactic apparently known as the ‘double-bubble’ used by the intelligence services to destabilise their enemies. It worked on Bennewitz, who I think was driven to a nervous breakdown.

Even with the hoaxers, the top secret aircraft and the misidentified objects, there are still some UFO encounters that are very difficult to explain. I think the best explanations are probably the paranormal and psycho-social rather than the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any the less puzzling nor that genuine people, who have had a truly inexplicable experience, should be sneered or condescended to.

But back to Sagan. One of Sagan’s achievements was to suggest a way Venus could be terraformed. This involved planting genetically-engineered bacteria in the Venusian atmosphere. These would consume the carbon dioxide and exhale breathable oxygen. But Sagan wasn’t the first person to suggest ways of terraforming the planet, and he didn’t invent the concept of terraforming. You can find the idea, but not the name, in the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which the Martians have built giant machines to replenish the atmosphere on their dying world. The great SF writer Poul Anderson wrote a story in which a similar technology is used to terraform the Venusian atmosphere.

This is mentioned by Mike Ashley, the editor of the anthology of classic SF stories about the worlds of the solar system, Born of the Sun, published by the British Library. In the introduction to the story about Venus, Ashley writes

‘The 1950s saw some authors taking note of recent research which suggested Venus was far from a watery world. Leading the way was Poul Anderson. In ‘The Big Rain’ (1954) he describes a harsh, sweltering Venus that, when it does rain, rains formaldehyde. The story considers how Venus might be terraformed, using the formaldehyde locked in Venus’ clouds. Airmaker machines, spread all over Venus, accelerate a reaction with the formaldehyde, ammonia and methane to produce hydrocarbons and oxygen, whilst bombs reinvigorate volcanos so that in time it starts to rain – and rains for over a hundred years, by which time Venus starts to be more Earth–like’. (p. 93).

To me, this is an example of one the instances where informed Science Fiction, even if wrong in the details, has advanced scientific thinking. And there are plenty of other examples in some of the other stories Ashley discusses in some of the other books in the same series.

Sagan, for all his faults, was a brilliant scientist and he did much to make people aware of the environmental crisis and opposed the threat of nuclear war and the New Cold War Reagan and Thatcher started ramping up in the 1980s. But in this case, while his ideas about terraforming Venus are most likely to be correct, he wasn’t the first to invent the idea.

Sometimes SF writers get there first.

‘Women with Wings’ – The SF Novel about Interbreeding with Aliens to Save Humanity from Racial Degeneration

December 21, 2022

As I wrote in my last piece, I’ve been reading a number of collections of SF stories published by the British Library. These collections are on various themes – other planets, life in space, the threat of the machines taking over – and the short stories are mixed with introductions describing the history of the depiction of that planet or theme in SF. The introduction to the story about Venus notes that before the modern space probes revealed that it was hell planet of scorching heat, crushing pressure and sulphuric acid rain, Venus was often thought of as an Edenic world with peaceful, angelic inhabitants. But I found myself particularly interested in the brief description of the plot of a book published in 1930 by Leslie F. Stone. In his ‘Women with Wings’ the Venusians are humanoids descended from flying fish. Both they and humanity are declining from racial degeneration, which the two peoples successfully combat by interbreeding.

I find this fascinating, as much SF is about the threat of alien invasion, including the rape and forced interbreeding with human women, and occasionally men. You think of fifties B-movies like Mars Needs Women or the lurid covers of the mid-20th century SF pulp magazines with square-jawed earthmen attempting to stop evil Martians or Moon people or whatever carrying off the heroine. Then there’s the plot of Hammer’s notorious Devil Girl from Mars, in which a Martian woman lands in Scotland in order to kidnap a man and bring him back as breeding stock to the Red Planet. This kind of cosmic rape is part of the contemporary UFO abduction myth, in which evil grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli are abducting humans and either physically raping them or harvesting their sperm and eggs in order to create a hybrid race. In some forms of the myth, it’s because the greys are racially degenerate and need to incorporate human genetic material in order to continue. Alien abduction and hybridisation were an integral element in the original X-Files, in which FBI agents Mulder and Scully were pitched against a secret organisation, the Syndicate, who were at the centre of a global conspiracy to create a race of alien hybrids who would be the only survivors of an alien takeover.

At the time Stone was writing, many European and American intellectuals feared real racial degeneration. This was at the hearts of the eugenics movement, that held that the biologically unfit would outbreed healthy people and so the human race would inevitably decline. One element of these fears was the threat of racial interbreeding with the non-White races judged inferior in the contemporary racial hierarchy. Hence the legislation passed by various American states to prevent the congenitally disabled having children and to limit immigration and prevent intermarriage with racial inferiors. These not only included non-Whites, but also Whites from southern Europe. These fears were also expressed in the SF and fantasy of the period, such as in H.P. Lovecraft. Several of Lovecraft’s stories are about racial degenerates preying on normal humanity and forced interbreeding from outside. In ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, an entire fishing community has been taken over by a murderous cult and its people racially mixed through generations of interbreeding with a race of fish people. Stone stands out against these fears through presenting racial mixture with aliens as improving the biological stock of both races. He’s a curious exception to the trend, and I wonder if there were other writers with similar ideas.

These racial fears were the basis for the horrendous legislation and political moves against people of different race and the disabled that culminated in Nazism and the Holocaust. It’d be interesting to know a bit more about Stone and whether he had the same attitude to terrestrial peoples of different colours intermarrying and having children. It might be that such anti-racist attitudes were just confined to that fiction and involved the idea of people breeding with an equal or superior race. But nevertheless, it is remarkable that someone wrote a story that had a positive view of it at all, especially as racist regimes like apartheid South Africa, banned literature with similar themes and messages long into the 20th century. And in Israel there are still Jewish groups devoted to stopping Israelis forming liaisons and marrying Palestinians.

Charles Cole and the Origin of the Belief that Jesus was an Extraterrestrial

December 21, 2022

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting much over the last few days. Our boiler here packed in last Friday, and we’ve spent the past few days trying to get it fixed. Part of the problem has been trying to get through to the gas company that installed it. We were on the phone for three hours the other day trying to get through to someone. But we’ve managed to sort things out and hopefully it’ll all be fixed before too long.

I’ve started reading a few Science Fiction books I ordered a few months ago, but have only just got around to reading. They’re collections of early, classic SF short stories edited by Mike Ashley and published by the British Library. Each collection is devoted to a different theme. There’s one on the Menace of the Machine, which traces the idea of robots rebelling and taking over from the 19th century to 60s predictions of the rise of the internet. Born of the Sun is an anthology of SF stories set on the various worlds of our solar system, from Mercury out to Pluto, including the false planet Vulcan.. This was a planet a 19th century astronomer believed he had seen inside the orbit of Venus. It’s existence has since been disproved, but as the book says, it lives on in the name for Mr. Spock’s home planet in Star Trek. Each of the stories is prefaced by a brief history of these worlds in Science Fiction. And these are often fascinating.

The introduction to the short story about Mars in Born of the Sun notes the way the planet has also been used to explore theological and religious issues, such as in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. This was one of a trilogy of books, the others being Perelandra, or Voyage to Venus and That Hideous Strength, all with a very strong theological dimension. The other planets of the solar system, in Lewis’ SF, are unfallen and ruled by angels, and there is a war going on with the demonic forces on Earth. In Out of the Silent Planet a philologist, Ransom, is kidnapped by an evil scientist and his commercial partner, and taken to Mars. Ransom manages to escape and at last makes contact with the indigenous Martians. Meeting the Oyarsa, the angel ruling the planet, he is told of its Edenic state and that neither he nor his captors can remain there, and they are sent back to Earth.

But SF stories about Mars with Christian theological dimension predate Lewis’ by some years. The book states that in 1901 Charles Cole published a story, Visitors from Mars, in which Jesus is raised on the Red Planet. He is sent to Earth to help us, and rescued by the Martians at the Crucifixion, who return Him to Mars. This is very similar to some of the beliefs among the UFO fraternity about Christ. The Aetherius Society, set up in the 1950s by ‘Sir’ George King, knight of the Byzantine Empire (self-awarded) teaches that Christ is alive and well and on Venus, along with Aetherius, an ascended being who sends messages of spiritual improvement to us via King. It also reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human raised by Martians who has great spiritual and psychic powers, and who founds a religion back on Earth. This was one of the influences on the emerging New Age movement back in the 1960s. One of the first neo-pagan religions was the Church of All Worlds, which was an attempt to put the religion founded by the book’s hero into practice. Heinlein himself wasn’t impressed with it, not least because he didn’t believe psychic powers existed. It might be that Cole’s book and other SF stories of the period in which the peoples of Venus and Mars were depicted as angels started that line of mystical speculation which eventually produced the New Age idea that Jesus was an alien. Or it could just be that it prefigured them when they arose later in the century with the emergence of the UFO phenomenon.

Sketch of American Astronomer, Space Scientist and Activist Carl Sagan

December 3, 2022

I’ve put up this sketch of Carl Sagan began he was one of the major figures in space research as well as a committed Humanist and political activist. He was also a major populariser of astronomy and science, most notably through his blockbusting TV series and its accompanying book, Cosmos. This was also notable for its soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, who also composed the music for Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. According to the blurb on Cosmos’ back cover, Sagan was

‘(t)he director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions to the planets, for which he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service, and the international astronautics prize, the Prix Galabert. He has served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, as chairman of the astronomy section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union. For twelve years, he was Editor-in-Chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. In addition to 400 published scientific and popular articles, Dr. Sagan (was) the author, co-author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, Murmurs of Earth and Broca’s Brain. In 1975 he received the Joseph Priestly Award “for distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind,” and in 1978 the Pulitzer Prize for literature.’

It was Sagan who suggested that Black Holes could be used as interstellar subways so that spaceships from one part of the universe could use them to travel faster than light to another part of the cosmos connected by the wormhole passing between the Black Hole and its White Hole. He also suggested that Venus could be terraformed into a living, habitable world through the introduction of genetically engineered bacteria that would consume its toxic carbon dioxide atmosphere and replace it with breathable oxygen. He also noted that Mars had a large instability in its rotation, and that this could have resulted in its current, millions-year long period of lifelessness. But it was possible that in time its rotation would return to a more hospitable position and the planet would once more bloom into life. He was also a staunch advocate of the view that the universe was inhabited by intelligent alien civilisations and that one day we would contact them. He also wrote a later book, Pale Blue Dot, after the view of the Earth from space.

He was also a fierce opponent of what he considered to be superstition. He was one of the founders of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal along with the stage magician James Randi. They were formed in response to the publication of Gauqelin’s research suggesting there really was a link between the star sign under which people were born and their later careers. He was alarmed by the rise of Creationism and the New Age, and expressed his fears about them in his book, The Demon Haunted World. He was afraid that this would lead to a new Dark Age in which people would wake up every morning to anxiously look through their horoscopes.

He was also greatly concerned with the environment and global warming and the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s he also proposed the idea of nuclear winter. This was the idea that a nuclear war would send millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking out the sunlight and causing temperatures to plunge. This has since been rejected by scientists, but I have seen it suggested as one of the causes for the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this case it was the dust thrown up by the asteroid’s impact 65 million years ago that blocked out the sun’s light, after the initial holocaust caused by its impact.

During the inquiry following the Challenger disaster, Sagan claimed that it had occurred because the Shuttle was poorly designed, the result of a compromise between NASA and the military. The Shuttle was originally intended to be fully reusable and smaller. However, the armed forces insisted on it becoming larger so that it could carry military satellites into space. The result was that it was larger, and only partially reusable as it required an external tank to carry the extra fuel it needed to reach orbit. This was jettisoned after its fuel was consumed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

He also wrote the SF novel, Contact, later filmed with Jodie Foster playing the lead. This was about a female astronomer, who makes contact radio contact with aliens, a method Sagan himself strongly advocated. Following their instructions, she constructs an artificial wormhole portal that transports her across space so she can finally meet them. I remember coming across the book in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstones in the 1980s and was rather put off by its blurb. This boasted about it challenging and refuting racism, sexism and so on. All good stuff, of course, but a bit too PC for me.

Many of these themes appear in Cosmos. This was his personal view of the history of science, and while I loved it at the time, I have serious issues with some of the claims now. One of the problems is that he accepts what we were all told at school, that the Greek philosophers were scientists. He believed that if Greek science had progressed, we would have had space travel by now. The ancient Greeks were certainly responsible for laying the foundations of western science, but they were not quite scientists in the modern sense. They used deduction rather than the scientific method of induction. Deduction meant that they observed a phenomenon and then invented an explanation. In induction, devised by Francis Bacon in the 16th/17th century, the scientist observes a phenomenon, comes up with an explanation, and then devises an experiment to disprove it. If the explanation passes the test, it is tentatively accepted as true until a later observation or experiment disproves it. The ancient Greeks didn’t do much practical experimentation.

Sagan also followed the popular explanation of the evolution of the brain, in which there is a lower, animal brain with the higher faculties evolving later, so there’s a primitive reptile brain and a more advanced mammal brain. But Victorian scientists found that both types of brain structure were present in the earliest, most primitive animals. He also followed the standard, accepted narrative that the Roman Catholic church had suppressed scientific knowledge and experimentation during the Middle Ages. This has since been rejected by historians of science. To many such historians now, the Middle Ages after the 8/9th centuries were an age of innovation and discovery. Jean Gimpel’s book proposing the idea was called The Medieval Machine, after the invention of the clock, to symbolise the period’s belief in a universe governed by law, discoverable by human reason under the light of the divine. And rather than the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance leading to a new enlightened, rational order, it had the potential to do the opposite. The medieval philosophers and theologians were Aristotelians but were very aware of the flaws in Aristotelian science and had modified it over the centuries in order to conform more closely to observed reality. But the Renaissance Humanists would have dumped all this, and so we would have been back to square one with no further scientific advances than what was permitted through a rigid adherence to Aristotle’s thought.

There’s also an anti-Christian element in Cosmos too. He describes how Hypatia, the late Neoplatonist female philosopher was murdered by a group of Christian monks in the 4th century. Hypatia has symbolised for a long time to radical atheists the fundamentally anti-science, and to feminists, the misogyny in Christianity. But by this time Neoplatonism was a mixture of science and mystical speculation, forming what has been called ‘the mind’s road to God’. The real motives for her murder weren’t that she was some kind of pagan threat, but more from a power struggle between the authorities in that part of the Roman world.

Sagan is also critical of western imperialism and describes the horrors the Conquistadors inflicted on the Aztecs and other peoples of the New World. He’s right and this section is clearly a product of its time, with the rise of anti-colonial movements among the world’s indigenous peoples, the Black Civil Rights movement in the US and the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as Reagan’s new Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust. But looking at this 40 years later, it’s also one-sided. Europe wasn’t the only expansionist, brutal, imperialist culture. Islam was also militaristic and expansionist, and at the time the Spaniards conquered South America, the Turkish empire was expanding and subjugating parts of Europe, while Muslim pirates were raiding the continent as far as Iceland for slaves.

It’s also dated from an archaeological standpoint. At one point Sagan discusses the Bronze Age collapse of the societies of the Ancient Near East, showing how it was characterised by a series of crises, similar to the process of the fall of other, later civilisations into Dark Ages, but that these aren’t causes in themselves. It’s Systems Analysis, which was popular at the time, but which I think has also become subsequently passe.

All that said, Sagan was right about global warming, whose devastating effects he illustrated with the example of the planet Venus. This has also suffered catastrophic heating due to its greater nearness to the Sun. This released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse effect so that it is now a hell planet of burning temperatures and sulphuric acid rain. He also wasn’t wrong about the threat of renewed militarism and nuclear war and was a welcome voice against Reagan’s strident belligerence.

As a science populariser, his influence has also been immense. Cosmos was a bestseller, and I think it prepared the way for other bestselling works by astronomers and scientists like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And I certainly was not surprised when Brian Cox, the scientist, not the actor, said in an interview in the Radio Times that he was a massive admirer of Sagan. That came across to me very strongly from his numerous TV series about space and the planets.

Sketch of Legendary Astronomy Author and Presenter Patrick Moore

December 3, 2022

Moore was for many years the face of astronomy on television in the UK, thanks to him presenting The Sky at Night from the 1950s almost to his death. He was known as much for his eccentric appearance as his subject, so there were plenty of jokes about him wearing the same rumpled suit down the decades. He was sent up on programmes from The Two Ronnies to Dead Ringers, who spoofed him as ‘Old Moore’, a fairground fortune teller. But he remained dedicated to his subject, publishing a plethora of popular books on the subject. This included a series of Sky at Night books, one of which I found in the school library when I was a lad, as well as editing the annual Yearbooks of Astronomy. He also collaborated with the amazing British space and science fiction artist David A. Hardy on books such as The Challenge of the Stars. He also wrote at least two books on Mars. I found one in the central library in Bristol in the 1980s. A decade later, during the excitement about the series of probes NASA and other countries were sending to the Red Planet, he published Patrick Moore on Mars. Its title invites all manner of jokes along the lines of ‘best place for him.’ He also wrote a series of children’s science fiction books about a boy space explorer, Scott Summers. These were hard SF based on the science of the time and what was expected to develop later. They’re now obviously very dated. In one of these, Wanderer in Space, Summers flew to intercept an antimatter asteroid that was threatening Earth aboard an ion driven rocket, clearly anticipating developments in such propulsion that haven’t materialised. Ion drives exist, but they aren’t being used for manned space missions. Another of these was about a human colony on Mars, living in a glass dome. This ends with the colonists looking forward to one day emerging and living free on its surface. This one has been superseded by Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the settlement and terraforming of Mars. As well as these books, he also contributed to a string of popular science and astronomy magazines like Astronomy Now, New Voyager and Focus.

I think he was one of those scientists, with Arthur C. Clarke, who worked on radar during the War but I’m not sure. He never had a formal qualification in astronomy but was always strictly amateur. He was, however, granted an amateur doctorate by one of the universities. I’m sure, however, that at the level he was active in astronomy he would have probably easily passed a university degree in the subject. His maps of the Moon were so good that they were used by NASA in selecting landing sites for the Apollo missions. He never married because his sweetheart was killed during the War in an air raid. In his personal politics he was extremely right-wing, founding the One Country party, which was later merged with another small, extreme right-wing group. I can also remember him appearing on one of the chat shows and remarking that we’d be ‘in the cart’ without Maggie Thatcher. Like many people who have genuinely been through a war, he was deeply critical of it. In one of the chapters in The New Challenge of the Stars, about a possible hostile encounter between an asteroid ark and the inhabitants of an alien planet in whose system it has appeared, Moore makes a sharp comment about man’s folly of war entering a new battleground in space. He was also a staunch opponent of fox hunting. Back in the 90s he was a guest on the comedy programme Room 101, in which guests compete to have various useless and irritating objects or people consigned to the room made famous by Orwell’s 1984. In the vast majority cases, this is just light-hearted fun. But Moore was absolutely serious about sending fox hunting there and talked about how he’d written to various authorities to get it banned. Away from astronomy he also taught himself to play the xylophone and composed numerous pieces for the instrument. One of these was published in a classical music magazine. This did not translate into a career in music, however. He got very annoyed when his planned concert at the Hippodrome was cancelled due to lack of interest.

As well as serious, professional and amateur astronomers Moore talked to during his long career, he also met and talked to various eccentrics, including UFO contactees. One of those he interviewed on the Sky at Night was a man who believed he was in contact with peaceful aliens, and could speak four of their languages, including Venusian and Plutonian. This gentleman demonstrated it by saying the greeting, ‘Hello, space brothers’, in one of them. And although Moore persistently denied it, it seems he was one of the hands behind a hoax book by ‘Cedric Allingham’ about how he encountered an alien spacecraft and its inhabitants during a walking tour of the Scottish Highlands. This was during the first wave of UFO encounters in the late 40s and 50s. When people wrote to the publisher hoping to contact Allingham, he could not be traced. One excuse was that he was off walking in Switzerland. Computer analysis of the text reveals that it was probably written by Moore and revised by someone else in order to disguise his authorship. Moore remained very willing to meet ordinary members of the public and talk to them about his subject even in his retirement. He publicly gave out the address of his home in Herstmonceux, Sussex and said if people had questions or wanted to talk to him, they could drop in, shrugging off the obvious dangers of theft, burglary and so on.

Moore belonged to an age when popular science broadcasters could be real characters, often with eccentric mannerism. There was Magnus Pike, who was famous for waving his arms around while speaking, and the bearded dynamo of Botanic Man himself, David Bellamy, sent up in impressions by Lenny Henry. Since then, popular science programmes have been presented by people who are younger and/or a bit more hip. One BBC programme on astronomy a few years ago was presented by Queen guitarist Brian May, who had studied astrophysics at university before getting caught up in his career as an awesome global rock star. May had just handed in his astrophysics thesis after decades of touring the world with Mercury, Deacon et al. His co-presenter was the comedian Dara O’Brien, who had tried to study maths at university but had dropped out because of its difficulty. The Sky at Night is now presented by about three different hosts, including Black woman Maggie Aderin-Pocock. And I think the face of astronomy and cosmology now is probably Brian Cox after all his series on the subject. But for all this, I prefer the science presenters of a previous generation with all their quirks and foibles. These people were enthusiastic about their subject and were able to communicate their enthusiasm without trying to be too slick to connect with a mass audience. And they succeeded.

The 1984 Yearbook of Astronomy and What’s New in Space, just two of the books edited and written by Moore.

Sketch of Astronomer Heather Couper

December 3, 2022

This is quite an obscure one, but I’ve drawn her because she was an important pioneer and science populariser in her way.

The Wikipedia page on her begins with this potted introduction to her life

Heather Anita CouperCBE FInstP FRAS[1] (2 June 1949 – 19 February 2020) was a British astronomer, broadcaster and science populariser.

After studying astrophysics at the University of Leicester and researching clusters of galaxies at Oxford University, Couper was appointed senior planetarium lecturer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. She subsequently hosted two series on Channel 4 television – The Planets and The Stars – as well as making many TV guest appearances. On radio, Couper presented the award-winning programme Britain’s Space Race as well as the 30-part series Cosmic Quest for BBC Radio 4. Couper served as President of the British Astronomical Association from 1984 to 1986, and was Astronomy Professor in perpetuity at Gresham College, London. She served on the Millennium Commission, for which she was appointed a CBE in 2007. Asteroid 3922 Heather is named in her honour.[2]

The online encyclopedia states that she was encouraged in her career after writing a letter to Patrick Moore about it when she was 16. He replied, ‘Being a girl is no problem’. She studied astronomy and physics at Leicester University in 1973, where she met her long-term collaborator, fellow astronomy student Nigel Henbest. The two formed a working partnership, Hencoup enterprises, devoted to popularising astronomy. She then carried out postgraduate research as a student of Linacre College, Oxford, in the university’s Astrophysics department. She became the senior lecturer at the Caird Planetarium at Greenwich. In 1984 she was elected president of the British Astronomical Association. She was the first female president and second youngest. I can remember her appearing on Wogan and playing down the fact that she was the first woman to become president, far preferring to be noted as the youngest. She also served as the President of the Junior Astronomical Society, now the Society for Popular Astronomy. In 1988 the London Planetarium invited her to write and present its major new show, Starburst. In 1993 she was appointed professor of astronomy at Gresham college. She was the first woman to hold the position in 400 years and remained professor until her death.

She wrote and co-wrote with Henbest over 40 books, as well as writing articles for a range of magazines such as BBC Sky at Night, BBC Focus and Astronomy. She also presented a lecture on the solar eclipse in Guernsey in 1999, and led expedition to view other eclipses in Sumatra, Hawaii, Aruba, Egypt, China and Tahiti. She also made numerous public appearances and talks about the cruise liners Arcadia, Queen Mary 2, and Queen Victoria. She was aboard Concorde when it made its first flight from London to Auckland. She also appeared and spoke at various science festivals, including Brighton, Cheltenham, and Oxford. She also spoke at corporate events for British Gas, Axa Sun Life and IBM.

She also presented a number of programmes and series on astronomy on the radio. These included Starwatch and The Modern Magi on Radio 4. She also presented an Archive Hour programme on the same channel on Britain’s Space Race, for which she received an Arthur C. Clarke award. She also appeared on Radio 2, and Radio 5Live, as well as making other appearances on Radio 4. She also presented a series of thirty 15-minute episodes on the history of astronomy. Her shows for the BBC World Service included A Brief History of Infinity, The Essential Guide to the 21st Century, and Seeing Stars, which was co-hosted by Henbest.

She made frequent appearances as the guest expert on various TV programmes, mostly on Channel 4. She made her first TV appearance on The Sky at Night, In 1981 she presented the children’s TV programme, Heaven’s Above, on ITV with Terence Murtagh. I think I remember watching this when I was about 14 or so. She then presented the series The Planets for Channel 4, which was followed by The Stars. She also presented the ITV show Neptune Encounter, the Horizon episode ‘A Close Encounter of the Second Kind’, and Stephen Hawking: A Profile on BBC 4.

Couper, Henbest and the director of her series, The Stars, founded a production company, Pioneer Productions. The Neptune Encounter, which covered Voyager 2’s flyby of the planet, was its first programme. She was also the producer for the Channel 4 shows Black Holes, Electric Skies and Beyond the Millennium. She later left the company to concentrate on more general radio and TV appearances.

In 1993 she was appointed a member of the Millennium Commission. Of the nine commissioners appointed, only she and Michael Heseltine continued until it was wound up.

Outside her work on astronomy, she was also a guest presenter on Woman’s Hour, as well as the John Dunn programme and Start the Week on the radio. She was also interested in local history and literature, and so appeared on Radio 4’s With Great Pleasure and Down Your Way. She also appeared on Radio 3’s In Tune selecting her ‘pick of the proms.’ She was also the narrator on a number of other factual programmes, including Channel 4’s Ekranoplan: The Caspian Sea Monster, and Raging Planet on the Discovery Channel.

So, a huge science populariser, but probably one whose achievements are obscured by other, more prominent, celebrities.

As well as the children’s astronomy programme, I also once saw her speaking on about Mars and the question of life on the Red Planet at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. She had a rather mischievous sense of humour. There’s a real possibility that life in some form has existed on Mars and may exist now, but if it does, it’s almost certainly at the level of microbes. At the time, however, various individuals who had spent too long looking at photos of the planet claimed to have seen much larger lifeforms on the planet. There was a programme on Channel 4 in which a Hungarian astronomer appeared to describe how he believed there were massive mushrooms growing there. People also thought the saw giant ‘sand whales’ crawling about its surface, like the sandworms in Dune. These were, in fact, geological features left by some of the dune’s slumping, which created a trail that looked like the segmented body of a worm. One of the peeps taken in by this was the late Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke rang her up from Sri Lanka, asking her if she’d seen them and telling her that he really didn’t know what to make of it. She commented that for a moment she thought he’d gone mad, then covered her mouth like a naughty child caught saying something she shouldn’t.

For all that she played down her importance as a female pioneer in astronomy, I think she did prepare the say for more women to enter it and become television presenters. There’s now a drive for more women in the hard sciences, and we’ve science had a Black woman presenter, Aderin-Pocock, on the Sky At Night, and female astrophysicists and mathematicians appearing on the radio and TV.

YouTube Channel Claims to Have Found Water, Villages and a City on Mars, But You Can See the Piping

November 18, 2022

This may amuse you. They are any number of dodgy videos out there on YouTube purporting to show the space secrets NASA are covering up. One Russian channel a few years ago claimed to show the 12 species of aliens visiting Earth. These were, however, all stills taken from SF films and TV shows, ’cause I recognised some of them. One of them was Zhaan from the American-Australian SF series Farscape. Now the scammers are at it again. There was a series of shorts on YouTube this week claiming to show the remains of a village on Mars, then the remains of a city and finally standing liquid water. This would all be really impressive. The atmospheric pressure on the Red Planet is 5 millibars, so any liquid water would boil off very quickly. There have been respectable NASA reports of liquid water there, but I think it’s locked below ground in artesian wells. The site proudly showed a puddle in a reddish-brown desert, much like the surface of Mars. This was quite convincing, until you saw the metal pipe rising out of the puddle gushing water into it. Yeah, I know the Martians built canals, according to Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell, but I don’t think the left metal standpipes. As for the village and city, they look like abandoned desert settlements on Earth to me, though I couldn’t tell you where. Mars did once have a habitable climate, but that was so many millions of years ago that all trace of it has vanished and any ruins left over from a civilisation simply wouldn’t have survived the long aeons. It looks like whoever’s behind the videos got hold of pictures of deserts ruins and altered the colours so that it resembled the Marian surface. Convincing to some, no doubt, until they see the standpipe.

Videos on the Great Space and SF Art of David A. Hardy

September 15, 2022

I’m a great fan of the astronomical and Science Fiction artist David A. Hardy. Hardy was interested in space from childhood and was particularly influenced by the pioneering American artist Charles Bonestell. Bonestell not only painted the various stars and planets, but also showed humans in space suits and spacecraft exploring these worlds. He worked for many years illustrating the many books on space with the late presenter of the Sky at Night, Patrick Moore, especially on the books The Challenge of the Stars, which came out in the 1950s, and its ’70s sequel, The New Challenge of the Stars. I always thought he just painted science fact, and was quite surprised to find that he also painted SF. These videos from YouTube show some of his really beautiful, amazing art, and there’s one from ITV’s local news for the Midlands in 2013 where he talks about his work and his inspiration.

The Fantastic Space Art of David A. Hardy, Part 1, from the Sci-Fi Art channel.

The Fantastic Space Art of David A. Hardy, Part 2, from the Sci-Fi Art channel

Fantasy and Sci Fi Art Collection David A. Hardy, v. 1, from Gorka’s channel.

Fantasy and Sci Fi Art collection 14 David A Hardy v2 from Gorka’s Channel

The above thumbnail is an illustration of one of the von Danikenesque theories of about the ‘wheels’ and creatures seen by the prophet Ezekiel. Von Daniken interpreted them as alien spacecraft.

And an item about him from ITV Central News, 2013, in which he talks about his work.

Spanish Scientists Create First Ever Magnetic Wormhole

September 13, 2022

Here’s another video about weird and very cool science of the type that just might one day take us to the stars. This video from Tech Space on YouTube discusses wormholes and the invention of a magnetic wormhole by researchers in Spain. Wormholes are the holes in spacetime which can act as short cuts from one part of the universe to another. They were first thought up in the 1930s by Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen, hence they are sometimes called Einstein-Rosen bridges. The idea is that they are created by Black Holes and extend across a higher dimension to an exit elsewhere in the universe, a White Hole. No-one has yet discovered a wormhole in space, despite them frequently being used in Science Fiction. The video here shows a clip from Star Trek among others. There is a problem with using wormholes as such cosmic subways. Their energy state is so precarious, that the passage of a single photon down one would disrupt and destroy. Also, if a spaceship fell into a Black Hole, it would never be able to escape and would continue falling forever.

Scientists have suggested ways round these problems. For example, the mouth of the wormhole could be extended beyond the Black Hole’s event horizon and kept open using exotic matter. Exotic matter is a theoretical kind of matter, different from antimatter, that has negative mass. This means that if it was placed next to a similar mass of ordinary matter, it would accelerate away with no means of propulsion.

The view inside a wormhole would be extremely strange. The wormhole mouth would appear as a globe, and the sides of the wormhole would show distorted views of the region of space the travellers had just left and to which they were travelling to. It would also be possible to create a time machine using these wormholes. One end could be accelerated to the speed of light so that it whipped back on itself and went backward in time. At least, that’s how I understood this part of the video, but I may have misunderstood. The video also states that scientists have speculated there are tiny wormholes opening up at the atomic level, at 10-33 cm. They’ve got their figures wrong there, as 10 to 33 centimetres is clearly well above the atomic scale. I think they mean 10-33.

While the Spanish scientists haven’t created one of these wormholes, they have created a magnetic wormhole using rare and exotic materials which already exist. This wormhole device is circular. There are magnetic mouths at both ends of the device, but the magnetic field linking them cannot be indetectable and so moves through another dimension. The scientists suggest that uses for the technology may include magnetic resonance scanners for medicine, so that the patient doesn’t have to be jammed so close to the scanning apparatus.

The video is wrong about this being the first wormhole to be discovered. In fact, the wonderful space and science vlogger Anton Petrov put up a video a little while ago reporting that scientists had created a subatomic wormhole. There are also problems with exotic matter, as this would allow for antigravity and thus break the laws of physics, as shown in a Beeb documentary about the real search for antigravity propulsion. But this is a fascinating invention. One of the pieces of evidence for there being more than three dimensions, four if you count time, is that if you write the equations governing electromagnetism for four dimensions, they come out as the laws of gravity.

Now if only there was a way to transform magnetism into gravity, such a wormhole created by the Spanish scientists might start giving us a way to open up the universe.