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8th November 2020

This spring, the Pentagon’s official release of three videos of US Navy cockpit instrumentation displays showing unidentified contacts made headline news around the world, was described as “monumental” by rocker turned ufologist Tom DeLonge, triggered a surge in UFO sightings and elicited from our old friend Dr. Steven Novella an unstifled yawn.

While the alleged rise in UFO sightings seems, like the alleged rise in ghost sightings, to be something of an exaggeration and DeLonge’s comments are characteristically hyperbolic, the videos have brought UFOs back into mainstream discussion, even to the point where alien revelations were proposed as a contender for Trump's October surprise. So it is, that SITP Online offers a timely welcome to Dr. Steve Barrett

Dr. Barrett, a physicist who specialises in image analysis and has a sceptical outlook drawn from the ideas of such luminaries as Carl Sagan and William of Occam, has gathered an extensive collection of intriguing UFO imagery, which he will be going through with us to decide whether or not any of them require an extraterrestrial explanation.

Cambridge Skeptics

Unidentified Flying Objects:
Are There Any Images That Require an Extraterrestrial Explanation?
with Dr. Steve Barrett
Thursday, 12th November 2020 at 7:00pm
As a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Physics, my research interests span all aspects of imaging, image processing and image analysis. This includes medical imaging (biophysics), scanning probe microscopy of atoms, molecules and surfaces (nanophysics), microscopy of earth materials (geophysics) and astrophotography. 
So, I've Been Thinking...
Look! Up in the Sky!
As a youth, I was fascinated by UFOs, not enough to look up and figure out what was actually up there, but enough to declare any images I, in my ignorance, couldn’t readily identify as alien. Fortunately, this week’s SITP Online guest Dr. Steve Barrett takes a more parsimonious approach and believes imagery, such as the Pentagon UFO videos, is only really a UFO if no one can provide a reasonable identification.

One common subject of UFO imagery, Dr. Barrett claims, are manmade objects, so much so that dismissing such sightings as a weather balloon has, he points out, become cliché. Elon Musk’s Starlink, the Goodyear blimp, rocket re-entry debris and an Iron Man balloon have been behind recent UFO sightings. So, planes and, yes, a balloon are highly plausible explanations for the Pentagon UFO videos. 

Another common subject of UFO imagery, Dr. Barrett notes, are natural objects, with swamp gas being another cliché dismissal. Light pillars, an insect, a cloud and a flock of birds have appeared in some recent sighting, while spectacular photographs of red jellyfish sprite lighting and a standing lenticular cloud could explain others. Indeed, a bird has been proposed as an explanation for one of the Pentagon UFO videos.

Image artefacts are believed by Dr. Barrett to be the source of a lot of the UFOs that appear in imagery, especially those where the photographer spotted nothing at the time. Lens flare, corrupted telemetry blocks, a smudge and caching have been behind some recent imagery. The reaction of the pilots on the audio, however, make this less likely an explanation for the Pentagon UFO videos. 

Deliberate fakes, the last on Dr. Barrett's list of usual suspects, seems, for rather obvious reasons, to account for many of the much famous UFO imagery of the past. Paradoxically, while fakery has never been easier, there’s even an app for that, such imagery fails to attract much attention. This is the only possible misconception an official release dispels and yet it does not seem to have been a major one.

Dr. Barrett, wielding his weapon of choice: Occam’s razor, maintains that it is only after rejecting alternate explanations, such as those offered above, that we can begin to consider the more extraordinary hypothesis of extraterrestrial spacecraft and as of yet the Pentagon UFO videos, whether officially released or not, have not, I would say, allowed us to do this. 

Chris Gyford, Cambridge Skeptics

Leapin' and Hoppin' on a Moonshadow
I have spoken before of my youthful belief in conspiracy theories and after UFOs perhaps the one that fascinated me the most was the Moon landing hoax. Fortunately, this week’s SITP Online guest Dr. Steve Barrett has also turned his image analysis expertise to explaining away many of the questions my youthful self was just asking about this. 

The first big mystery Dr. Barrett answers is how astronauts with chest mounted cameras and no view finders were able to take such beautifully framed shots: they weren’t. The shots we see are aesthetically cropped, including the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface, which has had a black strip added to the top, while the unedited originals sit largely unseen in the public archives. 

The seemingly impossible shadows apparently cast by multiple light sources, for young me the most convincing evidence that the landings were shot in a studio, are easily explained away by Dr. Barrett as distortion from uneven lunar surface. These natural variations also explain why Lunar Modules footpads are shown sometimes not to make an impression in the dust while astronaut footprints do.
Pictures where the subject overlaps the internal crosshairs were also highly convincing evidence for young me, but these Dr. Barrett explains as overexposure causing bright white areas to bleed over the thin black crosshairs. Exposure is also the reason stars don’t appear on the pictures, which were taken with cameras set for daytime exposure lengths.

Turning to the video footage, Dr. Barrett’s explanation of flags flapping as a result of being touched by astronauts seems more believable than a draft caused by someone leaving the soundstage door open, while the lack of exhaust plumes when the lunar module launches seems more likely due to the type of fuel used rather than it being a model on strings. 

Video footage also provides what Dr. Barrett believes to be the most convincing evidence that the moon landings were not faked, for while the famous hammer and feather experiment could perhaps have been faked on a soundstage, the footage of a lunar rover kicking up dust which follows a perfect parabola, rather the billowing as it would on Earth, could not.

Chris Gyford, Cambridge Skeptics

Scientists recognise that the world is governed by blind chance - a view embraced by comedians. Sean B. Carroll asks Eric Idle why that is.
The alternative medicine industry has built up an ecosystem that efficiently radicalises its devotees into extreme positions, writes Michael Marshall for The Skeptic.
Pseudoscience is a global phenomenon - if we want to protect the public in our individual countries, it will take global action - writes Fernando Cervera for The Skeptic.
Driven by the Discovery Institute, Creationism and Intelligent Design have been gaining ground in Brazil, and finding support in government, write Natália Pasternak and Carlos Orsi for The Skeptic.
Dealing with human remains teaches us we don't have to share somebody's belief to respect them - as long as those beliefs aren't causing harm - writes Paul Duncan McGarrity for The Skeptic.
Ann Reardon's uber-successful cookery YouTube channel smuggles in good, solid skepticism among the Spongebob Squarepants cakes, writes Mark Horne for The Skeptic.
Join Undercover Economist and host of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less podcast Tim Harford to learn his ten rules for thinking differently about numbers. This talk, which was streamed live on 5th November 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join psychology professors Richard Wiseman and Chris French for a Halloween discussion on apparitional experiences. This talk, which was streamed live on 31st October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join naturopath turned critic Britt Hermes for this Halloween-themed talk on the horrors and spooky practices of her former profession. This talk, which was streamed live on 29th October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join philosopher Aaron Rabinowitz to find out why skeptics should believe that ethics is real and free will is not. This talk, which was streamed live on 22nd October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join research scientist Dr. Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle de Jour, for her insights into the #SaveTheChildren movement. This talk, which was streamed live on 15th October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
Join former Fox News Christian Seth Andrews for a timely analysis of "fair and balanced" broadcasting. This talk, which was streamed live on 8th October 2020, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
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