It was just past sunset on a cold, clear winter evening in early December. I was driving south down I-15 past the small town of Mona, Utah and the small reservoir nearby. I was teaching at a residential treatment center in Provo, Utah but living in a small town 40 miles south called Nephi, and this was my normal evening commute. I wasn’t really thinking about anything, just listening to music, when I saw it: a glowing object to the right and above my pickup truck, following me. It didn’t have any definite edges, and I couldn’t tell how large it was but it appeared to be keeping pace with my truck. The hackles rose on the back of my neck. For about five seconds I was completely freaked out. I was having a UFO encounter!
Then I realized what it was. It was a sun dog, the frequent explanation given by the air force for many UFO sightings, but literally true in my case. You see, the sun had just set from my position at the bottom of the valley, but it was still shining a few hundred feet above Mona Reservoir. The day was cold, one of the first cold days of the year, but the water in the reservoir was still warm. Water vapor rising above the warm water was hitting a cold air layer a few hundred feet up and crystallizing into tiny ice crystals, which were reflecting the sunlight down into my truck window. It seemed to be following me because it wasn’t really as near my truck as it appeared – it was miles away and the reflection moved with me. Another possibility is that the ice crystals were much higher, part of a thin veil of cirrus clouds and the reflection part of a parahelic arc.
As soon as I moved beyond the reservoir, the sun dog disappeared. Some people report seeing these objects suddenly vanish as if they are moving hundreds of miles per hour when really it is just the ice pocket no longer reflecting the sun. I know a teacher who once saw a UFO, and from her description it was pretty clear what she saw was St. Elmo’s fire, or ball lightning, as it appeared as a ball of light following along a fence line after a thunderstorm.
There have been many historic accounts of sun dogs; the term itself means an object that dogs (or follows) the sun. The Nuremberg Chronicles, a rare book full of wood cut illustrations, includes an image of a sun dog, and to the plains Indians of North America they were considered omens of bad weather and blizzards to come. There is quite a bit of truth to this, as the cirrus clouds that cause them often do precede a warm front which in the high plains can turn into a blizzard.
Other natural phenomena that are mistaken as UFOs include swamp gas, or pockets of methane with traces of phosphine that can bubble up from methanogens deep in a swamp that decompose organic material. Once the phosphine hits the air, it ignites and causes the methane to burn with a bluish light. These fairy lights are called will o’ the wisps and are thought to be impish spirits leading the unwary to their doom. Of course, following a blue glowing light into a swamp is not a very safe activity. Yet another explanation for UFOs is lenticular clouds. When clear air containing some water vapor is forced to rise up over a conical-shaped mountain it will condense to form a cloud which then is whipped in a circular pattern around the peak, creating a lens-shaped cloud formation that can consist of several layers spinning around the peak. They can look like flying saucers.
Does this mean that all UFO/UAPs are no more than lenticular clouds, St. Elmo’s fire, sun dogs, or swamp gas? Or do the many reports of sightings actually have a kernel of truth to them? What about the recent video footage of Navy and Air Force fighter pilots showing some kind of ill-defined objects tracking along with carrier groups? Like any extraordinary claim, for UFOs to actually be alien spacecraft would require extraordinary proof, as Carl Sagan liked to say. Unidentified flying objects only stay such until they are identified or explained.
During our astrophysics class at New Haven School this summer, students chose from various famous sightings and investigated them with a critical thinking lens. Does the claim make sense? Is their any indisputable evidence? Did more than one person see it, and were they credible witnesses? Their short essays on their chosen sightings are included in this edition of Ad Astra Per Educare, in which we will explore the possibilities of extra-terrestrial intelligences and our search for them, starting with the Drake Equation and ending with the recent sightings by air force and navy personnel. We will look at various methods for detecting exoplanets, and which ones are the most likely to be Earth-like and in the Goldilocks Zone, or Habitable Zone, of their stars. We’ll also look at an intriguing experiment to detect galaxy-wide civilizations by their waste heat signatures, called the G-Hat project. I will put the main articles of this edition into this blog site over the next few weeks, and upload the final version by next week.
I was contacted last year by a reporter for a news outlet called The 74, meaning the 74 million students who are in school in the United States, regarding how I use my UFO encounter in the classroom. She wanted to capitalize on the rash of press about the navy and air force sightings and congressional investigation, and she had contacted people I know at SETI, who put out the word for any volunteers. I said yes so she called me up and I told her my story. And thought nothing more about it.
Then later in the year I had a parent of one of my students say he had seen an article about me in The Guardian, a British world news magazine that I often read for international perspectives. I thought he must mean a different David Black, because there are quite a few of us around. But no, he said it also mentioned New Haven School. Intrigued, I found the article and it was a reprint of the one done by the reporter for The 74. It seems strange to me that my little UFO incident went international. If you want to read the entire article, here is the link:
I think I’ve pretty much used up my 15 minutes of fame.
As a separate but related assignment, my students created exoplanet paintings similar to the ones shown in our previous editions. I had 12 students in the class, used better equipment, and most students did two paintings, so I have more to choose from. Their paintings provide most of the illustrations in this 4th edition.
I hope you enjoy the readings and student analyses. This is the fourth of seven editions that use articles written by students at New Haven School. Because of the nature of the school, I cannot provide the students’ full names due to privacy concerns. In most cases the students have worked through three drafts of their essays with peer and teacher review. I think they have done a marvelous job. Enjoy!