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7 times that science explained aliens

BY and   October 28, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Actors dressed as martians for their roles in the show 'The Man in the Moon', at the London Palladium in January 1964, walk across Regent Street as two policemen watch them. Photo by Chris Ware/via Getty Images

Actors dressed as martians for their roles in the show “The Man in the Moon,” at the London Palladium in January 1964, walk across Regent Street as two policemen watch them. Photo by Chris Ware via Getty Images

Human interest in unidentified flying objects (UFOs) dates back thousands of years. In the winter of 214 BC, ancient historian Livy reported phantom ships in the skies of Rome. Ancient stargazers believed the neighboring planets in our solar system housed the gods.

Just this month, scientists published data on an unusual spectral pattern coming from the star KIC 8462852 — or Tabby’s Star. In an article, the Atlantic highlighted one scenario that might explain the pattern: the possibility of alien megastructures. Despite follow-up stories describing more logical scenarios — a giant cloud of comets or a jelly bean-shaped star — much of the mainstream fervor focused on possibilities of alien life. Even two days after the Atlantic piece dropped, one of the scientists behind the KIC 8462852 study told Business Insider that the media coverage had gotten “a bit out of hand” and the probability that the signal comes from aliens is “very low.”

“Just to clarify, neither [my colleague] Jason [Wright] or myself … are advocating that it is an alien megastructure, but we also can’t completely rule it out,” Penn State astronomer Kimberly Cartier told Business Insider.

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Smart people believe in aliens too. Renowned Harvard University psychiatrist and Pulitzer-prize winner John E. Mack believed in alien abductions until his death in 2004. (Vanity Fair wrote a great profile of Mack two years ago). Thirty years ago, the famed psychoanalyst C.G. Jung blamed the fear of the unknown, and with it, the human preoccupation with aliens, on our innate search for meaning in places where none exists. In a 2010 essay, clinical psychologist Stephen Diamond described the mental phenomenon this way:

…it is precisely the profoundly mysterious and mythic nature of UFO’s that, like dreams, makes them so psychologically powerful. As with all natural or metaphysical phenomena, once science dissects, analyzes and mechanistically explains such mysteries, their numinous, spiritual, potentially healing power is deadened or lost.

In the spirit of the profoundly mysterious (and Halloween!), PBS NewsHour brings you seven bizarre events originally linked to aliens but then ultimately explained by science. Readers are free to believe what they want, but in these cases, a logical explanation seems more plausible…or at least that’s what THEY want us to tell you.

Phone calls from E.T.

Man dressed in alien costume looking at mobile. Photo by Tara Moore

Man dressed in alien costume looking at mobile. Photo by Tara Moore

In 1967, a 24-year-old astronomer and graduate student named Jocelyn Bell detected rhythmic pulses among data collected by her radio telescope. As the American Physical Society describes:

Working at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, near Cambridge, starting in 1965 Bell spent about two years building the new telescope, with the help of several other students. Together they hammered over 1,000 posts, strung over 2,000 dipole antennas between them, and connected it all up with 120 miles of wire and cable. The finished telescope covered an area of about four and a half acres.

Within a few weeks Bell noticed something odd in the data, what she called a bit of “scruff.” The signal didn’t look quite like a scintillating source or like manmade interference. She soon realized it was a regular signal, consistently coming from the same patch of sky.

Bell and her mentor Anthony Hewish initially thought the signals were a phone call from an extraterrestrial civilization. But further investigation revealed a previously unknown celestial object: a neutron star. Bell’s initial data had caught focused beams of electromagnetic radiation, which would come to be called pulsars. The work would share the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. Bell’s name wasn’t included in the award, but her work inspired the detection protocols for scientific institutes that work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The SETI Detection Protocols aren’t legally binding, but they dictate how scientists will verify a communication from aliens and the suggested practices for informing the public.

Radio signals represent one of our best bets for spotting extraterrestrial life, and they’ve led to multiple false alarms over the years, such as The Wow! Signal in 1977.


However, a study published this April reported that a search of the 100,000 closest galaxies has come up empty handed with regards to detecting the electromagnetic signals that would indicate advanced technology. That doesn’t eliminate the possibility of alien life using modes of technology beyond our means of detection, but for now, we’re still waiting for E.T.’s call.

Face on Mars

NASA's Viking 1 Orbiter spacecraft shot this image of Mars on July 25, 1976. Can you make out a face from the eroded rock? Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

NASA’s Viking 1 Orbiter spacecraft shot this image of Mars on July 25, 1976. Can you make out a face from the eroded rock? Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

While circling Mars in 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft snapped photos of the Red Planet’s landscape. Among the images it beamed back was a picture of a mile-wide landform that resembled a face.

Known as the “Face of Mars,” the image prompted arguments that the site was evidence of an ancient civilization on the planet.

NASA, in its caption for the image, said the mesa-like formation looked like a human head, “giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth.” And while the space agency never said the photo captured anything other than a rocky landform jutting from Mars, it left conspiracy theorists wondering whether NASA was hiding something.

But the “face” is not a sign of intelligent Martian life. It’s your brain tricking you. Or, rather, it’s your brain perceiving a meaningful stimulus, like a face, out of everyday objects or sounds. This is a phenomenon called pareidolia, and these moments usually appear in the Weird News section, such as a face in a cliff, the Man in the Moon, or the Virgin Mary on a burnt tortilla.

A 2014 study published in the journal Cortex concluded that the phenomenon was a healthy, common occurrence.

“Most people think you have to be mentally abnormal to see these types of images, so individuals reporting this phenomenon are often ridiculed,” said lead researcher Kang Lee of the University of Toronto. “But our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”

The study added that the brain’s ability to glean faces from ambiguous information is “highly adaptive” because of the “supreme importance of faces in our social life and the high cost resulting from failure to detect a true face.”

This is a hi-res image of the same "face" that NASA captured in 1976. There's not a human face there anymore. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This is a hi-res image of the same “face” that NASA captured in 1976. There’s not a human face there anymore. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA, equipped with modern technology, reshot the “Face of Mars” in 1998. In the higher resolution, the face disappeared. NASA was right in its original caption: The “face” is an illusion.

Alien engineering

Tourists ride camels in front of Giza pyramids in 2006. Humans were perfectly capable of building these ancient wonders. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Tourists ride camels in front of Giza pyramids in 2006. Humans were perfectly capable of building these ancient wonders. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the original Seven Wonders, is such a paragon of human achievement, that people have questioned whether the ancient, man-made structure was actually constructed with the help of aliens.

But give the ancient Egyptians some credit.

According to architect Jean-Pierre Houdin and Egyptologist Bob Brier, the ancient Egyptians hauled 2.5 ton limestone blocks using an internal ramp that snaked up the pyramid like a parking garage.

In 1986, a French team failed to find any hidden spaces in the Giza pyramid that suggested an internal ramp. But, as documented in this National Geographic TV special, one of the French researchers met with Houdin 15 years later to reveal a diagram left out of that 1986 study. The diagram showed a hollow spiral shape within the pyramid that appeared to support Houdin’s theory.

Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, people also continue to believe that primitive cultures were not able to erect pyramids in Nigeria, China or Indonesia without extraterrestrial assistance.

“It’s these suggestions that are really denigrating the people whose names, bodies, family relationships, tools and bakeries we actually find,” Egyptologist Mark Lehner, who studied the pyramids for years and wrote “The Complete Pyramids,” told NOVA in 1997.

“Everything that I have found convinces me more and more that indeed it is this society that built the Sphinx and the Pyramids,” he said. “Every time I go back to Giza, my respect increases for those people and that society, that they could do it.”

Flying Saucers

Nevada Governor Bob Miller presides over the unveiling of a new road sign for Nevada State Highway 375 on April 18, 1996, about 150 miles north of Las Vegas. The highway has been the location for numerous UFO sightings, possibly related to the close proximity of the secret U.S. airbase Area 51. Photo by Reuters

Nevada Governor Bob Miller presides over the unveiling of a new road sign for Nevada State Highway 375 on April 18, 1996, about 150 miles north of Las Vegas. The highway has been the location for numerous UFO sightings, possibly related to the close proximity of the secret U.S. airbase Area 51. Photo by Reuters

“I have no doubt that UFOs exist,” science writer and longtime investigator of unusual phenomena Benjamin Radford wrote for Space.com.

That’s because an Unidentified Flying Object is any vision in the sky that a person’s mind can’t immediately explain. But that doesn’t mean it’s piloted by alien life. The Earth’s atmosphere is bombarded by roughly 100 tons of space rock every day, and who hasn’t seen a saucer-shaped cloud in their lifetime?

The origins of the term “flying saucer” can be traced to a single, misquoted source.

The Eastern Oregonian reported on June 24, 1947, that Idaho pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine “flying objects” or flashes that flew past Mount Rainier, according to this Atlantic report. But when Arnold’s story got picked up by other news outlets, the description of the objects morphed into “flying saucers.”

Years later, Arnold said he had told the Oregonian that the objects “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” In other words, Arnold said he used “saucer” to describe the movement — and not the shape — of the UFOs.
In a 1950 interview with journalist Edward R. Murrow, Arnold repeated his claim that reporters had misquoted him.

“[W]hen I told the press, they misquoted me, and in the excitement of it all, one newspaper and another one got it as ensnarled up that nobody knew just exactly what they were talking about, I guess,” he told Murrow.

Kenneth Arnold submitted this letter, complete with rough sketches of the flying objects he saw, to the Army Air Force on July 12, 1947. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Kenneth Arnold submitted this letter, complete with rough sketches of the flying objects he saw, to the Army Air Force on July 12, 1947. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Either way, the era of UFO sightings had begun, and the flying saucer became a mainstay in science fiction.

Only weeks later, rancher William Brazel discovered a wreckage near Roswell, New Mexico and assumed a flying saucer had crashed. That Roswell incident would become America’s best known experience with UFOs. On July 8, military officials claimed the debris came from a weather balloon, but decades later the incident would resurface as a centerpiece in a government alien cover-up, as detailed by the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry.

The government was covering up the true reason for the wreckage, but it wasn’t aliens. The real reason involved Project MOGUL, a spy balloon built to detect long-range soundwaves from possible Soviet nuclear weapons.

Researchers believe the Cold War continued to fuel UFO hysteria, as the Guardian reported in 2002:

Many of the early UFO sightings were seemingly confirmed by Britain’s fledgling radar system, often scrambling fighter planes into the sky to investigate sightings. But, as the new technology improved, the number of incidents appearing on radar quickly dwindled to zero. ‘That cannot be a coincidence. Those early confirmations were just a product of a primitive radar system,’ Clarke said.

Missiles continue to be identified as UFOs, as do things like Chinese lanterns, oddly-shaped clouds, lightning sprites and the planet Venus.


UFO sightings often involve hole-punch clouds like this one, which typically occur when an airplane creates small snowstorm while passing through a cloud.

Crop circles

A crop circle appeared in London's Kew Gardens on Sept. 19, 2002. Photo by Reuters

A crop circle appeared in London’s Kew Gardens on Sept. 19, 2002. Photo by Reuters

No one disputes that crop circles are real. But who created them?

Appearing first in the late 1970s in the English countryside, conspiracies often pointed to aliens sending messages to humans in fields of flattened crops. Instead, it was an Earthbound hoax.

After years of crop circle reports in southern England in the 1980s, crop circles began popping up in Canada and Australia too. But then, two pranksters in their 60s came forward in 1991 as the originators of a massive hoax.

WHEN David Chorley and Doug Bower told the London tabloid Today in 1991 that they made the circular designs overnight by using wooden planks, a ball of string, and a piece of wire attached to a baseball cap that worked as a sighting device.

In the video below, Chorley and Bower explained how they could make a circle 80 to 90 feet wide in 10 minutes, adding that they didn’t see news reports of their crop circles until three years after their initial creation.

Video by YouTube user mdftrasher

The hoaxers said they decided to confess when Bower’s wife became suspicious of the high mileage on the couple’s car. She suspected her husband was having an affair.Bower explained that he and Chorley flattened crops in southern England as many as 30 times a year. And the crop circles spotted outside their home country? That was the work of copycats.

The confessions, however, didn’t dissuade M. Night Shyamalan from featuring the crop circles in his 2002 movie “Signs.”

Area 51

Area 51 border and warning sign stating that "photography is prohibited." Photo by Flickr user X 51

Area 51 border and warning sign stating that “photography is prohibited.” Photo by Flickr user X 51

For decades, conspiracy theories painted the hyper-exclusive, top secret military base near Groom Lake, Nev., as a storage bin for U.S. scientists to study little green men and their alien spacecraft.

Then in 2013, the CIA, prompted by a public records request by the National Security Archive, declassified a 400-page 1992 document that specifically acknowledged the existence of Area 51.

Or, as one UFO enthusiast told NBS News: “They say Area 51 is real? Duh!”

In fact, Annie Jacobsen, author of “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base,” told National Geographic that only one page of the declassified report was new information. That one page literally put Area 51 on a map.

But a lot remains unknown about the remote government facility. The declassified report goes on about the U-2 spy planes used during the Cold War that were being tested at the site. There’s no mention of Roswell aliens, spaceships and the like.

The report, however, does mention UFOs, but only that the U-2 planes “led to an unexpected side effect — a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects, UFOs.”

Alien Abductions

Alien abduction warning signs are posted in the AlienVault booth during the Black Hat USA 2015 cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas. Photo by Steve Marcus/Reuters

Alien abduction warning signs are posted in the AlienVault booth during the Black Hat USA 2015 cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas. Photo by Steve Marcus/Reuters

Alien abductions have been reported across the globe, and these claims may have a neuroscientific explanation.

Our memories are prone to change and susceptible to the inclusion of false facts, which is known as false memory recall. False memory recall is common. This mental behavior can muck up eyewitness testimony and gets worse as we age. Just within the last two years, scientists have shown that they can artificially implant a false memory into the brains of mice.

A 2003 Harvard study showed that people who claim alien abductions are more susceptible to false memories. Plus their memory recall is often so strong and so physically disturbing that it is comparable to war veterans remembering battle.

Sleep paralysis is a possible explanation for how these memories form in the first place. Sleep paralysis occurs when someone’s brain wakes up before the rest of the body. During REM sleep, the body releases a chemical that prevents it from moving while you sleep. During a sleep paralysis episode, a person can become conscious before the chemical wears off. Cue the monsters that emerge from the dreams that occur somewhere in that accidental space.

“Sleep paralysis is common and no more indicative of mental illness than a hiccup, the researchers point out. But when the hallucination and paralysis occur together, many people find the combination frightening, and they attempt to find a meaning in it,” William Cromie wrote in the Harvard Gazette.

According to a 2011 study by Pennsylvania State University, as many as 7.6 percent of the general population will experience at least one instance of sleep paralysis in their lifetime.

When falling asleep or waking up, people have reported faceless shadowy figures or a dark presence in their bedrooms. Horrifically, these harbingers of doom would sometimes advance toward them while they’re unable to move.

While it’s not the work of supernatural beings, it is a brain glitch that produces some serious fuel for nightmares.

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