Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 25 2008 9:46 AM


How easy is it to fool people -- even trained people -- over a UFO sighting?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Easy. Just ask Lucy and Lyn Thomas, a UK couple who sparked an international foofooraw by releasing a few dozen floating lanterns -- basically upside-down bags with candles suspended beneath them -- at their wedding in Cardiff. The bags act like balloons, floating away... but these were spotted by police in a helicopter. They were unidentified, sure, but of course this touched off UFO report that got on the 'net, and was reported in New York and India.


I'm of the opinion, given the number of reports like this, that a whole lot of UFO sightings are in fact these floating candle lanterns. I've seen them; they're surprisingly bright. They're small, so from a distance look like a dot, and if it's not too windy they can fly in formation for a long time. They are also, obviously, silent. They don't show up on radar. And if the wind picks up they can suddenly change direction almost as one, moving off at right angles. And, eventually, they can blink out when the candle dies.

Sound familiar?

Remember: when it comes to UFOs, unknown isn't unknowable, and it usually means you haven't thought the situation through enough yet.

Note: As I finished writing this entry, Gia wrote a blog post linking to another sighting that looks exactly like this one. The BBC covered it, and loaded their report with alien nonsense.