Science Sunday with John Duffield: UFOs

I’m no fan of crop circles or alien abductions. When it comes to UFOs, I think there’s a lot of charlatans out there. Some peddle hub-cap home movies, some do a bit of photoshopping, and some release helium balloons and tell tall tales. But get this: if you asked a cosmologist whether he thinks aliens exist, he’ll say yes. That’s because there’s zillions of planets out there, and it would be unscientific to assert that they’re all devoid of intelligent life. Then if you asked some guy at the MoD whether UFOs exist, he’ll say yes too. That’s because there are unidentified flying objects out there. Some might be mere birds, others might be Chinese lanterns or planes or meteors. But they’re flying, and they’re unidentified, so by definition they’re UFOs.

So we can be confident enough that aliens exist and UFOs exist. However if you asked your cosmologist or your defence spokesman whether aliens are riding around our skies in flying saucers they’ll doubtless both say no. And fair enough, because we just don’t have any hard scientific evidence to support that.

But nevertheless we do have something to chew over. I know this because back in July 1998 I was smoking a cigarette out back. It was a clear night and I noticed a star overhead moving slowly North to South. At first I thought it was a satellite, then I decided it must be a plane. Only then I saw another star moving South to North on the same line. When they got fairly close to one another they changed direction instantly. The first one was now heading East, the second one West. I ran and got my camera but the pictures came out totally black. So I have no evidence, but I saw what I saw.

I’ve talked to people about this sort of thing, including airline pilots. Do note that you have to talk to airline pilots. You won’t get them to write about it. You won’t find much on PPRuNe. But when you do talk to them your ears prick up at the instant acceleration. Like the big oval silver thing that went over the top of the Virgin Atlantic 747 at Mach 3 then stopped. Everybody in the cabin gawked at it for long seconds as they approached at 500 knots. Then whumm! It went back over the top of the plane at Mach 3 and was gone. Just like that.

There’s only one way I know to do that, and it involves gravity. Imagine you’re in a spaceship travelling at a constant velocity. You’re weightless, playing your guitar and playing around with globs of water. Then I snap my gedanken fingers and suddenly there’s a planet beneath you. You and your ship start falling towards it, but you’re still weightless, you don’t feel a thing. You don’t feel your change in direction, you don’t feel the force of gravity. Quite right too, because Einstein’s relativity tells us that gravity isn’t a force in the usual sense. The principle of equivalence compares acceleration with the force you feel when you’re standing on the ground, not the force you don’t feel when you’re falling down. Speaking of which, you continue to fall in an arc towards the planet, then with a snap of my fingers I make the planet go away. You’re now travelling in a different direction altogether. We can repeat this scenario with a smaller denser planet that provides a more intense gravitational field, so tightening the curve, but at no point will you feel any force acting upon you. Take it to the limit and you could even turn sharp corners:


Now, suppose we could fit a device to your ship that generated an external gravitational field. Imagine it’s computer-controlled. Steer left and the field is turned on to the left, so you and your ship freefall left. Put your foot on the accelerator and the field is turned on in front of your ship, so you fall towards it. Hit the accelerator hard and you accelerate hard. Hit the brakes hard and the field is turned on hard behind you. In theory you could be doing Mach 3 then stop on a dime. You don’t hit your head on the dashboard. You don’t defy the laws of physics, but you do defy inertia. And it goes without saying that if you can defy inertia you can defy gravity too. Turn the field on above the ship and balance it against the Earth’s gravitational field, and you could sit in the sky. Turn up that field above your head, and up you go.

Note though that as far as I know there’s no defying conservation of energy. It takes work to lift a brick, and it takes work to lift a spaceship too. You have to add energy. The flip side of this is that the kinetic energy of a falling body comes from the body itself. Neglecting air resistance, a body in free space will fall towards the Earth and hit the ground at 11 km/s. That’s a lot of kinetic energy, and it’s been wrung out of the body because the coordinate speed of light varies in a gravitational field. Assuming the body survives the impact and cools down, its total E=mc² mass-energy is now less than it was in free space. And if we use artificial gravity to lift that body, we aren’t putting any energy back. So I imagine that if you lifted the body too far too fast something very bad would happen.

Or maybe just bad. Maybe every atom of that body would go cold. Dead cold. And that body is your body, so your prototype spaceship would have to be like the Irish joke in reverse. You wouldn’t be going at night, you’d be lifting off slowly, on a warm sunny day. Or maybe you’d have to stoke coal, like the spaceships in Mutant Chronicles. But meh, that’s just minor teething troubles. The main thing is how do we actually make an artificial gravitational field?

Answers on a postcard please. Addressed to NASA.

11 comments on “Science Sunday with John Duffield: UFOs

  1. John B
    November 24, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Since we know airline pilots spend a lot of time sleeping at the controls, we can imagine they also dream.

    We should bear that in mind when listening to their strange reports perhaps.

  2. duffieldjohn
    November 24, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    Yeah yeah. And sometimes they all fall asleep at the same time. And sometimes they have the exact same dream.

  3. Woorde
    November 24, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    Good explanation for the sudden accelerations and change in direction. You don’t sound like someone hooked on ‘little green men’ either and must be aware of the ridicule you could attract. Why are you raising this issue ?

  4. shorelark
    November 24, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    Hi DJ

    “And fair enough, because we just don’t have any hard scientific evidence to support that.”

    That’s besides the point; in all the years of UFO sightings and alien encounters, we have learned no new physics, nothing of any scientific value.

    “There’s only one way I know to do that, and it involves gravity.”

    You appear to have over-looked Newton’s third law, the one that doesn’t sit too well with relativity theory. Or as Archimedes might have expressed it, “Give me a gravity generator and a platform to stand it on and I will move the spaceship.” You can’t have a platform either.

    “The main thing is how do we actually make an artificial gravitational field?”

    Roger Babson was more interested in constructing a gravity screen than a field generator, but there is no theoretical barrier to either. I am not saying they would come cheap, but thought experiments are virtually free.

    It takes but a moment’s reflection to see that a working gravity screen would remove the underpinnings of the principle of equivalence (Einstein) and the experimental verification of the equality of inertial and gravitational mass (Eotvos). No great loss though!

    As for NASA, I imagine they bought the patents long ago, and suppressed them.


    • duffieldjohn
      November 25, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      I think we have learned new physics shorelark, but that some of it is old physics, and that a “not invented here” attitude that promotes mystery has hampered scientific progress.

      I haven’t overlooked Newton’s third law. In a nutshell that’s “for every action there is a reaction”. Take it all the way back to the photon, and its “active gravitational mass” is in essence reaction to action h.

      From what I know of fundamental physics which I like to think is in line with Einstein, I can see no way to create a gravity screen. And I can’t see how NASA would be suppressing any alternative method of propulsion either.

      • shorelark
        November 25, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

        Don’t take it to heart, DJ.

        Nobody in the 19th century knew how a magnetic screen might be achieved, though the close parallels of a dielectric attenuating an electric field or a metal sheet blocking it entirely were well understood. By the end of the 20th century everyone was familiar with the idea.

        Nobody in the 20th century knew how a gravity screen might be achieved, though the close parallels are equally clear. But the 21st century has scarcely begun. Be patient and someone will explain it to you someday.

        As for NASA, if the workings of the reactionless drive became known, their accumulated knowledge and experience would be rendered worthless overnight.


      • duffieldjohn
        November 25, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

        LOL, no probs, shorelark.

        But check out NASA and antigravity (bad name, bad name). If you knew how to make artificial gravity work, NASA wouldn’t suppress it, they’d bite your hand off.

  5. Ron Van Wegen
    November 25, 2013 at 1:32 am #

    In the last twenty years the number of people who have cameras with them at all times has increased, shall we say, rather dramatically. As far as I know the number of photos of ufos has not. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the number of photos of ufos has dropped though I don’t have evidence of this.

    And what in God’s name are all these ufos doing? All they ever do is flit around. Are the “people” who run them insane? If they have this (and presumably other technology) they have a moral duty to share with us and help us with our problems. Since they obviously don’t care about us at all than I hate them. They are evil.

    • duffieldjohn
      November 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

      Ron: the incidence of UFO reports does seem to have dropped. Maybe it’s because everybody’s got a camera. As for the truth behind it, I just don’t know. There’s something of interest, but there’s nothing conclusive. If however aliens really have been flying around in our skies, the impression I get is that they are not evil.

  6. Woorde
    November 25, 2013 at 9:44 am #

    Supposing you were in a speedboat – would you try to explain how it works to the amoeba’s (amoebae ?) in the water ?
    The Mach 3 silver shoe over the Virgin 747 was probably a ‘kid’ learning to ‘roller skate’.

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