Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A white transparent ghost?

Blury bushThe two men stopped, politely, while I took my photos so as not to intrude into the shots. After I'd finished they asked me what I was photographing. It was a reasonable question as, to the casual observer, there was nothing remarkable about the bushes. Indeed, as you can see in the resulting photo (right), there isn't much going on in this photo, though you may notice some white blurred objects. And those were, indeed, my subjects.

Had I taken this photo without noticing the blurry objects, which would have been very easy, I might have been puzzled when I later examined the photos. The photo could easily have been reported as paranormal. Maybe even a photo of a ghost, perhaps! Ghosts are often seen as white, transparent and fuzzy in TV ghost stories. In real life cases, by contrast, ghosts are usually reported as looking like perfectly solid normal-looking human figures. If anyone knows of any reports of fuzy transparent ghosts (not involving photos), I'd love to hear about them.

Blurry bush 2Anyway, I took a second set of photos of the same scene. This time I set the focus manually so I could get the blurry white objects clearer. As you can see (right) I didn't entirely succeed as they were constantly flying about. They are midges. The passers-by seemed impressed that I was photographing such a subject, when I told them, though I'm not sure why.

In this second photo you can see that many of the midges have become flying rods. Others appear more insect-like. Some insects are flying horizontal to the camera, so appearing a linear rods. Others are flying towards, or away from, the camera and so look more like ordinary insects.

But why are the insects all white when, in fact, midges are nearer to black in colour? It's because they are overexposed. The camera is set to correctly expose the main subject of the photo, the bush, leaving the insects overexposed.

So in the first photo, you have some overexposed and out of focus insects in front of a bush. They are so blurred that they overlap, giving an overall cloudy appearance which some people might think looks like a ghost. It would certainly be a puzzle to anyone taking such a photo who hadn't noticed the midges at the time. If I'd told the pass

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Of course I remember you ...

I could not work what the greeting was exactly, as it was shouted from a moving van, but I knew it was meant for me. The man was leaning out of the window smiling at me. I realized, to my embarrassment, that I didn't recognise him though he clearly knew me! I stared at his retreating form, unsure whether to smile or wave. In the end I did neither. In the meantime was mind was in overdrive. I tried to imagine what someone I hadn't met for years might look like today. But I still drew a blank.

Then, on an impulse, I looked behind me. There, just a few metres away, was a man who could have been the brother of the one in the van. It became obvious that the greeting was meant for this other person and I just happened to be directly in the line of sight! So mystery over - it was just a coincidence. But I did wonder, what if I had never looked round? I would still be wondering how the van man knew me and where from. And what made me turn round? I suppose the unconscious bit of my brain had guessed the solution to the puzzle even if the conscious bit had not!

It was not a startling coincidence as these things go. But so many coincidences can be readily interpreted as paranormal - see here for some examples and more explanation. For an excellent set of coincidences, see the Cambridge Coincidences Collection here.

So how weird does a coincidence have to be for it to be considered paranormal? Is it a one in million chance? One in a billion? Or is it when it is considered meaningful by the people involved? It's an almost impossible question to answer and, perhaps, for another day!

Friday, 14 June 2013

Seriously Strange gets bigger!

If you have been keeping an eye on the speakers list for this year's Seriously Strange conference, you'll have noticed it has been getting longer and longer over the last few weeks. And there is a list of activities that shows more stuff going on than at the first conference, two years ago. And there is even a chance to get more involved in the event itself. You could do a mini-presentation on your own research, for instance, or volunteer to help run the conference. And, of course, you can apply for tickets!     

Friday, 7 June 2013

But what else happened when you saw the ghost?

I've been thinking about the various times when I've seen ghosts, many of which are documented in this blog. I can remember what happened in each case in some detail. However, when I try to remember what else happened at the time of the sighting, I can't say for certain. I know, in general terms, what was going on. In most cases I was out walking, always somewhere familiar to me. But if I try to remember exactly what happened on that particular walk, apart from seeing a ghost, I can't honestly remember.

So I tried an experiment recently. I attempted to remember the individual details of exactly happened the last time I made one of these routine walks. I tried to recall exactly what I saw, what the weather was like, whether I did anything different to usual, if anything unusual happened and so on. I found that I could picture myself making the walk but only in general terms. I could not recall the details. I knew what route I walked and I could describe what it looked like in detail. But I could say what I saw specifically on that particular day. My memories of a familiar walk are probably drawn from many different occasions.

And where I CAN recall specific details, like the weather, I wonder if it is actually the result of confabulation. For instance, I can recall the weather on the occasion in question - it was mainly sunny. Though I remember the walk as sunny, I'm not sure if that is a true memory or just my brain recalling 'what must have happened'.

When it comes to things I do habitually, I cannot say for sure what happened on any particular occasion, even when it was very recent. I do have a poor memory so perhaps this is a problem particular to me. But I suspect it is more widespread than that. But why does it matter?

Well, if someone sees a ghost while doing some routine task, it may mean that their recall of what else was going on at the same time could be non-existent or simply wrong. And what is going on 'at the same time' can be crucial to explaining a ghost sighting. The lighting might be important to seeing a misperception, for instance. But if the witness can't remember the lighting, or recalls it incorrectly, a xenonormal explanation might be ruled out when it should not be.

This is just one reason why it is crucial for investigators to examine the site of a sighting in as close to the original conditions as possible. And if the witness can't recall the weather, for instance, it can be checked with meteorological records for the date, time and location of the sighting. A site visit is also crucial to test if the witness remembers details correctly. For instance, you might discover that the witness could not have seen particular features of the landscape from where they say they stood during the incident. They may actually have been in another location nearby instead. Such details can change the list of likely natural explanations completely.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Just how far away is that UFO?

UFOI recently photographed this UFO (pic right). It has a 'classic' saucer shape, though tilted diagonally. So what is it?

Before speculating we need to know its size and distance. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to judge the distance of an unknown object in the sky. With a recognizable object we would know the size and could therefore estimate its distance. Otherwise it could equally be a very close insect, a distant balloon or maybe a stick thrown into the air nearby. I included the bushes in the shot to show that even having known objects in the same photo does not really help, unless they are physically in contact with the object.

There is a way in which you can very roughly estimate whether an object is nearby or far away in a photo. If you look at a photo containing objects at different distances, those nearer will often appear just slightly clearer. That applies even when all the objects visible are perfectly in focus. You can see the effect best in a line of identical objects stretching into the distance. The furthest objects look slightly less well defined because they have fewer pixels to show their details. In addition, distant objects might well be affected by atmospheric haze.

There are a number of confounding factors which make this 'clarity' effect not particularly reliable. For instance, as well as distance clarity is affected by such things as focussing, illumination and the objects appearance. Having said that, in general, a nearby toy balloon will look clearer than a distant plane, if both are equally well in focus and illuminated in the same way (try the UFO gallery for some examples).

UFOSo, while you could never use this technique to say that a UFO 'must be 3km away', you might be able to say that it looks roughly as clear as a nearby set of buildings and is probably a similar distance away. In the original of the photo above, the object does look roughly as clear as the nearby trees implying that it is probably at a similar distance, rather than much closer or further off. If so, that would eliminate a nearby insect or distant aircraft. Luckily, I know what the object is because the photo is actually a grab shot from a video. A few frames on from the photo above, the object looks different (see second photo, right).

You can now see the object is clearly a bird! It is flying left and diagonally downwards. A close examination of the original video suggests that it is a Woodpigeon, which would make it around 27 cm long, something I could not have worked out just from the photo. The bird is further away than the trees though probably not by much.

So, though you can use the 'clarity' of an object in the sky in a photo to give you a very rough idea of how far it is away, there are many possible confounding factors to consider. At best, the method can be useful, with experience, in giving you at least some idea of what type of objects to consider first when trying to identify a UFO in a photo.