Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ghost insects?

Crows in a treeMost paranormal experiences are seen or heard. A small number concern anomalous smells. But occasionally odd things happen that we can only detect through the sense of touch.

Recently, I stepped on 'something' with my bare feet. Disturbingly, it tickled and moved! I removed my foot hastily, assuming I'd stepped on an insect or spider. When I looked closely and carefully at the floor I could see nothing. I was not wearing my glasses (short-sighted) but, even so, I can usually see insects quite plainly without them. I have never come across a report of a ghost insect but, given that people report ghost animals, I don't see why they shouldn't exist.

A little later, I happened to be wiping the floor when I came across something in the exact place where I'd felt the 'insect'. It was a small piece of clear plastic film, probably shrink wrap. It blended in so well with its surroundings, I only found it when I moved it with a cloth. I tried standing on it and, sure enough, it moved under my foot, feeling uncannily like something small and alive!

We tend to rely far less on touch, compared to sight and sound, to get an idea of what is around us. However, there are occasions, like this one, when touch is all we have to go on. Personally, I don't think touch is particularly reliable on its own. And, even when combined with information from other senses, it can often give a misleading impression of our surroundings. When ghost vigils are held in the dark, touch can become a key, and often unreliable, source of information. I think we should always treat paranormal reports based largely on touch with caution (see here for a more dramatic example).

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Paper defies gravity

Paper standing on edgeI dropped a small sheet of paper and watched, helplessly, as it fluttered to the ground. I wanted to know where it landed because it was important and I could easily have lost it under nearby furniture. What I saw next was the most astonishing thing I've seen in years! The piece of paper not only landed on its edge but then stayed there, fully upright and motionless, for all of a second before it fell on its side. I tried to reproduce the feat again and again with the same bit of paper at the same location. I couldn't even get the paper to land on its edge, far less remain upright defying gravity. The incident reminded me of the sort of apparently physics-defying events I've read about in poltergeist cases.

The photo (right) shows an identical sheet of paper standing on its edge, just like the one described above. Having failed to get a sheet to stand upright on its own, the photo had to be digitally manipulated to remove the support used!

So how could this bizarre event possibly happen, if not by paranormal influence? If a piece of paper is dropped, it flutters to the ground travelling from side to side, as well as downwards. I found this article on the subject of falling flat objects. It is clear that falling paper does odd things, like actually rising for part of the time during its descent.

Falling paper points in all sorts of different directions as it falls, including vertically upwards sometimes. So there is a tiny chance it can land on its edge. In fact, the odds against this happening by chance are probably not that huge. If you drop a piece of paper enough times, it WILL land on its edge eventually. But the real puzzle is how it can it remain upright, even for a second?

A piece of paper standing on its edge is in unstable equilibrium. The slightest force on either side of the paper and it will topple over. Although this incident happened indoors, where wind would not be a factor, there are always slight convective currents of air present everywhere. These are always likely to be strong enough to push the paper over. So how could the paper that fell stay upright for a whole second?

It could happen if the air currents on the two sides of the sheet happened, for a time, to be of equal force and opposite direction. This might happen if the currents caused by the paper falling combined with ambient convection currents so that they cancelled each other out across the paper. The odds against this happening by chance are probably quite high. However, without knowing what the air currents look like for a falling sheet of paper, it's difficult to say. It might be that, due to way the paper descends, if it happens to land on its edge, the air currents might often tend to be just right to support it for a second or two. The most difficult bit might actually be getting the paper to land on its edge.

Given that nothing even remotely paranormal has ever been experienced in the location where this incident happened, a natural explanation, like that suggested here, seems the most likely possibility.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A feather not falling

Feather People who don't believe in ghosts might well start to, if they see one. But, of course, things aren't always quite what they appear. Take the photo of a feather (right), taken recently. Would it make you believe in levitation?

The photo shows a feather, apparently in mid-air with nothing supporting it in that position. The picture is reasonably sharp and has not been altered in any way (except cropping of stuff around the edges). So what can we conclude, just looking at the photo?

The most obvious possibility is that the feather was caught in mid-air as it fell slowly towards the ground. Or it might have been blown into the air by a stiff breeze, perhaps. The photographer, however, says the feather actually remained in mid-air all the time, juddering a little. So could it have been levitating in some way?

A close inspection of the feather, by the photographer at the time, showed that it was caught in a spider's web. You can't see the web in the photo but there is a blurred bluish linear object just below the feather. That is a bit of the web, diffracting sunlight.

The point is this: the photo on its own could not answer the question of how the feather was apparently floating in space. Nor could a naked eye view from the distance where the photo was taken. And that is a problem with many reports of the paranormal. Vital bits of information that could explain what is going on are not, and in many cases could not, be noticed by the witness.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Why I didn't see a stoat

Apparent foxAs an amateur naturalist, I am always on the lookout for animals. I mention this because when people look at this photo there's a good chance they're going to say 'what fox?'. Yes, when I saw the scene pictured (right) with the naked eye I thought the object just to right the bush was a fox. To me, the animal was sitting in the grass, facing right.

The 'fox' was a misperception. I have discovered that it is possible to photograph misperceptions (see here) so some people may indeed see a fox in the picture, just as I did at the time.

After noticing the 'fox', I then looked at it in greater detail. It soon stopped being a fox but it wasn't obvious what it really was. The 'head', though broadly the right shape, looked too small for a fox. Indeed, the whole 'fox' looked too small. In fact, the object more closely resembled a stoat or even an otter. While a fox would have been entirely possible at the photo location, a stoat would have been unlikely and an otter incredibly unlikely.

Apparent foxSo why didn't I see a stoat at the time? Well, misperception uses visual memory. I see foxes fairly frequently, maybe once or twice a week. Stoats I hardly ever see. So I saw something I remembered much better. Some people might have seen a more exotic animal, maybe even a cryptid.

So what was the 'fox' in reality? I have a closer photo (right) but I wish now I'd got a better one. It is clearly a pile of sticks and senescent leaves but I couldn't say how it came into being without a better look. The second photo was taken from a different angle and the object doesn't obviously resemble an animal any more.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Low flying UFOs

I occasionally come across UFO photos that show a dark blurred object in the sky that could be anything. Nothing unusual about that except that the object appears to be IN FRONT of nearby trees or buildings! And the UFO was generally not noticed at the time of exposure.

It is difficult to tell the size of an object in the sky unless you know its distance. And you can't tell its distance unless you know what kind of object it is. You can tell how far a plane is away, for instance, by seeing how big it looks in the sky and by knowing its approximate physical dimensions. However, with an unidentified object, you don't know its dimensions because you don't know what it is! The only way to tell the distance of an unknown aerial object is if it interacts with something of known distance. Obviously, if it is seen in front of an object like a cloud or mountain, it must be closer than those things. So anything in front of nearby buildings or trees is going to be small and close.

DragonflySo what might these blurry objects, that are closer than nearby trees, be? I had an idea but it was reinforced by something I saw the other day. I was looking out of a first floor window when I noticed several dragonflies flying by. We normally associate dragonflies with water and low level flight. But, in this case they were flying at around 3m height and nowhere near any body of water.

I would never have noticed these dragonflies if I hadn't happened to be looking out of the window. I certainly wouldn't have noticed them from below, unless I happened to look up. But what if I'd taken a photo of the building from the outside? The building would be in the photo, obviously. And in front of it a dark blur. The blur would arise either from the object's motion or its being out of focus. Or both! And it's unlikely that I would have noticed the dragonflies at the time of exposure.

So what were these dragonflies up to, away from their usual watery habitat? It is possible they were migrating. Relatively few dragonfly species migrate. But some do. Of course, this is only one possible cause of low-flying small UFOs. Others might include birds, model planes or even drones. Just like ghost sightings, there are more than one cause.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What UFOs and ghosts do NOT have in common!

UFOThe Rendlesham UFO case was the subject of last night's Seriously Strange London lecture. You can get an idea of speaker Ian Ridpath's investigation results at his website on the case here. Anyway, one of the points that emerged in the ensuing discussion was an idea about why there don't appear to be any 'big' new UFO cases, like Rendlesham, any more. This trend was a major topic of ASSAP's UFO conference in 2012.

The idea that emerged last night concerned modern technology. Most people now carry a video camera everywhere, in their mobile phones, so if they see a UFO they can record it easily. And then they can upload the video to the internet for others to view and comment on. And, in many cases, the objects will turn out to be readily identifiable as terrestrial objects. For example, see this video featuring orange UFOs in a triangular formation or this one showing a strange light in the sky.

Thus, modern technology can help to rapidly explain what might otherwise be puzzling UFO sightings. Before the internet and mobile phone, we generally only had eye witness accounts of UFO sightings to rely on. And as investigators know, witness accounts can be inaccurate due to things such as misperception and the peculiarities of human memory.

All of this appears a highly plausible explanation for the lack of contemporary 'big' UFO cases like Rendlesham. But what about ghosts? There seems no reason to think that people who see ghosts are any less likely to be carrying a mobile phone than UFO witnesses. But there are very few, if any, photos of ghosts showing exactly what a witness saw at the time. There are plenty of photos of apparent ghosts not seen at the time of exposure. I say 'apparent' because in the vast majority of such cases that I've examined, the 'ghost' was actually a photographic artefact. So the question remains, why the lack of photos showing ghosts as the witness saw them?

I think there are several possible explanations. Firstly, in many cases, the witness was not actually aware they were watching a ghost at the time they saw it. Secondly, many ghost sightings occur when people are not fully conscious, as in near sleep experiences. In both of these cases, it is highly unlikely the witness would have taken a photo at all. Thirdly, some people may actually take a photo of a ghost but later find there is 'nothing there' when they view the resulting picture. I say 'nothing there' because if the ghost sighting was a misperceived tree, for instance, it will be in the picture but there will be no human figure! The witness would probably conclude that either the ghost was a hallucination or that it could not be photographed.

I suspect all these factors, and maybe others, play a part in the absence of such ghost photos. If anyone knows of a photo, on the web, showing a ghost just as it appeared to the witness taking the photo, please let me know! I am still trying to do achieve this myself as my last post explains.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Aiming to photograph a ghost!

When you're no longer young, you don't tend to have fewer ambitions. But there is still one that burns brightly in me - to photograph a ghost! There are many photos around purporting to show ghosts but, of the ones I've personally examined, most are photographic artefacts. But what I want is the real thing! Not too much to ask, surely?

To make the idea a bit more practical, I have set three specific conditions that would make a photo count in fulfilling my ambition. Here they are:

  • I must see the ghost as a real human figure at the time of exposure, even though it turns out not to be one
  • The photo must appear to show a human figure, if not to me then to at least one other person
  • it mustn't be a simple photographic artefact

The first condition means that it could be a misperception ghost, for instance, but not a hallucination. And obviously, if it was a real person, it couldn't be a ghost! With the second condition, I acknowledge that once I've realised the figure is not really a human, I might never see it as one again, in the photo or in real life. But if at least one other person DOES see it as a human in the photo, that will do. The third condition rules out all the common ghost photos where nothing odd is seen the time of exposure.

Ideally, I'd like the object to look unmistakably like a human figure, even to me, in the photo. I think this is possible because I've recently found that misperceptions can be photographed in such a way that they still work as a picture. See here for details including an example. That would be the ultimate ghost photo for me! So, whenever I have a camera in my hand, I am always on the lookout for a suitable ghost. It hasn't happened yet but I keep looking.

Tree stump as ghostThen unexpectedly, the other day, I came close to fulfilling my ambition without even taking a new photo! Someone saw one of my photos and thought it showed a human figure! It was a figure I photographed last year and described here. The photo is reprinted here (right). I said at the time that the tree stump (which is what the object really was) still resembled a human figure to me even in the photo but no one else, at the time, said they saw anything! So when, quite by chance, someone saw the photo, without knowing anything about it, and described it as a human figure, I was surprised and gratified.

While this photo technically satisfies my three conditions, it is a tiny 'figure'. I'm sure a much bigger, more obvious one could be produced. I could add a fourth condition concerning size but then it starts to look messy!

So the search goes on!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Phantom birds and ghost keys

Not crow under treeIn the last few days I've seen two phantom crows and been mystified by an invisible ghostly rattling of keys. I'll go through these mysterious incidents in the order they happened.
Firstly, I saw a black object on a path that, in the corner of my eye, was a crow. As an avid birder, I can never resist looking at birds, even those species I've seen thousands of time. I suppose I could justify it by saying that crows are intelligent birds and you never know what new stuff you might see one do. The truth is, I just like watching them!
Anyway, as I looked more carefully at the 'crow', it turned into a plant growing in a tiny gap between a paving slab and the tarmac of the adjacent road. The plant's shape was vaguely reminiscent of a crow but the colour definitely green. Of course, peripheral vision tends to towards monochrome which would explain the colour discrepancy. Peripheral vision also distorts shapes, to some extent. So, mystery number one dealt with.
Not a crow eitherThe second mystery was another crow. I saw this one in direct vision. What is more, I got a photo of it (above right)! The bird is the dark object on the grass in the very centre of the photo. Though seen from some distance off, it is the right size and where where you'd expect to see a crow! Except it isn't one. As the second, telephoto, photo (right) shows, the object is a clump of leaves hanging by a fine branch from the tree above. The leaves appear senescent which would explain they look darker than those in the rest of the tree. From a distance, as the upper photo shows, the leaves look black.
The simple dark colouration of a crow probably explains why they are the most frequent bird that I 'see' that turns out to be a misperception of something else. There are plenty of objects around that, when seen in the shade, can appear black overall from a distance.
The third mystery is completely different. I was walking along a street when I happened to hear some keys jangling behind me. Out of curiosity I turned to see who it was. To my utter astonishment there was no one there! It was a quiet street with wide verges, no traffic at the time and almost nowhere to hide in the second or two it took me to turn round. Could this be a ghost?
I looked all around but could see nowhere that anyone could have gone without my seeing them. Then I heard someone talking. I looked around and saw there was a person in a car nearby, talking on a phone with their window open. This could easily have been the person with the rattling keys. I hadn't noticed anyone in the parked car until I heard them speak. I guess I tend to assume that parked cars are going to be empty!
So, how come I notice all these little mysteries all the time? For the 'crows', it is my tendency to notice misperception. For the 'keys incident', I think it's because I tend to always be on the lookout for odd things, not just when I'm in a haunted location. I've found that there are a lot more strange things going on than you might think. Most people, most of the time, simply don't notice them.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

And still it moves

Moving stillI saw a photo on a wall recently and one small bit of the picture was continually moving. I assumed it was a flat video screen of the type that commonly hangs on walls these days. I was disconcerted to discover, on closer examination, that it was actually a still photo mounted on board! And yet, a small part of the picture continued to move. An anomaly indeed! How was it possible?

There are, of course, examples of static pictures that appear to move (see here, for instance). However, such pictures usually consist of highly artificial patterns. But is it possible to see motion in still photos of natural subjects? If so, it might be possible to see anomalous movement in static objects in every day life.

To investigate, I tried to reproduce the photo I saw. It consisted of a word, in large type, photographed using what photographers call the 'zoom effect'. The bit that 'moved' was a single letter. The zoom effect looks as though the camera is moving towards, or away from, the subject during the exposure. I reproduced this effect using the front page of the latest issue of ASSAP's own Seriously Strange magazine, for its large headlines. I took lots of photos and most showed nothing odd.

Moving still with pointerHowever, a couple of photos DID show a faint hint of apparent movement. Of course, it may just be me, perhaps because I often notice misperception. But maybe some other people might see it too (particularly others who notice misperception). The best example is shown above. You will see some zoomed words too blurred to be read easily. However, there is a white trapezoid area (indicated by the arrow in the second version of the photo - right) which appears to move. Specifically, the nearest edge looks as though it is continually advancing and retreating. At least, it does to me. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who can see this apparent movement.

The apparent motion in artificial patterns has been explained as a result of microsaccades (see here). That may be the explanation here too, but I'm not so sure. I wonder if this one is more a brain thing than an eye thing. The reason I say that is because the zoom effect gives the visual appearance of movement. It might be deceiving the watching brain into seeing illusory movement in certain specific circumstances in the same way that pictorial perspective can sometimes mislead. I only found this effect in a tiny number of similar photos, so it probably only occurs for very specific circumstances.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Paranormal signatures

No duckWhat 'signature' would a strange incident need to have to be considered paranormal? I would say it should appear to defy the currently known laws of science. I think most people would probably agree with that. People don't actually talk about 'paranormal signatures' so I had to think of a term to describe the concept, making it easier to discuss.

I think we all have an idea of what the paranormal looks like, probably based largely on media representations. Certain 'paranormal signatures' appear to have become generally recognized without anyone ever defining them. For instance, something that appears in a photograph which was not seen by the photographer at the time of exposure. While this could be a sign of something paranormal going on it also happens to be a key characteristic of photographic artefacts. Of the many thousands of anomalous photos I've personally examined, the overwhelming majority were, as far as I could determine, photographic artefacts. That being the case, this particular signature would appear to be rather unreliable as an indicator of the paranormal.

DuckAnother paranormal signature that appears to be commonly accepted is the one concerning multiply witnessed ghosts. If a whole group of witnesses all describe seeing the same ghost it certainly can't be a hallucination. However, it could be a real person in a place where no expects them to be! But what about cases where some people in a group of witnesses see the ghost while others don't? That still rules out hallucinations, if two or more people describe seeing the same thing. And if the remaining witnesses see nothing unusual, that pretty much rules out a normal person too! So it must be paranormal, right?

In fact, some witnesses seeing something unusual while others do not is also a signature of misperception. That's because people vary a lot in whether they notice misperceptions or not. In a group of witnesses it is likely that some people may see a human figure (and agree on its features) while others will see only a tree! So, again, we have a signature that, while commonly recognised, may not be a reliable way of detecting the paranormal after all.

What about seemingly completely obvious signatures such as an object observed flying through the air in a poltergeist case? Well, in many cases the witness did not see the object take off, so it is possible that it fell or was thrown. It turns out that many of these widely accepted paranormal signatures actually have significant flaws. It seems that, just because you see something that apparently defies the laws of science, it isn't necessarily paranormal after all.

PS: The photos? Well, if you saw one of these scenes with your naked eye but your camera recorded the other, that would seem like a possible indication of the paranormal at work. In fact, the upper photo took mere seconds to edit from from lower one!