This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The "Science" of UFOs

Last night I watched a show called “UFO Files” on the History Channel. Basically, a bunch of guys from UFO magazine run around the country investigating various UFO sightings and trying to sound scientific while doing so. Now I’ve always enjoyed reading about or watching shows that deal with unexplained phenomena, conspiracy theories, or alternative explanations, especially if they’re done well. In this case, the show was standard fare, using ominous music and slow motion videos to turn everyday occurrences into mysterious events. And as you might expect, their results were “inconclusive”.

What I found most amusing however, was their attempt to make everything sound as scientific as possible. Now trying to dress up somewhat dubious theories with the cloak of science is not particularly new. Try Googling “chakras,” for example, and you’ll find that each of us is apparently surrounded with colored auras which indicate our well being. You will also find the name “Isaac Newton” invoked fairly often due to his work with light. Isaac may not have known anything about chakras, but chakras sure sound a hell of a lot more scientific after mentioning his name.

I won’t go into detail about some of the crazier things they tried, although having one guy attempt to search over 6000 square feet of lake bottom for “suspicious” slag-like material that may have been left 60 years ago gives you the general idea. But like I said earlier, sounding scientific was more important than actually finding any real evidence of UFOs. Unfortunately, the UFO investigators are fairly clueless about science. X-ray analysis of an aluminum sample revealed the presence of (gasp!) aluminum oxide and was considered very significant. Several minutes were spent explaining ground penetrating radar and its use, despite the fact that their GPR failed to work properly and generated no data. And to prove the theory that UFO-based slag can burn through aluminum (don’t ask), an expert apparently used the thermite reaction to impress the viewers with pyrotechnics. Now I do not begrudge these guys’ their attempt at making a living, but if you’ve ever wondered how the general public thinks science works, just watch this show.

Edit: I watched another episode and discovered that a UFO encounter happened less than 10 miles from where I work. Yikes! Perhaps I need to pay more attention to this stuff!

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