Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for June, 2010

Aliens, aliens everywhere


Until the mid 20th century, serious speculation about advanced life forms in our solar system was common place. Nowadays, the illustration above would make a scientist laugh. Click for more wonderful illustrations, one alien for each planet.

What happened? Space exploration happened, we actually sent probes to all these planets, finding nothing of the sort, just desolation. But just as these speculative aliens were being killed by science, Ufology appeared and soon enough, much more naive versions of aliens – exactly like humans at first – would emerge and evolve to the Grey alien archetype.

Not that this archetype was something new, on the contrary, fantasy was dealing with them long before they were described as real aliens.


Martin Kottmeyer wrote an amazing series on the subject in Magonia: Varicose Brains.

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Laser Stars? Laser Planets!


I always assumed lasers were one of the things we technological apes were first to create in the Universe, much like a watch. If there’s a watch, there must be a watchmaker, as one chap famously argued. He was quite right, though the analogy doesn’t quite apply to other seemingly complex things which are subject to that evolution thing.

But lasers can be as delicate and complex as a watch. If there is a laser, there should be a “lasermaker”, I thought, so much so that they were first built only 50 years ago, decades after the idea was first proposed by none other than Albert Einstein and many years after their predecessors, the Masers, were demonstrated. And there can’t be self-reproducing lasers, right?

Well, as far as we know, that’s also right, and there are also no animals capable of emitting lasers, the baby above being a work of fiction which I suspect involves Photoshop (I can tell by the pixels).

But today I discovered at long last that there are natural lasers. This is quite a thing, as even if you already knew about that, I’ll say it also involves Martians! HG Wells! And Alien Abductions!


First things first, as the acronym properly tells, the LASER, or Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, works by stimulated emission, which can be used as an amplification effect by exciting a medium to obtain a population inversion. In the first Ruby laser, seen above, that worked by exciting a ruby crystal with small impurities through a coiled flash tube at just the right energy. It does resemble a watch, doesn’t it? It’s quite a gadget. That’s how I pictured the classical laser.

Shortly thereafter, gas lasers, where an electric discharge stimulates a gas, instead of a flashing light a crystal, were created. These are the ones of interest if you are talking about natural lasers, because it would be quite impractical to think of giant crystals with flashing lights pumps occurring in nature. A column of excited gas on the other hand could perhaps happen somewhere, sometime.

For instance, one tantalizing idea involves creating laser beams by dropping a large asteroid into a star. It would vaporize, producing a streak of slightly cooler material interacting with the hot, excited plasma of the star. An excited column of gas amid a star. According to theory, “amplified spontaneous emission, or laser action occurs”, with a beam emitted “as a narrow precisely aligned with the meteor streak”. And this is just one proposed way for a natural Laser Star.

Superlaser2 (Custom)

If that sounds interesting, it’s still somewhat debated. What is not speculation, and has actually been astronomical fact for more than 30 years, is that there are laser planets. Or better yet, that Mars and Venus atmospheres are emitting laser beams. Towards Earth!

In 1976 they were first observed coming from Mars by students of Charles Townes, himself a Nobel laureate for his works with Masers and lasers. They were not powerful like anything coming from a Death Star, but they were an emission 100 million times brighter than expected.

mars That would be eventually explained because the emission had been amplificated. It was a laser, a natural laser, where the population inversion in excited gas occurred in carbon dioxide at the upper levels of the atmosphere of Mars. The pump exciting that is the solar radiation itself, and the effect is thus strongest near the solar point. The red circle centered on Chryse Planitia represents the region over which the laser emissions were detected.

Chryse Planitia, by the way, is where the Viking 1 probe landed in that very same year of 1976. Were the Martians defending themselves? This may be a silly joke, but here comes HG Wells.

As many have remarked, “death rays” were a staple of science fiction long before the advent of lasers, even before Albert Einstein proposed the basic concept. In “The War of the Worlds” (1898), Wells gave the Martians a terrible heat ray.

“in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, … Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.”

How appropriate it is, then, than natural lasers were detected coming from Mars, and here’s the amazing detail: as they come from carbon dioxide gas lasers, they are lasers in the near infrared. They are invisible, and are the closest things to a heat ray. Wells was right.

Venus’ atmosphere also emits natural laser, also by the same mechanism, also in the infrared, and in fact there are proposals to help detect extrasolar planets exactly by looking for natural lasers.

So, there you have it, I was completely flabbergasted by nature, all the while assuming the laser was a human marvel when Mars and Venus atmospheres had been beaming not-so-terrible laser heat rays towards me my entire lifetime. HG Wells didn’t know about that, but his science fiction was so good it got that part somewhat right.


I promised this also involved alien abductions, and it does, even though it’s a tenuous connection. One of the episodes of the classic sci-fi series Outer Limits is “The Bellero Shield”, aired in 1964 shortly after the invention of laser.

The story involves a scientist who sends a powerful beam to space. An alien comes down the beam, using it as means of travelling, and among the many things he says, telepathically, he tells how “In all the universes, in all the unities beyond the universes, all who have eyes have eyes that speak."

This quote would be important because in an hypnosis session a few days later, Barney Hill, of the famous Hill alien abduction case, would say that the aliens who abducted him had “eyes that spoke”. Add that to the fact that the drawings he made of the alien are quite similar to the TV show alien, as you can see above (the sketches (L), the sci-fi alien (R)), and you get one amazing bit of psychosocial hypothesis applied to ufology by Martin Kottmeyer in “The Eyes that Spoke”.

One last thing, and this was just the last surprise I had. By reading the Laser Stars website, I recognized one name. Dr Donald H. Menzel was one of the pioneers to suggest laser action in atmospheres. If you know your ufology, Menzel was the also the pioneer UFO skeptibunker.

Mind. Blown. [with many thanks to Igor Zolnerkevic]

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Zooming into a Mandelbox

Split point”, the new video by teamfresh deep zooming a fractal, this time a 3D Mandelbox.

The color palette and the nice quality rendering emphasize the similarity with architecture, perhaps gothic. The fact it resembles a box also reminded me of the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser.

Teamfresh also produced a deep zoom into the good ol’Mandebrot set. [via misterhonk]

Popularity: 3% [?]

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Schrödinger’s cat


Has finally been found. [Akermarks, via Elton!]

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New column for the CSI: Counterclockwise


I started to write a new column for the renewed website of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a great honor as CSICOP was one of the initiatives that led me to write, among other things, this very blog (and a major skeptical website in Brazil). And as a Brazilian, I will try to write more about things around here, thus the title, ‘Counterclockwise’, referring to a common misconception. Water can drain counterclockwise in this hemisphere.

For my first column, I wrote about the photo above. The man in sunglasses is Francisco “Chico” Xavier, one of the most respected mediums and religious leaders in Brazil. What seems to be simply someone covered in a white sheet in the center is allegedly the ectoplasmic materialization of sister Josefa. Yes, we had materialization seánces taken very seriously in Brazil in the 1960s. And they are still taken seriously by many.

Be sure to read the whole story about Spiritualism in Brazil: Alive and Kicking.

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