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So, you are out one night and you see an object in the sky that you can’t quite explain. You have never seen anything quite like it in your life before. Could it be an alien spacecraft? Have you had a Close Encounter of the Third Kind?

An alien visitation would be a truly outstanding occurrence if it were validated scientifically. It would possibly rank as the greatest discovery ever since science began. For centuries however, astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been looking into the skies without ever finding good evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Given our knowledge of the Universe, this is not surprising. Although there are many billions of stars around us, the distances involved are stupendously large. The practical difficulties involved for alien spacecraft traveling to Earth beggar belief. This is not to say it is impossible; just very unlikely. When you see a strange light in the sky, you should not jump to the conclusion that you have seen a UFO. Other, more mundane explanations are possible in the majority of cases.

Here’s a quick guide to some strange lights in the night sky, and what they might be.

  • Steady moving lights, flashing each second, possibly green or red; sometimes very bright white lights.

It’s likely to be an aircraft. This is probably a trivial case as most people are aware of what planes look like at night. Near airports, planes can have very bright landing lights turned on that can drown out any flashing beacons.

  • Steady moving light with no flashing. Moving slowly. Seen after sunset or before sunrise. Can be very bright, but usually quite dim objects. May disappear almost instantaneously.

You may have seen an artificial satellite. There are hundreds of satellites in the sky, normally only visible in the night sky after sun-down, when the light is still shining on them. The sudden disappearance happens when it moves into the Earth’s shadow. If the light is very bright, it is likely that you have just seen the International Space Station, quite a common sight in our skies these days.

  • Orange flickering light, floating around 50 to 100 metres above the ground. May dim slowly after a few minutes.

You have possibly seen a Chinese Lantern, a small, inexpensive hot-air balloon made out of paper and wire. Chinese Lanterns have become very common around the country at celebrations, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

  • Steady bright light. No apparent movement. May be close to horizon or visible in the southern sky. Much brighter than surrounding stars.

It’s possible you have seen Jupiter or Venus, two surprisingly bright planets at certain times of the year. After the Moon, these two objects are the brightest objects in the night sky.

  • A very bright point of light in the sky. It lasts momentarily, then disappears again. Object may move slowly. So bright you might even see it during the day.

You may have seen an Iridium Flare, essentially the reflection of a low-orbit Iridium satellite, originally used to provide satellite mobile communications. The reflections can be surprisingly bright.

  • Very bright green or red light in the sky, about 200 metres above ground. Appears to move slowly.

You may have seen an emergency flare. This is a very bright firework, shot up in the sky as a distress signal to nearby shipping. In Ireland, flares are often sent up during celebrations like the New Year.

  • Fast moving bright object. May travel a large distance across the sky in a split second. Possibly a greenish colour associated with the event.

You may have seen a fireball. This is a rocky object from space that has collided with the Earth’s atmosphere, heating up and exploding on impact. It may also be a satellite re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Such an event is worth noting! You should make a note of your observation with the International Meteor Organisation.

  • Strange diffuse lights, illuminating clouds. Moving rapidly, possibly rhythmically. There may be more than one light in the sky.

You may have seen the effect of searchlights shining up on clouds. Local festivals and event organisers sometimes use searchlights to attract attention to their shows at night.

Other sightings may have arisen from light reflections, optical illusions or mistaken identity. It may be that the witnesses were very tired at the time or under the influence of drugs or medication, or they may have been the subject or originator of a deliberate hoax. The key thing is to always discount the more mundane answers before ever jumping to improbable conclusions.

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It’s a common story with astronomy enthusiasts. You are at a party or with friends when a friend introduces you as a person having an interest in astrology. You smile politely and gently correct them, but in the back of your mind you realise that they didn’t really get it. After all your explaining, you still expect to be called “the horoscope guy” later on. To many people, astrology and astronomy are different sides of the same coin.

Indeed, on a very superficial level, astronomy and astrology are quite similar. They are both concerned with the stars and planets, they both have very ancient pedigrees and are accompanied by a vast body of literature. Both astrology and astronomy are highly prominent in modern culture as any newspaper or magazine will attest. They both deal with future predictions and people involved in a professional level take their expertise very seriously.

However the astronomical and astrological camps are very, very different, and it is very rare to find an astronomer who has any regard for astrology whatsoever. (The opposie is probably not the case, but astrologers don’t particularly like astronomers so much). So what is wrong? Is it a case of snobbishness from the astronomical community? Professional rivalry perhaps? Or a conspiracy theory against the hard-working astrologers?

The answer is somewhat different. Fundamentally, astronomy and astrology are quite different philosophically.

Astronomy is a scientific philosophy. Astronomy is based primarily on the evidence, the facts. Beliefs about what these facts mean come second. All beliefs are tested and if they fail the tests, they are rejected. If they pass all the tests they are accepted as true, or at least provisionally true until new evidence becomes available. In this way, astronomy has been very successful in changing what were once strongly cherished beliefs – the belief that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth, for instance, or the belief that the universe was timeless, even that time itself was somehow outside of the universe; all these ideas have perished as better data and better knowledge came on the scene.

Not so with astrology. With astrology, the beliefs themselves come first, with facts and evidence coming a poor second place. One of the strongest beliefs in astrology is that the stars and planets affect us in all sorts of ways. They guide our personalities, our moods and our fortunes in life. Now, this is a testable proposition and yet no evidence has ever been found to back up these claims. Furthermore, it is not a particularly plausible proposition given the enormous distances between astronomical bodies and ourselves on Earth and the lack of any coherent mechanism that would link the position and movement of the planets with the human psyche. The basic beliefs behind astrology therefore are magical, miraculous – somehow outside the realm of normal experience and scientific understanding.

Yet the beliefs persist. Plenty of people will tell you that astrology works. As proof they will often claim direct personal experience. The charts indicated that something would happen, and it did – exactly as described. The horoscopes gave a reading of their personalities with breathtaking accuracy. How could this happen?

The answer lies, not so much with the effectiveness of astrology, but with how our brains work. Most of us realise our brains are not perfect, but far less people understand how deep those imperfections extend. We are subject to all sorts of biases. We tend to assign undue significance to ideas we agree with while ignoring contrary ideas. We seek purpose and causality where it does not exist. We forget quickly and what we remember may often be very different from what actually happened. We are highly prone to suggestion. Professional magicians use such weaknesses against us to good (and profitable) use.

It’s not just astrology that is subject to such biases. Bias is commonplace throughout all human experience – politics, business, management, relationships, you name it. Science too. What makes the sciences different however are the extensive set of techniques that are used to eliminate bias. Controls, randomisation, blinding, sampling and peer review are examples. Such techniques, while seemingly arcane, are quite rational and logical in reality. They tend to make the process less subjective and any results tend to have greater weight, particularly if they can be repeated in a number of different settings.

The difference between astronomy and astrology highlights an important difference between science and pseudoscience. One area is founded on facts and evidence, the other is founded on beliefs. There are many fields of endeavour that are based on a set of implausible or untestable beliefs. Homeopathy, for instance, uses a belief that a tiny amount of material can cure chronic complaints and that the more dilute you make the solution, the more powerful the remedy will be. It’s over 200 years since Homeopathy originated, yet homeopaths have never properly challenged these founding beliefs. They assume them to be true and move on from there. In any field of study, when the founding beliefs are deemed to be too precious to be properly challenged, you should be very wary indeed.

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