Science | Skywatch with Bill Irwin

By Bill Irwin –

The question of whether I have ever seen a UFO arises frequently at the observatory. The answer is no, at this time. Without extrapolating to a spacecraft with aliens in it, I would be looking for something that shows unusual motion or erratic brightness patterns.


A massive object cannot instantly change direction like a laser pointer beam can. Its inertial mass prevents this. To do a tight right angle turn very rapidly takes a huge amount of energy. I think we instinctively sense this, so something behaving like that would be noticed. It could, of course, be close and light like a firefly or something. It could be a lot of things, ultimately explainable, so there would be large room for debate.

When I go to the star parties, such as Mt.Kobau in later summer, people hardly talk at all about UFOs. There are many seasoned observers there – some professional astronomers, etc. – who would know the difference between common phenomena and something truly unusual. I suspect some people would not want to seem too far out in such esteemed company.

A lot of people, some of them quite close to me, have shared their UFO stories with me so I don’t dismiss the matter out of hand. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. Ordinary human perception covers such a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we indeed do not see it all and sensitivity between different observers varies widely.

I’ve seen a couple of convincing documentaries on crop circles. To me, that is one of the most visible of the modern mysteries. The geometric patterns are incredible and certainly suggest intelligence beyond what we usually see. They always seem to get them nicely framed in the field, as well.

At the same time, if you went Mt.Kobau, I think you would find people very open to the idea of intelligent life elsewhere. Modern science is placing a huge effort on finding Earth-like planets orbiting in the habitable zone around suitable stars. Organizations like Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have been searching for signals from space for some time. The whole history of astronomy has seen us deposed from the centre of a small universe to a relatively ordinary planet circling an ordinary star in a vast cosmos.

I think few would deny there has got to be something else out there. The problem is finding it. The Drake Equation was an early attempt to quantify our chances. It has seven terms describing things like rate of star formation and the number of possible planets in the habitable zone. Then there is the number of planets that actually have some life; whether that life is evolved and has technology; and, over what time interval they’ve had the ability to send signals into space. Others have added a term that suggests the probability that a technological civilization may self destruct if it doesn’t develop the wisdom to manage the power.

Most of these terms are less than one, so when multiplied together, the resulting probability becomes very small.

 I’m still looking. The aliens have promised me a new telescope better than mine if I co-operate. For now, I must be content with the stranger in the mirror. As usual, the Bells Lake Observatory is open to showing the night sky here and I can be reached at (250) 620-0596 or

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