My Talk for Skeptics in the Pub, Cologne on the Star of Bethlehem

Along with the big Star of Bethlehem conference in Groningen, I was in Cologne before that to give a talk about the same subject to Skeptics in the Pub. That talk was also recorded and edited nicely by the folks there, and that is now up on YouTube. (Note: the intro is in German, but my talk is in English.)

Only downside with this was that I did not do my best to stay close to the microphone, and that means my voice goes in and out a fair bit. I’m used to talking with my voice picked up by different devices, so I’ll need to remember that for the future. Still, you can get all the contents of my talk reasonably well, and the presentation went really smoothly. Plus, great folks at SiTP Koeln. They had some really good questions, but it doesn’t look like the Q&A was recorded.

I also didn’t know this before I went there, but Cologne is the city were, allegedly, the bodies of the Three Kings/Magi are kept; the city’s coat of arms reflects this, and the cathedral with those bodies is a UNESCO site, and it is a lovely building. 2014-10-22 10.22.50

A bit of review of me and my talk can be found here and here (auf Deutch). Hopefully I can find an excuse and go again to this group.

Also, the holidays are approaching, so if your group needs a speaker on a timely subject, let me know.


My #AncientAliens Chat on Paranormal Review Radio is Up

As mentioned previously, I was on the Internet radio show, Paranormal Review Radio, this previous Friday. I think all went rather well. The hosts let me say things at length, and the questions I thought were interesting ones. Most importantly I enjoyed myself in the process, and I must have left a good impression since they said they would want to have me on again.

You can listen to the interview/chat now here. I am on for about an hour and a half, and the hosts carry on for another thirty-ish minutes. They have some speculations to try and resolve some of the issues I brought up with the Ancient Alien Theory, and it gives me some ideas about how to talk about the subject in the future with even better agility. I don’t know when I will talk about the subject again, though it will come up in my Star of Bethlehem talk in Cologne in a few weeks. You are coming to that, right?

Check Out Paranormal Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with ParanormalReview on BlogTalkRadio

More #AncientAliens Talk on Paranormal Review Radio with Me this Friday

I know everyone loved my talk at Illini about aliens, especially of the ancient sort, but unfortunately not everyone in the world could be there. But this Friday, Sept 26 at 10 pm EST, I will be on Paranormal Review Radio to talk about the subject and perhaps debunk the idea.

They have also produced a fun little promotional video.

I’m not totally sure what to expect, and I’ll be on my own as the skeptic. Jason Colavito was also asked to join, but he probably won’t be able to make it. Unfortunate, since he knows the material orders of magnitude better than I do. But at worst, I think this will be fun.

So, listen in or at least cheer me on.

My Upcoming Talk about Science, Religion, the Star of Bethlehem in Cologne (Köln)

Several months ago I was asked to participate on a conference about the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. But before I get there, I will be stopping in Cologne (Köln) in Germany to give a lecture for the Skeptics in the Pub group there. My lecture will be in English, if for no other reason than my German is nothing to listen to (one can say ein Bier, bitte only so many times). Besides the links above see the Post by The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View book page.

Hope you can come and check it all out! And if you are in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands (and maybe France) and have a skeptic/humanist/atheist/religious studies group, contact me ASAP if you want me to make a tour stop. I need to buy plane tickets really soon.

My Talk on Ancient Aliens and Modern UFOs is Now Up!

Good news, everyone! My talk for the Illini Secular Student Alliance at UIUC back in April is now up for everyone to see. In my presentation, I talk about the 20th century origins of the ancient astronaut hypothesis (now in its modern TV form, Ancient Aliens), the sorts of claims about the past and why they don’t hold up, and into the sorts of claims related to modern UFOs and alien visitations–that is, close encounters. I also get to bring up my research and book on the Star of Bethlehem.

You can watch the talk here (kindly recorded and edited by Illini SSA group members):

At the end I provided a bunch of links to useful websites, which I reproduce here:

If I made any significant mistakes, feel free to let me know. And of course, I don’t mind if you let others know about the presentation. 🙂

Appearing in Illinois to talk about Physics and Aliens

Next week I will be in Illinois to give a couple of talks quite unrelated to each other.

First, on Wednesday of next week (April 23rd), I will be giving a presentation related to my physics education research at Illinois State University. I will focus on the origins of physical intuitions, such as why students continually believe that motion requires an active force contra Newton’s first law. There will be some nice history of science along with my own data collection that went into my thesis. Hopefully I can get this published in the not too distant future. I don’t think this talk will be open to the public and if mostly geared for undergrad physics students.

My other talk is the next day at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the student group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance. This will be about aliens/ETs and if they have been visiting us. This will be similar to a talk I gave to my local SSA group a few years ago (video here), but I have updated several things and go much more into the modern UFO phenomenon. The focus will still be largely on the “ancient astronaut theory” and there will be much-deserved reference to the efforts of Jason Colavito, Michael Heiser, and Robert Sheaffer. You can also see some of the things I have previously written about with respect to this subject here. The talk is more open and it should be recorded; once the video goes up I will post that.

Later this year I am slated to give another talk here in Columbus, and I still have the Star of Bethlehem Conference in the Netherlands in October. So, I will get to provide lots of jibber-jabber. If you want more, feel free to ask. 🙂

The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View — My Upcoming Book

Nearly two millennia ago, a story was told of a wondrous star in the heavens, beaming forth to proclaim the birth of an infant, destined to rule. Coaxing priests from an eastern kingdom to travel in search of this infant, the object led them to their destination and allow for the worship of the savior of the world.

Or so the story goes. But did it really happen, and if so, what was this magnificent star? A comet? An exploding star? An astrological portent? Something more bizarre? These theories and more have been put forward to explain the legend of the Star of Bethlehem, perhaps the most famous celestial light in all of religious literature. Inspiring scientists and theologians to search and fiction authors to write, including the great Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the Star of Bethlehem has been the perennial science story of the holidays. It is a project that finds its roots in the work of the influential astrophysicist Johannes Kepler, and numerous other astronomers have written about the Star over decades and up to today, such as David Hughes, Michael Molnar, Mark Kidger, and the late Sir Patrick Moore. Every year or so a supposedly new explanation is released to the press. Was it Jupiter and Venus or Jupiter and Saturn this time? Or how about the discovery of Uranus? Perhaps a variable star? The zodiacal lights? What other speculation will come about to show that there was a light guiding magi from the East to the birthplace of Jesus?

9780956694867- Font Cover

These speculation should begin to find its end in the newest book on the subject: The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (Amazon: US, UK, FR, DE; B&N; PDF). Based on nearly a decade of contemplation and research, this volume seeks to prove that no natural phenomenon, no astrological alignment, no physical interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem is plausible and comports to the story as told in the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, the story likely isn’t historical at all.

Published by Onus Books and including a foreword by astronomer and columnist at Astronomy magazine, Bob BermanThe Star of Bethlehem goes through all of the major theories for the Star as something in nature, including the astronomical, the astrological, and even the alien. The volume also explores the history of these sorts of interpretations and the motivations behind them. Lastly, it is demonstrated that the legend is a literary artifice, one that shows the author of the Gospel to be gifted as a story-teller but not someone interested in science and history as modern researchers are. To continue to look for the Star in the skies is to misunderstand the story.

Exploring the science of supernovae, the mechanical computers of the ancient Greeks, the astrological beliefs and practices of the Persians, and the nature of ancient religious texts, The Star of Bethlehem presents science and history without the need to fit to an apologetic goal.

Praise for The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View:

A fascinating and readable feat of hardcore historical legwork and keen scientific analysis.
—David Fitzgerald, author of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons.

Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.
—Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

The Star of Bethlehem is a concise and rigorous must-read for anyone interested in religion, history, and modern efforts to understand the past.
—Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods.

While the argument that the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ story is a myth isn’t a new one, Aaron Adair—an astronomer and physicist at The Ohio State University—offers a look into the past through the eyes of a scientist, while not once ignoring the value of New Testament scholarship. This is a must-read, and perhaps the definitive, book on this subject.
—Thomas Verenna, co-editor of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus and undergraduate student at Rutgers University

If you enjoy The Star of Bethlehem, you may also enjoy another skeptical look at the Nativity story of Jesus: The Nativity: A Critical Examination by Jonathan Pearce.

About the author:

Aaron Adair is a soon-to-be PhD in physics education from the Ohio State University and holds three degrees in science and mathematics from Michigan State University. He has previously worked as a planetarium show presenter, a SETI researcher, and a part of the ATLAS detector collaboration at CERN. He has written on the Star of Bethlehem previously in Sky & Telescope and Zygon: Journal of Science & Religion, and has been invited to participate in a conference about the Star at the University of Groningen. This is his first book. Adair may be contacted through his book’s Facebook page and through email.

Have We Found Alien Life In the Atmosphere Above Chester?

On this day in 1961, Barney and Betty Hill claim that they were abducted by aliens on their way home, something which seems to be largely a product of hypnosis and fantastical thinking taking from episodes of The Outer Limits. But it appears to be the case that others are fancifully doing the same in a “scientific” context.

As is being reported in The Independent, British scientists have used a balloon-based capture system to find life forms in the atmosphere above Chester. Now, plenty of things do live up in the sky, tends of kilometers up, but this particular life form is a diatom, and their weight would make it more difficult for them to stay aloft for a protracted period of time.

Life from beyond this world? Perhaps, perhaps not.

So because the critters cannot stay up in the air on their own, they must be falling in from space, and thus these are alien diatoms! Or so say the researchers. In particular, they launched their balloon on July 31st of this year, timed with a meteor shower; such showers are the left-overs of comet tails, so material on comets would then make up the meteors. And so, the life forms would come from the comets.

And fortunately this has passed peer review in… oh, fuck, Not again. Yeah, this is appearing in the infamous Journal of Cosmology, which every couple of months claims finding alien life based on shoddy evidence and methods.

So, let’s go through their premises again. They authors of the paper (PDF here) say that the trap they devised found this one critter, and it had to come from space. Assuming that these life forms cannot maintain their 27 km altitude, there is an obvious way I can imagine them getting that high up without coming from space: contamination of the trapping device. They said that they cleaned this system with alcohol, but when you are searching for only a single cell, then you have to have levels of cleanliness way higher than this. Otherwise you are just dealing with ground-level biological noise. When we send a probe to space, NASA tries to kill as much bacteria on their machines as possible, especially when it’s being sent to places like Mars, but even so they can’t kill them all. And that makes me cautious to say the least about leftover single-celled organisms in the trap.

Heck, we can’t be sure this isn’t from contamination after the balloon trip. There is not enough information to say they had the protocols in place to guarantee their retrieval of the balloon and the workings of their lab didn’t introduce life forms by accident. Please note, I am claiming nothing about faking results, just accidental contamination.

In another paper in the same issue of the journal (here), the researchers also say they found hints of DNA. They haven’t proven it, so this had two issues

  1. If it has DNA is it probably Earth-based life and thus contamination. Why assume life forms from beyond will have DNA? Since we don’t know life beyond the Earth exists, we don’t have that great of grounds to assume it will have DNA. Let’s do a quick Bayesian analysis: the probability of a contaminating cell from Earth having DNA is 100%; the probability of a life form from beyond Earth having DNA is less than 100%, perhaps significantly lower. Thus, having DNA is evidence against it being space-based life.
  2. If it has DNA, they why not sequence it and see if it is something from the Earth? That is how you would do at most the minimal check that this isn’t local wildlife. Now, even if it comes out as not a known species, it could still be an unknown Earth-based life form. What the researchers need to do before making any announcements is show that this critter has DNA so different from anything else on Earth that it must have had an independent evolutionary history. Humans share a lot of their DNA with plants, so if this cell had, say, only 10% of its DNA coding in common with known life, that would be big news. Otherwise, this is just speculation based on very weak evidence.

But there are other incredible claims here. In the second paper I linked, the researchers said that they knew the cell must have come from a comet in part because it has signs of coming from an aquatic environment. Aquatic, as in water. Liquid water. That is, not a comet. Comets are frozen balls of ice, and coming from the Oort cloud they have not had a history of being close to the Sun at their origin and having a liquid phase for life to evolve and grow. This is just lunacy without the Moon. But I can think of an aquatic environment that has DNA-carrying diatoms: EARTH. Heck, Chester has some nice bodies of water nearby, and diatoms aren’t unheard of in that part of the world. Again, way more likely to be ground- or water-based creatures than space-based.

One of these days, I hope we actually can find life on other worlds. Mars, Europa, Enceladus, Titan; these are great places to look. But this locally? And publishing in his journal? Not likely. I’ll wait until something of this magnitude gets published in Nature or Science. Believe me, if it’s real, these journals will fight to publish it.

Jacques Vallée Concerning UFOs in the Past and the Star of Bethlehem

I have been talking about how some authors in the alternative history literature have looked at the Star of Bethlehem as some sort of alien craft or UFO (here and here). Since then, I think I am safe in thinking that Paul Misraki is the earliest person to argued for this idea in his Les Extraterrestres in 1962, then translated into English in 1965. I have also compared his work to that of Rev. Barry Downing and R. L. Dione who also in the 1960s proposed the idea, and it seems they came to their conclusions independently of each other. But then again, they were also inspired by previous writers on UFOs explaining strange lights in the past, including in the Bible, so this isn’t too strange of a situation.

I also noted how Misraki had personal contact and influence on one of the more famous ufologists that looks for flying saucers in the past, Jacques Vallée, who is still writing books to this day. One of his most recent one is Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times (2010), with Chris Aubeck. It’s also one of the few books of his that I can actually preview (see Amazon page). Jason Colavito has already given the book a pretty thorough going-over (1, 2, 3), so you can get an idea of how strong and rigorous the evidence and analysis is in the book.

However, because it’s also one of the few books by Vallee that I can look at online, it’s also one of the few I can easily search to see what he has to say about the Star of Bethlehem and alien travelers. He starts his discussion on page 385.

Vallee notes that the report of the Star is remarkable but also “controversial”. This seems to suggest a level of skepticism of this tale, or at least about the details of its nature. Vallee also notes that numerous explanations have been provided for the Star, but he only names two: the planet Venus and a nova. He also feels uncertain about the nature of the object because the date or even year is unknown.

After this, Vallee talks more in this section of the book about the angelic visitor of Mary, quoting from the Gospel of Luke 1:29-38. Actually, Vallee says he starts at verse 26, but the text he cites comes from verse 29, but this could just be a typo or he is referring to the entire Annunciation pericope. The translation doesn’t fit the many I have looked at (the NLT seems close in some respects), but I also don’t see any obvious changes to the Greek to make it more “alien” per se. Still, this is definitely not much to do with the Star, but because a bunch of medieval/Renaissance painters depict this scene with some sort of light source in the sky that makes it a potential UFO sighting. Because, as we all know, artists a millennium later in symbolic representations of theological tales know exactly what happened in the Galilee.

But then Vallee in the same paragraph talking about the painting of the Annunciation jumps to a 13th century source (the Golden Legend) discussing the light that guided the Magi. That collection of saintly deeds stated that the Star was a newly-created beacon that was then extinguished after it had served its purpose–namely, guiding the Wise Men to Jesus.

Sadly, Vallee doesn’t use this late source to its full potential. In Chapter 14 of this tome, we are told how the Star first appears to the Magi while in their homeland, and how it appeared to turn into a baby Jesus and talked to them. Vallee has passed up a great closer encounter of the 3rd kind!

Nonetheless, it seems that Vallee doesn’t give the UFO-Christmas Star connection much credit, leaving up to something either miraculous or explained by some other means. Rather, continuing on the same page where the discussion of the Star ends, the author (or authors) then bring up the recently recovered Gospel of Judas and how in that story Jesus tells Judas to look up to a luminous cloud, and then Judas is taken up. Now, there has been some controversy in interpreting the Coptic text at this point, and in particular April DeConick argues that National Geographic’s team of scholars did a rushed job and produced a rendition that made Judas into a more heroic or misunderstood character. I won’t weigh in on this, especially since I don’t read Coptic and am not well-versed in so-called Gnostic literature, but one point worth noting is that no one scholar of the text argues the composer was trying to talk about a real event. Or does Vallee think that Jesus transformed into a child before the eyes of the Disciples when discussing Gnostic mysteries? The author of the Gospel of Judas wasn’t writing history but theology. Just like all the other gospels, or so I would argue.

But it is nonetheless interesting that Vallee thinks he has a better argument for a UFO incident with the Gospel of Judas that he does with the canonical Gospel of Matthew’s story of the Star. In fact, there isn’t reference to the Assumption or Transfiguration either.

In fact, the book is a bit light on biblical events as UFOs. There is also nothing on something that Mizraki and Dione bring up, the miracle of Fatima, but this is a 20th century event and so of less interest to this book. Vallee does in other literature talk about this, but Mizraki and Dione spill a lot of ink on the Fatima incident. Downing has little to say on the subject, by comparison. Perhaps this is because Downing has a Protestant background while Mizraki and others have a Catholic one, and Fatima is a quote Catholic miracle? I can’t wait to see Catholic and Protestant AAT folks go at it and say how all those saintly miracles are bogus and yet use the same quality of evidence for the influence of aliens on this world.

Just take the stories of St. Genevieve as one example. Apparently her dead body had the power to stop plagues when a procession was held in her honor (as noted by the Catholic Encyclopedia). There also also the tales of her stopping storms and producing hexes or spells to curse people. Now, I’m not saying she was a Catholic alien…but she was a Catholic alien. Oh, and what about the transformation of St. Christopher from a dog-head into a normal human? Alien genetic engineering? Come ON Ancient Aliens, there is also sorts of crap I can just make up that you can edit in during the afternoon. Get crakin’. On the other hand, if you doubt all of these Catholic saint legends, then shouldn’t you doubt other such miraculous tales? Why accept some and not others?

Unfortunately, the AAT crowd doesn’t have a method for answering that question, and they actively shun the people that actually do: historians. Rather, it seems that whatever can be turned into a tale that fits into the new theology is acceptable. And this seems to all be because aliens are just a little more plausible than supernatural entities, especially to those that are a bit fantasy-prone.

When it comes to these sorts of stories of antiquity and the Middle Ages, Richard Carrier has a good talk on the subject and how to approach these sorts of things and why we are justified and saying they are incredible. Aliens need not apply, Catholic or otherwise.

Also looking at this video, it reminds me that Skepticon 6 is coming up, and they are seeking donations. I want to go, but Springfield, Missouri seems so far away when you have to work five days a week (and now Sunday teaching for me as well). Must find a way…

The Earliest Connection between UFOs and the Star of Bethlehem–A Follow-up

Image via Fortean Times (2010).

In my last post about the various ways that the Star of Bethlehem from the Gospel of Matthew had been imagined, I talked about the folks that thought it was some sort of alien craft or UFO. When I wrote it, my best efforts to find the earliest claim to that came from Rev. Barry Downing in 1968. However, Jason Colavito had discovered a slightly older reference. From there, I continued the search. Continue reading