Extra-terrestrials buzzed London last week - except they almost certainly didn’t.
On 17 August one of the local (south London, UK) news websites announced: “UFO spotted in Croydon town centre”. Predictably, the article accompanying this headline was illustrated with a picture of flying saucers.
One reader soon joked that aliens had flown to Croydon from the other side of the universe in a bid to find out just what was going on here, having spotted the flames from blazing buildings during the riots the week before.
A little later, a second reader wondered what language Croydon’s alien visitors spoke, and whether it might be possible to obtain an alien-English dictionary. (Actually, it is -- so long as the aliens in question are Klingons. Fingers crossed they’re not, eh?)
Obviously, these commentators intended no malice by their gentle ridicule, but where on -- or should that be off? -- Earth had their assumption of alien involvement come from? Nowhere in the article had the witnesses mentioned aliens.
According to the report given, an amateur meteorologist named Ian Iyamu and his 12 year-old son had been driving home when they merely noticed a “bright white light hovering in the sky”. Mr Iyamu initially thought the light might have been a star.
Above: a bright light. Below: a flying saucer. Can you spot the difference?
It appeared to be stationary at first, then it “emitted a beam into the cloud” and followed this beam for a time before once again becoming a “dazzling” hovering light. Puzzled by what he and his son had seen, Mr Iyamu was attempting to make sense of their sighting.
Now, I don’t know what they saw. It does seem at least feasible to me that the light was on a plane that they initially watched head-on, which then banked so that its forward-shining lights were visible as a beam for a short while, before resuming its earlier course and once again appearing head-on. On the other hand, I don’t have enough information from the short report to form a proper opinion, and both witnesses agreed with each other that what they saw did not look like an aircraft to them.
Assuming that Mr Iyamu has not discovered a definitive answer in the meantime, the light he saw is by definition “unidentified”.
Now, it’s at this point that people seem programmed to make an enormous and quite unfounded leap into the unknown. If what was seen hasn’t been identified, it’s an unidentified flying object -- a UFO -- and popular culture has trained us all to associate the concept of a UFO with the concept of an alien spaceship.
Well, maybe that’s what some UFOs are - but surely not all of them!
I recently speculated that the stories we use to talk about UFOs might one day drift away from our current idea that strange sights in the sky represent extra-terrestrial activity. Obviously, that’s not happening just yet - at least not in Croydon.
Just in case those readers were right, though, here’s a picture of the possible pilot: