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About this week’s eSkeptic

In Skeptic magazine 17.3, Michael Gainer wrote “The Physics of UFOs” in which he sought to determine if it is possible to construct an interstellar spacecraft that fits the description of reported UFOs. In response to that long-time skeptic, Peter Huston penned a skeptical analysis entitled, “Another Physics of UFOs.” We published both articles in last week’s eSkeptic. In this week’s eSkeptic, Gainer responds to Huston.

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More Physics of UFOs

Gainer responds to Huston

In response to Mr. Huston’s remarks about my article let me first differentiate between belief systems and science.

A belief system is a body of concepts, ideals or narratives that through written or oral tradition and historical precedent have become an integral part of a culture. Verification is dependent on faith in its tenets: Ergo—subjective. A belief system need not concern itself with objective reality.

This contrasts with science in which theories are subject to objective evaluation by repeated experiment and measurement. Science assumes a priori the existence of a measurable objective reality. Indeed, science is the delineation of this reality. The precision of the replication of experimental results and the accuracy of theory in making predictions, even when both observers and theorists may initially have a wide variety of theoretical considerations, is the affirmation of the scientific approach to the comprehension of the cosmos.

Physics is derived from the basic defined observables; velocity, acceleration, force, mass, and time. These are combined in the definition of work from which the terms kinetic and potential energy are derived. Physicists arrive at descriptions of physical systems by writing total energy equations.

UFO sightings—eye witness accounts and questionable photographs—are not direct physical evidence of alien spacecraft. They do not satisfy the criteria for scientific investigation. They could more appropriately be classified as a belief system.

Therefore, in my paper, I proceeded with what I call informed skepticism by applying fundamental physics to evaluate the possibility of their existence. I started by proposing an inertial mass. The mass could have been somewhat larger or smaller; the end result would still have been the same. The details of the design of the spacecraft, nature and longevity of the crew, or whether or not it is a round trip are irrelevant. The only significant factor is its inertial mass and its kinetic energy at velocities essential for interstellar space travel.

Any spacecraft, whether from present or future technology, would have a significant inertial mass. Ten thousand years from now conservation of energy will apply anywhere in the galaxy as well as it does today. The problem is how does one provide energy sufficient to match the kinetic energy of the spacecraft. I chose thermonuclear fusion because it is the only feasible source that clearly demonstrates the magnitude of the required energy. I pointed out the difference between controlled fusion reactions and the need to produce thrust.

In preparing the paper I also considered matter-antimatter annihilation. If Mr. Huston’s consultant had made the calculation he would have realized that it would take 1380 tons of matter and an equal amount of antimatter to produce the required kinetic energy. In the article I gave the results for the energy requirement for a velocity of 0.1c and an acceleration of 0.5 m/s2. That would require only 55 tons of matter and antimatter.

My conclusions were not faith based. They were based on sound physics, not current or future technology, or proposals by science fiction writers. In point of fact we do have proof of the effects of two megaton unconstrained nuclear fusion reactions, and because of the maximum cohesive force that electrons can create between protons no substance will remain solid above 5000ºC. Such energy is constrained, however, in nature by gravitational pressure at the centers of stars.

It is not present or future technology that negates interstellar travel—it is the nature and structure of matter and the universe. END

About Michael K. Gainer

Dr. Michael K. Gainer is Emeritus Professor of Physics and former chair of the Department of Physics at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. At St. Vincent he taught astronomy and advanced undergraduate physics courses for physics majors. He is the author of Real Astronomy for Small Telescopes, published by Springer in the Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series in 2006. Prior to his academic career he was a member of the scientific staff at the U.S. Army Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, MD. There he conducted research on hyper velocity metal deformation in high intensity shock waves.



  1. John says:

    Similar to something I wrote several years ago arguing that the Alien Hypothesis is immensely harder to swallow once you delve into its physical implications including energy considerations. The most damaging implication is that aliens would have had to begin their journey to a faint, unremarkable star system possibly even invisible to them centuries before they could possibly have had any indication that we were even here. See:

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Astrobiologists are intrigued by faint, unremarkable stars – they have the greatest likelihood of having inhabitable planets (largely defined as planets where the conditions are suitable for abundant liquid water on the surface).

      Additionally, spectroscopy of planetary atmospheres can reveal such biomarkers as an oxygen-rich atmosphere (note a biomarker is physical evidence of life – being out of chemical equilibrium is a good clue).

      Further, studies of radio emissions could indicate SETI-like civilizations, our radio signals could be detectable nearly 100 light years away (the galactic disk is ~1000 ly thick for comparison) so passing probes could have identified Earth as having advanced life!

      Now. There’s a huge gap between ‘could be’ and ‘is’ – the fact that there could be extra-terrestrials visiting the Earth in no way implies that there is. As Sagan quoted “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof” – and making the trek across interstellar space is beyond an extraordinary claim. We need a bigger word for it.

      So, what is my point: Arguments such as Gainer’s should not be taken as proof that no alien has visited Earth. This argument sets the bar on how extraordinary the claim is so how extraordinary the proof must be to be compelling.

      How ironic it is that we (well, non-skeptics) easily swallow grainy fotos and unreliable witnesses as proof of ET visitors but not one of my astronomy students has ever accepted that I played in a Superbowl despite my proof: a grainy foto and the statement of some person saying “Yup. He did it.”

      • Gary Harris says:

        Are we sufficiently broad in our observations and resultant conclusions? It seems that we are only attempting to access based on our known sciences… is that alone a proper methodology for assessment? As a reminder, perhaps consider the statement made in a press conference by a former head of NASA…. “we don’t know what we don’t know”… and gentlemen… he was correct… We should not allow our limited earthbound knowledge and sciences to stand in our way. When placing our observations into a defined box…we limit intellectual expansion!

        Had we ventured into the unknown and judged only by what we knew scientifically…would we not have limited our gains…? Why limit oneself with predetermined sciences… and yes… two different diametrically opposed sciences may still come to the same factual conclusion… and there may be others!

        Isn’t it interesting that Dan Brown in his fictional presentations… may just have opened doors of understanding and formed ideas that dramatically create a union between science and religion?

  2. Jimmy Snyder says:

    How does Professor Gainer account for the fact that we have already sent two vessels destined to leave the solar system ourselves? It seems to me that there are a great many reasons to doubt that UFO’s are alien spaceships, but conservation of energy is not among them.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Do you think that these probes will still be working 80,000 years from now? At their speed that’s how long it’d take to get to nearest star.

      • Jimmy Snyder says:

        That’s a technological problem, not a physical one. The issue I am addressing is the professor’s assertion that the physical law of conservation of energy prevents aliens from getting here. These probes prove that it doesn’t.

  3. Harold Overdijk says:

    Professor Gainer actually makes one assumption very clearly as well: “Ten thousand years from now conservation of energy will apply anywhere in the galaxy as well as it does today”

    I guess only 400 years ago (so not 10,000) the statement “space is distinct from body and that time passes uniformly without regard to whether anything happens in the world” (

    In the 19th century (so not 10,000 years but only 150 years) luminiferous aether (or ether), meaning light-bearing aether, was a theorized medium for the propagation of light (electromagnetic radiation).

    So I find Professor’s Gainer’s sweeping statement of 10,000 years rather amusing to say the least.

    Paradigm shifts happen regularly. Even if the newest theories on warp drives are clumsy and technologically speaking not executable it does not mean we won’t have new theoretical frameworks in the future to work around the obstacles we face now AND the technology to execute them. Just like quantum mechanics or general relativity did before.

    Point being: our civilization is 10,000 years old (or whatever arbitrary relative short period of time you want to give it) on 4.5 billion yeas. An alien civilization may very well have evolved in different time scales and developed a different scientific framework within which it explains the universe.

    Sure those are beliefs and assumptions. Just as Mr Gainer makes a lot of assumptions by extrapolating current (sometimes Newtonian) scientific (physics) principles far into the future, when our recent history has shown that such an exercise is not only flawed, it’s also arrogant and ignorant.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      This line of argument is called “appeal to ignorance” – we don’t _know_ everything so maybe we will discover a secret of the cosmos allowing super-luminal travel (or Harry Potter-esque wizardry). Frankly, it is boring – except used in fiction.

      Please note, I am not 100% against speculating about Breakthrough Physics Propulsion (BPP) I like it when we start from what we know (and by ‘we’ I mean experts) and speculate on things like vacuum energy or anti-gravity – and do the math to see how this jibes with what we see. NASA actually funded a BPP group that produced a lot of intriguing work e.g. exploring Alcubeire’s Warp Drive.

  4. Dr.Sidethink Hp.D says:

    It’s like the teleporter in Star Trek.
    We just don’t know how to DO that yet,

    Current science may be incomplete or flawed or even false.

    However , when the alternative is MAGICK, I have to go with what we’ve got .

    Last night I was discussing these matters with a Gentleman whose has a reputation
    as a local poetry guru, ( but has considerable knowledge of basic science) .

    He postulated that space travel can be done very easily.
    You make a spherical spaceship out of regular metal.
    then you paint the inside of half of the top with Antigravity fluid.

    This is about as scientific as the Noah’s Ark of feeding the animals miniturization pills .
    (With corresponding loss of mass)
    You need gopher wood bowls to prepare the stuff, because gopher wood has practically
    infinite tensile strength.

    Science fiction is fun .

    Science depends on assesment of correct odds on the outcome of repeatable experiments.

    This is supposed to be a skeptic blog, otherwise I can use my Urim and Thummim to feel good about my access to “TROOTH”

    Dr. S.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      LOL. Thanx for making me laugh.

      BTW: When we think about these things we need to separate ‘science’ (the theoretical aspect of understanding how the Universe works) from the ‘engineering’ (the applied aspect of taking that knowledge to get what we want).

      There is no scientific prohibition against space elevators or interstellar ram-jets (that use magnetic fields to scoop up H atoms and through fusion, release the energy & the particles of fusion for thrust). But the technical hurdles for either of these is enormous.

      Just take fusion as a reliable energy source – the science is sound: We *know* that fusion of Hydrogen into Helium is possible, we know it exists, we have even created controlled fusion in labs. But the technical details standing between us and ‘free fusion energy’ are huge. So far we’re just able to harness this energy for the purposes of raising our enemies to the temperature of the Sun.

  5. Scott Auden says:

    While I appreciate the author’s position regarding the constraints of physics, in this case, the point is precisely that we are speculating about just how much we might not yet know. 
    Given tools and materials, an imaginary time-traveler in ancient Egypt could build a simple electric generator, or even a simple radio.  An ancient Egyptian doesn’t know the potential uses for (or even existence of) electrons and electricity. Yes, his physics are the same as ours, but his conception of them is constrained by his culture’s developing understanding, and his abilities are likewise limited by the technological expertise available to him. 
    The scientific impossibilities of previous centuries have included such things as heavier-than-air flight (though noticing birds should have cleared that one up) .
    One assumption only, is needed to allow for the possibility of inter-stellar flight: the assumption that out knowledge of the physical universe is incomplete.
    We have only begun to glimpse what lies beyond the Newtonian conception of reality, and cannot yet do more than speculate what lies beyond quantum mechanics, nor even what technologies quantum mechanical understanding may make possible. Of ONE thing, however, we can be sure: we’ll be surprised by it.

  6. RT says:

    It would have been nice to see Dr. Gainer address the issue of the colony ship that was brought up in the response. There are many reasons such a thing would be problematic, but since the velocity could be arbitrarily low, his analysis might not stand up.

    Oh, and wasn’t Project Orion a serious study in using thermonuclear bombs as propulsion for spaceships?

  7. ErnieL says:

    The luminiferous-ether theory was disproven by the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887. The results became part of the basis of modern physics. Theories of modern physics, e.g. relativity, are not mere surmise — “it sort of fits”, like luminiferous ether — they have been demonstrated repeatedly by experiment, checked and re-checked. A false analogy is being made.

    • Dr.Sidethink Hp.D says:

      The First Commandment of Science is
      “we gotta put up or shut up” and the second commandment is like unto the First:

      ” it is required to abandon stuff ”

      However, what false analogy is being made : by whom and regarding what ??


  8. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    If we’re going to rely on new breakthroughs in physics to continue believing in ET visitors, then let’s rely on breakthroughs in biology to believe in Bigfoot, Chupacabra and, my favorite, Nessie. In fact, these creatures are far more comparable to animals we can see in the zoo that any ET spacecraft is to Voyager or the space shuttle.

    But why stop there? Let’s anticipate breakthroughs in psychology that will let us espouse witchcraft and wizardry. I mean, we know so little about the Brain how can any reasonable person claim that it cannot do magic? The more we study the brain the more surprised we are!

    And maybe eventually geologists will finally understand geology enough to see how the Grand Canyon is only a few thousand years old (and how y-shaped twigs can help detect aquifers).

    But I’m holding out for mathematicians to unlock the secret that will let us set Pi=3.0 (and future school kids will thank them!)

    • Dr.Sidethink Hp.D says:

      yeah, but them hexagonal wheels is damn bumpy!!!

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        LOL. Hexagonal wheels!

        Have faith – the mathematicians will solve that problem, too. They just have to discover the secret theorem of geometry that makes everything easy!

  9. Gary Harris says:

    Regarding the article “10 Myths about Evolution”… did we forget that in Brian Sykes’ DNA observations…a new DNA element was discovered in the helix chain… that apparently began only 18 million years ago? What kind of evolution can we tag this one with?

  10. Fred Kohler says:

    The ether theory has been replaced by the equally difficult to imaginable theory of the vacuum filled with virtual particles. It is certainly an article of faith to think of gravitons with imaginary momentum (always assumed to be positive) providing attraction. In the theory championed by every of popular writer of science, the electro-magnetic force is explained by two individuals exchanging balls; that may explain repulsion. If you ask a Physicist what explains attraction, he/she will react like a cleric who is asked who made God. Lisa Randall, a celebrated Harvard Physicist went as far in one of her popular books to explain Coulomb attraction as follows: “Lets imagine two players exchanging frisbees, they want to get closer to one an other.” In that statement she lent unwittingly support to absurd New Age theories that elementary particles have consciousness. Our mathematical equation work well, our popular explanations do not.

  11. Liam McDaid says:

    …and getting back to the point. The problem with these type of analyses is that they rely too heavily on extrapolating into the future. While that is all we have to start with, I found it amusing that Gainer thought shuttles would play any role in future space travel – what about the Space Ladder? Aside from that, although interstellar travel would be difficult for even an advanced civilization (and impossible for us), we aren’t sure what are future capabilities will be in terms of resources to burn for such things (robots to seed infrastructure, etc.)
    Either way, it’s just an argument from personal incredulity.

    On a related note, look at how air travel has progressed over the last century in terms of travel time and note how it’s flatlined for over 30 years. Available tech is not always the driving consideration…

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Liam’s comments have inspired some thoughts: Don’t let what we don’t know stand in the way of what we do know.

      We can see certain patterns in the Universe (ie. Natural Laws) and it is safer to extrapolate into the future based on those observed patterns than the extrapolate based on fantasy. Any time our understand of Natural Laws changes, the new understanding must explain all of the patterns we’ve already seen as well as new things. What we do know tells us that interstellar travel is very, very, very, very, very, very difficult – it may not be feasible, even if it is theoretically possible.

      We’re aware of the HUGE difference between science and engineering: Science is the study of those natural laws but engineering is the application of them. The brilliant engineers get what they want by using the natural laws in a clever way. Alcubierre’s warp drive is a speculative example of this: Matter cannot travel through spacetime faster than the speed of light … but spacetime can curve/contract/expand faster than light (it did during the inflationary period of the Big Bang) – so if we can ‘warp space’, take a short hope over the scrunched up bit, and then let it re-expand behind us, we can travel great distances _as if we were moving faster than light_ without breaking the ‘law’.

      Still this cleverness relies on us being able to manipulate the curvature of spacetime – it is *technically* possible? If so, is it *feasible*?

      Don’t underestimate the importance of feasibility…

      Before I was born all sorts of prognosticators said we’d all have jet-packs and personal flying cars that take off and land in our driveways by now. No more clogged freeways. The science of rocketry and flight make it clear that personal flying cars and jetpacks are possible. The engineering of rockets and flight are well developed – VTOL & helicopters are fairly mature. In fact, many people have private planes – but they have to keep them at airports… and there are still orders of magnitude more cars than GP aircraft. Why haven’t jet-packs and flying cars replaced the 100-year old autos? Feasibility. Even though it is technically very possible for everyone to have their own VTOL aircraft- it isn’t worth it. (and when people accidentally shoot each other at gun shows, you can see another reason it ain’t feasible to let joe sixpack fly his own car over residential neighborhoods to get home).

  12. Un Tacon says:

    “Science assumes a priori the existence of a measurable objective reality. Indeed, science is the delineation of this reality.” Putting the methodological cart before the ontological horse. Methodolatry. We (not me, some experts) can paramaterize to the point of making unassailable predictions. Awesome. But not everything that exists can be treated as such. Predictive science relies on being able to isolate and arrange determinants of phenomena and there are plenty phenomena that all would grant are objective which do not admit of being ordered about (paramaterized) thus ;) Not only that, we already know, for example, there are several ways of modelling space – so why not extrapolate further….? Rather than shutting down the questioning mind, just see if you smart folks can’t come up with a what-if scenario that might be the next big breakthrough. It’s a huge leap of faith to believe that today’s scientific models are universal and exhaustive. We have a great handle on a measurable slice of reality and more to learn about that. It would be foolish to think the real is coterminous with what is currently measurable. While it’s very good to be skeptical (as in hesitant/questioning/tentative) when skepticism starts to mean “only my model of reality is true forever and any other claims must be summarily dispensed with” then I have to wonder about motives. Control? Prometheanism? Let’s be open minded thinkers – and I don’t mean gullible.

    • Dr.Sidethink Hp.D says:

      While Science is a wet blanket or a grouchy skeptic, it beats the alternative
      of “opening” your mind to the floodgate of syncretic sewage that in that orgy of soi-disant backpattery which deems itself “New” ( hah!!) Age.

      Ya ain’t gonna catch no bullets if’n ye keeps yer haid in a foxhole!!!

      The price of pandering Paradise is knowing where to get a cosmic helmet.
      They are not invented yet. and playing football without a helmet can get you a Fordesque world instead .

      • Un Tacon says:

        It’s not science per se that’s a wet blanket, it’s the belief that the current model serves as the only legitimate criterion of knowledge out there and the conviction that the only choices are either wholesale embrace of current scientific models as the eternal arbiters of truth or sheer gullibility to harebrained nonsense.

        • Dr.Sidethink Hp.D says:

          The statement above is still true when “Newthink” is substituted for
          “current scientific models”

          When this rhetorical technique is employed it produces anger rather that reason, but it wins the debate unless called out.
          the proper outcall is
          “yah, so’s ya mudda!!”

          Dr. Latero Sidethink Hp.D
          Dept of Hipology.
          Bob Dobbs University
          A subsidiary of
          The 69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
          Reformed Church of the Subgenius

          • Un Tacon says:

            Fudge. The substitution merely produces perplexity about what you are trying to illustrate. My point, in case you missed it, is that it’s not black and white. At any rate, to move forward in any discipline a little open-mindedness and imagination is called for. In fact, rather a lot. But open-mindedness is not gullible for being open-mindedness when it’s educated.

  13. Dr Sidethink says:

    It’s called “excluded middle”
    This is often coupled with the notorious and hysterical “Straw Man” ploy.

    The argument presented seems to be

    “I think that some Scientists follow the criterion for “Closed mindedness” here described”
    Therefore ALL Scientists are narrow minded and use the “Excluded middle”

    “Slack” is needed here, Dood!!!

    Terence McKenna was very educated in many facets of Science and NOOAGE poppycock.
    I ,myself, seem to want to reject the idea that you have to believe that the Ecshatology of humanity is to get buggered by multi-dimensional machine Elves .

    My Point is that Fried Shoes are not the same as Cooked Diamonds,

    All this is beyond the experience of people who Scoff Science as being too restrictive as a Veldtenshaung!! ( spelling ??)

    Dr. Sidethink , Docktor of Hipology
    College of Street Knowledge
    Bob Dobbs University

    • Un Tacon says:

      You’re mistaking “excluded middle” for “false dichotomy” methinks. And your reconstruction is far off. I’m pro-science, BTW.

      • dr.s says:

        You’re mistaking “excluded middle” for “false dichotomy” methinks.
        Nope they’re bot used at different places

        And your reconstruction is far off.

        reconstruction of what is far off of what?

        Pro Science is fine.
        “Anything goes” is not .

        The whole point of being a “skeptic” is to declare that you are not gonna believe THAT!!
        ( ghoulies and ghosties and McKenna Tkyes and Astromancy ( astrology) without
        better evidence than is usually presented .)

        Shermer points out that even Bogus evidence if believed will change someone’s view
        of the world.
        If you get abducted by UFO Greenies and you’re sure it happened no amount of speculation by unbelievers is going to convince you otherwise

        I think this is important or I wouldn’t belabor the point..

        I asked a very Educated Jesuit Catholic Priest what if he would do if Baha ‘u ‘Allah appeared to him during lunch as a regular customer ,then did some magic to convince that this was indeed a visitation.

        The priest was informed that he had done a good job but now it was time to advance to the next level and become a Baha’i so he could continue doing God’s work in a more effective manner.

        My question was ..What would believe about that after The Prophet had left the restaurant.

        His answer was that he would check in at the Bug House for a checkup because this was obviously an hallucination!

        After All, he said, his entire concept of who he is existentially bound up in theSupremacy of Christ and the Authority of the Magisterium

        I thought that any reasonable person would do the same and write it off as just an hallucination .

        Almost everyone I tell about this said that if it or something similar appropriate to them happened to them, they would believe it happened and take advice very seriously, quitting their job etc to follow the TROOTH.

        On a radio show I spoke to Shermer about this and he concurred that almost everyone would go with believing it REALLY HAPPENED rather than doubt their sanity.

        So whazzup with THAT???
        Somehow BELIEF trumps Reason?
        So Maybe Joe Smith was not as coo-coo as we like to think with his Urim and Thummim!!.

        That’s why my response to anyone who isn’t pretty knowledgeable about Skeptical Mindset is

        “hey, What about them Broncs!!

        RJ Pease (speaking out of frivolous “Sidethink …Subegnius” persona)

        Thanks for you interest in this matter!

  14. Un Tacon says:

    Science vs. “Anything goes” = false dichotomy and skepticism does not involve rejecting every claim that is not currently verifiable, but weeding out the tripe from the promising new outlooks or approaches. Unless you have an inflexible “mindset” – to which applying a healthy dose of healthy skepticism would be an advance.

    • bob pease says:

      “Science vs. “Anything goes” = false dichotomy”

      Perhaps.. It depends whether the Universal set of applicable ideologies has more than TWO members..

      My wife chose to leave a certain Unitarian congregation in the Denver area.

      The power structure there had made it clear that to be in the power elite of the church you were required to practice Wicca.

      looks like a situation where a dichotomy could not be false.

      It is interesting that they called themselves the Full Moon Society,
      They had a eclipse-watching party on the WRONG Night!

      Sic transit gloria coo-coo


  15. Un Tacon says:

    Maybe a good idea to work out the difference between instances and principles. In the meantime, all the best with your battle against far fetched nonsense. Hope you’re winning converts. But as I’m sure you know, arguing with the deliberately uninformed is a losing game.

  16. Douglas Caines says:

    I am sceptical of said UFO sceptics & debunkers. For the reasoning they use to refute unexplained phenomena does not belong to them to use exclusively.

    For example were I to ask for concrete, physical proof of a Black Hole, How would they answer? Or for like proof of ‘The Big Bang?’

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