Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Feynman vs the Flying Saucers

  1. Aug 5, 2004 #1
    "If we come to the case of flying saucers, for example, we have the difficulty that almost everybody who observes flying saucers sees something different, unless they were previously informed of what they were supposed to see. So the history of flying saucers consists of orange balls of light, blue spheres which bounce on the floor, gray fogs which disappear, gossamer-like streams which evaporate into the thin air, tin, round flat things out of which objects come with funny shapes that are something like a human being.

    "If you have any appreciation for the complexities of nature and for the evolution of life on earth, you can undestand the tremendous variety of possible forms that life would have. People say life can't exist without air, but it does under water; in fact it started in the sea. You have to be able to move around and have nerves. Plants have no nerves. Just think a few minutes of the variety of life there is. And then you see that the thing that comes out of the saucer isn't going to be anything like what anybody describes. Very unlikely. It's very unlikely that flying saucers would arrive here, in this particular era, without having caused something of a stir earlier. Whay didn't they come earlier? Just when we're getting scientific enough to appreciate the possibility of traveling from one place to another, here come the flying saucers.

    "There are various arguments of not complete nature that indicate some doubt that the flying saucers are coming from Venus-in fact, considerable doubt. So much doubt that it is going to take alot of accurate experiments, and the lack of consistency and permanency of the characteristics of the observed phenomena means that it isn't there. Most likely. It's not worth paying much more attention to, unless it begins to sharpen up.

    "I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. (Incidently, I must explain that because I am a scientists does not mean I have not had contact with human beings. Ordinary human beings, I know what they are like. I go to Las Vegas and talk to the show girls and the gamblers and so on. I have banged around alot in my life, so I know about ordinary people.) Anyway, I have to argue about flying saucers on the beach with people, you know. And I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that's true. It is possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it's possible or not but whether it's going on or not. Whether it's probably occuring or not, not whether it could occur.

    "That brings me to the fourth kind of attitude toward ideas, and that is that the problem is not what is possible. That's not the problem. The problem is what is probable, what is happening. It does no good to demonstrate again and again that you can't disprove that this could be a flying saucer. We have to guess ahead of time whether we have to worry about the marian invasion. We have to make a judgement about whether it is a flying saucer, whether it's reasonable, whether it's likely. And we do that on the basis of a lot more experience than whether it's just possible, because the number of things that are possible is not fully appreciated by the average individual. And it is also not clear, then, to them how many things that are possible must not be happening. That it's impossible that everything that is possible is happening. And there is too much variety, so most likely anything that you think of that is possible isn't true. In fact that's a general principle in physics theories: no matter what a guy thinks of, it's almost always false. So there have been five or ten theories that have been right in the history of physics, and those are the ones we want. But that doesn't mean everthing is false. We'll find out."

    Richard P. Feynman
    The Meaning of it All
    Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist
    Part three: This Unscientific Age pp.75-76
    Perseus Books, Reading, Mass. 3rd printing, May 1998

    Note on the "Venus" reference: the book consists of the texts of three lectures Feynman gave in April 1963 at the University of Washington, Seattle, as part of the John Danz Lecture series. At that time the notion that flying saucers were from Venus was the prevalent one, probably because of the books of a guy named George Adamski who, much like current alleged UFO contactee Whitley Strieber, got alot of press with his tales of contact with aliens. Adamski reported the aliens said they were Venusians.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 5, 2004 #2
    man what a load of waffle... ;)
  4. Aug 5, 2004 #3


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    It may be waffle, but the scientific community seldom say that
    something is impossible, but as material evidence for UFOs
    has never been shown to the public, why do people believe
    in them, when the possibility or probability of them visiting
    earth is so low?
  5. Aug 5, 2004 #4

    Cause we send TV signals into space, and everyone loves Pimp My Ride?
  6. Aug 5, 2004 #5
    So many Waffle's I could not eat them all but I do belive that faster than light travel of information is possible and that the universe probably has other forms of reconisable life forms somewhere. Not sure I get it but from what I understand travel into the past is not possible beyond the experiment was executed. Then again maybe im just confused or misinformed.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2004
  7. Aug 5, 2004 #6
    What is now proved was once only imagined.
    William Blake
  8. Aug 5, 2004 #7

    Math Is Hard

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

  9. Aug 6, 2004 #8


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Why would an alien race expend time and resources to continually visit
    what to them is a primitive race, How would they find us, by chance, no
    by our EM emissions, how far has the first of these emissions travelled?
    however far that would have to be the limit from their world to ours.
    just for argument say this is one hundred LYs, how many life supporting
    planets are predicted in this sphere? if intelligent life evolved on these
    planets why are we not picking up their EM emissions etc etc.
  10. Aug 6, 2004 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    http://www.space.com/searchforlife/shostak_seti_et_010816.html [Broken]
    A good starting point for realistic research into the probability
    that aliens have visited us.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  11. Aug 6, 2004 #10
    how long before someone brings up the femi paradox? :biggrin:
  12. Aug 6, 2004 #11


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    I'm cool with life forming an many planets, but Iwonder about high energy electromagnetic radiation using life. There were a couple of bottlenecks in the history of earth life where life could have gone away from evolving intelligence. The Chixulub comet strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, for example, and gave the mammals their big chance. Drake's equation uses uniform probabilities, but earth life is partly formed by random accidents.
  13. Aug 6, 2004 #12

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Well I can’t let this one go unanswered. :biggrin: The core problem appears to be that Feynman was uninformed, and misinformed; and I think even playing a little politics.

    This statement is obviously false. For one, it is painfully self evident that if observations were completely different, then they wouldn’t all be called be flying saucers, would they? If I see a flying cigar-shaped craft, or a triangle, do I call it a saucer?. Perhaps Feynman is suggesting that eyewitness testimony can differ given the same observed events. No kidding. But this does not take away from the potential reality of the events.

    The term “flying saucer” references the now classic description for the motion of objects reportedly observed by pilot Kenneth Arnold while he was flying over Mt Rainier, in Washington State, in June of 1947.

    See this thread for a good example of how the media is responsible for much misunderstanding created and how the facts can change with time. Compare Arnold’s original report with the book that came out later. Arnold’s flat ellipsoids were magically transformed into a flying crafts with wings and presumably LASER blasters. :biggrin:

    The “flying saucer” is now treated as a family of reported UFOs. In spite of the immediate misuse of the term “saucer” by the media and people who reported seeing them later, typical UFO reports described flat ellipsoids [or sometimes a sombrero shape], or teardrop shaped, just as was described by Arnold in his actual but unpublicized, official report. The media hype that followed is what did not stand the test of time. In fact, “two saucers stuck together” would be a better description of the typical drawing or description of what Arnold saw. It is also noteworthy that contrary to Feynman’s suggestion, reports of various types of UFOs are consistent even though they are inconsistent with the notion of a saucer. If we knew that all aliens drive identical vehicles then I guess the objections of the author would be well founded. Is this what Feynman is suggesting? I wasn’t aware of any such discovery.

    Orange balls of light are still seen and are often called UFOs since they apparently do fly around, and since nobody knows what they are. Unless Feynman means to argue that any unidentified orange balls of light must by default be people from Venus, I don’t see the point. Next, we have blue spheres that bounce on the floor. This sounds to me like a typical reference to ball lighting reports. At the time that Feynman wrote all this, the existence of ball lighting was dismissed; and often dismissed as just another silly UFO report. Now meteorologists agree that ball lighting does exist. So, not only is Feynman’s reference inappropriate to the context of a serious UFO discussion, any assumption that these blue spheres do not exist is false. It is obviously silly to lump these in with UFO reports as Feynman strangely chooses to do.

    Next we hear of gray fogs which disappear, and gossamer-like streams which evaporate into the thin air. After twenty five years of interest I don’t know about gray fog reports. It seems that very obscure references are chosen here, rather than typical reports. Gossamer-like streams This almost certainly references reports of observed nuclear tests in the 50s and 60’s. Are we to assume that these tests did not take place, or should we take this as evidence of the reliability of human testimony? People reported what they saw. It was that simple.

    The “round flat things” are the only reference that I see to a classic “flying saucers”.

    Here a link between UFOs and aliens is assumed. In most cases, UFO sighting do not involves claims of aliens. Next comes a huge stumbling block for Feynman’s argument: UFO sightings are not a new occurrence. The history of the subject is thousands of years old; even biblical. It is all a matter of perception - how these unidentified objects, or even how beings are interpreted by observers of the time. I will stop on this point since I fear a cock may crow a third time, any minute now – the implications are biblical.

    References are made here to the many scam artists and nut jobs that have always existed in the fringes of the serious “UFO community”. The Venusians had their day in the nut-light, but did this group typify all UFO advocates of the time? By this logic we can also assume that all Christians wear white sheets on Friday nights. To group honest and intelligent, and serious UFO “witnesses” and investigators with people claiming to be from Venus, or people that have “met someone from Venus”, or someone that mystically knows our Venusian brothers and sisters, is utter silliness. We find nut cases in all walks of life. The UFO crowd does not escape this fact any more than do churches and political organizations, or internet forums for that matter. When we judge the claims of a political organization, do we consider the core claims, or should we take those claims of dishonest people, or disturbed people who have lost touch with reality?

    Note that this ignores the personal accounts and direct observations that are believed by the friends and families of the UFO witnesses. In fact the order of logic suggested is actually backwards. First a person hears UFO stories, or he or she sees something that can’t be explained as any other known phenomenon, then the “could it be possible” questions arise. People don’t just get up one day and decide to believe in UFOs, or aliens, as was suggested by the reference. No, first people are given reasons to believe in these things. When considering whether or not the claims of observed alien spacecraft and such that are to be believed, many people will consider that the universe is a pretty big place. We’re here; why not others, and why not others much more technically advanced than us - maybe the observers really saw exactly what they said that they saw. The burden of proof lies with science, not the observers. Must I be a meteorologist, or must I prove the mechanism for precipitation in order to observe the rain. Do I need to catch some lightning in order for my claims of lighting sightings to be true? Should Tsu check in with the local university to see if I really saw what I know I saw, or should she believe me based on twenty years of trust? There is a big difference between scientific proof, and experiences to be believed by people that we trust. I can’t prove that I had coffee yesterday morning, but I did. Tsu will believe this without one bit of scientific proof; and she is completely justified in doing so.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2004
  14. Aug 6, 2004 #13

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    This bit of window dressing means nothing. It ignores the impetus for nearly all belief in these things: direct observations. The last time I checked, observations were considered a valuable tool in science. Should we just ignore UFO observations because we don’t like them. Is this how science works?

    Considering my great fondness and respect for this giant of modern physics, and considering that so many obvious holes and logical flaws are presented here in so few sentences, the overwhelming impression for me is this: Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman.
  15. Aug 6, 2004 #14


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    If some one were to show me the smallest scrap of material evidence for
    alien visitation i would jump for joy, but the painfully fact is there is none,
    as for what people see, well every one knows that a very large proportion
    are bogus and the remainder are "unidentified", This ufo thing is almost
    a religion, requiring faith not fact, I would give a lot for a close encounter
    but im willing to bet my money is safe.
  16. Aug 6, 2004 #15

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    What would you like? Edit: Should I expect a muffler, or a gravity sheild, or an energy cell to fall off somewhere? If it did would you know a piece of one when you saw it?

    it is estimated that on the average, 90-95% or all claims are either bogus, or they can be reasonably explained by other known events, but your next following statement really has nothing to do with this aspect of the discussion. Approximately 5 - 10% of all sightings merit serious consideration. If I knew that only 0.00001% of all UFO sighting were really alien spacecrafts, then I might still have more than a passing interest.

    ...unless you or someone you know and trust happens to see one. Also, unless you have scrutinized thousands of eyewitness accounts like I have and have concluded otherwise. My position on UFOs is based on logic. Any assertion otherwise is based on a belief.

    So would I [well, depending on how close you have in mind], but unfortunately I've never seen one that I know of; in fact, I've never even been chased by one on my motorcycle! :wink: :biggrin:
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2004
  17. Aug 7, 2004 #16


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    So would I [well, depending on how close you have in mind], but unfortunately I've never seen one that I know of; in fact, I've never even been chased by one on my motorcycle!
    Checkmate, well not really, but people must be allowed to believe in their
    convictions, but what convinces someone who has not had an experience?
    Feyman is a scientist and i think it is only ethical for him to take this stance.
    Ivan you have all the information, what evidence would you put before him
    to prove your case?
  18. Aug 7, 2004 #17
    In 1963 they would. The term "flying saucers" was used to apply to anything we would now call, much more accurately, a "UFO". Feynman is just using it the way everyone did at the time. Your attempt at rigor of terminology is anachronistic. The distinction between a flying saucer and a UFO didn't exist in everyday speech in 1963.
    Feynman isn't the one lumping them together. Everyone did at the time. They were all suspected of being from another planet by the average guy who speculated about it. Feynman's comments are perfectly appropriate to a serious 1963 discussion of flying saucers. You can't require him to have been commenting on the more sophisticated breakdown of these phenomena that exists today, but didn't exist then.
    No. This almost certainly refers to weird stuff that falls from the sky now and then, called by various names. There's quite a bit of info about it in Mysteries of the Unexplained When that was published in 1980 they had had some of it analysed and it seemed to be algae. They suspect that storms and tornados suck it off of ponds and throw it into the high atmosphere where it's whipped into filaments. Sometimes masses of it are spotted in the air, probably just being blown along.
    He's specifically talking about cases where people claim humanoid beings emerge from the craft at this point.
    Feynman is clearly addressing putated visitors from other planets, an idea that only came into being at the time our technology made us start thinking about interplanetary travel. He's right on the money with this. Before this, anything strange in the sky was reakoned to be something else. People just didn't associate it with the thought of visitors from another planet.
    Yes. This was the current thinking. If you were interested in UFOs, you read George Adamski, and were unconcerned if any scientists called him a nut. He, and people like him, seemed to have all the info. It was around this time that I attended my first flying saucer lecture. A woman came to our town and gave a talk about the flying saucers that had landed in her back yard a few times. She had 8mm film of it. She had met the occupants, who were from Venus. At the end of the lecture you could buy copies of photos made from the film. I spent my whole allowance, a dollar, and got the two best shots, and asked her to autograph them, which she did. I was there, Ivan. Back then, flying saucers were from Venus. This was the "proper" understanding for the informed flying saucer buff, because previously they had been "wrongly" assumed to be from Mars. All the people who actually met the flying saucer guys agreed it was actually Venus.
    You start thinking seriously about it simply because the idea is in the air, it's going around: you know people who are into it, and their talk makes an impression. It's completely unnessesary to know anyone whose actually seen one, or to have seen one yourself. That's the way I was at first. Then, of course, I saw the 8mm film and actually got the autograph of the woman who'd met the Venusians.
    Feynman doesn't address what claims should be believed, rather what interpretations should be reasonably entertained. As I've said before in other threads, if you say you saw something, it is encumbent upon me to believe you saw something. I have no obligation to accept your interpretation of it, though.
    Course not, but I am under no obligation to accept any interpretation you put on the phenomenon of rain.
    No, but you will need to catch some if you want to prove a clain that lightning is essentially the same as static electricity. That is: if you want to support some specific interpretation of lightning.
    There are people you can trust to be reporting the truth as they know it, but the leap from seeing a flying saucer to asserting you saw a craft from another planet is one of interpretation. This is what Feynman is pointing out: interpreting strange things in the sky as alien space craft gained currency with our technological development in that direction: better and better telescopes and rocketry. Strange things in the sky began to be lumped together under the term "flying saucers".
    Because there's nothing the least bit suspect about such a claim. What does having coffee have to do with seeing flying saucers? And what does seeing a flying saucer have to do with any interpretation you add to the sighting? It's fine to say you can't think of any terrestrial craft that could account for it, but that doesn't mean it's from another planet.
  19. Aug 7, 2004 #18
    It's quite on the money, actually. He is addressing the logic he has run into over and over among the average joes and showgirls. They apparently reason from the premise that since flying saucers can't be proved impossible, it means they are probable.
    Personally, I reccomend ignoring any speculative interpretation of flying saucers presented as fact.
    Meaning yours, right?
    Oh, in your dreams.
  20. Aug 8, 2004 #19

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    UFO is a term that was used at least as early as 1948 as can be seen in the reference to Project Bluebook. I’m not sure what name was used in projects Sign and Grudge before that.

    There are many, many examples.
    What’s more, any honest intellectual evaluation of the subject would have made this distinction in the first place. To ignore the distinction between flying saucers, and bouncing balls of light, shows that either no serious evaluation is ever intended, or he knew very little about the subject.

    No they weren’t. Feynman only chose to speak to the least rigorous and least credible perspectives.

    You are incorrect. There were many very serious people back then and Feynman chose to ignore them. What’s more, above all I would expect a sophisticated evaluation from someone like Feynman, if he were serious.

    Gossamer-like streams
    Nuclear tests that produced webs and streamers were often reported as UFOS. The point is that people were reporting what they saw. In either case this stands as more evidence to the reliability of widely reported sightings of unexplained phenomena.

    In that case the point is fair enough but it does not stand a baseline for evaluation. If ET is here, then the parameters for a reasonable discussion of what’s possible in this respect may change dramatically. Feynman should have recognized this fact.

    Not true.

    What’s more, it doesn’t matter. He was wrong so the argument fails. If you only intended this as a historical document then you should have specified that the arguments are wrong and no longer apply.

    Says who? Boy that’s a loaded argument if I ever heard one. If you were serious you read the books written by the nuts? No. If you were serious you read Hynek. He never mentions Hynek does he.


    Why? You do because many people see these things; and not just a few people who met the Venusians. Most of the tens of thousands of UFO reports have nothing to do with any direct claims of alien encounters.

    First, Feynman was speaking to the logic that people use in regards to UFOs.
    They wonder because people see things that can’t be explained.

    Also, if the critical facts are ignored then any interpretation is meaningless. Many cases are mind boggling and the “explanations” more science fiction than science. For example, consider the JAL flight where the pilot reported a craft the size of an aircraft carrier - flying right next the cargo plane for a time - and the explanation eventually given was that the pilot saw Venus. Now, this may sound like a comfortable explanation to many Astronomers and such, but it is hogwash nonetheless.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 21, 2017
  21. Aug 8, 2004 #20

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Observers are not bound to prove anything. It is the responsibility of science to sort out the facts. If there is not enough information to be useful then the correct perspective is that we don’t know what happened, or what people saw.

    The problem as I see it is that facts [observations] are ignored in order to find convenient explanations. More insulting yet are the constant references to the least challenging and least believable UFO claims as opposed to addressing the tough reports. This only serves to trivialize the subject at the expense of honest observers and at the expense of the truth – the truth of whatever really is happening that accounts for all of this.

    I was speaking to the difficulty in proving transient events, after the fact. Next, at what point is trust stretched too far? Surely not when Feynman or anyone else says so. This is a personal judgment. Its not as if we can declare that anyone making claims not understood by science is lying; can we.

    Well, maybe he should have gained some perspective from serious people before forming an opinion about any of this. If he understood what drives the average opinion then he might change his own. Instead he looks to the lowest level of understanding for perspective. People are lead by people they believe. What he is really arguing is whom one should believe. He just doesn’t understand this because of his obvious lack of knowledge on the subject.

    Okay we’ll take it on your word then. That’s good scientific reason to rule something out.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook