How to raise a psychic child

All children are psychic, according to one of the stranger items to appear in the NZ Herald (30 May) for a while.

Sue Bishop is described by writer (I hesitate to say journalist) Nicky Park in the paper’s Life & Style section as “one of Australia’s top intuitives” – a phrase Bishop herself uses in her promotional material. She says children are tuned in to their abilities more than ever, but parents need to know how to nurture their kids’ skills without discouraging or being too pushy.

Bishop, who is currently promoting her recent book Psychic Kids, says we’re starting to see little kids who can see spirits, and actually validate who it is. “It’s different to a child saying, ‘I’ve got a monster on top of my bed’ [how, exactly?]. We know that’s imagination.”

The “level of awareness” kids have today is different to the kids of the 80s, she says, partly because the topic is less taboo now so children are free to explore their psychic abilities. Then there’s “soul evolution”.

“I believe that each evolution carnates to bring a new gift, a new awareness to help us grow and expand also to deal with the problems created from the former generation.”

But at the age of seven the soft part of the skull fully closes (this is in the NZ Herald, remember, so it must be true), and the age of reason begins.

“It’s when children go through this phase that they start to fear death and fear separation from a parent … they start to focus more on being logical and analytical. They start to doubt their intuition, they shut that part of themselves off.”

But don’t worry, the Herald has some useful tips to help you prevent your child from becoming logical and analytical. You must recognise you and your child have a sixth sense, and set safe boundaries for using these abilities. But don’t indulge them too much: “Some kids will go too far and let their imagination take over.”

‘Medicine man’ offside

A self-styled Woodville ‘medicine man’ has found himself offside – with the country’s other medicine men (Dominion Post, 18 June).
Karys Woodcock, a 65-year-old part-time actor raised in England, says he is entitled to be a shaman because his father had Crow Indian heritage. He is legally changing his name to Laughing Bear, and says he has attracted a strong following for his ‘medicine readings’ and other services. He charges for those services, but according to Joseph O’Connor, 81, genuine shamans don’t charge.

O’Connor says he is a third-generation psychic and shaman, while “Laughing Bear” is an actor living in a world of fantasy. “Renting out rooms to unregistered psychics must be stamped out. There are so many so-called psychics robbing the public. He is doing a great injustice to the unsung heroes and healers that have made this country.”

Woodcock charges $60 to $70 an hour for medicine card readings, as well as charging for teaching groups, and takes donations for ghost and spirit house cleansing. He admits there is a big argument about shamans receiving money. “People fall in love with understanding living holistically, but forget that in order for me to practise as a shaman, I have to get petrol, have a mortgage to pay.

“My tepee is bigger than what I used to have. I don’t really want to go and live in the bush. People give us a gift of dollars instead of a leg of elk or deerskin. If [the] creator wants you to do something, you have to be alive to do it.”

Animals vie for psychic fame

Remember Paul the psychic octopus? The late lamented mollusc who correctly picked the outcomes of all seven of Germany’s matches plus the final in the 2010 Football World Cup now has plenty of competition (Stuff, 8 June).

None have the form of the eight-legged marvel, however, says Joe Crilly, a spokesman for British bookmaker William Hill. “And with so many to follow, there are undoubtedly going to be a few who get it wrong.”

Citta, a 33-year-old female Indian elephant at Krakow Zoo, was given the gig for the 2012 Euro Cup after correctly picking Chelsea would win the Champions League final, heading off a donkey, a parrot, and another elephant. But her first two predictions of Polish victories – made by choosing a marked melon – have been astray, with both matches drawn.

Meanwhile a “psychic pig” in the Ukraine predicted four of six results in the first round correctly. Other contenders are a ferret called Fred, Kharuk the Russian reindeer, Sissi the German dachshund, Nicholas the English llama and Huat the Singaporean arowana – that’s a large freshwater fish. Information is limited on how well any of these are doing, which probably says something in itself.

Snake test of faith fatal

A West Virginia preacher who handled venomous snakes to prove his faith in God has died after being bitten (NZ Herald, 1 June).

Mark Wolford’s own father died of a snakebite in 1983 aged 39, and he himself had been bitten before and survived. On this occasion witnesses say a timber rattler bit the 44-year-old on the thigh during a Sunday service at Panther State Forest.

Ralph Hood, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said his friend Wolford would want people to remember him as “a Christian who was living his beliefs and being obedient.”

“A common misunderstanding is that handlers believe they can’t get bit or it won’t kill them,” Hood added. “What they’ll tell you is, vNo one will get out of this alive.’ They’ll also tell you it’s not a question of how you live; it’s a question of how you die … This is how he would have wanted to die.”

Although most Appalachian states have outlawed snake handling, it remains legal but rare in West Virginia.

UFOs buzz Northland … or not

Ufocus NZ are claiming many sightings of UFOs in the Northland region in recent months, but none has been reported to the police, a police spokeswoman says (Northern Advocate, 23 May).

Suzanne Hansen, who is research network director for the UFO-watching group, said one man had reported seeing a UFO land in Northland in April, but she was not revealing where at this stage. “He’s a very credible source. He saw an object that had landed and said it was definitely not an aircraft or like anything else he had seen.”

After a story on the sightings appeared in the Northern Advocate on May 19 several more reports of recent UFO sightings from the region had come in, while others had contacted the group to report historical sightings in Northland.

NZ Skeptics spokeswoman Vicki Hyde said there were a huge number of possible explanations for UFO sightings – and none of them involved visits from extraterrestrials.

Ghost haunts university

Residents at Otago University’s Cumberland College have taken to sleeping with the lights on following a sighting of a ghost (Otago Daily Times, 22 May).

The ghost has been linked to the Grey Lady, who allegedly haunted a nurse at the college after the nurse, working at the now-closed Queen Mary maternity hospital nearby, took her baby for being an unfit mother.

College resident Mareck Church said the “ghost sighting” happened on the night of Saturday, 5 May, when two female health science students noticed a weird smell and a chill in the air as they walked down the hallway after coming back to the college from studying. Weird smells in a hall of residence? Cold in Dunedin? Definitely something odd here.

“One of the girls saw a black figure beside the fire hydrant, turned to the other girl to point it out and as they both turned round, they felt a cold whoosh of air pass them,” Mr Church said.

Some students, Mr Church included, then played pranks on other residents, including going around the corridors with pillowcases over their heads.

The situation had calmed down since staff arranged a blessing by a chaplain and a kaumatua on May 10. Good to see our universities are bastions of rationality.


Quake wakes up spooks

A Christchurch para-normal investigator says Canterbury’s September 4 earthquake has more than doubled the number of reported supernatural events in the province (The Press, 8 November).

Anton Heyrick says his team, Christchurch Paranormal Investigators, had received an “interesting influx” of phone calls and emails. “People are calling us, saying that they had always felt like there was something in the house, but since the earthquake it had become more intense,” he said. He attributed this to the “sheer strength and power” of the earthquake.

Heyrick said it was well known among investigators that renovations tended to wake up dormant spirits in old buildings.

“With the earthquake, it literally smashed walls apart, and knocked down floors and ceilings, so you can imagine the effect that would have had.”

The team, which did not charge for its services, had conducted two full investigations, and was planning to do more.

NZ Skeptics chairman Gold (whose own residence was damaged in the quake) said the reports may have been due to “people’s minds playing tricks on them in the post-quake environment”.

“You may not feel an aftershock, but it will still make things rattle. People’s minds fill in the blanks, and they tend to fill in the blanks with fairytales, unfortunately.”

UFO files released

The NZ Defence Force did a huge favour for newspaper editors all over the country by releasing 2000 pages of formerly secret reports on UFOs just in time for the silly season.

Though some have tried to talk the reports up, it’s clear there’s very little in them. Says the Southland Times in an editorial (29 December), “the case most likely to attract attention – and we say this with all due respect to the Christchurch man who submitted 300 pages outlining two decades of contact with aliens – are the Kaikoura lights of 1978”.

The Kaikoura Star (29 December) noted that the air force report at the time concluded almost all the sightings could be accounted for by natural phenomena, but also recounted other UFO incidents in the area. On 13 July 1959, for example, Blenheim farmer Eileen Moreland was getting the cows in when she noticed a green light above her in the clouds. Soon an oval- shaped UFO with two green beams of light and “fiery orange jets” settled above her, enveloping her in a “peculiar green glow”. She claims to have seen two men inside the craft, dressed in “silvery, shiny suits from the waist upwards” and with headgear “like divers’ helmets which glittered very brightly”. In a separate Kaikoura Star item the same day, local butcher Alan Hickey relates how he often travelled the coast road in 1978, and noted the bright squid boat lights on the horizon. “It made me laugh (when it was reported). I thought, ah, it’s those squid boats.”

Psychic ‘predicts’ Lotto win

A psychic’s prediction that “something great” was going to happen in November has supposedly been “proved accurate” after a Napier family’s big Lotto win (Otago Daily Times, 17 November).

“We had no idea that it would be a $2 million Lotto win,” said a family member. No, and neither did the psychic.

Hunt on for yeti remains

An Air New Zealand pilot and mountaineer is leading a different kind of yeti hunt (Sunday News, 5 December).

Mike Allsop hopes to track down a “skull” and skeletal hand, said to be from a yeti, stolen from the Pangboche monastery in the 1990s. Weta Workshop has produced replicas of the missing items which he plans to hand-deliver to the monastery in April to help searchers find the originals.

“I am hoping that the person who has them wants to give them back … I will go anywhere in the world in person, free of charge, no questions asked and I will also buy them a beer.”

The article says the material came to international prominence when Texan oil magnate Tom Slick (a case of nominative determinism?) photographed them in 1957. Two years later one of his team returned to the monastery and reportedly stole bone fragments from the hand. These were allegedly smuggled back to the US by “a Hollywood star” – named as James Stewart by Wikipedia. The remaining items were stolen in 1999.

Left unsaid is that the “skull” – more commonly referred to as a scalp – was allowed out of Nepal in 1957 and examined at the British Museum, where it was determined to be moulded from the shoulder skin of a serow, a species of Himalayan goat-antelope. Photos of the hand look equally dubious – it seems to have kneecap-like bones at the knuckles, and to lack any wristbones.

Acupuncture good for lazy eyes?

A trial of acupuncture to treat lazy eye has offered cautious support to the traditional Chinese medical practice (Reuters, 18 December).

Dr Robert Ritch of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary and Chinese colleagues studied 18 Chinese children with lazy eye, also known as amblyopia, aged between seven and 12. They randomly assigned about half of them to wear a patch over their good eye for two hours every day, and the rest to attend five acupuncture sessions weekly; both treatments continued for up to 25 weeks. All children were also given new glasses and asked to perform an hour of daily near-vision activities.

At the end of the 25 weeks at least seven out of 10 children in each group had their lazy eye’s sight improve by at least two lines on an eye chart. Forty-two percent of children receiving acupuncture overcame the condition compared to 17 percent of those who wore eye patches.

The University of Rochester’s Dr Matthew Gearinger, however, cautions that the number of children studied was small. And “it is a lot to ask parents to drive to a local acupuncturist five days a week, rather than just using drops or a patch at home.”

Michigan internist Dr Peter Lipson noted that everyone knew who got what treatment, and that without an untreated group the study couldn’t rule out the possibility that not doing anything, or simply using corrective glasses and performing daily exercises, would work just as well.

“This is not, in my opinion, evidence toward acupuncture being as good as standard care, only that in this particular study children did about the same if they received standard care or non-standard care. It says nothing at all about acupuncture.”

Exorcists wanted

Roman Catholic bishops have held a special training workshop in Baltimore to help alleviate a serious shortage of exorcists (Reuters, 14 November).

The church currently has only five or six American exorcists on its books, but signed up 56 bishops and 66 priests for the two-day event. “There’s this small group of priests who say they get requests from all over the continental US,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. “Actually, each diocese should have its own [exorcist].”

He did not say why there was increased demand for exorcisms, which he noted were rarely performed.

Possible signs of demonic possession referred to in the article include scratching, cutting, or biting of the skin; profound displays of strength; and a strong or violent reaction to holy water. Nothing about projectile vomiting or heads turning 360 degrees.

Another Kentucky creationist theme park

Just when you thought Kentucky couldn’t make itself more of a laughing stock comes word that plans are afoot to build (or rebuild, according to Ken Ham of the nearby Creation Museum) a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in the state (Dominion Post, 11 December).

The ark is to be the centrepiece of a $150 million park, to be known as Ark Encounter. Due to open in 2014, it will also feature live stage shows, a petting zoo and a Tower of Babel.

Despite claims the park will further tarnish the state’s reputation, Governor Steve Beshear has promised $40 million in tax breaks for the project. “Bringing new jobs to Kentucky is my top priority,” he said.


Fake bomb detector leads to deaths

One of the main reasons for the success Al Qaeda has had in getting bombs past checkpoints in Iraq is that the main device used to detect explosives is a uselss fake (NZ Herald, 24 July).

The Iraqi government paid large sums for the detector, originally produced in Britain by a company whose managing director, Jim McCormick, has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. Export of the device, formally known as the ADE-651 but called a ‘sonar’ in Iraq, has now been banned.

The detector, a black plastic grip with a silver-coloured wand out the front, supposedly receives its power from the operator, who shuffles his feet to generate static electricity. If explosives or firearms are present, the wand is meant to incline towards them, like a water diviner’s rod.

The only electronic component is a small disc, similar to that attached to clothes in shops to stop people taking them without paying. Although each device costs US$50 ($68) to make, Iraq spent US$85 million on them in 2008 and 2009.

An Iraqi police chief said privately the police knew the detectors did not work but went on using them because they were ordered to. The presumption is that somebody was paid a bribe to buy them and does not want to admit they are junk. They remain in use today.

According to the Times Online (January 22), McCormick believes a lot of the opposition to the device is driven by its rather primitive appearance. “We are working on a new model that has flashing lights,” he said.

‘Lady Luck’ has no favourites

Sports writer and poker devotee Ian Anderson had some very refreshing things to say about luck in his Waikato Times column (28 August).

“Many people will tell you,” he writes, “that great teams create their own luck. Many people, of course, are idiots. Luck doesn’t get created – it’s a random act of variance – and it doesn’t favour one team or the other, be they great, woeful or middling.”

The All Blacks, in the middle of an unprecedented run of test match victories, had just squeaked home against the Springboks in Johannesburg, thanks to a try which the referee, on another day, might not have given. If it hadn’t been awarded, the All Blacks would have been left licking their wounds – much as they were in the 2007 World Cup when the critical refereeing decisions went the other way.

Sports fans have very selective memories, Anderson says. While people tend to focus on incidents that happen late in a game, a wrongly awarded try in the sixth minute carries as much weight as one in the 76th.

“We can also instantly recall any gross misfortune that has befallen our favourite sides but struggle to dredge up any memories of decisions that go in our favour.”

The same applies to poker players, who without exception think they’re better at the game than they are, and who sincerely believe most losses are the result of incredibly bad luck while victories come simply through outplaying their opponents in the hand.

“Yet a trawl through hand histories will glaringly reveal that each player… receives his fair share of bad beats and fortunate suck-outs.” Presumably these are technical poker terms.

UFO ‘Trick of the light’

A famous UFO filmed in the Australian desert in 1964 has been explained in recently released British Ministry of Defence (MOD) files as a trick of the light (Stuff, 5 August).

When footage of the Blue Streak rocket tests at Woomera were broadcast by the BBC, television viewers were “shocked” to see what appeared to be a flying saucer near the launch pad. Many wrote to the MOD asking for an explanation.

Then, when documentary maker Jenny Randles went to investigate the footage she found it was missing from the National Archives. An MP who saw the documentary then launched an inquiry. The newly released files, however, show that the people who made the film at the time were clear that the ‘UFO’ was an internal camera fault. The ‘missing’ canister of film had been stored at the Imperial War Museum, rather than the National Archives.

The incident is just one of thousands of UFO sightings investigated by the MOD. The latest bunch of files covers more than 5000 pages of correspondence on them.

David Clarke, author of The UFO Files and a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, said people who believe in UFOs were unlikely to be convinced.

“The truth is that people see things in the sky that they can’t explain, but the vast majority have got simple explanations. That is the truth, but they won’t accept that.”

Massey to study NDEs

If you’ve ever had a Near Death Experience, Massey University researchers would like to talk to you (Dominion Post, 27 August).

Psychologist Natasha Tassell and sociologist Mary Murray are carrying out New Zealand’s first large-scale study of the phenomenon. They estimate up to a quarter of those who have come close to dying may recall a form of near-death experience. “It’s a known phenomenon, but we don’t know how it occurs and exactly how prevalent it is,” Dr Tassell said.

They also wanted to know what variations existed and whether there were cultural dimensions. About 15 people had already shared their experiences, but they were hoping to attract about 100 participants 21 years and older for the two-year study.

Dr Tassell’s interest was sparked after an experience of her own, when she lay down after feeling unwell, and recalled travelling down a tunnel with a bright light at the end.

Alt med scrutinised

It was good to see Victoria University’s Professor Shaun Holt giving a public lecture on the potential dangers of alternative cancer therapies recently (Dominion Post, 1 September).
Chiropractors were good at helping people with bad backs but would not help cancer, reiki was “chanting mumbo jumbo”, reflexology was “absolute nonsense”, and colonic irrigation was dangerous, he said.

Professor Holt was however reported as stating that yoga could be effective for breast cancer patients, though the article didn’t say how. Taking ginger was as effective as pharmaceutical drugs for patients experiencing nausea and vomiting.

He also said acupuncture, massage therapy, aromatherapy and art therapy could help alleviate symptoms such as stress, anxiety, pain and depression. He might perhaps have mentioned that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles to get a response from acupuncture – it’s more about stimulating endorphin release than directing energy flows.

Toxic slugs create panic

Reports of toxic sea slugs on beaches around Auckland are taking on an almost hysterical flavour with news items about them and their ‘spread’ appearing almost daily (eg TV3 News, 3 September, NZ Herald, 9 September, Radio New Zealand News, 25 September).

The animal in question, Pleurobranchaea maculata, is perhaps the most common and widespread sea slug in the country. It is found all around the coast, in many habitats from low tide to a depth of 250 metres. It gained notoriety in 2009 after some dogs on an Auckland beach were poisoned after eating some that had washed up.

It has always been known that the slugs are toxic – that’s how they can survive without a shell – but it’s since been learned that the toxicity is due to tetrodotoxin, which is originally produced by bacteria, and known from several marine animals including fugu (Japanese puffer fish) and blue-ringed octopus.

It appears that the toxicity levels vary in different areas, and there’s now quite a bit of work going on to learn more about these fascinating animals (Rodney Times, 28 September). It’s a pity it appears to take a certain level of hype to get some basic research done on even the most common of the animals that live in and around this country.

The Ahipara UFO photos: an investigation

Photos of a bright, slow-moving object over Northland caused quite a stir when they were published in the local newspaper last year, but some patient detective work has revealed the likely identity of this UFO.

Around sunset on 28 April 2007 Mr Wayne Ferguson took eight photos from Ahipara Beach, near Kaitaia, of an anomalous illuminated object in the western sky near the horizon. He used a Sony DSCF828 compact digital camera and took the photos over a time interval of about three minutes. He reported perceiving the object to be moving very slowly in a northerly direction to his right, and away from him, during the few minutes that elapsed while he was photographing it.

Some time later Mr Ferguson gave the photos, in electronic form, to UFOCUS NZ who published them on their website in August with a summary of Ferguson’s report of the circumstances, other witness reports, and an excerpt from an assessment of the photos by the well-known American UFO analyst Dr Bruce Maccabee.

Suzanne Hansen, of UFOCUS NZ, contacted the Northern News seeking publicity for this event, which she classified as an “unusual aerial phenomenon” (UAP). The newspaper published two of Wayne Ferguson’s photos with a front-page story on 29 August 2007. This triggered much public interest in the form of further witness reports and further coverage by the Northern News.

Of the eight Ferguson photos published on the UFOCUS website ( six were close-ups of the sky object with no ground references. The other two photos included ground features-a headland and sea horizon. These ground references allowed the possibility of geometrical analysis. The planet Venus was present in the northwest evening sky at the time of Ferguson’s photos, and aircraft vapour trails was another possible explanation. Establishing the photo geometry could well be a useful avenue for investigating these possibilities, so I determined to do some on-site measurements. The report posted on the UFOCUS website said that Air Traffic Control had confirmed there were no scheduled flights in the area at the time. I thought it worthwhile to verify this independently in the interests of thoroughness.


I visited Ahipara Beach on 6 September 2007 between noon and 4pm. I had not been able to communicate personally with Wayne Ferguson, but I had read the UFOCUS website report and taken my own prints of the photos from the website.

I located Mr Ferguson’s camera position by looking for the viewing angle of the westward headland that revealed the exact headland profile as in Ferguson’s photos. Using my own camera I took replicating photos of the same sight line at a variety of zoom settings (Figure 1, 2).

From this location I then took a compass bearing to the north end of the headland where it met the reef. Applying the appropriate magnetic-grid-true adjustments I plotted this bearing on the topographical map with a protractor and it yielded a true bearing (horizon azimuth) of 284°. The distance from the camera location to the end of the headland derived from the map scale was 2.25 kilometres. I derived the latitude and longitude of the camera location from the map grid coordinates using a coordinate conversion tool. The ephemeris sunset azimuth for that date, viewed from that location, was 287°, and sunset time 5.49 pm NZST (rounded values).

I then estimated the angular altitude above the sea horizon of the anomalous sky object in Ferguson’s photos by reference to the object’s proportionate spatial relationship to the headland in the photos, but taking the measurement by sighting to the actual headland. It was necessarily an estimate because the object was, of course, not there in the sky when I was taking the measurement. (It would have been methodologically improper to take this measurement within Ferguson’s photo because of the unknown telephoto factor). I estimated the altitude of the object to be about five degrees. My measurement technique for this was cruder than that for my azimuth measurement. I didn’t have a navigator’s sextant or other precise altitude instrument, and there was no sky object to fix it on anyway, so I made do with the backyard astronomer’s favourite way of roughly measuring sky angles by sighting finger widths at arms length-previously calibrated with a clinometer and by reference to well-known star separations. The potential error of this method would be less than five degrees, which I deemed not critical for this measurement. Because the angular separation of the object from the headland and horizon was so small I also ignored the small errors inherent around the edges of the photos from the focal-plane distortion of scale caused by camera lenses.

Using the measured azimuth of the end of the headland I then estimated that the azimuth of the sky object was 283° in one of the headland photos, and 284° in the other headland photo, by reference to its obvious different azimuthal alignment with the headland in the two photos (Figure 2). In other words, the sky object in Ferguson’s photos had apparently moved about one degree of azimuth northward in the short time that elapsed between the two photos. If the camera location was the same for the two photos this change could only be real motion of the object itself. If the camera location was different for the two photos the change could be accounted for by parallax shift (apparent motion) due to the change in the observing position, and not real motion of the object. At the measured distance between the camera and the headland (2.25 kilometres) an apparent motion of about this magnitude due to parallax shift would result if the camera were moved as little as 50 metres laterally right (Figure 3). So far, my efforts to contact Mr Ferguson for clarification have failed. Meantime I assume that he did not move his camera position significantly and the object itself moved about one degree of azimuth northward in less than three minutes. This is consistent with Ferguson’s own description of his observation reported on the UFOCUS website.

Although the six close-up photos had time tags logged by the camera clock, unfortunately the two photos containing the headland did not. I assumed that the two photos containing the headland were taken within the same time window as the close-ups, but I have no way of verifying this at present.

It was not Venus

At the time of Ferguson’s photos the planet Venus was at magnitude ­-4.1, and approaching its maximum brightness. At this magnitude it is visible in broad daylight in the middle of a sunny day and becomes a conspicuous object in the western sky a few minutes after sunset. No other astronomical body except the Sun and Moon matches the brilliance of Venus when it is at this magnitude. It becomes this bright about every 19 months and maintains it for many weeks. This is why it frequently triggers UFO reports by people unfamiliar with the behaviour and motions of planets and stars, and this is why I investigated it in this case. Venus would have been visible in the northwest quadrant of the sky when Ferguson took his photos. However, my measurements of the photo geometry conclusively ruled out Venus. The azimuth of Venus from Ferguson’s camera position at the time was 323°. The camera line of sight was around 284° azimuth. So, on the telephoto zoom setting used, Venus would have been more than 30° outside the camera field of view northward. This is corroborated by the altitude geometry-the altitude of Venus above the horizon was 19° and the estimated altitude of the anomalous object in the photos was about 5°.

Was it vapour trails?

The next likely explanation was a vapour trail of a high-flying jet aircraft. In some of the sharper of Ferguson’s photos the object seems to be divided into two elongated parts with slight curvature. It was no doubt this feature that led American UFO investigator Dr Bruce Maccabee to suggest, as quoted on the UFOCUS website, that the object might be “a jet contrail viewed end on.” The website noted, “However ATC has confirmed that there were no scheduled flights in that area at that time.” Further scrutiny of the photography and checks on air traffic records were called for.

Photography analysed

The clock in Wayne Ferguson’s camera indicated that his photos were taken around sunset. However, the camera clock gives certainty only for the time interval over which the photos were taken, not for the actual time of each photo, unless the clock error at the time of photography is known. If the clock error is known it can be added to, or deducted from the clock reading to determine the actual time of the photo. In this case the clock error would have to be more than five minutes fast or slow to have a critical effect on the analysis. Since I was not able to ascertain Ferguson’s camera clock error I assumed the camera clock was reading within plus or minus five minutes of the correct time. Greater precision than this is no advantage in this case because, although sunset time for a particular location can be calculated to an accuracy of seconds, the actual time when the Sun is seen to disappear below the horizon can differ from the calculated time by up to two minutes due to the refraction of the atmosphere at the horizon on the day. Camera autofocus systems do not handle difficult light conditions well. The classic problem situation is where there is a bright light source in the middle of poorly lit surroundings. In these situations the autofocus system is likely to misread the distance to the object and it will be blurred. The use of manual focus mode is essential in these situations.

Digital zoom tools hugely increase the telephoto effect of the optical zoom capabilities of the lens to the extent that camera shake has a blurring effect on the image. It is essential to use a tripod, or steady the camera on something rigid, when using the digital zoom tool on a digital camera.

Since I don’t know the specifics of Ferguson’s camera settings I have to make some assumptions based on the nature of the images. His six close-up photos have obviously been taken on a high telephoto setting given the tiny relative size of the object in the other two photos. It is possible the images were cropped and enlarged further in computer photo-editing software. His camera features a ‘Smart Zoom’ tool in addition to the optical and digital zoom tools. This feature can extend the telephoto zoom effect to 36×, but only at the lowest resolution. Such a large telephoto effect will considerably reduce the image definition, especially if the image was further cropped and enlarged in photo-editing software. At the maximum telephoto setting on this camera these definition defects would be compounded further by camera shake if the camera was not steadied on a tripod. These considerations dictate caution in reading too much into the detail of the illuminated sky object in the images.

If you use your imagination you can see in Ferguson’s close-up images the hint of an oval hat-shaped object. The most blurred image of the six especially gives this impression. (Notably it was this image that UFOCUS supplied to the Northern News.) In my opinion this is an illusion caused by a random trick of the light combined with the poor definition of the image. This is a similar kind of illusion to the so-called “ambiguity” illusions, such as the well-known outline of a duck’s head that can also be perceived as a rabbit’s head. All eight of Ferguson’s photos were quite low resolution, which fosters the illusion. Although we could not rule out the possibility that the object was a hat-shaped moving craft of unknown origin and technology, it was more likely something quite ordinary. Such an ordinary explanation presents itself quite conspicuously in this case.

Flight EK 433 was there

I browsed the commercial airline flight schedules and found that Emirates Flight EK 433 leaves Auckland for Brisbane every day, all year round. Its scheduled departure time is 4.55 pm. I requested the air traffic record for this flight from Airways Corporation of New Zealand. Mr Ken Mitchell replied:

“I can confirm that EK 433 departed Auckland at 5.12 pm NZST on 28 April 2007, and would have been approximately 75 nautical miles west of Kaitaia at 34,000 ft at 5.45 pm.” (Personal communication dated 25 September 2007).

At this altitude and distance the aircraft would have been still in sunlight at the time. If it generated vapour trails the light of the setting sun would have lit up the trails brilliantly. But, at a distance of 75 nautical miles (139 kilometres), the aircraft itself would not have been easily visible.

A simple trigonometric calculation shows that an object 139 kilometres away at an altitude of 34,000 feet (10,370 metres) would be seen at 4.27° above the horizon by an observer at sea level. This figure is impressively within the margin of error of my estimate of the angular altitude above the horizon of the illuminated sky object in Ferguson’s photos. The direction is also consistent with Ferguson’s camera line of sight.

The rate of movement of the object reported by Wayne Ferguson during the three or four minutes he observed it was consistent with my own finding that the object moved about one degree of azimuth in the short time between the two headland photos. This apparent rate of movement is consistent with an ordinary commercial jet aircraft flying at cruising speed at 34,000 feet, 139 kilometres away, on a course obliquely away from an observer. Such aircraft commonly generate vapour trails that disappear at the trailing end as they are formed at the leading end, giving the impression that the trails are following the aircraft in unison with its motion. This explanation fits the photographic, geometric and eyewitness evidence very well.

If the object in Ferguson’s photos was not Flight EK 433 but some other unidentified craft, it seems a remarkable coincidence that the unidentified craft was on a similar course at a similar time travelling at a similar speed as Flight EK 433. We could invent far-fetched scenarios to support this possibility (perhaps the unidentified craft was shadowing EK 433?). But we are dealing with probabilities here. Which is the more likely scenario? The far-fetched one or the ordinary one? The complicated one or the simple one? The scientific approach is to accept the more probable explanation-the ordinary simple explanation-until proved otherwise. In the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, the simple explanation is preferable in terms of the principle of parsimony-also known as Occam’s razor. This well-known principle in science states that one should not introduce more hypotheses than are necessary to explain the data.

What would constitute hard evidence of the extraordinary explanation in a case like this? It would need to be more than a collection of distant photos of a blurred point of light. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinarily good evidence.

Even if the remaining uncertainties constrained us to continue holding this case in the ‘unidentified’ category, this would not necessarily mean it was something extraordinary. The absence of a fully proven explanation does not mean the case totally defies explanation. It just means we don’t have enough information to clinch it.


The Scottish border city of Carlisle says a stone artwork commissioned to mark the millennium has brought floods, pestilence and sporting humiliation, but an unlikely white knight is riding to their rescue (Dominion Post, 10 March). The Cursing Stone is a 14-tonne granite rock inscribed with an ancient curse against robbers, but since it was put in a city museum in 2001 the region has been plagued by foot and mouth disease, a devastating flood and factory closures. Perhaps worst of all, the Carlisle United soccer team has dropped a division.

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