The new acronym for UFO’s (“unidentified flying objects”) is UAPs (“unidentified aerial phenomena”). And you may have heard in the past few years that some of these phenomena are seen quite regularly by Navy and Air Force pilots.
This week’s “60 Minutes” show on CBS highlights some of these sightings, and they appear to be by reputable people and have no easy explanation, even by the U.S. government. In particular, two pilots and a government official are interviewed, as well as Senator Marco Rubio (you can dismiss him, but I wouldn’t advise ignoring him because he’s a Republican).
At any rate, if you click on the screenshot below you’ll see the entire 14-minute “60 Minutes” episode, complete with videos of the UAPs. Now I’m not going to sign on to a conspiracy theory that the government is hiding alien spacecraft from us, but we scientists have to be open minded, and so I find this interesting. I once thought that these represented images of glare from jet windows, but I’m not so sure. Watch for yourself and comment below.
It is important to figure out what these things are, for if they’re some kind of object, they are flying over restricted U.S. airspace. And they’ve baffled the Pentagon. As a skeptic, I tend to favor a purely naturalistic (i.e., non-alien) explanation, but I’m not ruling out other possibilities.
Here are three possibilities laid out in the program:
Secret US technology (this seems to be ruled out by Those Who Would Know)
An adversary’s spy vehicle (this would involve remarkable technology)
Something otherworldly (seems improbable)
So what’s going on?
Click below to see the show, which I recommend watching:
Here’s a post for International Women’s Day, but I was going to put it up anyway before I found out this morning that it was IWD.
The media is buzzing with the results of a new analysis by Richard L. Jantz of bones found on Nikumaroro Island in 1940, and the possibility—”the likelihood”, says Jantz—that they belonged to Amelia Earhart, who, he argues, died on that island after crash-landing in 1937 during her around-the-world flight with her navigator, Fred Noonan. Jantz is an emeritus professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and has expertise in identifying the origin of human bones. His paper, just published in Forensic Anthropology (reference at bottom), is free online, and the pdf is here.
I won’t recount the story of Earhart, or the many theories of what happened to her (I’ve written about this several times before); you can see the long Wikipedia entry for that. Her disappearance got lots of attention—more so than other vanished aviators—because she was a pioneering woman aviator, because she was already famous for breaking aviation records, and because she was popular with the American public, being genial and outgoing to reporters. (Her personal life was a bit of a mess, but we won’t get into that.) She disappeared on the final leg of her journey home, having taken off from New Guinea and heading to small Howland Island, from where she was going to fly to Hawaii and then to California. Despite a radio ship being stationed near Howland, Earhart couldn’t hear their transmission, though they could receive hers (she reported being low on fuel and flying a north-south line). She, Noonan, and the plane disappeared, and the rest is mystery.
In 1940 several bones, including a skull, humerus, radius, tibia, fibula, and two femurs, were found on Nikumaroro Island, a few hundred miles south of Earhart’s destination. Along with the bones were part of a shoe thought to be a woman’s shoe (see below), a sextant box for carrying a 1918-made instrument, and a Benedictine bottle. Here’s Nikumaroro relative to Howland; it’s a classic Pacific atoll, and the proposed site for her emergency landing is given in the second map (both from Betchart Expeditions):
The bones were taken to Fiji where they were measured by Dr. D. W. Hoodless, principal of the island’s Central Medical School. They’ve since disappeared, which is a great pity since DNA from those bones might have allowed a positive identification. (Earhart had no children, but perhaps there are relatives of her still alive.)
All we have are Hoodless’s seven measurements, four of the skull as well as the length of the humerus, radius and tibia. From these measurements, Hoodless concluded that the bones belonged to “a middle-aged stocky male about 5’5.5″ in height.” A reanalysis in 1998 took issue with that, arguing that the bones belonged to a female of European ancestry between 5’6″ and 5’8″ tall. The latter conclusions comport with Earhart, who was probably between 5’7″ and 5’8″: tall for a woman in those days. Here’s Earhart’s driver’s license; her pilot’s license adds an inch to the height recorded here.
To make a long story short, Jantz finds severe flaws in Hoodless’s methodology and conclusions (he screwed up both the sex and stature of the individual), and reanalyzes both the bone data and Earhart’s height and build from old photographs as well as a pair of her trousers that reside at a museum at Purdue University.
Using bones from Pacific Islanders, male and female, as well as from Europeans, Jantz finds Earhart fitting closer to European males than to the Islanders, but also closer to males than females. But she was tall: as tall as the average male, and these conclusions are based on bone length. He then estimates the robustness of Earhart’s build from both the bone data and photos taken of Earhart when she was alive; Jantz did this because Earhart was assumed to be very “gracile” (slender), which did not fit the bone measurements.
It’s amusing to see Jantz engaged in a bit of Earhart fat-shaming, saying she had fat ankles, “piano legs,” and was stockier than everyone assumed. This is what he says:
It is now possible to address the question of what Earhart’s body build actually was, since it bears on what Hoodless may have seen before him. Cross and Wright (2015) characterize Earhart as tall, slender, and gracile, citing numerous photos of her to support this assessment. However, the few photos showing Earhart’s bare arms or legs (Figure 5) show a woman with a healthy amount of body fat. The photos in Figure 5are inconsistent with a weight of 118 pounds and a BMI of 17.9, which according to contemporary standards is in the underweight or undernourished category. If her height is actually 5’7″, that brings her BMI to 18.5, just to the lower border of healthy weight. But even that is inconsistent with the photos in Figure 5.
It is evident from Figure 5 that Earhart’s calves and ankles cannot be described as slender. In the 1933 photo she is standing next to a woman somewhat taller, but with rather more slender ankles. One of Earhart’s biographers, Susan Butler (1997), recounts that because of her thick ankles, her legs could be described as “piano legs.” Thick ankles are not normally due to an undesirable distribution of fat; the subcutaneous fat layer is normally thin, the ankle configuration owing to underlying bone and muscle (Weniger et al. 2004). Ankle circumference is often used as a measure of frame size (Callaway et al. 1991). Calf and ankle circumference are strongly correlated with weight (Cheverud et al. 1990a), the former reflecting mainly muscle and fat, the latter mainly bone.
She still looks slender to me, even if her ankles weren’t so slim; here is Figure 5.
He concludes that Earhart had a BMI (body mass index) closer to 19 than to 17.1, and probably weighed closer to 130 pounds than 118 pounds, so her skeleton was not as gracile as everyone thinks. (Judging this is, of course, above my pay grade.) With a 27.3-inch waist, about 4 inches less than U.S. military women today, I consider her slim, regardless of her ankles!
Jantz further estimates the lengths of Earhart’s humerus (upper arm bone) and radius (one of the two lower arm bones) from a picture taken shortly before her flight, using markers on the photo (see below) and the known size of the gas can in her hand. He estimates her humerus at 321.1 mm and radius of 243.7 mm, compared to 325 and 245 for the Nikumaroro bones.
The tibia length taken from Earhart’s trousers gives an estimate of 371.7 mm, compared to 372.4 estimated from her height as 67 inches. Those comport well with the 372 mm measurement of the found bone. Jantz then uses just bone lengths to compared Earhart’s combined data to those of a sample of 2776 individuals from a collection of what I take to be “Euro-American” postcranial measurements (the data are NOT well described; they don’t include Polynesian or Pacific bones, but those would in all likelihood have been shorter). This plot shows the “Mahalanobis distance” of bones from the collection to the bones collected on Nikumaroro. Males are on the top, females on the bottom, and the line shows where Earhart’s data, taken from photos and pants measurements, fits. The closer the estimated data to the found bones, the more similar they are, and the closer to the left-hand size (“zero distance”) on the plots:
As you see, for both sexes Earhart’s estimated data is much closer to a “match” with the found bones than are most individuals in Jantz’s database. He estimates that 98.77% of individuals from his female sample are farther than Earhart’s estimates from the zero point. That means that there’s a very good match between Earhart’s estimated measurements and the actual bones, and a much closer match than that of a random female from the sampled population.
Well, as I said, this is all above my pay grade. All I can say is that yes, the bone lengths seem to match Earhart’s, but so do many people (1.3% of all human females), so this is not a match that would stand up in court. Nevertheless, both Jantz and the press consider this a pretty positive identification of Earhart’s bones, and a solution to the mystery of her disappearance. As Jantz says at the end of the paper:
If Hoodless’s analysis, particularly his sex estimate, can be set aside, it becomes possible to focus attention on the central question of whether the Nikumaroro bones may have been the remains of Amelia Earhart. There is no credible evidence that would support excluding them. On the contrary, there are good reasons for including them. The bones are consistent with Earhart in all respects we know or can reasonably infer. Her height is entirely consistent with the bones. The skull measurements are at least suggestive of female. But most convincing is the similarity of the bone lengths to the reconstructed lengths of Earhart’s bones. Likelihood ratios of 84–154 would not qualify as a positive identification by the criteria of modern forensic practice, where likelihood ratios are often millions or more. They do qualify as what is often called the preponderance of the evidence, that is, it is more likely than not the Nikumaroro bones were (or are, if they still exist) those of Amelia Earhart. If the bones do not belong to Amelia Earhart, then they are from someone very similar to her. And, as we have seen, a random individual has a very low probability of possessing that degree of similarity.
. . . In the present instance, readers can supply their own interpretation of the prior evidence, summarized by King (2012). Given the multiple lines of non-osteological evidence, it seems difficult to conclude that Earhart had zero probability of being on Nikumaroro Island. From a forensic perspective the most parsimonious scenario is that the bones are those of Amelia Earhart. She was known to have been in the area of Nikumaroro Island, she went missing, and human remains were discovered which are entirely consistent with her and inconsistent with most other people. Furthermore, it is impossible to test any other hypothesis, because except for the victims of the Norwich City wreck [11 men], about whom we have no data, no other specific missing persons have been reported. It is not enough merely to say that the remains are most likely those of a stocky male without specifying who this stocky male might have been. This presents us with an untestable hypothesis, not to mention uncritically setting aside the prior information of Earhart’s presence. The fact remains that if the bones are those of a stocky male, he would have had bone lengths very similar to Amelia Earhart’s, which is a low-probability event. Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.
This is a long way from convincing me, for we can’t tell whether the bones are male or female, and Earhart’s measurements were estimated from photos and have fairly big error bars around them. What a pity those bones aren’t around, as Svante Paabo or one of his ilk could use them to test their DNA—if any remained—for a match to living relatives. So it’s suggestive, but hardly dispositive.
There was a Europeans woman’s shoe and a compass, box, though, and that adds some weight to the evidence. But to me, the mystery is a long way from being solved. The media is being way too credulous, although some places have interviewed experts who find Jantz’s analysis wanting.
In my continuing presentation of new evidence for what happened to Amelia Earhart—evidence that always turns out to be wrong—I’ll add this new article from National Geographic: “Forensic dogs locate spot where Amelia Earhart may have died.” This summer, an expedition sponsored by National Geographic (which has an obsession with Earhart’s story) as well as The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), brought a team of researchers, as well as four “bone-sniffing” border collies, to Nikumaroro Island—about 400 miles from Earhart’s reported destination, Howland Island. (She was accompanied by her navigator Fred Noonan.)
Why Nikumaroro? National Geographic says there’s evidence of something there that could be Earhart-related:
TIGHAR’s hypothesis is that, when the aviators couldn’t find Howland, they landed on Nikumaroro’s reef during low tide. Proponents of competing theories argue that Earhart’s plane crashed and sank into the ocean, or that she ended up in the hands of the Japanese in the Marshall Islands or on Saipan.
. . . TIGHAR researchers had previously visited the island and narrowed their search to a clearing they call the Seven Site due to its shape. In 1940, a British official visited the site and reported finding human bones beneath a ren, or tournefortia, tree.
In 2001 searchers located what they believe is the ren tree site, and subsequent excavations unearthed possible signs of an American castaway, including the remains of several campfires, and U.S.-made items such as a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper pull, and glass jars.
The bone-sniffing dogs, which I guess have been trained to sniff human remains (as opposed to those from other animals), zeroed in on the soil beneath a “ren tree” (Heliotropium foertherianum). No bones were recovered, but researchers gathered four bags of soil hoping to find some DNA in there. The article notes that Neandertal DNA has been recovered from soil in Europe, but this is a tropical environment in which DNA degrades rapidly. And even if they found DNA to sequence, they’d have to be lucky to get enough to match it to some living relative. Earhart had no children, but she had a sister, Muriel, who did have two children, one of whom appears to be alive. Muriel and her children would all have the same mitochondrial DNA, the DNA from Earhart’s mother, so there’s a possible match there. And there may be other descendants, but if they use nuclear DNA the chance of finding a match would be lessened.
But what happened to the bones that were found in 1940? The team’s pursuing another story that they may have wound up in a post office on Kiribati. Stay tuned as other hypotheses arise.
In non-fake news about Earhart, Fox News Science (!) reported last year that Earhart’s plane was used in a Hollywood movie before it was delivered to her in 1936.
The plane Amelia Earhart was flying when she disappeared over the Pacific has been discovered … in a 1936 Clark Gable film. Discovery News reports that researchers with the International Group of Historic Aircraft Recovery spotted Earhart’s Lockheed Electra—given away by the registration number on its wing—in the 1936 film Love on the Run.
It appears that even official Earhart biographers were unaware of the famous plane’s star turn. In the film, the Lockheed carrying Gable and Joan Crawford narrowly avoids running into a crowd of spectators during a comically rough takeoff.
(“I wonder what all those gadgets are for?” asks Gable upon surveying the cockpit.) You can watch the scene here. “It is little wonder that this bizarre and undignified use of Earhart’s vaunted new ‘Flying Laboratory’ was kept quiet,” the group known as TIGHAR states on its Facebook page.
Love on the Run debuted about eight months before Earhart’s disappearance in July 1937. Stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who also served as Earhart’s technical adviser, performed the takeoff in the film.
The plane was delivered to Earhart on her 39th birthday on July 24, 1936, within weeks of the scene being filmed. It’s unclear if she knew it was used in the movie.
The story of aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937 while trying to circumnavigate the globe with her navigator Fred Noonan, continues to fascinate us. There have been sporadic reports that her bones have been found on some atoll or another, or of a jar that could have contained her freckle cream was found on an island, or that remnants of the aircraft have appeared. But none of these have been terribly convincing.
Now there’s a new story, and to my mind this one is pretty good—and disturbing. As NBC News reports, the story is based on a photograph found by investigator Les Kinney in the National Archives, among files that were previously off limits as secret:
The photo, found in a long-forgotten file in the National Archives, shows a woman who resembles Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan, on a dock. The discovery is featured in a new History channel special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” that airs Sunday.
Independent analysts told History the photo appears legitimate and undoctored. Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst, has studied the photo and feels confident it shows the famed pilot and her navigator.
Here’s what was found, labeled as being from the Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, near the place where the last transmission from Earhart was received; the date of the photograph is apparently 1937:
And the photograph blown up:
The photo, marked “Jaluit Atoll” and believed to have been taken in 1937, shows a short-haired woman — potentially Earhart — on a dock with her back to the camera. (She’s wearing pants, something for which Earhart was known.) She sits near a standing man who looks like Noonan — down to the hairline.
“The hairline is the most distinctive characteristic,” said Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert who studied the image. “It’s a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent.”
Gibson added: “It’s my feeling that this is very convincing evidence that this is probably Noonan.”
One possibility is that Earhart’s plane was shot down by the Japanese.
The big ship above is towing a barge that’s carrying a 38-foot object—just the size of Earhart’s plane. That would explain why the woman is sitting on the dock and looking at it. Labeled below are the purported figures of Noonan and Earhart, with the barge enlarged:
The photo shows a Japanese ship, Koshu, towing a barge with something that appears to be 38-feet-long — the same length as Earhart’s plane.
For decades, locals have claimed they saw Earhart’s plane crash before she and Noonan were taken away. Native schoolkids insisted they saw Earhart in captivity. The story was even documented in postage stamps issued in the 1980s.
“We believe that the Koshu took her to Saipan [in the Mariana Islands], and that she died there under the custody of the Japanese,” said Gary Tarpinian, the executive producer of the History special.
“We don’t know how she died,” Tarpinian said. “We don’t know when.”
Josephine Blanco Akiyama, who lived on Saipan as a child, has long claimed she saw Earhart in Japanese custody.
“I didn’t even know it was a woman, I thought it was a man,” said Akiyama. “Everybody was talking about her — they were talking about in Japanese. That’s why I know that she’s a woman. They were talking about a woman flyer.”
It is not clear if the U.S. government knew who was in the photo. If it was taken by a spy, the U.S. may not have wanted to compromise that person by revealing the image.
Earhart was heading for Howland Island (shown at point of red marker in the map below) when her transmissions stopped. Jalut Atoll, 1600 km from Howland, is not visible here, but is 22 km to the southwest of Majuro Island in this photo:
The NBC News I watched las night added that there existed records of extensive correspondence between the American and Japanese government about Earhart soon after her disappearance, but that correspondence has disappeared.
Here’s a 7-minute video that summarizes what we know, and offers theories about why the Japanese held her in custody and why the U.S. government didn’t reveal this information if they knew it at the time:
We’ve had a lot of skepticism here about reported finds of Earhart and solutions to the mystery of her and Noonan’s disappearance. I tend to be credulous about them because I admire the pair and want their fates to be resolved at last. What do you think about this latest news?