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Dying To Go To Heaven

What the Heaven’s Gate Suicides Teach Us About Islamic Martyrdom

This op-ed appeared on on March 24, 2017.

It was 20 years ago this week, March 20-26, 1997, that 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult “graduated” from this life to ascend to the UFO mothership that they believed would take them to an extraterrestrial paradise. I’ll never forget it. I was on book tour for Why People Believe Weird Things, and neither I nor any of my peers who study belief systems had ever heard of the cult. It was hard to fathom. Now, as I look back 20 years later, I believe the mass suicide has a deeper lesson that goes far beyond the confines of New Age fringe cults, and has relevance to understanding the motivations of today’s suicide terrorists.

But first, let’s revisit the story. Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1975 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles after they met in a psychiatric hospital. They fell in love and believed their pairing had been foretold by extraterrestrials. In the 1980s and 1990s, they recruited several hundred followers, many of whom sold their possessions and lived in isolation, disconnected from their family and friends. They practiced living in dark rooms to simulate space travel and considered sex sinful, with six male members voluntarily undergoing castration. (continue reading…)

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Mystery UFO Photo

I thought I would share with you an email and photographs submitted to me by a gentleman named Marc Richard. Instead of telling you what I think it is, I’d like to hear from you what you think is the best explanation. Submit your best guess in the comments section below.

Hello, I’m not sure where to send these, or if your even looking for this kind of thing, couldn’t find a submissions page on the site. I have eight photos, I’ll send you two, if your interested I’d be happy to send the rest. Here’s what I wrote about the photos at the time I took them:

“On Oct, 19, 2009 at around 6:30pm, I was working on the 18th floor of my apartment building in downtown Detroit, when I noticed something floating around the two smoke stacks on the power plant near my place. It seemed to be hovering directly through the smoke of the stacks, and then around the two stacks, in between the two stacks, and then it would float a few blocks away and then back to the stacks. At this point I had been watching this thing for about 8 minutes or so when I ran to grab my camera and returned with my girlfriend and my brother in law. So I snapped off these pics which I can’t explain. It seems to be pretty small (about the size of one of those little smart cars?) I sent these photos to UFOs Northwest shortly after taking them. They’re still up on that site, nobody seems to have an explanation for them. If you have any questions I’d be happy to try and answer them.”

I know your busy and don’t want to waste your time, it’s just that I’ve lived down here a long time and I’ve watched plastic bags/ balloons float around in the updrafts of buildings a hundred times. Look at the side profile of this thing, I don’t think it’s a sphere as much as a strange diamond cut geometry. This thing would hold its altitude precisely and float off three or four full city blocks away and then return to the stacks, and never even waver slightly in its flight. And then through the actual smoke leaving the stack without changing altitude. I really do appreciate your opinion on this matter so thanks once more for taking the time.

Sincerely, Marc Richard

Click the photos to enlarge them and then leave your comment below.

According to Google Earth, the window from which the photographs were taken is 2,281.67 feet away from the stacks.
A sketch of Marc Richard's estimation of the flight path of the unidentified flying object.

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Gambling on ET

How to compute the odds that claims of extraterrestrial life discovery are real and reliable

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has to be the most interesting field of science that lacks a subject to study. Yet. Keep searching. In the meantime, is there some metric we can apply to calculating the probability and impact of claims of such a discovery? There is.

In January, 2011 the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published 17 articles addressing the matter of “The Detection of Extra-Terrestial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society,” including one by Iván Almár from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Margaret S. Race from the SETI Institute, introducing a metric “to provide a scalar assessment of the scientific importance, validity and potential risks associated with putative evidence of ET life discovered on Earth, on nearby bodies in the Solar System or in our Galaxy.” Such scaling is common in science—the Celsius scale for temperature, the Beaufort scale for wind speed, the Saffir-Simpson scale for hurricane strength, and the Richter scale for earthquake magnitude. But these scales, Almár and Race argue, fail to take into account “the relative position of the observer or recipient of information.” The effects of a 7.1 earthquake, for example, depends on the proximity of its epicenter to human habitations.

An improvement may be found in the Torino Scale that computes the likelihood of an asteroid impact and the risk of its potential damage—from 1, a near miss with no danger, to 10, certain impact with catastrophic consequences. But Almár and Race note that “the scale does not include any consideration of the observations’ reliability.” Building on SETI’s Rio Scale for evaluating the effect on society of an ET discovery, Almár and Race propose the London Scale that multiplies Q x δ, where Q (scientific importance) is the sum of four parameters:

  • life form (1–5, from Earth-similar life to completely alien),
  • nature of evidence (1-6, from indirect biomarkers
    to obviously organized complex life),
  • type of method of discovery (1–5, from remote sensing
    to return mission sample), and
  • distance (1–4, from beyond the Solar System to on Earth).

This sum is then multiplied by δ (a reliability factor) ranging from 0.1–0.5, from probably not real to highly reliable. The maximum Q can be is 20 x .5 = 10.

For example, Almár and Race compute the odds that the Allan Hills 84001 Martian meteorite contains alien life as (2+2+4+4)0.3 = 3.6 for scientific importance and credibility, noting that “several scientific counter-arguments have been published and the discovery has not been generally accepted.” I would assess the recent claim of arsenic-based life in Mono Lake as (2+1+4+4)0.2 = 2.2, fairly low by comparison.

Such scientific scales attempt to bring some rigor and reliability to estimates of events that are highly improbable or uncertain. The process also reveals why most scientists do not take seriously UFO claims. Although the first two categories would yield a 5 and a 6 (completely alien and complex life) and its distance is zero (4, on Earth), the method of discovery is highly subjective (perceptual, psychological) and open to alternative explanation (1, other aerial phenomena) and the reliability factor δ is either obviously fake or fraudulent (0) or probably not real (0.1), and so Q = (5+6+1+4)0.1 = 1.6 (or 0 if δ = 0).

The Phoenix lights UFO claim, for example, was a real aerial phenomena witnessed by thousands on the evening of March 13, 1997. UFOlogists (and even Arizona governor Fife Symington) claim it was extraterrestrial, but what is δ for this event? It turns out that there were two independent aerial events that night, the first a group of planes flying in a “V” formation at 8:30 that started a UFO hysteria and brought people outdoors with video cameras, which then recorded a string of lights at 10:00 that slowly sank until they disappeared behind a nearby mountain range. These turned out to be flares dropped by the Air National Guard on a training mission. Ever since, people have conflated the two events and thereby transmogrified two IFOs into one UFO. So δ = 0 and Q shifts from 1.6 to 0, which is how much confidence I have in UFOlogists until they produce actual physical evidence, the sine qua non of science.

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UFOs, UAPs and CRAPs

Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) offer a lesson on the residue problem in science
magazine cover

ONE MORNING SEVERAL YEARS AGO a black triangular-shaped object flew over my home in the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. It was almost completely silent, made rapid turns and accelerations, and was so nonreflective it looked like a hole in the sky, almost otherworldly. It was, in fact, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, looping around to make another run over the Pasadena Rose Parade on January 1, an annual tradition. But had I not known what it was and seen it first, say, out in the desert at dusk, I might easily have thought it a UFO.

For decades black triangularshaped objects have been labeled UFOs. Now a cohort of military, aviation and political observers would like to change the label to a less pejorative phrasing—Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)— and their efforts to be taken seriously have resulted in a new book by investigative journalist Leslie Kean entitled UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officals Go on the Record (Crown, 2010). Kean asks readers to consider that such sightings represent “a solid, physical phenomenon that appears to be under intelligent control and is capable of speeds, maneuverability, and luminosity beyond current known technology,” that the “government routinely ignores UFOs and, when pressed, issues false explanations,” and that the “hypothesis that UFOs are of extraterrestrial or interdimensional origin is a rational one and must be taken into account.” (continue reading…)

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Men in Black at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History


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On Saturday, February 5, 2011, my audio book producer John Wagner and I took a break from endless hours of my reading aloud (with John editing out my countless mistakes) my next book, The Believing Brain, which ironically includes chapters on UFOs, aliens, and conspiracy theories. Ironic because for this break John and I took what we thought would be an uneventful tour of the beautiful new National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This is definitely a museum well worth visiting for a comprehensive tour of all things atomic. It was originally opened in 1969 as the Sandia Atomic Museum, but then changed in 1973 to the National Atomic Museum to include a broader history of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and finally morphed into the new building that now houses the collection, which includes replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs (see photograph), along with a B-29, a B-52, an F-105, an A-7, an Atomic Cannon, a Titan II Rocket, a Minuteman Missile, a Jupiter Missile, a Thor Missile, and hundreds more smaller items inside the museum building itself, including these two amusing early uses of atomic energy for “health” purposes:


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1. The Spectro-Chrome Device, “invented around 1911, was used in the practice of Spectro-Chrome therapy. The inventors believed that every element exhibits a certain color. Ninety-seven percent of a human body is made up of four main elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon. The color waves of these elements were thought to be blue, red, green, and yellow respectively. Illness was thought to occur when one or more of these colors became out of balance, either too dim or too brilliant. The Spectro-Chrome Device treated the afflicted part of the body with the proper amount of color and light to restore balance in the body. Once balance occurred, the patient should recover.” The operative word here is “should”.


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2. The Revigator: “This large pottery crock was lined with Radium ore. Instructions on the jar suggest that you fill it every night with water and drink an average of six or more glasses daily. After its discovery by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, Radium was considered a ‘cure-all’ until the early 1920s.” The operative word here is “crock”.

We were also quite impressed with the array of nuclear-tipped missiles, including these two (see below), one of which had been in space and survived the reentry. Can you tell which one?


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Then something really weird happened. As John and I were strolling along the exhibits talking about this and that, I wondered out loud if they had any examples of the sand that was turned into glass in the Trinity atomic bomb test explosion on July 16, 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico. Just then the museum docent who had kindly joined us to offer more detailed narratives to accompany the printed plaques, explained that they did, indeed, have a display of said sand-to-glass fusion, and there it was, beautiful in its horrific creation. We chatted it up with the docent for a time, at which point I asked if it is possible to go to White Sands and see the glass in situ. She said, “no, it has all been taken away.” I said, “who took it away, and where is it?” She responded rhetorically: “Right, who took it, where, and why?” I repeated the question and she repeated the rhetorical answer.

“Uh, what are you saying? Someone secreted it away?” “Yes, right, it’s gone and no one knows where,” she explained unhelpfully. “But someone must know,” I pleaded.


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At this point she hinted that there are many government secrets still surrounding nuclear weapons. Of this I am quite certain, since governments do keep secrets in the interests of national security, but she seemed to be speaking of a different sort of secret. I probed for more examples of such secrets. “When you go outside,” she offered, “you will see a B-29 bomber, like the one that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Look at the serial number on the tail. It says 451748. But if you go inside the cockpit and look behind the pilot seat you will find another serial number for that plane: 451749.”

“Okay, so someone messed up,” I suggested. “After all, the people who spray paint numbers on planes are probably not the engineers who design and build planes for Boeing. So what?”

“Well, I looked into that matter myself when I was restoring the plane,” she continued breathlessly, “and it turns out that plane number 451749 disappeared over the South China Sea in a mysterious explosion in the early 1950s. Supposedly one of the bombs armed itself inside the B-29 and then detonated itself.”

“Is that possible?” I queried, wondering just where this story was going but suspecting it was about to take a dramatic turn into conspiratorial waters.

“Have you ever heard of a bomb arming itself and then detonating itself?” she queried. I had to admit that I hadn’t, but I also signaled to her that I didn’t know much at all about bombs and what they are capable of doing, but then suggested that I could certainly imagine how the same people who spray paint the wrong serial number on the tail of a plane could easily screw up while arming a bomb and cause it to explode. Human error happens not infrequently in operating complex machinery.

“Well, I’ll tell you—that doesn’t happen,” she countered my feeble objections. “That plane was shot down or intentionally destroyed.” Okay, shot down. Intentionally destroyed. By whom, enemy fighter planes or an anti-aircraft missile over enemy territory? “No, it was destroyed by our own government.” Why? “Because the crew saw something.” What? What did they see? “Remember, this was not long after Roswell….”

Okay, here we go, we’re on my turf now! Aliens, UFOs, Roswell, New Mexico. The alien encounter in 1947. The crew, she said, probably had a UFO encounter of some sort, and they were silenced. “Wow, that’s incredible,” I enthused. “How can I look into this further?” At this point my erstwhile conspiratorialist grew quiet, warning me in a voice too fervent by half: “You can try but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I made some calls myself and finally got a hold of a two-star general, who told me ‘I don’t know what happened and you don’t either.’”

“What did you take that to mean?,” I pushed. “He was telling me that if I didn’t drop my investigation of what really happened to plane number 451749, that Men-In-Black would come pay me a visit,” she explained unhesitatingly and with enough dramatis that I would get the message myself.

So…there it is. That’s all I know from my brief visit and having conducted no further investigations. If anyone reading this knows, or knows someone who knows…or who has a Friend-of-a-Friend who knows someone who knows what happened to B-29 plane number 451749, I would really like to know myself. And if there are any M.I.B. out there planning to come visit me, bring an extra pair of those cool black sunglasses for me.

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