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The UFO Hunters Debacle

James Webb

Volume 19.3, September 2009

In early February 2009, I was sitting in my office when I received a phone call from one of the producers of the History Channel’s UFO Hunters, a show in which three “investigators,” all with diverse backgrounds, go out and track down witnesses to UFOs, interview them on site, and consult experts about UFO events and evidence.  The producer said that they would like to have an expert comment on a particular event that allegedly happened in the Bahamas involving a pilot flying through a wormhole in space-time. I immediately said thanks but no thanks, but he asked me to think about it since they wanted a real expert on this issue of wormholes and general relativity.

Since I have dedicated much of my time to public education here in Miami by visiting schools, running a successful public lecture program, and speaking at planetariums and to amateur groups on topics like black holes and cutting-edge physics, I felt I was as capable as anyone to carefully consider and present the scientific analysis to a non-
technical audience. The possibility of reaching a wider audience for science was also very attractive.

 In further conversations with the producer, I confessed that I had difficulty watching the show due to the logical errors. At the producer’s suggestion, I critiqued an episode for him and documented the copious logical flaws I found in the arguments during the one-hour program. The critique is available on my blog (http://www.myspace.com/astrojim
webb) as an entry titled “Critique of UFO Hunters.” The producer agreed with me on most of the problems I noted and assured me that I would not be misquoted or misrepresented if I participated in the interview. I felt reassured, and he told me about the event I was to analyze. Because the show is on the History Channel rather than the SciFi channel, I had some expectation that it would contain more science than fiction.

I went to a local bookstore and found the book The Fog by Rob MacGregor and Bruce Gernon, which I would be discussing on the show. In the book, a pilot (Gernon) professes to have flown through a wormhole in the Bermuda Triangle formed by an “electromagnetic fog.” During the ensuing weeks, the producer sent me several other references supporting the time traveler, and I pointed out in each of these sources the obviously unrealistic errors in physics.

I sent the producer a detailed six-page refutation of the idea of a wormhole in the Caribbean that the pilot supposedly flew through to get to Miami. I used the information in the book to calculate and map out the plane’s true trajectory to prove his trip did not require any supernatural or astrophysical conditions, only a strong tailwind! I went on to explain the physical problems associated with wormholes in the context of general relativity, the differences between mathematical results and physics, and the fact that there is currently no physical evidence that copious amounts of negative energy in the universe “hold open” a wormhole to allow passage. I also calculated the mass needed to open a black hole with the required event horizon dimensions (which was much more than the mass of the Earth itself).

When the time came for the interview, we settled on some demonstrations that I was going to do to show the physics side of wormholes. The filming was done at a small seaside resort on Andros Island in the Bahamas, and it was actually quite enjoyable. I was treated very well and the three UFO hunters seemed very interested in what a physicist had to say about these events. They all read my document before the filming and agreed my solutions were sound. The interview lasted for nearly two hours, during which I explained the difference between mathematics and physics, the concepts of general relativity, wormholes in space-time, and how one would need negative energy to construct a time-travel machine. Other more common topics, such as space flight and technology, were also discussed. We also talked about my analysis of the pilot’s journey and how it was easily explained well within normal atmospheric physics.

When the show aired, I was thoroughly horrified by what I saw. My interview followed some seriously disturbing claims from people about wormholes at AUTEC Navy base, included remote viewing of aliens at AUTEC, and of course a long, detailed interview with the time-traveling pilot himself. A two-minute segment showing my explanation of the mathematical possibility of wormholes was the only part of my interview shown. It was followed by one of the UFO hunters commenting that a respected physicist said that wormhole travel is possible, giving the impression that I agreed with the pilot about his journey through time. All of the discussion of mathematics versus real-life physics and the detailed analysis of the particular case—showing that it was completely explainable by common physics—was omitted. My real analysis of the situation is on my blog under the entry “The Real UFO Hunter Interview.”

I am not sure what is most distressing about this experience—the personal and professional disappointment or the missed opportunity to inject some reality into the viewers’ minds. The fact that TV producers will routinely lie to scholars to get them on their shows in order to misrepresent them is quite disturbing to me. Also alarming is the loss of a golden opportunity for the television audience to see real science triumph over pseudoscience.

The moral of the story is that even if the producer graduated from your university and professes to be a sincere person trying to improve his show, the bottom line is that apparently the only important thing in television is ratings; the truth is not a factor. UFO Hunters should be put on the skeptical watch list as one of the worst offenders of the scientific enterprise.

James Webb

James R. Webb is professor of physics at Florida International University and is the director of the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy’s observatory.