The Earthlights Debate: Closing Remarks

Hilary Evans
From Magonia 25, March 1987

There are few things seemingly so simple but potentially so complex as a ball of light. The phrase itself is ambiguous: does ball mean sphere or spheroid or spherical, does light mean light source or luminosity, and so on. Here are some of the things BOL may be - a physical object in its own right, as for instance ball lightning, earthquake lights, Saint Elmo’s fire, feux follets, etc., or plasma phenomena generated by electrical conditions not yet understood.

A hallucinated form, as far instance a false perception due to a simple malfunction of the perceptive organs, but communicated to the brain which of course can make nothing of the signal; a true perception by the senses of something which they are unable to present to the brain in any form which the brain car make sense of; the consequence of the brain receiving a triggering effect causing it to project an archetypal form from the collective unconscious.

An organic creature which has normally no visible appearance capable of being detected by human senses, but choses, either deliberatly, or faute de mieux this basic form as a means of making its presense known.

The preliminary form of a psychic materialisation in which the material (ectoplasm) assumes this basic form before further development.

The consequence of, or a phase during, an event on the astral plane which is in the process of effecting an interface with the physical plane.

I shall resist the temptation to proliferate further examples of the hypotheses which have been proposed, generally perfectly seriously, by researchers at one time or another. Various schools of esoteric thought tend to refer to spiritual essences making their presence felt in the form of BOLs, and much the same seems to be true of religious phenomena which manifest to mystics. The literature is vast.

So vast indeed, that it would seem as though the BOL can be all things to all persons, and in the face of such an embarrass de richesses one might feel there is little point in trying to make any general analysis of the BOL phenomenon per se. Rather, it would be argued, treat each BOL-like manifestation as a phenomenon in its own right. But we don’t have to give up so early. For though BOL-like things turn up in so many contexts, and do so many different things, and carry such a variety of significances, the fact remains that these must all fall into two categories: 1) a a physical object; 2) a non-physical non-object which indicates two lines along which we may proceed in search of answers to two sets of questions.

Firstly, what kinds of objects are liable to manifest as physical BOLs? What circumstance cause or enable them to manifest? What have such physical BOLs in common, and how do they differ?

Secondly, what kind of process can cause someone to believe they see a BOL? What circumstances cause or enable this process to occur? What have such circumstances in common and how may they differ?

BOLs as Physical Phencmenon

That there are certain kinds of physical object which manifest in the form of BOLs is established fact. Ball lightning is only one of the natural phenomena of this kind and it is known that similar (or at any rate seemingly similar) phenomena can be artificially produced in the vicinity of power lines or within power stations.

The extent of our knowledge of these phenomena is still very limited, but the fact that some are known to exist encourages us to suppose, provisionally, that other ostensibly similar phenomena are equally real. Earthquake Lights are one example, and a browse through the Corliss catalogues indicates just how remarkable a variety of anomalous phenomena have been reported in all places at all times and under all kinds of meteorological conditions. No systematic investigation has been carried out on the vast majority of these phenomena, and certainly no attempt has been made at a comparative study. it has been left to amateurs like Vincent Gaddis to recognise the value of a comparative approach.

Things being so, it would be premature to match up any specific observation to any speculative model. The most we can say is that if residents of the Norweian valley of Hessdalen report a UFO (in the literal meaninq of the phrase) which they describe in terms similar to other BOLs, we may reasonably hypothesise that the UFO may be a physical BOL of some kind.

Which doesn’t seem to have got us very far; except that, methodologically, it encourages us to try to match our vast collection of one-off unknowns (UFO reports) with phenomena which are not quite so unknown. We may not know all that we ought to know about ball lightning, for example, but we know enough about it to to appreciate to what extent a ‘foo-fighter’ shares the same characteristics and to what extent it doesn’t.

So we applaud the efforts of researchers such as Devereux and Persinger to relate some kinds of UFO to some kinds of natural phenomena. In practice those efforts have hitherto failed to achieve convincing results, but this is no reflection on these and other researchers in the field, whose pioneering efforts in hitherto unknown territory are all the more to be applauded when the going is evidently so tough. Rather, their work is a challenge for the rest of us to contribute by, firstly, amassing as much data as possible on each category of phenomena; secondly by defining each of those categories as precisely as possible; and thirdly by matching them up or indicating the differences.

If for example we could establish that the physical properties of the artificialy induced BOLs in power stations were identical with those of ball lightning, this could be expected to give us valuable information about how ball-lightning is initiated. If we knew the maximum duration of ball lighning we would know whether the Hessdalen phenomena, which have been observed over 20 minute periods, could conceivable be of this nature. If it turned out that the Hessdalen phenomena were similar to ball lightning in all properties save duration, we could start to establish how a normally short-lived phenomena can become a 20-minute-surviving one. Maybe it thrives on low temperature?

Organic UFOs redividus

In the early days of flying saucers, that fascinating researcher the Countess Wassilo-Serecki proposed that UFOs are organic phenomena from Earth’s atmosphere. Similar notions were entertained by Bessor and Constable. Though most of us have been tempted to relegate the organic-UFO to the compost heap of ufology, it is possible that we have been over-hasty. Now that Persinger etc. are proposing natural phenomena as candidates for UFO observations, perhaps we should give the countess’s organisms a second look.

BOLs as psychological phenomena

Even if BOLs exist as physical objects, intelligent or not, organic or not, they fall lamentably short of being able to account for the observations of structured objects (henceforth SOBS) which form a large proportion of UFO reports.

Occasionally a BOL is reported as being so bright that the observer is unable to tell whether it has any shape or not, in which case we may speculate that there may be a SOB concealed within or behind the BOL. There are other reports in which a UFO starts as a BOL which develops into a SOB, but in the vast majority of cases there is a fundamental difference between BOLs and SOBS.

The reasonable inference is that there are at least two fundamental types of UFO: the BOL and the SOB. However, some researchers have sought ways of reducing this to one, employing the following logical process:
1) We know that BOLs exist
2) We have no good reason to suppose that SOBS exist
3) So it is reasonable to suppose that SOBs are misinterpreted BOLs.
Grounds for this can be found in reports of many investigators. Hendry, Monnerie and Randles are just three who have reported instances in which a witness has reported as a SOB an object which (since it was clearly established as a planet or a satellite) must necessarily have been visible only as a BOL.
These may not be the most sensational cases
in the UFO literature; but we stand to learn more
from these long despised lights in the sky than from
cases with far more dramatic content

Those who do not recognise the existence of BOLs per se, such as Monnerie, take the further step of assuming that SOB = BOL is equivalent to SOB = natural phenomenon or misidentification. However, if BOLs exist in their own right, this does not necessarily Follow.

The more sophisticated researchers acknowledge that there is more to the BOL than simple natural phenomena. Very interesting suggestions along these lines have been made by Devereux and Persinger, among others. Devereux appears to be more inclined to esoteric approaches, Persinger tends to keep to more traditional psychological lines; but both have shown themselves commendably open-minded in their recognition that we must go beyond current scientific knowledge for an explanation.

Both Devereaux and Persinger speculate that the BOL triggers off a mental process which results in the observer having the illusion of seeing a SOB. This illusion is the creation of the observer’s subconscious mind, reflecting its hopes, fears, preoccupations and expectations on the one hand, and on the other the archetypes available to him and authorised by his cultural milieu.

There is a variant on this which speculates that the hallucination of the UFO may be fed into the witness’s brain from outside. Guerin and Monnerie are among those who have toyed with this induced-dream process in one form or another.

That processes exist whereby this kind of illusion can be created is, I believe, beyond doubt. It has been suggested that processes of this sort are responsible for the great majority of so-called visionary experiences and UFO encounter/abduction scenarios. It remains an open question though, whether this is what is happening in the case of ‘conventional’ SOB-UFO observations.

As a hypothesis it is of great interest, but we still lack the necessary evidence of cause (BOL) leading to effect (SOB), despite Persinger’s strenuous efforts to provide it from statistical analysis Of geophysical events on the one hand and UFO sightings on the other. His correlations are suggestive, but they are far from being overwhelmingly convincing, as Rutkowski and Mauge, among others, have demonstrated.

Awkward questions have yet to be answered:

Some UFOs have been reported by multiple witnesses. Are we to suppose that in such cases the same stimulus caused a number of people, often independent one from another, to have the same illusionary experience? Some processes have been proposed - a folie a deux, mass hysteria, multiple hypnosis – but none of these has yet to be proved a realitu. And there are numerous examp Ces of multiple sightings in which there is not the slightest reason to suppose that any such process is operative.

Some UFOs allegedly leave physical traces. Are we to suppose that this is mere coincidence? Or are they effects of the BOL; in which case there should be clear indications of the nature of the physical phenomenon responsible.

Some BOL-UFOs allegedly behave as if intelligent. If this is so, are we to suppose that these BOLs are true UFOs, just as much as the SOBs? It is interesting that the best attested instances are those in which investigation of a more than usually scientific quality is being carried out Rutledge’s Project Identification and the Norwegian – Swedish Project Hessdalen. Could it be that UFOs manifest to serious researchers as BOLs, to others as SOBs? With so many unanswered questions it would be absurd to attempt any conclusions. But the mere fact that there are researchers thinking along these lines, posing these questions, is the most promising development in ufology for many a decade.

All UFO research must start with the observations of witnesses: these must then be set in a context which embodies every parameter which could conceivably be relevant. The more deeply we probe the UFO problem the more parameters seem to come into play.

We have long since learned that simple noting of the circumstances, as seemed adequate in the days of NICAP, is so rudimentary as to be useless. Today we have recognised the importance of witness evaluation before we even begin to act upon what that witness reported. And in the analysis of that report we have learnt that the data we need spans the range from geophysical events at one extreme, to the psycho-social environment at the other – and furthermore, the interaction between the two.

The mountain lights invesigated by Harley Rutledge, the Hessdalen lights, the Yakima observations – these may not be the most sensational cases in the UFO literature; but we stand to learn more from these long despised lights in the sky than from cases with far more dramatic content.


BOL-UFO cases: Project Hessdalen, report edited by Erling Strand for UFO Norge, 1985; Rutledge, Project Identification, 1981; Greg Long, ‘Yakima Indian Reservation Sightings’ in MUFON Journal Dec, 1981; Vogel, ‘The Yakimas and Earthlights’, in International UFO Reporter, 9, 3 May-June 1984,

BOLs and BOL-like phenomena: Corliss, Sourcebook project, Lightnings, auroras, nocturnal lights, 1982; Gaddis, Mysterious Fires and Lights, 1967; Zoe Wassilo-Serecki, ‘L’explication biologique des Soucoupes Volantes’, in Inconnues, 3rd series, vol 11, 1955; Clarke and Oldroyd, Spooklights, a British Survey, 1985; Bessor ‘UFOs, animal or mineral’ in Fate , Nov, 1987; Constable, They Live in the Sky (1958), The Cosmic Pulse of Life, (1975).

BOL-Geophysics interface: Persinger, many papers in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1976 and continuing, ‘The Tectonic Strain Theory of Luminosities (UFO reports) in Pursuit 21, 1983; see also comments by Rutkowski in CUFOS Associate Newsletter, 5 Dec-Jan 1984-5 and ‘Earthlights, earthquakes, UFOs and TST’ in International UFO Reporter Jan-Feb 1986; Devereux, Earthlights; Maugé, ‘Introduction a la théorie des contraintes tectoniques’ in Inforespace 59, Dec. 1985

General attempts to put it all together; Moravec, ‘Ghostlights’ in Proceedings of the sixth ACUFOS Conference, Adelaide 1981; Evans, ‘BOLs’ in Probe Report 3,1, July 1982; Visions, Apparitions, Alien Visitors, 1984.