Flying saucers and aliens flew into popular culture a long time ago. This movie poster is from 1956. Credit: courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

 

An e-mail from a reader asked whether an article from Venezuela published in the December 18, 1886, issue of Scientific American was likely to have been fact-checked, the implied question being whether or not it was “true”:

Here’s the 1886 article:

 

The following brief account of a recent strange meteorological occurrence may be of interest to your readers as an addition to the list of electrical eccentricities:

 

“During the night of the 24th of October last [1886], which was rainy and tempestuous, a family of nine persons, sleeping in a hut a few leagues from Maracaibo [Venezuela], were awakened by a loud humming noise and a vivid, dazzling light, which brilliantly illuminated the interior of the house.

     The occupants, completely terror stricken, and believing, as they relate, that the end of the world had come, threw themselves on their knees and commenced to pray, but their devotions were almost immediately interrupted by violent vomitings, and extensive swellings commenced to appear in the upper part of their bodies, this being particularly noticeable about the face and lips.

     It is to be noted that the brilliant light was not accompanied by a sensation of heat, although there was a smoky appearance and a peculiar smell. The next morning the swellings had subsided, leaving upon the face and body large black blotches. No special pain was felt until the ninth day, when the skin peeled off, and these blotches were transformed into virulent raw sores.

     The hair of the head fell off upon the side which happened to be underneath when the phenomenon occurred, the same side of the body being, in all nine cases, the more seriously injured.

     The remarkable part of the occurrence is that the house was uninjured, all the doors and windows being closed at the time.

     No trace of lightning could afterward be observed in any part of the building, and all the sufferers unite in saying that there was no detonation, but only the loud humming already mentioned.

     Another curious attendant circumstance is that the trees around the house showed no signs of injury until the ninth day, when they suddenly withered, almost simultaneously with the development of the sores upon the bodies of the occupants of the house.

This is perhaps a mere coincidence, but it is remarkable that the same susceptibility to electrical effects, with the same lapse of time, should be observed in both animal and vegetable organisms.

     I have visited the sufferers, who are now in one of the hospitals of this city; and although their appearance is truly horrible, yet it is hoped that in no case will the injuries prove fatal.”

     (Signed: Warner Cowgill, U.S. Consulate, Maracaibo, Venezuela, November 17, 1886.)

 

 

Catatumbo lightning, Venezuela: meandering, circling, very high voltage, and sometimes almost continuous. Credit: photo by Joanne Spencer

 

Before the Age of Reason most people reading this story would have believed that a malevolent demon had been afoot in Venezuela. By 1886 such news, written by a man who was considered a highly reliable witness, went under the category of “electrical eccentricities.” Nowadays we have regressed; under the saturating influence of movies and television shows about aliens, vampires and zombies, our article from 1886 keeps cropping up on the Web under the headings such as “Alien Visitation” and “UFOs at close sight.”

Science is unable to provide a definitive explanation for what happened that night in 1886 (even though it sounds a lot like radiation poisoning), so I cannot provide evidence against the claim that a Foo Fighter swooped down and zapped some hapless Venezuelan family with a death ray. There is even some evidence that support that outlandish claim. Stephen Hawking in his “Into the Universe” documentary said “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

What creatures would we least like to meet? Intergalactic Nazis, of course.

In April of 2012 two German researchers, historian Soenke Neitzel and social psychologist Harald Welzer, gave us an unfiltered description of some Nazi bad behavior, courtesy of Allied intelligence in World War II who, it was revealed, had secretly listened in on conversations of German prisoners-of-war. This comment by a pilot named Budde was from March 6, 1943:

“We encountered some of the nicest targets, like mansions on a mountain. When you flew at them from below and fired into them, you could see the windows rattling and then the roof going up in the air. There was the time we hit Ashford. There was an event on the market square, crowds of people, speeches being given. We really sprayed them! That was fun!”

 

 

Red sprites can be 50 kilometers tall but were proved to exist only in 1994. Credit: D. Sentman, G. Wescott, Geophysical Institute, U. Alaska Fairbanks, NASA

 

Against the breathless claim of marauding aliens there are sounder possibilities grounded in current science. Even if a scientific theory is yet elusive, Isaac Newton provides guidance: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” It turns out that one of the prominent natural curiosities of Maracaibo is the Catatumbo Lightning—intense lightning storms lasting for hours and taking place during much of the year. The Venezuelan National Assembly even submitted them to UNESCO as the first "Meteorological Phenomenon Natural Heritage of Humanity."

High-energy discharges in the atmosphere have been reluctant to yield their secrets to researchers. For instance there is as yet no accepted theory as to how ball lightning is created, although it has been well documented historically. Cold plasma discharges that occur high in the atmosphere were first photographed in 1989, and given the name “sprites” (culturally the cousin of demons). Gamma-ray flashes from the atmosphere were discovered only in 1994 because of the BATSE satellite. And the first photographs of X-rays from a lightning bolt date from  December 2011.

It is not hard to suggest the plight of one Venezuelan family in 1886 may be the result of a rare combination of natural conditions in a region known for intense electrical energy events. However, until the physics involved can be explained by theory and laboratory re-creation, our cognitive resonance with popular culture makes it so much easier to blame trigger-happy aliens.