One day you’re gonna look up at the sky and open your eyes!

A caller once said this to me after a long discussion about a light he’d seen low on the horizon early one morning. By long, I mean four phone calls and several emails over a few days, all from this one guy. The guy – let’s call him Brad – started out friendly enough; he’d seen a light in the sky low on the horizon early one morning, and it was dancing around and even appear to change colour slightly. He and his friend had taken a video on their phone of the strange light.

I get phone calls at work with sightings like this regularly, and the light is almost always Venus. It’s often rising first thing in the morning; low on the horizon the turbulent effects of the Earth’s atmosphere are far more pronounced making the planet seem to dance about, and the “dancing” is colour dependent, which means that sharp eyes can sometimes perceive a  slight change in colour. I explained all of this to Brad, but he didn’t seem happy with the explanation. That’s when he emailed me his video, which showed… Venus.

Now, I’m a research astronomer and I have other observatory duties as well, so I don’t want to spend too much of my time trying to convince people that Venus often rises first thing in the morning (and otherwise sets in the early evening). Brad would have none of it though, he had decided what the “strange” light was, it was an alien spaceship. Over the course of several days, he rang again and again, each time trying to get me to admit that it was something it wasn’t, as though I was part of some conspiracy or cover up.

This is where public outreach can sometimes get tricky. I didn’t want to be rude to Brad, but I didn’t want to keep this conversation going ad infinitum either. At some point Brad got a little… what I would call shirty, and threw out the line “one day you’re gonna look up at the sky and open your eyes!” and simply told him we needed to agree to disagree. I could tell I wasn’t going to convince him, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to convince me, especially with the video (sadly, I can’t find it anymore). He seemed to calm down and become a bit sheepish, as though he knew he’d crossed a line. I haven’t heard from Brad since.

So, to the people out there who deal with the general public, whether it be in outreach, sales, whatever, how do you deal with the Brads of this world? I imagine most people just hang up (or walk away), which is certainly the time efficient method. I feel you’ve got to be a little diplomatic though, because after all, there’s a reputation on the line – yours or your company’s – but you can’t just keep going on forever. On live radio in the past, I’ve had the presenter simply cut them off, but really I’d like to sit down with them and find out what makes them tick and why they think what they think. That’s probably just me though.


About drsimmo

I'm an astronomer and science communicator, these are my adventures. Views posted are my own.
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Outreach and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to One day you’re gonna look up at the sky and open your eyes!

  1. Roger Powell says:

    During the final year of my period as Secretary of Macarthur Astronomical Society, I was “adopted” by a gentleman who found my phone number in The Macarthur Chronicle. He had a Powershot camera with a 35X zoom and occasionally he would wander outside into his front garden at night and point the camera at something bright. He would then take hand-held images at full zoom and send them to me with a request to identify them for him. The exposure times varied from about half a second up to fifteen seconds and – needless to say – most of the images showed all the hallmarks you would expect from an unsteady hand-held camera and were usually over-exposed and sometimes poorly focused.

    I usually managed to identify the objects for him – more from the details he sent than from the image itself. After all, when he told me it was a very bright object setting in the West in the early evening, Venus had to be the chief suspect. The satellites of Jupiter are easily identifiable too, even when slightly out of focus and with obvious vibration.

    He wasn’t a UFO crank like in your example and I didn’t want to be rude, so I tried to provide him with the information he asked for. I think that is all one can do.

    His images alone would have been totally unidentifiable without the time-stamp and his brief description of where the camera was aimed. However, I wanted to encourage him, so rather than be too critical, I would tell him what his image had probably captured and advise him politely to go out and buy a cheap tripod so he could keep the camera steady when taking long exposures.

    He came back to me a few times but I don’t think he has bought a tripod yet!

    • I hope he did buy that tripod and has been observing ever since!

      It’s definitely worth encouraging people, but it can be hard if the person is overly demanding or becomes rude. I’m a pretty patient person, but everyone has their limits!

  2. Pingback: The canyon, the moons of Mars and the retired engineer | I Wouldn't Normally Call

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