Tonight, we’re off into the wild blue….
I have a taste for the paranormal. I’ve watched and read enough “paranormal” stories to have a pretty good feel for the trope itself. I started reading about fringe science back before I’d really noticed girls, and that interest has stayed with me right up to the present.
Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, and wiser, and more worldly, the trope has worn very thin. Most of the modern “exposés” jump straight to the “it must be extraterrestrials” or “ghosts” or “ancient gods” before the first commercial break, and the stories follow (and follow, and follow) an implausibly disconnected trail of grainy photographs copied from newspapers, pasted on a wall with push-pins and strings and sticky-notes and wide-eyed interviews and … well, let’s not belabor it. These are mostly just really (really) bad television.
I came across something the other night on Netflix, and it caught my eye because it was about the Skinwalker Ranch in Northern Utah. I read a really strange book over a decade ago titled Hunt for the Skinwalker by Kellerher and Knapp, (c) 2005, and this film appeared to be about the same place. So I decided to watch the first episode.
I am now completely hooked.
I’ve done just a little bit of due diligence on this. The format is the “reality television show,” with actors who are allegedly real people doing their thing in front of a camera while assiduously ignoring the existence of the camera filming them: what they call “the fourth wall” in cinematography. These actors are all presented as being real people, and apparently, they are real people. The fellow who takes the spotlight in most episodes is actually an astrophysicist with the University of Alabama, Huntsville, by the name of Dr. Travis S. Taylor. The other scientists are also real scientists with a variety of degrees, and the experts they bring in are real experts. Best of all, they behave like real scientists.
What they are investigating at Skinwalker Ranch is, from a scientific perspective, extremely bizarre, and they seem to appreciate just how bizarre it is, and in just the right way. You can see them regularly getting quietly pissed off at the sheer weirdness of it.
Here’s an example that made my hair stand up in the first (or second) episode: intermittent gamma rays.
A brief diversion here into the science.
Gamma radiation is electromagnetic radiation, just like radio waves, but at a much, much (much) higher frequency. The general rule of electromagnetic radiation is the half-wavelength rule: if you want to detect, or generate, E-M radiation, you need an antenna, or an emitter, about the size of the half-wavelength of the radiation. The old television broadcast wavelengths were between 1 and 10 meters, depending on the channel you were trying to pick up, which resulted in the old-fashioned television aerial you found on every suburban house in the 1950’s, with a range of aluminum rods from a couple of feet, to ten feet or so, to help pick up the different channels (wavelengths). Microwaves use much smaller antennas.
Gamma rays have a wavelength about the size of an atom. So the antennas have to be atom-sized.
There are really only two known sources of gamma rays in nature.
One comes from spontaneous decay of radioactive materials, where the atom basically self-destructs and produces “atomic radiation” (gamma rays). The other comes from one form or another of “atom smashing,” i.e. bombarding materials with a beam of particles or electrons. Sometimes the bombardment actually smashes the atom, and you get gamma rays from the wreckage. In other cases, it captures the incoming particle/electron, then spits it back out whole, and the disturbance produces gamma rays.
There is a lot of atom-smashing going on all the time in outer space, but nearly all of it gets blocked from the Earth’s surface by the ozone layer of the atmosphere. There isn’t much gamma production under the ozone layer, unless you are in a physics lab or deep in a uranium mine. Or somewhere near Fukishima, Japan. There’s a theoretical source of gamma radiation from something called “dark lightning,” which is an electron cascade high in the atmosphere that produces gamma rays. I think they’re still trying to detect that.
That’s pretty much the whole story of gamma rays.
Now, Skinwalker Ranch is on the path of wind-borne radioactive dust and debris from the Nevada nuclear testing in the 1950’s, so in principle, there could be all kinds of radioactive isotopes spread all over the ranch, just under a thin layer of soil, and God alone would know the half-life of some of those isotopes. But the thing about that sort of contamination is that it tends to stay put. You walk into a contaminated area, and you start detecting gamma rays. You walk away, and they fade out (except for maybe your shoes). They don’t arbitrarily change while you are standing there.
In that first episode, they started detecting all kinds of extreme electromagnetic noise, including gamma ray bursts that would appear for a moment, then disappear.
Two things about their reaction to this seemed very authentic.
The first was an expression of WTF disbelief, bordering on being offended. This was particularly true of Travis, who had joined this team with a whole lot of skepticism. Gamma ray bursts offended me, and I could see it on his face, too.
The second was a quick rush for the door.
This runs directly contrary to the traditional paranormal trope. You know, “Don’t go in the basement alone,” or “Don’t recite Latin from an old book while standing in the middle of a pentacle drawn in blood on the floor.” Which — of course — they always go ahead and do anyway. And then all Hell breaks loose. You know the drill.
These guys all booked it out of there.
For context, when I was a graduate student, I worked for a summer in the heavy-ion lab, and they drilled us extensively on safety. Heavy ion experiments are classic atom-smashing. They produce all kinds of noxious radioactive substances, ionizing radiation, and sometimes involve heavy ions from inherently unstable materials, like uranium and plutonium. There are Geiger counters everywhere, required safety courses, and cautionary horror stories.
You just don’t fuck with gamma rays.
After this in the show, they all started wearing personal dosimeters to measure cumulative radiation exposure. This is exactly what real scientists would do. My only critique is that they waited a lot longer than I would have to hire a company to do an environmental sweep. But they did bring in people to do the sweep, and it turned up nothing.
I’m now into season 3.
I cannot say if this is real or not. But, as my son observed, I am really enjoying my suspension of disbelief.
The series is on the History Channel (of all places):