UFOs over Czech skies do battle with sceptics

Last weekend there were reports from around the country of strange lights in the sky, flying about, flaring up, flaring out, chasing each other. It’s true, unidentified flying objects do not just swerve by the Czech Republic on their way to the States, they are here too; and if you thought the Czechs too sceptical to notice, you were as wrong as I was. And last weekend wasn’t the first time.

Author Karel Rašín told me of his own, earlier, experience:

“It was in the summer. I was at my friends’ cottage and we were sitting in the garden and it was starting to get dark. And we saw above the trees a silver ball. This silver ball was moving very strangely – up and down and zig-zag – and we said ‘that’s very strange, no helicopter or aeroplane can do this.' We estimated the ball to be about five meters in diameter. We were observing it for about five or ten minutes, then it started to disappear, and all of a sudden, like a flash, it vanished, absolutely vanished.”

Stories like this one (especially when set to a bit of Philip Glass music) have to pique your curiosity. And whether you have seen blazing, zigzagging, pulsating or simply strange lights in the heavens or not (and I for one have not), their occasional occurrence is undebatable. The question is though whether they are simply unexplained phenomena or mysterious extra-terrestrial visitations, and for many who believe that the latter is the case, the Czech Republic can seem an unfriendly place in which to believe it, as Mr. Rašín has also found.

“Czech people are very sceptical by nature, it has roots in history. It’s not easy to persuade Czechs to believe something. They are debunkers. They are not open-minded. It’s part of the culture.”

Jiří Grygar
Truly the impression one gets from a lot of things about Czechs is that they’re a hard lot to convince in the absence of hard evidence staring them down. Just ask the pope. In the case of god, the empirical evidence flinched first, and a broad majority of Czechs are unimpressed with “Him”. And they can even be quite vicious sceptics; I remember for example the last end-of-the-world prophesy in Prague being met with a public burning of fortune-telling books at the enormous metronome that stands over Prague like a Cristo Redentor. I, for one, had always had the feeling that Czechs were basically sceptics in everything, until one Jiří Grygar debunked my theory. Dr. Grygar is the best-known astronomer in the Czech Republic and a founding member of the club of true Czech sceptics, Sisyfos, a large group of academics who have waged a half-serious war on Czech gullibility.

“No, it is not true, actually our experience in our sceptics’ club, Sisyfos, that most of the Czech public is very, say, inclined to believe all kinds of nonsense. It is true that Czechs are not very religious – to the contrary I think most people are either agnostic or atheist. What is surprising to me is that in spite of this, they are believers in all kinds of nonsense. And part of that is the notion that UFOs – which actually exist – are connected with extra-terrestrial civilisations. That’s the problem. In my opinion, it’s because the Czechs are not very religious that they do believe so much nonsense, not only concerning UFOs but lots of other blameworthy nonsense. I believe that there are statistics showing that superstition in the Czech Republic is the highest in the European Union.”

Unlike in the UK, for example, there is no Czech ministry that tallies the number of UFO sightings (though some say, of course, they’re all lying), but the Prague observatory alone receives some 100 calls a year, and that is an extremely high number. Consider the fact that in the UK, which has six times the population, there are only slightly more sightings recorded.

Jiří Svoboda is an astronomer at Prague’s Štefánik observatory.

“When people see something specific in the sky, like a bright planet, something like that, we have about four calls a day otherwise we have about one call a week.”

Your job is to professionally observe the heavens, have you never seen anything strange or unexplainable in the sky?

“I haven’t seen anything that was strange to me.”

The Záře Project tries to balance an avid interest in the possibilities with sober investigation of celestial events, and it too is one of the first places people turn to when reporting UFO sightings. Vladimír Šiška heads the project.

”In recent years there have been around a hundred sightings a year. Of that, we are able to unequivocally explain about 40% on average, meaning we determine definitively ‘that was a plane, that was a meteorite, that was light from a discotheque.’ A little more than 50% of cases have to be closed on the grounds of insufficient evidence, meaning we were simply unable to say what the object was, and it’s an unidentified object on grounds of poor evidence. And then there are cases, around two to 10% where, though we have enough information, we cannot explain the phenomena, where they are too uncommon to assign to any known category, and they remain ‘unidentifiable flying objects’.”

Two facts: one, there are inexplicable phenomena in the world, seen by human eyes; and two, human nature abhors inexplicability. Listen to this, and try your hardest not to be intrigued (cue Philip Glass):

It occurred on the afternoon of July 12, 1987, at an airbase in South Moravia:

“This small airfield issued an order for one of their attack helicopters to follow a very strange object that they picked up on radar. They followed the object, and at first they didn’t see it, but all of the sudden, the object appeared in front of them. The crew of the helicopter described it as a wingless, cigar-shaped, with no markings, and they estimated its speed at approximately 600 km/h. At that moment, the air traffic controllers told the pilots to shoot it down.”

This part, I might add, is eminently believable, in keeping with the timeless principle of human nature “if you do not understand a thing, kill it.” The rest is, at the very least, interesting. As they took aim on the object it began to manoeuvre erratically, moving towards the sun whenever the pilots got a mark on it, and rushing the helicopter when it went into a cloud. This continued until the helicopter returned to base for lack of fuel, and shortly later the unidentified flying cigar went off the radar.

Tantalising stuff, surely even Dr. Grygar must be impressed. He wasn’t.

“The problem is that when you observe something you have never seen before, you can hardly tell what it is you are observing.”

To be good enough for science, neither a few human eyes nor even the human radar can confirm the fleeting occasion of something as incredible as an extra-terrestrial visitation. Human vision he points out, even that of a pilot, cannot determine distance, size or velocity fairly. And even technology, radar, is subject to echoes created by anomalies in the atmosphere.

“So that’s the general problem: that people simply do not know about rare phenomena in the atmosphere, and they are very surprised or even scared by them.

And what you say implies something which is, I’d say, equally fascinating to the prospect of UFOs: that there are unidentified phenomena in the atmosphere and there are other mysteries to be discovered.

“Right. There are very rare phenomena and it is difficult to interpret them in correct physical terms, or you cannot make a model for these phenomena in your laboratory because they are so rare.”

Call them what you will, there are strange things in the sky, and what UFO believers and sceptics can no doubt agree on is to keep an open mind to all the possibilities. Like Hamlet said when he saw the ghost, welcome what is strange and wonderful, because there are greater things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.