Alan Boyle writes:What do WikiLeaks and mass bird die-offs have in common? Both anomalous phenomena have been linked in with the popular fascination with unidentified flying objects and the prospects for alien contact — all of which adds to a rising, under-the-media-radar buzz over unexplained phenomena.
The buzz is evident in the recent voting for the top space story of 2010: The past year's spate of UFO reports received the most votes in our unscientific end-of-year news poll. That doesn't prove anything ... except that there's a continuing level of interest in the UFO phenomenon. That interest is reflected as well in the results from opinion polls, the airing of TV shows such as "V" and the appetite for books such as "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record."
Last month, at the height of the disclosures of confidential U.S. government files, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said there would be "references to UFOs" in yet-to-be-published sections of files — contributing to the long-running rumblings that the White House would soon make some admissions about alien contact.
The past week's mass deaths of birds in Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Sweden have also sparked speculation that invisible UFOs or stealth research projects were behind the die-offs. The reality is likely to be much more mundane: Statistics from the U.S. Geological Survey suggest that wildlife die-offs occur every few days, although the New Year's Eve blackbird blast in Arkansas rates among the top five of the past year. An Arkansas fish kill is likely to be traced to disease, based on the clues gathered so far. (Check out Cristine Russell's posting to The Observatory at Columbia Journalism Review for an aflockalypse timeline.)
And what about the pending WikiLeaks disclosure? Well, several countries — including Britain, Canada, France and New Zealand — have been releasing their UFO files over the past few years, so it wouldn't be surprising if U.S. diplomats cabled back some of the inside scoop about those files as they were coming to light.
In the meantime, the UFO buzz is sure to pick up whenever there's an anomaly to chew over ... even if the anomaly turns out to be bogus.
Extraterrestrial disclosures of a more scientific sort are also on their way in the weeks ahead. Here are a few to watch for:
•The Royal Society's detailed report about what we should do if we ever detect extraterrestrial life is due to go online Monday, according to a status update from one of the report's editors. For a preview of the findings, check out British UFO expert Nick Pope's commentary from October.
•The American Astronomical Society is conducting its winter meeting in Seattle next week, and the program includes lots of references to super-Earths and other extrasolar planets, as well as the potential for identifying habitable environments. Could moons in the outer solar system have been "seeded" by meteorites from Earth or Mars? What's the latest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Stay tuned for some thought-provoking studies in the days ahead.
•NASA's Kepler mission has identified more than 750 candidate planets, many of them smaller than Neptune and approaching the size of Earth. The $600 million mission has already turned up some weird planetary systems, including a pairing of giant planets in constantly changing orbits. The next big release of data from the mission is due to take place on Feb. 1, and that will likely bring a fresh crop of revelations in the planet search. The preliminary buzz over the Kepler data has been going on for months. Now the big reveal is almost upon us. Aliens, schmaliens: This is the real deal.