Saturday, December 26, 2009

Betty Hill's Star Map

I was reading the National Geographic not all that long ago and was struck by a paragraph in a story about life on other worlds. It suggested that the search for extra solar planets was targeting M class dwarf stars, which, of course, include those known as Red Dwarfs. It mentioned that seven of the ten closet stars to Earth were dwarfs.

Here’s what struck me. I remembered reading about Marjorie Fish, the school teacher and amateur astronomer who had located the area of the sky that Betty Hill seemed to have drawn after seeing a star map on a UFO. Fish built a model (actually a series of models) of our section of the galaxy and viewed them from various angles until she found a pattern that was representative of the star map.

Don’t get me wrong. This was an impressive feat and took years to accomplish. In fact, it wasn’t until some of the star catalogs were updated with new and better information that she was successful.

Here’s where the problem arises. She assumed that the map represented our section of the galaxy, that alien travelers would be interested in stars of the same type as our sun, the travel patterns should make some sense and travel patterns would avoid the largest stars and those that are not on the main sequence (that is, stars that are basically stable for long periods of time and like our sun). These assumptions would become important later.

But others were also searching for the pattern. Charles W. Atterberg found a pattern that had Epsilon Eridani and Epsilon Indi as the base stars rather than Fish’s Zeta 1and Zeta 2 Reticuli. Atterberg’s map also fits with the Hill map, and two of the stars on it Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani were targets by Project Ozma, one of the first of the SETI searchs. In other words, astronomers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligences believed that two of the stars in the Atterberg interpretation were likely candidates for planetary systems and intelligent life. Tau Ceti was also one of the candidates on the Fish map.

Suddenly we have two published interpretations of the Betty Hill's star map, both of which make sense (and I haven’t even discussed Betty Hill’s interpretation which was another section of the sky). But Marjorie Fish disagreed with Atterberg. Of the Atterberg interpretation, she noted that he had included some red dwarfs as stars visited by the aliens. She said that she had ruled out red dwarfs because there are so many of them and if she used red dwarfs in a logical construction, then all the lines were used before she reached Earth. She had assumed that the sun would be one of the stars connected to the others on the map although the "leader" of the alien crew had provided no indication that this was true.

She also assumed that if they, the aliens, were interested in red dwarfs, that is, that they visited some, then there should have been lines connecting other red dwarfs but there were not. Her assumption was that one red dwarf would be as interesting to a space faring race as the next. But it could be that some red dwarfs were more interesting because of things we could not see. Because we could detect no difference between one red dwarf and another doesn't mean that there aren't differences.

Fish made those assumptions thirty or forty years ago and they are now invalid. The article in National Geographic suggested that these M Class stars have long periods of stability, longer than those postulated for stars like our sun. While the dwarf stars are smaller, dimmer and cooler than the sun, they do have zones in which the conditions ideal for life as we know it exist and given the discovery of planets around some of these stars, including planets known as "Super– Earths," it is possible that life, including intelligent life, would be found on those planets.

There was also a recent announcement of a Super Earth that has oceans. This planet, thought to be about two and a half times the size of Earth, with a mean temperature higher than that on Earth, suggests that some dwarf stars might hold a great deal of interest for any space faring race. And while all stars that have planets where life is possible might not have life, some of them might and that would certainly make them interesting to space travelers.

What this means, simply, is that the criterion used by Marjorie Fish in her groundbreaking work should be revisited. With computer models available, scanning for the Betty Hill pattern wouldn’t take the years that Fish devoted to her search. We could now look at more stars closer to Earth because we have much better astronomical records and catalogs available. We might find a pattern closer to Earth and that might suggest to some where the search for extraterrestrial intelligence should be concentrated.


Frank Stalter said...

Super article. This exo-planet research is the best stuff going on right now, very exciting.

starman said...

I don't know if red dwarfs can have real habitable zones. Temperatures may be OK fairly close to them. But, the catch is, in order to be close enough to a red dwarf to derive sufficient warmth, a planet would incur tidal locking. So, IF aliens give priority to stars most likely to harbor advanced life, Fish may be right.

Bob Koford said...

Granted I'm a bit feeble-minded, but-

I have pondered this, as well, and had always thought that it would be just about impossible, without knowing from which direction we were looking.

In 3 Dimensions, one has only to change the viewing angle ever-so-slightly, and the ratios are all affected. Distances between two objects from one angle will be completely different, or even blocked, from another angle.

It would be more likely that anyone creating such a map, would create it to be seen from THEIR perspective, and not ours.

David Rudiak said...

"It would be more likely that anyone creating such a map, would create it to be seen from THEIR perspective, and not ours."

Bob, Betty Hill's map IS from the perspective of someone in Zeta Reticuli, not our solar system, according to Marjorie Fish's interpretation.

A peculiar and important feature of Fish's interpretation is that all the stars connected by lines in the Hill map in Fish's reconstruction are ALL sun-like in size and luminosity and ALL lie in a plane. The odds of this happening by pure chance are extremely small.

starman said...

The ultimate test of the Fish interpretation shouldn't be too long in coming. Sometime in the next decade, it should be possible to see if an Earth-sized planet ("Serpo") really orbits Zeta Reticuli. Kepler or Terrestrial planet Finder might discover the ET home, if it exists there.

KRandle said...

Starman -

The article in the National Geographic was titled, "Are We Alone." It was the astronomers who suggested the M Class dwarfs should be examined for signs of Earth-like planets. Tidal locking, the star's gravity well, and the rotation rates of planets might preclude some from developing life, but the astronomers seem to believe that some would.

It other words, the information used by Marjorie Fish more than 40 years ago has been superceded by information developed in the last decade. Her arbitrary dismissal of one class of stars is just that, arbitrary and should be revisited now that we have additional and better information.

lcdvasrm said...

For computing solutions, one might use the Vizier database. It contains the Hyparcos data.
It is easy to extract the positionnal information for all the closest stars. I extracted this way the 1000 closest.

MnDoc said...

This post is intrinsically interesting for what it says about our shifting paradigms concerning where scientists and others might expect to find ET 'life'. But theres always two things that run through my mind when I try and follow this discussion.

One has to do with what the function of a "star map" is for the ET. As countless others have pointed out, it would have no useful navigational function. One could not navigate through vast areas of space using this. I suppose it could be a sort of "globe" such as the one I bought for my kids when they were in school. I'm just no sure what the importance of this is.

The other comment has to do with interpreting and extracting information. I don't doubt that Betty Hill reported what she thought to be true, but how many messages can one find in this story. Is this a "literal story" about stars or does it have some other meaning? At another time we might well have derived a different perspective from this story.

Brett said...


You're quite right; while Fish's work was excellent (amazing, in fact) for its day, it needs to be looked at again with the benefit of 40 years of new data. I actually did mainly this with respect to the distance measurements she used -- e.g. we now have much more accurate parallax measurements to nearby stars thanks to the Hipparcos satellite -- and published the results in Fortean Times (November 2008). I didn't question her basic assumptions, which you've done here and which is also a very worthwhile exercise. So, using Fish's own assumptions and the latest astronomical data, I found that six of the fifteen stars she chose for her map would have to be excluded for various reasons (e.g., some are now known to be much further away, some are actually variables, and so on). So the Fish interpretation cannot stand.

I have a brief post about my article on my own blog at:

Brett Holman

John W. Ratcliff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John W. Ratcliff said...

Doesn't this line of reasoning make too many assumptions? It assumes that Betty Hill was able to accurately recall this alleged map with sufficient detail as to be a valid reference.

And, much more to the point, why would we choose to take literally any communication from alleged 'ETs' who have proven themselves over, and over, and over, again to be consummate liars and deceivers of every human being they ever interact with?

How is this any different than earlier ETs claiming they were from Venus, or Mars? It's all bullshit top to bottom. when it comes to dealing with ET communication.


starman said...

If Hill recalled the map and star positions under hypnosis, wouldn't that be more accurate than conscious memory?
John, with regard to ET veracity, I know what you mean. :) But if the ETs wanted to mislead here, why didn't they make some ridiculous specific claim, like the one they told to some South American guy i.e. they are from Mercury? To my knowledge, regarding the potential habitability of any planets it may have, the jury is still out on Zeta 1. It is Population II, so it can't be dismissed as being too young to be the abode of a presumably older, more advanced civilization.
KDR: There was an article in the October 2009 Sky and Telescope issue which addressed the prospects for habitable planets around red dwarfs. Surprisingly, the piece mentioned calculations which show the atmosphere of a tidally locked planet could "circulate heat around from the day to the night side fairly evenly, perhaps making the whole world rather pleasant..." I don't know...for all its atmosphere, Earth has considerable variations in temperature, due mainly to the extent of insolation falling on its various regions. It's hard to believe a tidally locked world wouldn't have a roasting day side and frigid night side.

Lance said...

I see that Starman brings up the old chestnut, believed by many saucer buffs, that testimony elicited during hypnosis is "more accurate".

Scientific studies show conclusively that this is not the case. But the idea lives on among paranormal devotees who can't be encumbered by mere facts.

If you are looking for amusement, a virtual laugh riot is contained within Betty Hill's story. For instance:

1. Her aliens had Jimmy Durante noses. But at some point the believers stopped mentioning this (perhaps due to the laughter?) and Betty actually reformed her aliens faces to match the accepted mythology.

2. The aliens speak in a distinctly earthly manner, saying "Wait a minute..." to Betty at one point.

3. The hypnosis sessions happend TWO YEARS after the supposed event! This undoubtedly gave Betty a chance to endlessly debrief Barney on how the story should be told.

4. The man who hypnotized the Hills said that he was certain that the stories were dreams and not actual experiences. Note that, in the books on the Hills, pro-UFO authors write as though anything said under hypnosis is an actual fact--demonstrating the scientific rigor the field is so famous for.

5. The star map is too imprecise to actually detail star positions. Carl Sagan looked carefully into the matter and other folks came up with even more precise maps (but still imperfect). This is not to denigrate the work of Fish, she did the best she could with what she had and it was an amazing job. But this is the crux of the entire matter that Kevin was referring to. It is certainly a case of Garbage-In. Who gives a crap what comes out?

Happy New Year to All,


Lord Balto said...

I wrote a short article many years ago for INFO, the Journal of the International Fortean Organization, in which I pointed out that the Hill "star map" was actually a map of Upper New England showing the places and routes relevant to the lives of the Hills and their trip to Niagara Falls. That Marjorie Fish should have run off looking for actual star patterns just amazes me, especially considering the dream-like quality of many UFO encounters. Even a luminary like Jacques Vallee managed to draw all kinds of broad conclusions from the Hill Affair. Have none of these folks ever heard of Occam's Razor?

Lord Balto said...

This is a revised version of the map that originally appeared in the February 1991 issue of INFO:

Considering that this map has been filtered through Betty Hill's subconscious, I'd say that it's rather striking.

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