Frequently Asked Questions

Last updated: March 29, 2023


Do you think aliens exist?

I am sceptical of extraterrestrial life. See rare earth hypothesis.

What is your view on UFOs?

It is uncontroversial ~90% of UFO reports are misidentifications of prosaic phenomena (Hendry, 1979). It is the few residue reports that are hard or impossible to explain by commonplace occurrences and lack conventional explanations. The majority of UFO reports are ordinary IFOs (i.e., identified flying objects). They are only ‘unidentified’ in the sense they were not identified by an eyewitness at the time, who made the report. As noted by Hynek (1953): “We can define a flying saucer [UFO] as any aerial phenomenon or sighting that remains unexplained to the viewer, at least long enough for him to write a report about it.” What do I think about the residue reports? I’m not a proponent of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH).

I find the extraterrestrial hypothesis oversentationalised and implausible nor personally very interesting. In the late 2000s, I stumbled across the ball lightning (BL) hypothesis (‘ball plasma theory’) having read Philip Klass’ UFOs Identified (1968). This is a far more interesting and reasonable hypothesis than ETH, although I prefer to explain perplexing UFO reports by different unusual meteorological phenomena e.g., anomalous weather, rare atmospheric optics, extraordinary cloud formations. These natural phenomena are non-prosaic (uncommon) and explain why eyewitnesses (unlikely to be familiar with them because of inexperience) in their report failed to identify the UFOs. A good example is upper-atmospheric lightning.

Are there unknowns in meteorology?

Some meteorological phenomena, such as BL, are so infrequently observed their causation or formation remain unexplained and it is possible there is an unknown phenomenon not observed (e.g., atmospheric lakes were not identified until 2021). Books on unusual weather, clouds, and atmopsheric optics include:

Richard Hamblyn –

  • Extraordinary Clouds ☁️ (Met Office, 2009).
  • Extraordinary Weather 🌦️ (Met Office, 2012).

William Corliss’ Sourcebook Project

  • Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena⚡️(1982).
  • Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena 🌪️ (1983).
  • Rare Halos, Mirages, Anomalous Rainbows, and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena 🌈 (1984).
  • Dark Days, Ice falls, Firestorms, and Related Weather Anomalies 🌨️ (2007).

Are you a UFO debunker?

I try to avoid or eskew labels, however, because I maintain there is no incontrovertible evidence for ETH – I have been called a UFO debunker by ETH true believers, despite my interest in BL puts me somewhat at odds with hardcore sceptics. When Klass (1968) first argued for “plasma UFOs” (as an explanation for residue UFO reports) he was simultaneously criticised by both ETH believers and many UFO debunkers. Hoaxing undoubtedly explains a modest percentage of UFO reports explainable by prosaic phenomena, but some debunkers naively have claimed the residue perplexing reports are elaborate and unrecognised hoaxes (this regrettably included Klass who in his later years, distanced himself from the BL hypothesis).

I disagree, for example, with Klass’ conclusion the Socorro UFO incident was an elaborate hoax. I think this incident is likely explained by the misperception of a fire whirl (Donald Menzel similarly suggested a dust devil). There are other perplexing UFO reports, I disagree with so-called debunkers (who maintain they are all unrecognised hoaxes). On the other hand, I am quite sympathetic to scepticism because the ETH still pervades in ufology. My approach is best summarised as an open-minded sceptic (Sagan, 1987) or a ‘sympathetic sceptic’ in the vein of James Oberg (who while sceptical, is open-minded to new ideas). In his book UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries: A Sympathetic Skeptic’s Report (1982, pp. 2-3) he writes:

I think UFO reports are well worth studying, at the very least for physchological reasons. I also think the popular attitudes towards UFOs are well worth studying, at this time at the very least for sociological reasons. There may be a chance, however remote, that something worthwhile will be directly or directly discovered – and I think that such a possibility both justifies continued interest and better standards. So that is where I see the contribution of the sympathetic skeptic to UFOlogy: to proclaim the justification of such continued work, and the need for cooperation, as well as to enforce higher standards by calling “foul!” when it’s required.

Who is your favourite UFO author?

Donald Menzel. I can recommend his book Flying Saucers (Menzel, 1953). This was the main book that influenced my view on UFOs (Menzel favoured meteorological explanations for reported UFO sightings).

Why do you focus on classical UFOs?

While ufologists often focus on 20th century or modern UFO reports, I am mostly interested in UFOs in ancient Greek and Roman literature (Smith, 2022; 2023a, 2023b [in press]). My original undergraduate dissertation was on Roman UFOs, but was deemed to be too much ‘fringe’ – so I wrote on Plato’s Atlantis instead (see below). My focus on classical UFOs is for two reasons. Firstly, there have been few scholarly publications on UFOs in classical sources (Whittmann, 1968; Stothers, 2007) meaning it is a neglected topic of study. Second, a sizable percentage of Roman UFOs are identifiable with high probability as rare atmospheric optical phenomena including superior mirages, looming (Smith, 2023a), or unusual clouds.

Did Alexander the Great see UFOs?

Unlikely. There is are articles you can read debunking this spurious claim here and here.


Do you believe Plato’s Atlantis was a real place?

No. Unfortunately, some people do not bother to read my publications and label me either a ‘conspiracy theorist’ or ‘pseudoarchaeologist’ without realising I have spent almost a decade arguing against the idea Plato’s Atlantis was a real (historical) place and also published a peer-reviewed paper explaining why it is almost certainly imaginary (Smith, 2016). That said, like most places in literary fiction, such as Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Garth, 2020), Plato was presumably inspired by a real place or number of locations – he had visited in person or heard about when he made up Atlantis. I personally think he modelled Atlantis’ metropolis, on ancient Arcadian cities: Methydrium (Methydrion) and Megalopolis (Smith, 2022, 2023).

Could another place have inspired Atlantis?

Classicists have argued for many other places for the inspiration including Syracuse, Ecbatana, Babylon, Sparta, Carthage, Athens or Helike (Vidal-Naquet, 1964; Dušanić, 1982; Giovannini, 1985). Another idea is the destruction of Atlantis was inspired by the eruption on Thera (Hartmann, 1987). However, there is no mention of a volcanic eruption by Plato in the Atlantis tale, but earthquakes or floods (Timaeus. 25c). Yet another difficulty is explaining how he could have known about the late Bronze Age Theran eruption. Was there a folk memory preserved in Greek myths? This has been speculated but is not very convincing. There is though evidence for geomythological interpretations of the Delphic oracle (Piccardi et al. 2008).

What are some good books on Atlantis?

There are few decent books on Atlantis, to quote Angelos G. Galanopoulos’ and Edward Bacon’s Atlantis: the Truth behind the Legend (1969, p. 169): “The very word Atlantis casts a chill over the rational man”. This is because there is so much drivel. That said, there are a small number of books worthwhile to read:

  • Lost Atlantis: New Light on an Old Legend by John V. Luce (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969). Luce originally argued Plato’s Atlantis was Minoan Crete, however, he later came to realise that Atlantis is likely fiction and distanced himself from his earlier Minoan hypothesis (Smith, 2020). This book is one of the very few tolerable publications arguing Atlantis existed and was an ancient civilisation.
  • Atlantis: Fact or Fiction? by Edwin S. Ramage ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). A collection of papers delivered at a symposium in 1975, “Atlantis: Fact or Fiction?” (sponsored by the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University). [Different viewpoints were presented.]
  • Imagining Atlantis by Richard Ellis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Arguably the best sceptical book on the subject since L. Sprague de Camp’s treatise Lost Continents (1954, 2nd edition, 1970).

Did you change your mind on Atlantis?

Yes. I published an article and wrote my undergraduate dissertation sympathetic to the idea Atlantis was a real place in Thessaly, Greece. This was though back in 2012-2013. In 2014, I started to doubt my own hypothesis and within a year came to realise Plato’s Atlantis is most probably imaginary. Note that when I formerly did believe in Atlantis, I only ever argued for a grain of historical truth in Plato’s story (similar to classicist Robert L. Scranton). I argued even back then, the vast majority of Plato’s vivid description of Atlantis’ metropolis and island in his dialogue Critias is fiction and criticised outlandish Atlantis theories e.g., Ignatius Donnelly and Graham Hancock. The historian J. Rufus Fears (2002) once wisely remarked:

The story of Atlantis is an invention of Plato himself. There is no historical kernel to it.