Author's note: This article was probably the first article on the Internet debunking this shameless hoax. Since then, several other articles have appeared. I don't think anyone else has better-shown that "rods" are nothing more than motion-blurred insects (motion blurring has been known since the birth of photography). However, some other sites have much better pictures than I have here. I recommend Sol's Bugrod Sequences for it's excellent photographs of "rods".
In being an amateur astronomer since 1969 I've noticed that we tend to have things in common other than an interest in astronomy. One of these common interest is often photography. Experienced with photography we often see the artifacts introduced to a photograph by the nature of lenses, film (or CCDs), and shutters. One of the most common artifacts are lens flares. These are bright spots superimposed on the photograph by reflections of a bright object from the several surfaces of a compound lens. We know what they are and think of them as unremarkable. Inexperienced, or perhaps gullible people often think they are UFOs or even angels.
Another artifact, that is so unremarkable as to be virtually ignored, is the fact that a fast-moving object will appear elongated on a photograph; those with very high angular velocities will appear as streaks. When a blurred streak appears on a photograph most of us will see it as a fast moving object; Jose Escamilla sees them as an unidentified life form.
I don't remember the first time I saw Jose Escamilla's "rods" on TV, but it was one of those "mysterious videos" shows with stories about UFOs, crop circles and the such. Mr. Escamilla appeared with video of base jumpers sky divers who jump from earthbound objects parachuting into a vertical cave. In real-time the video shows swarms of bugs around the cave opening. There was nothing out of the ordinary except when he showed individual still frames of the video, the bugs became blurry streaks, their wings appearing as sinusoidal gossamer streamers along their sides. Mr. Escamilla saw the resemblance of these blurs to some marine worms and declared he had found a new life form, that he calls "rods", invisible to the unaided eye and visible only in still frames of videos.
I thought this show must have had a significant shortage of ideas; they were really stretching for it with this one. At least with some "unexplained" videos, even though you don't believe for a moment that they show something extraterrestrial, you can at least have a lively debate about what they really show. The "rods" were just plain stupid.
A few months later Mr. Escamilla appeared on my local CBS affiliate, KFMB, Channel 8 of San Diego. KFMB milked the story for all it had. They presented it as a serious mystery and even managed to get an entomologist at the local natural history museum to declare that the images could not be insects.
KFMB has featured Mr. Escamilla's "rods" in two stories. The first, in November 1999, showed videos of "rods" taken locally (they're not hard to find anywhere flying insects are present). For the second story they traveled to "The Cave of the Swallows" where the original video was taken. Armed with a Sony digital camera they purported plans to find out once and for all what the "rods" really are. Of course the digital camera revealed nothing new as it was not a high-speed camera. The KFMB story was not a serious investigation but a shameless hoax on their viewers, concluding that the "rods" truly are some kind of previously unknown life form that needed more investigation.
Now, I don't need any more than plain ol' horse sense to know what these streaks on videos are, but when I found that some people I know were actually believing this nonsense I decided to get a second opinion to back my own.
After the second story aired I did an internet search on the phrase, "the rods hoax", to see if any photography experts were debunking this bunch of nonsense. All I found was a page on a UFO web site, written by Mr. Escamilla himself, where he claims to prove that a fast moving object will not appear elongated in a photograph. In the excerpt below Mr. Escamilla explains how he set out to prove that the "rods" were not just fuzzy bugs.
"We videotaped an 16 1/2"arrow (bolt) using Jim's crossbow that shoots these bolts at approximately 136 mph. We wanted to see what the bolt would look like at distances from 10 feet to 100 feet away from a ribbon that was stretched across two poles. The poles were 24 feet apart and the yellow ribbon had segments with six foot long markers. We used the Sony VX-1000 digital camcorder that most of the current Rod shots have been captured on in New Jersey, South Dakota and The cave in Mexico.
"We we found was that using the optical lens setting at 1/10,000 shutter setting, the bolt - or arrow, appears as it really is: a 16 1/2" arrow. And it appears in two to three frame of video shot at 30fps.
"Then came the big test. Videotaping the arrow with the digital zoom set at full capacity. We had the camera 100 feet away from the target test area and I "zoomed in" all the way to a point where the central section of the six foot long marker at the center of the target section was in the frame. Jim shot the arrow and guess what. Even using the electronic digital zoom on the camcorder we were able to see that the arrow maintained it's correct length on video! You could see that it's integrity in size was not blurred at all. The only artifact that was created with digital zoom was that the arrow was slightly out of focus. In other worlds, it still looked like a 16 1/2" bolt, but it was slightly blurred. Not an elongated blur, but a blurred object. This revealed to us that using the Sony VX-1000 camcorder as has been used in all the cave footage, what you see is what you get."
In this test Mr. Escamilla makes the mistake of not understanding the difference between linear velocity and angular velocity.
Angular velocity is the apparent speed at which an object moves across an observer's field of view. It is a product the actual speed that the object is moving across the field of view divided by the distance to the object. This is why stars, that are moving at tens of thousands of miles per hour, but are many billions of miles distant, appear virtually stationary. It doesn't matter whether Mr. Escamilla's arrow goes 130 MPH or 130,000 MPH. What matters is the arc angle that is traveled during the effective exposure time of the photograph. If the arrow is as close as 20 feet, a distance more consistent with the "rods" he photographed, the angular velocity would be five times than at 100 feet.
To finally set the matter to rest I did some measurements on the video from the second KFMB story myself. I used only the tools available on my laptop computer but that was all I needed. The measurements were difficult to make because of the significant blur of the images of the "rods". Nevertheless I found the evidence I needed.
The length of every "rod" is directly proportional to it's angular velocity; no exceptions. Even though measurements were difficult to make, the ratio of length to angular velocity of every rod fell between 1.2:1 and 1.5:1. It doesn't matter whether the "rod" is long and skinny or merely elliptical. (In fact whenever a "rod" becomes stationary it also becomes circular in shape.) This is consistent with lengthening due to movement across the field during the exposure of the photograph.
Another factor plainly visible in the videos is, if you take the images of a rod from frame to frame and superimpose them on a single frame, the images from successive frames appear to line up end-to-end except for a short gap attributable to vertical blanking and scan delay. The only exception is that images of very-slow-moving "rods" overlap due to blur. This is also consistent with lengthening due to movement across the field during the exposure of the photograph.
The next level of proof would be to create "rods" at will. The obvious method would be to release a swarm of bugs in front of a video camera to show clearly that they appear as "rods" in the pictures. I don't have easy access to a video camera so I did the next best thing. I recorded TV shows that were likely to show swarms of bugs. I hit the jackpot on Paramount's nature show Wild Things. I got many sequences with swarming bugs, from moths flying around a spot light at night to flies pestering a naturalist. When I looked at individual still frames of footage with swarming bugs I found no shortage of "rods".
Amateur astronomers are perhaps the most skilled of amateur scientists. As such we may often be the only voice of scientific reason among the chaos of misinterpretation and hoaxes inflicted on the general public. When the "rods" appear on your TV you are now pre-armed with the scientific facts behind story.
See Sol's Bugrod Sequences for more images of fast-moving objects that look like "rods" on video.
For another example of how a common object can be mistaken for the paranormal see Bright Fireball over Midwest Wasn't a Leonid)
Since this article was published in February 2000 I have received many letters from readers. These letters were printed below but have been moved to the AmSky Message Board. To reply to this article please click the feedback link above.
The vast majority of the feedback has been cordial. For those who couldn't keep a civil tongue I have this reply. Your personal attacks are not unexpected. If someone disagrees with you and you can't refute his arguments, call him an idiot; it diverts attention from the facts. Okay, so I'm an idiot, pathetic, slow-brained and out of touch with the "majority". This name calling really demonstrates your superior intellect and maturity. I will answer your personal attacks with the following two challenges:
I challenge anyone to demonstrate that the majority of the legitimate scientific community* believes that "rods" are anything other than photographic artifacts.
I also challenge anyone to prove that "rods" are not artifacts of the photographic process (this proof must be capable of withstanding peer review in the legitimate scientific community).
If either of the above challenges are met I will become an advocate of "rods", print a retraction of the above article and e-mail a message to everyone on every AmSky mailing list stating that the article is in error and that I have changed my point of view. Until then I will stand by my article.
|*||The legitimate scientific community are those who recognize the generally accepted peer review process. Pseudoscientists who express pejorative view of the legitimate scientific community and the peer review process will be summarily ignored.|