Presented at The Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, Inc., Annual Conference 2008 Proceedings:
Scientific anomalies, ghosts, over enthusiasm or misplaced biases?
James E. Beichler, Ph.D.
Abstract: Photographing ‘orbs’ in cemeteries and haunted houses has become extremely popular in the past few years, but no one, to my knowledge, has ever conducted a scientific study of these ‘orbs’. Many people, including both professional ghost hunters and skeptics alike, automatically chalk the ‘orbs’ up to reflected light from various types of material particles (either animate or inanimate) using ‘cheap’ low resolution digital cameras. Yet I myself have photographed ‘orbs’ that defy simple explanation as light reflected from dust, insects, water droplets and so on in a variety of physical situations. So my students and I conducted an experiment to determine the nature of the ‘orbs’ in an upper level philosophy of physics course that I taught. We concluded that nearly all ‘orbs’ are more than likely just photographs of common particulate matter that is out of focus, but science should be interested in the very few examples of ‘orbs’ that do not fall into this catchall explanatory category.
In the fall semester of 2007, I conducted a laboratory experiment on ‘orb’ photography with my students in an upper level college physics course titled ‘Anomalous Science’. The ulterior motive was, of course, to teach my students to be open-minded, but also to approach their open-mindedness with scientific rigor and not jump to unsubstantiated conclusions. The more immediate purpose of the experiment was to determine if, or at least test the plausibility that, ‘orbs’ that are commonly photographed under various circumstances represent something other than normal photographic anomalies. For example, do ‘orbs’ possibly represent anything that could be of interest to either normal scientific or paranormal investigators?
In essence, we were testing two alternative and opposite hypotheses. On one extreme, there exists an overly skeptical group of people that ‘automatically’ concludes that ‘all orbs’ are just dust, insects, mist, rain drops, snow, or other small particulate matter that is photographed ‘out of focus’ in the light reflected from a camera’s flash. These people usually tend to blame the ‘orb’ problem on the use of ‘cheap’ digital cameras, but usually fail to define what they mean by ‘cheap’. On the other hand, there is a second group of people who claim that ‘orbs’ photographed in graveyards, old houses, hotels and other hot spots associated with haunting are either ‘ghosts’, some form of apparitions or some other undefined phenomenon that accompanies ‘ghosts’ and thus offers ‘proof’ of haunting.
As with all scientific investigations, science makes predictions from their hypotheses and theories that are then subjected to experimental and observational verification. In this case, we would expect that neither explanation is completely correct, although the dust theory of reflection is probably closer to the truth, so it is being tested in the laboratory portion of the experiment. Under these circumstances, the major goal of the experiment would to be to determine what conditions for a given digital camera will yield photos of ‘orbs’ using different known substances at different distances in the dark. Using the information developed in the experiment, we should be able to set up a table of parameters by which different cameras would yield photos of ‘orbs’ due to ordinary circumstances and substances. Then, and only then, could we determine if photos of ‘orbs’ taken at ‘haunted’ and other suspicious sites could be caused by anything other than normal optical problems and therefore warrant further explanation. This information will help to identify ‘orbs’ photographed with the same camera in graveyards and other ‘hot’ sites.
The experiment consisted of three separate parts: In part 1, the students and I attempted to duplicate ‘orbs’ under laboratory conditions using various types of particulate matter. In part 2, we took pictures outside of the lab under various conditions in general settings trying to duplicate ‘orbs’ and in part 3, we went to likely haunting sites and attempted to photograph ‘orbs’. We then investigated and analyzed other photos that seemed to exhibit ‘orbs’. The apparatus used in all three parts of the experiment was the same, such that the same cameras were used in all cases. The primary camera used was a Kodak 3.2 Megapixel camera with a flash range of about 7 ft. Most outdoor pictures (outside the lab) used this camera. Only digital cameras were used since film is costly, time consuming and otherwise limited. With digital cameras, it is only necessary to snap away and take as many pictures as can be held in the removable memory. A second camera was also used. This camera was also a Kodak, but it had a resolution of 7.1 Megapixels and a stronger (brighter) flash. Various parts of the experiment were also recorded with either a Sony digital-8 or an Aiptek digital video camera. The results from the video cameras are not included in this report for a lack of video editing computer programs. However, these videos will prove useful for later determining extensions of the basic experiment.
The lab procedure in part 1 was very simple. All four cameras were set up to take pictures at nearly the same time in the dark. Students would drop (or throw, or spray) a variety of particulate substances when told to ‘go’ and then each of the cameras would alternately take pictures. Sea sand, table salt, house dust, various colors of glitter, rice, demara sugar crystals, Wondra flour, hair spray and water spray were all used. Each substance was dropped (thrown or sprayed) at distances of 2, 5 and 8 feet from the camera.
Very good ‘orbs’ were obtained with the water and hair sprays at several feet, but the best ‘orbs’ were obtained with the sea sand at distances of three feet and less. In both of these cases, both the 3.2 and 7.1 Megapixel cameras yielded ‘orbs’. So it would seem that the quality or resolution of the camera is not a factor in photographing ‘orbs’. So we can immediately throw out the ‘cheap’ camera hypothesis. The silver and yellow glitter also yielded better ‘orbs’ at two and three feet then the other colors of glitter. This result would seem to indicate that reflective power of the particulate matter is also important in photographing ‘orbs’: The yellow and silver glitter was more reflective than the other colors of glitter, at least in the light spectrum of the camera flash. In normal photography, these would be considered ‘hotter’ colors. The other forms of particulate matter used were not as reflective, so they did not yield sufficient numbers of ‘orbs’ under the specified laboratory conditions. The particles of sea sand and the water and hair spray droplets were the smallest bits of matter used, except for the dust that was not very reflective, so they yielded the most ‘orbs’. The small bits of sea sand are primarily silicon, rendering the sand highly reflective. It could therefore be concluded that the important factors for photographing ‘orbs’ had nothing to do with the quality or ‘cheapness’ of the cameras used. The actual important factors were size, reflectivity and flash intensity, and only then distance from the lens. In any case, it was readily demonstrated that it is easy to duplicate ‘orbs’ in the laboratory.
In the second part of the experiment, hundreds of photographs of insects and other objects were taken outdoors under various lighting conditions in an attempt to duplicate ‘orbs’ under more natural conditions. No evidence was found that photographing insects could produce ‘orbs’ in this part of the experiment. In the most significant attempt made, swarms of hundreds of small gnats about a half-millimeter to millimeter in size were photographed under several lighting conditions: bright sunlight, shadow, twilight and total darkness with a flash. The swarms were important, because it can be assumed that the gnats were present at all distances from the camera, from a fraction of an inch to six or seven feet, at the same time. In spite of all attempts to get the gnats to yield ‘orbs’, absolutely no ‘orbs’ resulted from photographing the gnats. Nor was there any evidence that any other insects photographed produced ‘orbs’. When ‘orbs’ were obtained under the circumstances, the ‘orbs’ seemed to be random and no source could be found even though the pictures were taken in common places such as backyards, bushes, trees and above grass in fields. If these randomly photographed ‘orbs’ were caused by insects reflecting the camera’s flash, then the insects causing the ‘orbs’ must have been far too small to detect, otherwise they may have just been ‘orbs’ of some type of inanimate particulate matter blowing in the night breeze.
Of all the ‘orbs’ that were photographed in the dark with a flash, none could be specifically related to any insects, so it can only be concluded that insects would have to be smaller that the size of the gnats (less than a half-millimeter) and far more reflective than the gnats to produce ‘orbs’ when photographed. More random photos of insects and a greater variety of insects need to be photographed in the future before any conclusions can be reached if insects produce ‘orbs’ or not. However, spider webs, under the correct conditions, did yield multiple ‘orbs’. When the 3.2 Megapixel camera was placed as close as possible to the strands in a spider web, approximately two or three centimeters in front of the camera, the strands of spider silk began to look like a line of linked ‘orbs’. So, if such small strands or filaments of web or filaments of other types are blowing in the night air, they could yield ‘orbs’ when photographed in the dark with a flash.
All that is needed to obtain ‘orbs’ in the dark with a flash are extremely small sources of light that can be photographed out-of-focus with any particular camera. Normal sources of light could be reflected light, original light sources or even light diffracted by particulate matter. When photographs were taken in the second part of the experiment, we found that embers from camp fires and even bright stars produced ‘orbs’. Both are direct sources of light rather than reflected light. A very bright light source can also produce ‘orbs’ due to a reflection off of the camera lenses themselves when pictures are taken in darkened situations. For example, if a person takes pictures of a night football game under the lights, the internal camera light meter will adjust to the darker football field and then the bright overhead lights will produce ‘orbs’ due to reflection between the internal camera lenses. In the final case, ‘orbs’ could also be produced by diffracted light. Diffracted light is light that bends around an object and then causes interference patterns. Diffraction interference patterns from a point source would be small, but larger than the object causing the diffraction, and appear round or spherical. When the light source is behind an extremely small object that is out-of-focus, like the spider web silk, an ‘orb’ can also appear in the camera lens and the resulting photo. Clearly, not all ‘orbs’ are produced by reflected camera flashes. They can be produced by a number of normal circumstances and these circumstances must be taken into account when analyzing ‘orb’ photos.
However, these explanations do not account for all ‘orbs’. During the experiment, at least in parts two and three of the experiment, some ‘orbs’ were obtained in photographs that seem to defy any easy explanation. In particular, a few cases of ‘orbs’ appearing in background shadow areas during a period of bright daylight were obtained. These orbs could not be connected to any source of light, such that they were could not have been due to either reflected or diffracted light, yet they were not their own sources of light. So their origin is still in question. In yet another case, photographs that I personally took under very dark circumstances, without flashes (because they were not allowed), at Saint Stephan’s cathedral in Vienna, Austria, yielded a few ‘orbs’ like those obtained in the lab, but also bright points of light that mimicked ‘orbs’. These bright point ‘orbs’ seemed to be truly anomalous and without explanation. Until these anomalous ‘orbs’ are accounted for, no conclusions regarding the relationship of ‘orbs’ to haunted sites can be made with complete accuracy. All that can be said is that most of the ‘orbs’ obtained by amateurs in sites associated with haunting are more than likely light reflected from some form of dust particles or microscopic water mist droplets.
As part of the experiment, I also attempted to have my results repeated and confirmed on the popular TV show, Mythbusters. To suggest a topic for the show, you must first submit the questions to the Mythbusters forum for discussion, which I did. The following is my initial statement proposing the ‘orb’ myths and the first response to my suggestion. My nom de plume on the Mythbusters Forum was Professor Who.
Professor Who: I am a college teacher and I am teaching a course on Anomalous Science. We are looking into the question of whether the orbs that are photographed in cemeteries and supposedly haunted sites can be explained by any other means, such as insects, water mist and etc., that are out of focus. I am conducting an ongoing experiment in photography to discover the conditions under which I can photograph orbs. The myth according to those who believe in hauntings is this: Orbs can only be photographed in cemeteries and haunted sites because they are associated with haunting. Another myth proposed the nay-sayers and doubters is just the opposite: All orbs are just insects, stars, water droplets, mist and such explainable phenomena that are just out of focus. So can the Mythbusters consider which of the myths is true or untrue? Would the Mythbusters be interested in my and my class’s experimental results? This would make a great segment of Mythbusters given the popularity of the subject and the vast number of TV shows on the topic of hauntings.
Dickfez: If you really are a professor, you shouldn’t be teaching such BS as anything other than an urban legend. “Orbs” are a simple phenomenon caused by brightly lit, out of focus, objects between the camera and the object it is focused on. This can be easily demonstrated by taking a digital camera with flash out in the rain or snow under low light conditions and shooting an object.
It is easy to see from Dickfez’ reply that many people, especially skeptics, regard ‘orbs’ as an emotionally charged issue and are willing to suspend scientific rigor and objectivity to have their own opinions accepted, without question. However, the subject of ‘orbs’ will not so easily be dropped by the people who associate them with haunting, either correctly or incorrectly. Science clearly needs to determine if any of the ‘orbs’ could be the product of anything other than common identifiable causes.
Given the popularity of the subject of ‘orbs’ and the many myths that surround them, as well as the shear prejudice and bias that anyone encounters if he or she attempts to treat the subject scientifically, it has been difficult for most people to take this experiment seriously. No completely definitive conclusions were reached with the experiment as conducted, even though some of the myths associated with ‘orbs’ were exposed to the light of scientific logic and reason. What is certain is that a great deal more research on this subject is needed and this experiment will be continued and expanded.
James E. Beichler
Professor Beichler has been teaching Physics, Mathematics and the History and Philosophy of Science at West Virginia University at Parkersburg for the past seven years, but will soon take an early retirement to conduct his own independent research. He has taught these as well as other related subjects at the university and college level for more than two decades, but only obtained his Ph.D. in 1999 from the Union Institute and University. He earned his Ph.D. in Paraphysics, a branch of theoretical physics. It is the only such degree from an accredited university in the world. Professor Beichler designed his own course of study for the Ph.D. He combined past advanced degrees and doctoral work in Physics and the History and Philosophy of Science with new studies in Parapsychology. He presently edits an online journal, Yggdrasil: The Journal of Paraphysics, and is also conducting theoretical research in Cosmology to explain Dark Matter and Dark Energy, in Physics to explain the nature of life, mind, consciousness and matter and will soon develop a new physical model of the atom. All of these advances are applications of a new fundamental theory of physical reality, called ‘single field theory’ or SOFT, which he has developed. SOFT is based upon a five-dimensional Einstein-Kaluza space-time geometry. Explanations of paranormal phenomena emerge naturally from this space-time structure. Professor Beichler has just published a book, To Die For: The physical reality of conscious survival, upon which this article is based.