Episode 127 - The Saga of Comet Hale-Bopp and its Fugacious Companion, Part 1
Recap: Comet Hale-Bopp put on a fantastic display for Earth-bound skywatchers for over two years, often considered "the" comet of the 20th century. But, conspiracies and fear marred the event and led to the suicide of 29 members of the Heaven's Gate cult. In this Part 1 of 3 episodes, I discuss the photographic claims of a companion object and their eventual reveal as a misunderstanding and fraud.
- Audio Sources (links not available on official Coast to Coast AM website):
- Coast to Coast AM from November 14, 1996 -- Art Bell interviewing Chuck Shramek and Courtney Brown
- Coast to Coast AM from November 28, 1996 -- Art Bell and Whitley Strieber interviewing Chuck Shramek, Courtney Brown, and Prudence Calabrese
- Coast to Coast AM from December 06, 1996 -- Art Bell interviewing Chuck Shramek and Whitley Strieber
- Coast to Coast AM from January 16, 1997 -- Art Bell and Whitley Strieber interviewing Courtney Brown
- Wikipedia on: Comet Hale-Bopp || Courtney Brown
- University of Hawai'i: Fraudulent Use of an IfA/UH Picture
- Biblioteca Pleyades: The Comet Hale-Bopp SLO [Saturn-Like Object] Controversy and Star SAO 141894 || The Hale-Bopp Controversy
- Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy: Heaven's Gate
- VJ Enterprises: Remote Viewing at The Farsight Institute || The Hale-Bopp Enigma
- Skeptical Inquirer: "Hale-Bopp Comet Madness" by Alan Hale || "Art Bell, Heaven’s Gate, and Journalistic Integrity" by Thomas G. Genoni Jr.
- The Anomalies Channel: Courtney Brown Speaks on Hale-Bopp Photo Hoax || Prudence Calabrese Makes Startling "Confession"
- Heaven's Gate: Who's to Blame?
- Rense.com: Strieber's Memory Conveniently Fails Him In Hale-Bopp Tale
- Strange Frequencies Radio: Episode 315, Inside Heaven's Gate︎
- Courtney Brown's Statement on the Fraudulent Photo
- Remote Viewer.org: Dr. Courtney Brown - Director, Farsight Institute
- Ghost Theory.com: Farsight ... Farwrong
- Time.com: "The Man Who Spread the Myth" by Leon Jaroff [subscription required]
- New York Times: "Comets Breed Fear, Fascination and Web Sites" by George Johnson
- Mary Proctor's, "Fears of the Comet Are Foolish and Ungrounded"
- Logical Fallacies / Critical Thinking Terms addressed in this episode: Argument against authority, cum hoc ergo propter hoc or "correlation ≠ causation" (see: Spurious Correlations website)
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
Intro: Before I get into the specific part of the story that I’m going to address in this episode, I want to first preface not only this episode, but this entire three-part series with a few important points. First, I take the Hale-Bopp claimed companion very seriously because, by most readings of what happened, despite the direct statement by the cult, it at least contributed if not directly lead to the suicide of 39 people. I have listened to hours of interviews and read dozens of articles about what was going on at the time with who said what and when, but it is possible that I will make errors. Please know up-front that I am doing my best to represent what happened over the course of about six months back in 1996 and 1997. And that I am giving you a very abridged version, despite this topic spanning three episodes.
Second, I am going to try very hard in these three episodes to be as objective as possible. I’m going to try to leave my usual wry snark aside, and I’m also going to probably not take people to task as much as some of you may want me to. I’m still going to point out inconsistencies and lies, but because this is such a serious topic, I’m going to be more restrained than usual. What I’m going to tell you and play for you will speak for itself. And I listened to SO many hours of Coast to Coast AM for this that you’re going to suffer … I mean, ENJOY listening along with me for context.
Thirdly and finally, critics and general wonderers will often ask those in the modern scientific skepticism movement why we do what we do. Who cares if someone believes in astrology, Bigfoot, crystal power, dolphin telepathy, or that sodium bicarbonate cures cancer? What’s the harm?
I have picked a niche area of skepticism where there very rarely is obvious harm. If you believe in Richard Hoagland’s hyperdimensional physics and 19.5 is a magical number, it’s really not going to affect your every-day life. Probably not even your pocketbook unless you buy one of his books or go to one of his lectures. Most other fields in skepticism DO have an obvious answer to What’s the Harm? Medicine especially.
This is different. It’s a case where I can clearly point to a causal link between astronomical pseudoscience and harm, in the death and suicide of 39 people and the affect that had on their families and friends.
With all that in mind …
Claim: There are many, many parts to the Hale-Bopp story. I have tried to come up with a way to present the material in compartmentalized podcast episodes that tell a complete sub-story but, when put together, tell the broader picture of what went on. And, like the Lord of the Rings movies - and just as epic if not even more-so - I’m writing all three of these at about the same time, though the first is finished first as I continue to work on the others. The way I’m dividing these is that this first part is going to be about the astronomy and the astronomy claims. It’s the only one of the three that could stand alone on the podcast because the next two are much less about astronomy, but they are still integral to the story. The next episode will be about remote viewing and the claims associated with that particular set of beliefs, the fall-out from it, and the unsinkable rubber ducky. The third part will be about the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide and the aftermath as the astronomical evidence and the remote viewing claims were met with increased scrutiny, but people continued to find conspiracy and reasons to believe something mysterious. They will cover similar periods of time, but from different angles. That’s the only way I could really figure out how to separate them without stopping in the middle of the—
Comets as Harbingers of Doom
No discussion of Hale-Bopp and claims of destruction would be complete without a very, very brief history (after that 5-minute intro) of at least mentioning that across human history, comets have often been associated with doom and gloom.
It makes at least a little sense: You’re a pre-scientific culture, and you have no idea what the sky really is. As far as you’ve been told and likely believe, the sky is a constant, changing only very slightly from night to night as it rotates above you. The only things that defy this relatively predictable motion are what the ancient Greek called planetes, a derivative of planan which means “wanderer” because they literally wandered across the sky in unpredictable ways - at least over the long-term.
And then, suddenly, and relatively briefly, you have what the Chinese called “broom stars,” these bright objects with not only a disk but a streamer of light coming from them that could span - albeit less than once a generation - across the entire sky and rival daylight itself in brightness. It’s very much a “WTF” moment, to use the King’s English.
Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and the logical fallacy of correlation ≠ causation had not yet been codified. It was easy to say that this object, or this event, was the cause of something bad that happened near or during the same time.
Fast-forward several millennia and, just for fun, let’s stop at 1910. Astronomer Mary Proctor had to write an entire article for mass consumption in the Times magazine section on Sunday, May 8, entitled, “Fears of the Comet Are Foolish and Ungrounded.” The comet in question was Halley’s comet, and besides Mary Proctor’s own words, the newspaper interviewed octogenarians who recalled the hysteria the last time the comet came around, in 1834. They related how they laughed about the fear afterwards.
But, despite that, and despite it being A.D. 1910 instead of 1910 B.C., people were still fearful. The fear was less “A great king will die” but instead the fear had more of a scientific twist. But the fear remained. Mary’s article started with:
“A dismal report is circulating to the effect that Halley’s comet is about to cause the destruction of our planet, and as we draw nearer the fateful date of May 18, a grave feeling of apprehension is excited in the minds of those who are very naturally afraid of something they cannot understand. […]
“On May 18 the earth will be plunged in this white hot mass of glowing gas, and, according to the report of the ignorant and superstitious, the world will be set on fire.
“These sensation makers further say that the oceans on the side facing the comet will be boiled by the intense heat, and the land scorched and blistered as the dread wanderer passes on by its baneful way.
“How the report started, and by whom it is difficult to trace, but the harm is done. We hear daily of people overcome with terror, one committing suicide, preferring to choose his own manner of death rather than await the coming of the final destruction of the earth. Another has gone insane, and numberless other cases, if known, might be added, showing the harm which has been done by the sensational articles which have been published accompanied by lurid illustrations showing purely imaginary effects of the comet. […]
“It would be well if our own times were free from these idle fears concerning cometary influence, for it would prove that men were unaffected by the debasing effects of ignorance and superstition.
“Why should bodies traveling uniformly in definite paths under the influence of the law of gravity be regarded as special messengers warning men either of good or evil approaching them?
“Good and evil prevail in the world, comet or no comet, but the broad shoulders, or rather head, of Halley’s comet must bear the blame of every disaster likely to occur on or before the fateful May 18. […]
“Astronomers are being suspected as conspiring together to keep the uninitiated in ignorance of the true fate awaiting our planet. They are besieged with letters and inquiries as to the threatened end of the world […] .
“The poisonous cyanogen gas, which has been detected in the composition of the train, should in no way cause unnecessary alarm.
“Though the size of the comet is enormous, the particles of which it is made are excessively minute. […]
“[L]et us enjoy the approach of the comet as the experience of a lifetime, giving us a practical illustration of the marvelous law of gravitation and a spectacular display of cometary glory on a magnificent scale.”
I have the entire article in the show notes, and I highly recommend reading it. I related to you about a quarter of it. My point in reading it is that, other than a few specific details and perhaps language issues from a century ago, this could have been written today, or three years ago with the 2012 phenomena. It could have been written in 1996 with Hale-Bopp.
The same kinds of ignorant fear and superstition were prevalent, only changed by the words of the time and the technology of the day, as we’ll now start to get into.
Comet Hale-Bopp: The Comet of a Lifetime
Comet Hale-Bopp was discovered July 23, 1995, by Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp. They discovered it independently, and per the rules of the International Astronomical Union, any other person who discovers an object within 24 hours of its first report will also have their name attached to it.
The comet was a surprising discovery for where it was: It was discovered when it was well past Jupiter’s orbit, practically half-way between it and Saturn. This had never happened before because comets are rarely bright enough for discovery at that point in their orbit. You may recall from Episode 4 that comet Elenin had a similar early discovery, and the fear and superstition that surrounded it, including the anomaly hunting and numerological “coincidences” claimed by Richard Hoagland to “prove” it was artificial. Apparently, he learned nothing from the Hale-Bopp affair, despite being part of its aftermath, as I’ll talk about in Part 3.
Because of how bright it was at that point in its orbit, astronomers held out hope that it would put on a spectacular display as it got closer to the sun. Comets’ brightness are notoriously difficult to predict.
Comet Hale-Bopp ended up fulfilling and exceeding all expectations — it was bright enough to be seen during the day, or at least twilight, and I remember going out on the deck at night in 1997 to see it. It was visible to the unaided eye for 18 months from Earth, which was over twice as long as the previous record-holder, the Great Comet of 1811.
Prelude to Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM Fame
Because of how bright the comet was already getting throughout 1996, and how early it had been discovered in its orbit back in 1995 - and perhaps even with the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter the year before in 1994 - the familiar tales of intrigue surrounding comets were already rising.
To quote from a New York Times article by George Johnson, from March 28, 1997 (a year later):
“For months Internet groups like alt.conspiracy and sci.astro have rung with rumors about a U.F.O. supposedly hiding behind Hale-Bopp. When astronomers posted corrections to the comet's predicted trajectory, the new data were taken as proof that Hale-Bopp was changing course, that it was under intelligent control.”
Hale-Bopp did end up “changing course,” as I discussed in my first episode on the claims of James McCanney. Only, it was not because the comet was under intelligent control or because of electric plasma tale-drag. One reason was because Jupiter’s immense gravity pulled it slightly, altering its delicate orbit into something slightly different.
Another was that the initial orbit calculations had huge uncertainties because there were so few observations — recall episodes 94 and 108 on uncertainty. Alan Hale himself wrote they were “based upon extremely limited data and labeled as ‘highly uncertain’ when they were published, [and] differed in some particulars from the more definitive orbits published subsequently.”
Not only that, but as comets outgas, it is literally like they have tiny thrusters all over their surface, and this will act to perturb the orbit slightly, adding a third reason as to why the orbit changed from what was initially and subsequently predicted.
Chuck Shramek’s Companion
It was within this environment that, on the night of November 14, 1996, an amateur astronomer took a photograph of comet Hale-Bopp. His name was Chuck Shramek, now deceased, but forever tied to Hale-Bopp. He used some of the best technology at the time, a very small CCD chip that was maybe equivalent in pixels to a VHS tape. For those who don’t know what that is, ask an old person — someone over about 30.
What Chuck saw shocked him: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, November 14, 1996, starting 44:04]
CS: "This thing, what I photographed tonight, just showed up. I mean, I-I have pictures of the comet from last night and the night before. This is a big thing. Uh, uh not far— I-I estimate about 150,000 miles away from Hale-Bopp, uh, if-if it is as far out as Hale-Bopp. I don't know, Art, it’s-it’s in the same picture, I'm just making that assumption, that it's out there in that neighborhood."
CS: "It appears to be several times larger than the Earth. I’d-I’d guess about four times larger than the Earth, and there appears to be what looks like Saturn-like rings. They're-they're very flat, almost as if we're looking at them on-edge. And, you know, I ran inside, I thought, ‘no, it’s just a star.’ I have a computer-generated star map, I could tell ahead of time what stars were gonna be in the background. [AB: “Right.”] And there was no star there. I mean, just nothing. There’s a couple of stars that show up in the frame, uh, to the right of Hale-Bopp, and those showed up, but this big bright thing did not show up. And, I checked— I checked the date on my watch, I checked the date on the computer, and looked at the pictures coming in again, I, uh, on the computer (I have a CCD imaging system), and uh, my heart starts goin' faster and faster and faster, and I realize, I’m really— This is, this is amazing! I’m-I’m photographing something that’s actually out there that’s big, and I don’t have much of an observing window for Hale-Bopp here — it’s about 30 minutes. But I saw it that whole time, I have perhaps 100 pictures of it.”
AB: “What could it be?”
CS: [chuckes] “Well, that might be an area for Courtney to get into, Art, I have no idea.”
AB: “Alright, whatever it is, it-it-it would roughly— if it’s in the same area as Hale-Bopp, would be roughly the scale— to scale it, would be roughly four times the size of Earth?”
CS: “And that’s real rough. It’s-it’s certainly larger than the Earth is, that’s a rough guess, I’ll have to go over my pixels later and measure it more carefully.”
With that said, in his own words, the take-home summary is that he saw a bright object near Hale-Bopp and looked at a star map to see what it was, didn’t see anything on the map, and sent the picture to Art Bell. That very night.
The picture showed the comet but it also showed a bright object near it, with two small spikes radiating from it at opposite sides. There were several other, dimmer circles of light that Chuck knew were stars.
Despite everything else and all other mistakes that people have pinned or called Chuck Sharmek out on - and I’ll get to that in a moment - in my opinion, THAT was his biggest mistake. If you think you have discovered a new object in the sky - regardless of what you think that object might be - your first step should not be to e-mail it to a late-night paranormal radio talk show host and go on air to talk about it. You should contact almost ANYONE else, preferably an astronomer or university or any of the NUMEROUS amateur astronomer groups in practically every city in the world.
In hindsight, practically every account of the saga of Hale-Bopp today and its phantasmagoric companion will pin the origin and genesis on Chuck Shramek.
The consequence of Chuck going to Art was that Art Bell contacted a remote viewer, Courtney Brown. Or, a little over two months later, Art said that Courtney had gone to him that very night — it seems to me that Art approached him given that I’m not sure how otherwise Courtney would have heard about it. Regardless, earlier that year, Courtney had published a book entitled “Cosmic Voyage: A Scientific Discovery of Extraterrestrials Visiting Earth.” But, that is for Part 2.
The story of this claimed companion was picked up by many other news outlets that night and the next day, and Alan Hale’s phone was ringing off the hook. He later wrote in The Skeptical Inquirer [vol. 21.2, March/April 1997]:
“My investigation of this took me first to the World Wide Web homepage of the Houston photographer, which contained several apocalypse-suggestive statements about Hale-Bopp as well as numerous allegations of government coverups and conspiracies (including references to known “fringe” writers like Richard Hoagland and Zecharia Sitchin). These strongly suggested that this individual was predisposed to come to “strange” conclusions about the comet. Even more important, once I was able to examine the images in question, and could match the surrounding star field with a photograph of the same region of the sky taken during the course of the Palomar Sky Survey in the early 1950s, I found that the location of the “Saturn-like object” coincided perfectly with a bright 8th-magnitude star that the comet just happened to be located next to on the night in question. The "Saturn-like rings” extending from the “object” were apparently nothing more than a diffraction effect, a common occurrence with over-exposed stellar images on astronomical photographs. (It has also recently come to light that the particular CCD — charge-coupled device, an electronic detector — camera used to take the photographs in question is of a type that is highly sensitive to infrared wavelengths, and that the star in question is a red giant and consequently more luminous in the infrared than in the visible part of the spectrum.)
“Numerous other astronomers who investigated this came to the same conclusion I did, and in an effort to redirect the flood of inquiries I was receiving I posted the results of my explanation, along with the appropriate photographs, on the Hale-Bopp homepage (http://www.halebopp.com). My explanation there apparently generated an enormous amount of discussion on the Art Bell program and elsewhere, and led to a large amount of surprisingly vicious “hate mail” being sent to www.halebopp.com, as well as numerous accusations that I am involved in the “conspiracy” that is “hiding information” about Hale-Bopp. (For the record, I continue to be an all-but-unemployed astronomer, and I have not received a single government paycheck for any involvement I have had with this comet!) […]
“[T]he fact that claims such as these receive such widespread acceptance among large segments of the general public is not something that we scientists and rationalists should dismiss lightly. This whole phenomenon of “Hale-Bopp madness” strikes me as a glaring example of the scientific illiteracy that pervades our society and that has been addressed many times in the pages of this magazine and so eloquently by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World.”
Before I play another Coast to Coast AM clip to show what Alan Hale was talking about, I think it important to remind you of the 1910 article written by Mary Porter. The exact same claims then were being made now. And are still being made today. It seems as though conspiracists simply have nothing new to claim and so must constantly resort to everyone’s hiding evidence from them.
In this situation, the reason that Chuck didn’t see the star, SAO141894, in his computer-generated star map, is that he had the settings wrong. Yes, the time and date and location were correct, but he had set it so that the software would not display stars either as bright as 8.5 magnitude, or as faint at 8.5 — I’m not sure which because I can’t find a report of which it was. 8.5 is somewhat faint, it’s about 100x fainter than you can see from the darkest locations with the unaided eye, so I would guess that since it’s the only star in that field that’s really bright, and the other small disks are obviously stars, that Chuck didn’t have it set to show stars that faint.
In this case, as Alan Hale related months later, the conspiracies remained, and the explanation that this was a very simple misidentification of a star fell on deaf ears.
Two weeks later, the night of November 28, 1996, Art Bell interviewed Courtney Brown again - along with some other people that I’ll get into in Part 2 - but he opened the broadcast with this statement: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, November 28, 1996, starting 2:22]
"I do wish to acknowledge Chuck Schramek. You may recall about two weeks ago on this program, Chuck Schramek, an amateur photographer— uh astronomer/photographer I guess, in Houston, Texas, … imaged something that he could not figure out, uh, when he imaged Hale-Bopp. Something he thought should not have been there. That photograph continues to remain, despite statements by many in the astronomical community, uh, continues to remain an anomaly. He's re-imaged, he finds the star that was being covered by this object that he imaged, but it does not uh, under similar exposure times add up to uh, the object uh, that is in Chuck's original image. So he stands by his work. And as you listen this morning, you will see that it is well that he stands by his work."
It was revealed during this broadcast that because of the hate mail and media pressure Chuck was getting, he had to leave his home for awhile. Art’s guest, Courtney Brown, compared Chuck to other “great teachers” including Socrates and Jesus.
Fanning the Flames
While Chuck was clearly the first to produce and receive mass attention of a photo of - and make a specific claim about - a companion to Hale-Bopp, other people besides Art Bell and Courtney Brown latched onto it very quickly and they claimed that any official story to the contrary was a cover-up.
It also caused more and more fringe people to come out of the woodwork, with their either real, unrelated, or fake degrees being used to prop up their claims (and when I say “fake,” I mean they come from diploma mills or similar things, just like my Doctorate in Theology from Thunderwood College’s Engineering school and my Doctorate in Thinkology from the Wizard of Oz).
An example is “Dr.” Lee Shargel, who was introduced on a UFO mailing list as “a graduate of Northeastern University and who holds degrees in Industrial Engineering, Robotics and a Doctorate in Materials Science, has worked for NASA as an engineer/scientist with Top Secret clearance on the TDRS, Hubble Telescope, and SRBOC projects, has stepped forward to both announce that this in no anomaly of any telescope or misguided software, much less a ball of swamp gas, flock of geese or a trick on the eye. In fact, Dr. Shargel possesses his own set of 17 photographs of this object accompanying Hale-Bopp.”
Meanwhile, UFO Watchdog .com points out that he never worked for NASA, that his degrees come from universities that don’t exist, and he has no scientific credentials. And, at his speech at a UFO convention in 1996, he “made claims so outrageous, backed by photos and illustrations so patently absurd,” that the conference organizers and speakers and audience were amazed — to the point that there were people who stomped out of the room while hollering “charlatan” at him. I mention him now because I’ll refer to him again in Part 3.
But more to the point for Part 1, he was on Coast to Coast just four nights later with Art. He claimed that there was indeed a companion, he had pictures, other astronomers had pictures, and that it was emitting radio signals that he had decoded — it was both a greeting and a warning. And conveniently, this was exactly what he had written in a book in 1993. He claimed that the warning was about a neutron pulse that was going to wipe out life on Earth, but that HAARP along with SARANET would create a shield around the planet to stop it. (FYI, HAARP is real, SARANET is not.)
Whether Art believed this or not is almost beside the point: It shows that more people who may otherwise never have been let off their meds and into the public sphere now had much freer reign because of Shramek’s photo. Other people claimed additional sightings of the “companion,” and they claimed again that all debunking were just part of the conspiracy.
Enter the Top-Ten University Astronomer / Professor
Without getting into the material I’ll be discussing in the next episode, it was also revealed during this broadcast that Courtney Brown, and his assistant who was also his webmaster and was also a physics student, Prudence Calabrese, had spoken with what they described over and over again during the broadcast and other broadcasts as a “top-ten university astronomer” who verified the basic idea: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, November 28, 1996, starting 9:42, then 11:23]
"We called around and contacted some astronomers that were in the big ten— top ten universities — to get as much verifying information as we could. And what basically happened is that we had contacted a number of astronomers, many were very interested. They were all frightened with the implications that it would be if they were to get involved with any information dealing with this anomaly. Uh, because the information— 'cause of the implications it could have on their careers, à la what happened to Chuck Schramek, and so on. But some were courageous, and one in particular allowed us to, uh, share with us, in confidence, information that allowed us to confirm what our remote viewing was basically. It was that the object that was near uh, the comet, was indeed photographed by this astronomer's team, that the informa— that the object had been photographed numerous times, it moves about, it is huge, and Prudence Calabrese will describe in detail in the next hour about the photographs. He shared with us these photographs and—" […]
"He shared with us uh, a number of rolls of film of these images, of which uh, the— we found— we found five to be really spectacular and internet-quality, that kind of stuff." [...]
“This is a guy who is fully the best of the best. Uh, not only a professional, but someone with an international reputation who has worked with the best teams, uh, on the most serious of projects.”
In addition to that, and later claiming that there were six good photographs, but sometimes also claiming there were only five, he and Prudence stated that the “top-ten university astronomer” was well-respected in his field, had “absolutely impeccable credentials,” and that they were getting radio signals from the object that was near Hale-Bopp.
In fact, in more argument from authority, Prudence claimed that the “top astronomer” had taught in more than one “top ten” university, that he was a well respected planetary astronomer, and Prudence said she spent many hours talking with him. Courtney would later state that he had been one of Prudence’s professors.
Art Bell asked numerous times for the name of this astronomer, or where he worked, and Courtney and Prudence said that not only would they not name him, and even though they had sent one of the photos to Art, Art was not allowed to post them. The reason the photos couldn’t be posted was that they were so good that as soon as they were posted, it would be obvious where they were taken and obvious then who took them - or at least a simple matter to track them down. More on that in a bit.
Art at least strongly implies if not directly stated in the episode that he would not post the photographs. Later, though, on January 20, 1997, he stated that he had made very clear to Courtney that he would not hold onto them forever, that he would post them eventually.
In November, Prudence did say this: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, November 28, 1996, starting 50:42]
"He is wanting to get as much data as possible, and wants to have a completely irrefutable analysis. Um, before he comes forward to the public. He is concerned that if he comes forward at this point with these photographs and some other evidence that he has, it won't be enough, and he’ll be besieged, and his-his whole career, um, will be in turmoil. As-as well as he kinda fears for the safety of his family and himself."
Whitley Strieber, a claimed UFO and alien contactee and friend of Art Bell, was also on that night, and he had also been sent the photo by Courtney and said that he had independently figured out who this astronomer was. Whitley would, about two months later, recant that. But, Whitley also claimed and never recanted - so far as I can tell - that as soon as he saw Chuck Shramek’s photo online, he contacted an astronomer friend of his and that astronomer friend said that it was 100% legit.
Because there’s not a good other place in these three episodes to discuss this, I’ll do it here: Whitley, after Courtney Brown and Prudence Calabrese hung up, went further into New Age and UFO lore. Just listing a few things, there were claims that NASA certainly has many photos of the companion but they weren’t releasing them, Hubble photos were being suppressed, the radio signal messages from the companion may be intended for the Greys that are visiting us which is why it’s encoded, that there’s an 80% chance this is meant to be First Contact, that the entire scientific community needs to “wake up to its obligation to God and man,” and that scientists may claim that THIS is the real first-contact so that they can still screw over contactees and other things that he and people like him have been claiming for years.
The reason I bring all this up is not necessarily to deride Whitley Strieber and his reaction, but to bring it full-circle back to how people throughout the œons have treated comets: The fear, conspiracy, and thoughts of signifying change are still there, they are simply dressed up in different language.
The Claimed Companion Object
Let’s have another brief side discussion from the photos and alien contacts to discuss the claimed physical parameters of this companion object. The claims are that (1) it has a trajectory of its own and is not predictable, (2) it’s brighter than Hale-Bopp and emitting its own light, but (3) it is uniform in brightness all over, (4) it is clearly larger than Earth - Chuck put it at 4x Earth’s size or 1/3 the size of Saturn, but (5) it is not affecting Hale-Bopp’s orbit, therefore (6) it must be hollow.
Courtney claimed that it’s a vehicle of some sort, similar to Richard Hoagland’s claims about many moons and asteroids based on the original Star Trek series episode, “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” But, Courtney went a step further and said it was climate-controlled and while it has no emotions, it has feelings. Not quite sure what the difference is …
Also, it’s a sentient object with a guidance system and it’s made of materials not known to us, so we should be honored that the ETs sent such a large investment towards us. Oh, and the good news is that we’re not being invaded … but I’m starting to digress from my digression.
That in mind, Prudence claimed that Hale-Bopp itself is not unusual, that sure, it has some unique properties, but no more than any other comet. The only big thing was how bright it was early on, but Prudence then claimed that the companion could have made that happen so we would notice it. This was an echo of what Courtney Brown had claimed two weeks earlier, though he claimed it could not possibly have been as bright as it was without intervention.
Will all of that said, remember that all of this is based on Chuck Shramek’s photo, alleged claims of an anonymous “top-ten university astronomer,” and remote viewing sessions, and already I realize I’m mixing Parts 1 and 2 together a little, but that’s okay.
If we go back to the idea of size, though, that’s enormous. 4x the size of Earth, emitting light, but hollow so that it doesn’t affect the trajectory of objects. Okay … I suppose with super-advanced technology that we can’t really think of right now, that could be possible, but then it’s completely inconsistent with later statements, and so already even without getting into conspiracy and fraud, we have problems.
Specifically, Prudence Calabrese - who was introduced as a physics graduate student - stated that if the object gets too close to Earth, it would pull us out of our orbit “which would be devastating.” Now, we were told not to worry because the remote viewing sessions said that wasn’t going to happen, but they don’t know really how close it would get. If it got too close, it would most likely block out light from the sun and create chaos.
What’s inconsistent about this with respect to the size and mass is, if the companion can’t even affect Hale-Bopp’s orbit because it’s so hollow, how could it possibly affect Earth’s orbit, the orbit of a planet somewhere between 100 MILLION and 1 BILLION times more massive than the comet?
Specifics of the Claimed Photos
Getting back to the photos, I’ve discussed Chuck Shramek’s and what happened there, but it bears repeating because really, despite the vague rumors and conspiracy already surrounding Hale-Bopp, it was Chuck Shramek’s photo that kicked everything into high gear. You’re going to hear three voices in this clip. First is Art Bell, then Whitley Strieber, then Art again, and then Chuck with “Right” (and sorry ahead of time for the sound quality): [Clip from coast to Coast AM, December 06, 1996, starting 03:50]
AB: "All of the publicity surrounding, uh Hale-Bopp since your images— every story that has come out, uh, literally in newspapers from Albuquerque to Phoenix to San José, you name it, uh Associated Press story, um, MSNBC did a front-page story on it, and so forth and so on — they all, uh, try to take it on by referring only to your photograph. The release—"
WS: "The one picture, that's the key."
AB: "The one picture."
AM: "And um, they try to debunk it uh, with that and, you know, the obvious, uh quick answer, 'It was a star, Chuck was mistaken. It was a-a— and there was, indeed, a software error—"
CS: "—There is— there is— there is a star there, but a couple— a couple of things. U, I went back and re-imaged the area. And-and uh, I saw the star and it is very dim there. A-Another thing is-is the pictures that I took, the 161 pictures, some of them— they vary in exposure anywhere from 1 to 5 seconds. I was snapping all sorts of different times on there. In every case, that thing - the companion - is the same size. And a star would have grown in size. Uh, the-the—"
WS: "Why would a star have grown in size?"
CS: "The exposure would've-would've made the image grow larger and larger as the— as the pixels sort of spread out there."
WS: "Oh, I see, yes."
CS: "—with the length of exposure. And-and another thing, I noticed— this is, it's really something to see my uh, to see NASA and JPL actually go out of their way to debunk an amateur astronomer in Houston, TX, I mean—“
WS: "Yeah, to me, that was incidentally, when NASA and JPL got in on it, that was the tip-off that, uh, I saw the-the old, the old cover-up: 'We must not let the public know this, anything unusual in the universe coming into play,' because uh, as soon as— I thought to myself, 'My lord! How must he feel? [Chuck laughs] Here's an amateur astronomer with a very legitimate and straight-forward discovery who finds, instead, that the whole [stutters] that they're all throwing dynamite at him for no apparent reason! It must be a very weird experience.'"
In that 2-minute 19-second clip, I counted a misunderstanding about imaging, and an argument against authority. Important for this discussion is that even after it was pointed out what the issues were in Chuck’s images, never does Chuck claim that after the comet moved, like a few days later, did he see the companion. Rather, the claim is that he re-examined those original images and in photos with exposures between 1 and 5 seconds, the stars didn’t change sizes which he thinks should have.
But they shouldn’t have. Unless you are over-exposing by an extreme amount, in which case you run into technology limitations and quirks, the star is going to appear to be very close to the same size, at least when you’re talking about exposures of 1 to 5 seconds.
Both Art Bell and Whitley Strieber claimed that Chuck’s photos were not easy to debunk, and Whitley claimed that newspapers are just there to debunk and once they’ve chosen the method of debunking, they stick with it.
Beyond Chuck’s photos, the remaining issue would then be the secret photos taken by the “top-ten university professor.” And I’ll note that in practically every mention of him, those first three words would be there — “top-ten university” — while the last one would vary between “professor” and “astronomer.”
Courtney claimed to have received these photos on three rolls of film via FedEx. He claimed that these were sent from this particular, anonymous astronomer. Or rather, astronomer that he knew but would not name.
He claimed that when he developed the three rolls of film, only five - as you heard earlier - but then six - as he usually claimed later - of the photos showed the mysterious object trailing Hale-Bopp.
To me, this seemed weird and suspect from the get-go. Even if what Courtney was saying was completely true, it made absolutely no sense given the technology at the time. If this were a professional astronomer who had taken these photos at a professional observatory - as was the claim - then even in the mid-1990s, they should have been using CCDs. In other words, the photos should have been electronic and a basic computer file could have been sent.
And, even if that were not the case, if they were still being taken on glass plates, conversion to 35mm film seems odd, and if they were using 35mm film from the get-go, that is a gigantic red flag: Professional observatories don’t use 35mm film for their work. I suppose it’s possible for someone to have hooked their SLR up to the telescope - which I’ve done many times on campus observatories, but not professional ones because the equipment is not set up to do so.
Regardless, this should have raised big red flags for anyone who was not eager to believe. At the very least, they should have asked some friends who were professional astronomers to see if this was standard.
That aside, while the idea of this astronomer was introduced in November of 1996, still on December 06, about two weeks later, Art stated: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, December 06, 1996, starting 36:47]
"The astronomer continues to say he is coming forward, he just needs time to correlate the latest data and get his act, and his ducks, in a row before he releases the information."
The Reveal, and Allegations of Fraud
The big reveal came on January 15, 1997. It had been two months since Art and Whitley had gotten the photos from Courtney Brown, that Courtney said came from this film that he developed from the “top-ten university professor/astronomer,” and Art and Whitley had not posted them.
Nor had the astronomer come forward with his own press conference, as had been suggested about six weeks earlier. Whitley and Art had talked about how they both thought there was a “moral imperative” to release the photos so that the world would know about the photographic evidence for this Hale-Bopp companion, likely because of what they both thought it meant.
And so, on January 15, 1997, Art called Courtney to tell him that he was going to release the photo on his website. Not reaching him directly, he left a message, as a professional courtesy. Courtney called back and left his own message, telling Art that he would not get “any payback” from putting it up, but that Art would get a lot more for “standing up to your original word by not putting it up,” and “in the long run, it’ll hurt’cha.”
Despite this, Art and Whitely both published the photo on their websites, and …: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, January 16, 1997, starting 29:02]
"Within 24 hours, we knew that photograph was a fraud. We knew that photograph - within 24 hours - had been taken by the University of Hawai'i."
Art interviewed an astronomer at the University of Hawai’i who went into great detail explaining how he knew that photograph was taken by the University of Hawai’i and that it matched precisely a photograph that they had had publicly available on their website since September the previous year — two months before Shramek’s photo. I don’t think it’s incredibly important to get into those details here, but if you are interested, the University of Hawai’i web page explaining these details is still posted, two decades later, and I’ve linked to it in the show notes.
The gist of it is the Hawai’i photo and the fraud photo show the comet in exactly the same spot relative to the stars (meaning they had to have been taken within an hour or so of each other), and the size of the stars is the same in both meaning they needed to be taken with the same kind of telescope with the same setup and the same atmospheric conditions. The difference is a rotation, the addition of a companion object, and the fraud is a bit cropped.
Despite these similarities, people elsewhere still tried to point to tiny differences to claim that the University of Hawai’i’s claims were false, and they did not have the same origins. Those pages still exist on the internet, and I’ve linked up to some in the numerous links and references for this episode.
What followed that day and during the broadcast on the night of January 16, 1997, is the only time I’ve heard Art Bell yell at a guest on-air, and I have listened to a lot of interviews. Both Art and Whitley talked with Courtney Brown, who after a lot of equivocation stated, “It does appear that the picture is fraudulent. It does appear that the picture is, uh, a piece of disinformation that was given to us. This is a very great puzzle to us.”
Courtney continued: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, January 16, 1997, starting 49:50]
"I don't have all the answers. It— all the evidence is pointing in the direction of our astronomer. But he-he is an extremely well-respected person and— you know, I'll tell you, today— all today, since this morning since I first heard about this thing, we have been wracking our brains going through absolutely every thing that ever happened, comparing everything, looking at every— looking for some type of reason for it. You know, we even asked if the guy was a member of CSICOP, you know, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal - to, to see if he was setting us up because, maybe he said he just wanted to debunk remove viewing. [SJR: I think he did a good job if that was the goal] Fortunately, none of our remote viewing was based on that photograph, but the very fact that we gave you that photograph, uh, you know, ties us to that photograph—"
What I’m about to play now is a 4-minute 37-second clip (in case you want to fast-forward) of one of the core discussions that took place, and where Art yelled at Courtney, or at least what I interpret as a yell. I think the entire clip is important, for a few reasons.
First, it demonstrates, in my opinion, at least some recognition of responsibility on both the part of Art and Whitley for this story (and there was a lot more of that on Art’s part a few nights later). To be fair, throughout previous interviews, while Art said that this was NOT a “War of the Worlds” -style broadcast, that it was all real what they were relating, he emphasized that it was all based on Chuck’s photo and Courtney’s and Prudence’s statements. He also told parents to get their young children out of the room.
Second, it demonstrates what, in my opinion, was a lot of shifting of blame and back-tracking on previous statements by Courtney. The reason I say this is backtracking is that Courtney was incredibly certain - as I’ll get to in Part 2 - of what he was saying, and in all of the previous interviews, there was absolutely no implication that there was any ambiguity in his statements or interpretation of what had been said by his claimed astronomer contact. [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, January 16, 1997, starting 52:25]
CB: "If it is a fraud, someone perpetrated it. The question is, why did they want to slip it through to us."
AB: "No, Doctor, the question is, who perpetrated the fraud?"
WS: "That's correct."
CB: "Whitley, that’s-that’s-that's the bottom-line as far as you're concerned, that's all?"
WS: "At the moment. Later, the motive might be very important, but I think that the public has a sort of an absolute right to know everything you know about the origin of this photograph."
AB: "So do I."
CB: "Well I— But— [sigh] You're-you're— You know, I've told you everything that we do know [AB: "No!"] everything but the person's name!"
AB: "No Professor! Yes, and that's what we want, is—"
CB: "Now wait a second, Art. And Whitley, also listen to this. You both may disagree with me, and that's fine. But these two things. What if the person actually did perpetrate this thing? And actually did and was organizing the whole thing? First of all, they— whoever did this went to a lot of trouble. Because the person left a paper trail, they used FedEx, theres’— they sent film that was developed, I mean, there was— so, the point is, uh, the person seems to have done it innocently. But,”
AB: "INNOCENTLY?!" [SJR: This is the first time I think I have ever heard Art yell on air at a guest]
CB: [unintelligible with three people talking over each other, then] "Let me finish,"
AB: "No, let Whitley say something. Whitley, you take this one."
WS: "Alright. There's nothing innocent about this. It's a fraud. An intentional, constructed fraud. And I think you have a—a rather strong obligation to say where the photograph came from. That does't necessarily mean this individual, uh, is the one who created the fraud, he may also have been duped. But, it is essential that we know who that is, I don't think there's any way of getting around it."
CB: "Let me speak. There were two possibilities I was saying. The first is, what if the person did perpetrate it, and actually went through all of this trouble to make this thing the way it is. Alright? What if they actually did try to create this fraud for what ever reason. … Well, if we put his name out there, then the very— if he's actually done it with a evil intent, then the very first thing he would do is to simply deny it, and we'd be slapped with a libel suit. And it's— it's— it's—"
WS: "But you said you have a paper trail including FedEx receipts."
CB: "It's— it's a situation that would ultimately end up in court. And it's— it's—"
AB: "Libel — look, libel, uh, Courtney, uh, is only when you tell a lie— a libelous lie about somebody, and you've just told us that you've got an absolute trail to this person! Now, by naming him [Courtney tries to interrupt] Now wait a minute! No, Courtney! You are not— um, by naming this person, saying that he perpetrated the fraud. You are simply saying, 'I received the material from the following person.' That's all you're saying!"
CB: "Now listen to me, Art. Are you going to listen, or are you going to argue?"
AB: “No-no, I'm listening!"
CB: "Okay. In my opinion, what we had is, the fact that it was sent to us by FedEx, and that we have a roll of film that was developed. That is not— That person could nonetheless say that he said something else, and it wasn't that roll of film. [AB: What?!] The point is that we would get into a big legal hassle and I don't want to deal with that. But there's one more thing, as well. What if the person actually— What if we misunderstood what he was talking about the various data that was being sent to him by his other colleagues. [SJR: CB is misleading again because of the absolute certainty with which he stated things during previous interviews] What if WE misunderstood?"
AB: "Well how— Alright, fine—"
CB: "Let me say it first!"
AB: "Alright, but Courtney—"
CB: "No! Art, let me finish a sentence—"
AB: "Go ahead, finish."
CB: "What if, in fact, it was our mistake in thinking these were actually taken by him, and in fact these were among the other things that were sent, uh, by his other colleagues and that he just, literally, sent them to us 'cause there was an interesting photograph, and didn't check it out in the beginning, but in fact, uh, was perhaps sloppy in sending it to us, or whatever—"
WS: "Courtney, then there will be real photographs and they should be released."
AB: "Not only that—"
[unintelligible with AB and CB talking over each other]
AB: "Courtney, may I say— Courtney, may I s—"
CB: "Let me f—"
AB: "May I say one word? I did let you finish a sentence, may I—"
CB: "No, I didn't! 'Cause the point is, it will ruin his career if in fact it was sent innocently and he's been caught with this. It's bad enough that I actually had the photograph. It was slipped to us, we gave it to you, that was a bad enough mistake. It doesn't make it any better to go back to the other person because the other person— the other two— the other two possibilities."
That was the last time Courtney Brown ever appeared on a radio program with Art Bell, and as far as I can tell by searching both my own archives and those on the Coast to Coast AM website, Courtney Brown never appeared on Coast to Coast AM again. He has, however, appeared on John B. Wells’ “Caravan to Midnight” show as well as Jimmy Church’s “Fade to Black” show in recent years. It says something when even Coast to Coast won’t have you on anymore.
Anyway, throughout the discussion that evening, Courtney made no apologies other than for people disagreeing with him, he maintained that the astronomer was real, and to this day he has never revealed that astronomer’s name. He also maintained that his remote viewing - again, more on that in Part 2 - is perfectly valid.
While I took many, many notes and transcripts during that broadcast, looking back on them, there’s very little additional material or points to be made. Courtney maintained that the photos were provided to him by someone else and that it was not he who perpetrated the fakes, that he would not say who gave them to him, and that he would neither release the remaining photos nor the alleged negatives. He also said that he had tried to get in touch with the astronomer over the previous day when the photos were pointed out to be frauds, but he had not been able to.
Art and Whitley maintained that he should release the photos and negatives. They continued to point out that there had been no ambiguity, no qualified statements in anything that Courtney or Prudence had said, and Prudence maintained that she had known the astronomer in question and spoken with him for many hours. Courtney’s reaction was, “I guess it’s not really hard to fool us by slipping us a photograph!” Inconsistencies were pointed out that the photos were digitally manipulated, so how could they be on rolls of film?
Courtney also maintained that - in my words - he was willing to be the martyr in this by not giving up his alleged source. Even after Art pointed out that it was Courtney’s career and reputation that would be damaged, he wouldn’t give in and simply accepted that.
One could interpret this as Courtney being loyal and not wanting to doom another person. One could also interpret it as Courtney being caught in lies and a hoax, but admitting that there never was an astronomer would make it even worse. I have no idea which is the case - you can find people advocating each one on various internet sites - but with a lack of evidence, I only have my own visceral reaction which I won’t share.
A few days later, Courtney released a statement online, but I’ll get into that in the next episode.
Return to Chuck Shramek’s Photograph
After Courtney was off the phone, Art and Whitely continued to talk for about 20 minutes about the whole affair. And, that despite this fraud - on whoever’s part - they both thought the companion was real as evidenced by Chuck Shramek’s photo: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, January 16, 1997, starting 1:38:40]
"I am still as angry as I was at the beginning at the uh, response uh to Chuck Shramek's photograph. Poor Chuck, who simply rendered up a photograph and said, 'Hey, what's this?' and we put it up on the web page, and um uh, the rest of the uh, amateur community, including uh, Mr. Hale of Hale-Bopp, and uh, Mr. Sykes, and others, just came down on him like a ton of bricks, I-I don't change my feelings about that-that reaction one bit."
If you remember - correctly or not - back to my episode 117 interview with Elizabeth Loftus about false memory, one might forgive Art for being wrong here. Since for you listening now, it was less than an hour ago (unless you paused this episode part-way through), Chuck did not offer up the photograph and simply ask “what’s this?”
Instead, he offered it up to a paranormal radio program and went on-air claiming the feature was real and not a star, maintained later it was real and not a star, and that it was four times larger than Earth.
A few days later, during a night of Open Lines calls, Art sounded a little defeated - in my own opinion - and told a caller that there were no recent photographs that showed a companion, and he didn’t know if there was a companion, and he asked what she thought, though he also said that it’s not been fully determined if the companion is there or not.
Wrap-Up and Segue
But, the original goes back to Chuck Shramek, who stated that it was an intelligently controlled companion to this fantastic comet. And, that served as a kick to propel the normal claims of doom and gloom and intrigue that have always surrounded comets in human history. In this case, it propelled a paranormal radio host to bring in a claimed remote viewer who elevated it to an entirely new level with his own paranormal claims, but also allegedly factual claims based in real science.
While this episode has focused on the latter, in the next episode I’ll discuss more about Courtney Brown’s claims, Prudence Calabrese’s claims, and the aftermath for both of them from this whole saga of Comet Hale-Bopp, to be followed by Part 3 which will discuss the Heaven’s Gate Cult and, even after that, claims of anomalies and conspiracy surrounding the comet.
I’ll also state at this point that there are probably some of you yelling at me right now for not taking any of these people more to task: Chuck, Art, Whitley, Courtney, or Prudence. All I’ll say is go back to my introduction in this episode, and listen more closely to what I’ve said. You will probably be able to discern what my own opinions are, but without admissions affirming or denying what I may think is the case from the people involved, they remain my opinions only, and not worth stating in this episode. What I have gotten into are peoples’ statements, provable actions, and objective falsehoods. And there will be more of those in the next two parts.
Provide Your Comments:
Comments to date: 3. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:
5:23am on Saturday, March 18th, 2017
Thanks for doing this series! I was looking for information about Art Bell, Courtney Brown and Hale-Bobb. This was very informative and saved me a lot of time!
T'Mara Middle Earth
12:36pm on Tuesday, June 7th, 2016
All three, coirtney, art bell and chuck shramek were in on the con. Prudence was just following orders. Art bell and courtney were reportedly planning to joinly sell courtneys SRV program thru the radio program. Shramek was involved thru connections between their media companies. It was all orchestrated to be a block buster show with ALIENS!! presented together. There was no coincidence here. Courtney takes an especially vile turn that evening when he denounces the govt coverup of aliens and blames the conspiracy if anything happens if people panic. ( on part 5 of the you tube 13 part audio of that event. Prudence later recanted and confessed, was harassed and dropped oit for a period of time. Shes now listed on the IRVA website as providing RV services. Courtney is also like nixon returned to acceptability. He lists RV stalwarts lyn buchanan, daz smith and others as board members of the farsight institute, which may be online only. Art bell was furious to be exposed and im. plicate... read more »
Asim Alam Stone Mountain, GA
9:02am on Friday, March 13th, 2015
I am personally opposed to baseball metaphors, but this episode merits one: You hit this one out of the park, sir.