The Min Min light, Australia's Unidentified Luminescent Object or ULO has given light on and off for some 80 years. Its history dates from about 1918, when, as legend has it, a stockman, late at night, was surprised to see a light over a grave near the tiny settlement of Min Min. The glowing object came towards him and caused him to take fright, galloping on his horse as far as the next station, some say as far as the next town, accompanied by his unwanted luminescent companion.
The light has subsequently been reported many hundreds of times throughout northwest Queensland, as far away as Camooweal, although most sightings are in the Boulia or Winton districts. Min Min was never much more than a hotel on the road between Boulia and Winton in far west Queensland. Little remains to mark the settlement now, but the name lives on with its mystery light.
Descriptions of the object vary. It is usually one light, sometimes double, sometimes several, and sometimes seen as hundreds of little lights. It is generally reported as white, but has been seen as orange, red, green and blue. It may appear for a few minutes or may hang around for hours. It may be stationary or may travel at the speed or a car. It is usually about a metre above the ground, at fence height, and it may jump or travel along fences.
It has been reported high in the sky, at times oscillating up and down like a yo-yo. A frequent feature is that, unlike a headlight, it lights its surrounds on all sides. It appears to be a curious, friendly light, often approaching but never threatening, although at times causing panic in the minds of the beholders.
It has seen by drovers and stockmen, miners, bush walkers, car and truck drivers. It has been seen by couples and small groups and some report seeing it on a regular basis. Cattle are generally reported as seeming to ignore it but dogs and horses have been described as taking fright. It has seen in the early evening and in the pre-dawn, it has been seen with a full moon and no moon, and it may be around at any time of the year. It has been seen in storms and on still nights; it has even been reported as coming inside a homestead.
Maureen Kozicka in her book, "The mystery of the Min Min Light," gave numerous anecdotes of the sightings and tabulated the appearances, times of appearance, and the occupations of the beholders. One of her reports was from a shearer and is as follows: "I was shearing on Clio station north-west of Winton for a month and night after night the Min Min light would come from behind the shearers' quarters, around and into the bore drain. Always the same pattern."
This writer has stayed at Clio station and seen the sun set behind the deep bore many times. Alas, I have never seen Min, but then I am no shearer. After shearing one or two hundred sheep, and after one or two XXXX's, my night vision may well have improved. A near neighbour of Clio station remembers seeing the light on the station as a child, and, braver than many, chasing the light across the paddocks in her bare feet.
Explanations offered for the light are:
o The ULO is a UFO (-although this is hardly an advance in understanding. Incidentally, the light was reported long before the era of flying saucer invasions).
o The ULO is burning gas, methane, marsh gas; an indigenous "Will-o'-the-wisp".
o The light is emitted from a condensation of luminescent, perhaps radioactive gas, e.g. radon escaping from the artesian aquifer.
o "Light reflection, light refraction, inversion layers" - light originating at a distance appearing to be close by.
o Luminescent insects (genus and species unknown) in a ball of breeding frenzy.
o Spirit(s) of the departed, returning to warn and give guidance.
o Fireballs, electrical disturbances, meteors or meteorites.
o A disturbance of observation initiated by suggestion and prior description and on occasions enhanced by tiredness and alcohol.
Any hoaxer presenting with a light would be taking a serious risk as some observers have reported throwing stones and sticks at it, even firing a shotgun at it. (Not surprisingly, after these insults, the light then disappears.)
Carl Sagan, talking about UFO's in the last book published during his lifetime, "The Demon-haunted World", writes: "On so important a question (as to the existence of extraterrestrial visitors), the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they are seeing. People sometimes see things that aren't there.
Essentially all the UFO cases were anecdotes, something asserted. UFO's were described variously as rapidly moving or hovering; disc-shaped, cigar-shaped, or ball-shaped; moving silently or noisily; with a fiery exhaust, or with no exhaust at all; accompanied by flashing lights, or uniformly glowing with a silvery cast, or self-luminous. The diversity of the observations hinted that they had no common origin, and that the use of such terms as UFO's or 'flying saucers' served only to confuse the issue by grouping generically a set of unrelated phenomena.
Most people honestly reported what they saw, but what they saw were natural, if unfamiliar phenomena. Some UFO sightings turned out to be unconventional aircraft, conventional aircraft with unusual lighting patterns, high-altitude balloons, luminescent insects, planets seen under unusual atmospheric conditions, optical mirages and looming lenticular clouds, ball lightning, sun-dogs, meteors including green fireballs, ."
As with UFO's, so it may be with ULO's. Min Min may be a series of unrelated phenomena with different explanations, artificially brought together. There is another relationship. Kozicka in her book lists the decades in which the sightings occur. The most frequent sightings (36) occur between 1950 and 1959, with only 12 between 1940 - 49 and 16 in the following decade. This increase occurred at the same time as the first sightings of UFO's and the first orbiting of the earth by Sputnik I (1957). Suddenly there was a great interest in our skies and the probability of spacecraft became much more apparent. In this environment there was much encouragement to see things that we had not see before; encouragement to report such sightings and less risk of prescribed sedation or tranquillizers when such visions were proclaimed.
The establishment of a legend does no harm to the tourist potential of a district as the inhabitants of the Loch Ness region in Scotland can testify. A legend, once established, may reasonably be promoted; the occasional signpost and placard adds to interest in an otherwise featureless area. With the legend entrenched and then publicized, the reported sighting of any odd light confirms what is already accepted.
Unfortunately for Boulia and surrounds there is now a rational explanation for the phenomenon, an explanation that may explain most if not all of the sightings. Prof Jack Pettigrew, Director of the Vision, Touch and Hearing Research Centre at the University of Queensland has shown how the fourth of the possible explanations given before is the correct explanation and has confirmed this by producing Min Min light experimentally.
With temperature inversion a layer of cold dense air is trapped next to the ground under a layer of warmer air. A certain shape of temperature inversion results in light near the ground being refracted in such a way that it travels in a curved path around the globe. "It is like the way light travels in an optic fibre. "The light is being carried hundreds of kilometres by this layer of air that traps the light and stops it being dispersed", Prof. Petigrew said.
To demonstrate the phenomenon Prof. Pettigrew chose a cool evening with little wind after a hot winter day. He drove a car some 10 kilometers, over the horizon into a watercourse out of direct view of six observers. The light of the car was seen to float above the horizon and resembled the descriptions of the mystery light.
The Min Min light is an example of the Fata Morgani, a phenomenon seen in many parts of the world when light from an object is transmitted to an observer not in direct line of vision. The chances of seeing a Min Min light are particularly high in the channel country around Boulia, where the country is flat with gentle hollows where cold air is likely to get trapped and because there is a clear view of the horizon.
The little settlement of Min Min may have gone, long since gone, but for some at least its light still burns brightly, despite the light of science shining on it..
Kozicka MG. The Mystery of the Min Min Light. Cairns, Queensland: Bolton Imprint 1994.
Sagan C. The Demon Haunted World: science as a candle in the dark. Random House 1995.
Pettigrew JD. The Min- Min Light and the Fata Morgana. An optical account of a mysterious Australian phenomenon. Clin Exp Optom 2003: 86: 2: 109 - 20 (available on line at www.uq.edu.au/nuq/jack/MinMinCEO.pdf)
(1) Clio station at sunset. The large windmill is over the bore, which fills a tank and then drains through an open channel for several kilometres. It was this channel which was reportedly followed by the Min MIn light. The land is flat, with very few trees apart from those around the homestead; at night approaching car headlights can be seen at least 10 km away.
(2) Prof Jack Pettigrew with his creation of the Min Min light (UQ News on Line)