Advent calendar / History

Door 9: Football, geothermal energy and the 1954 wave of UFOs

Nine new

I have a question for you. It’s a bit crazy, but the answer may help solve one of the odder mysteries of the 20th century. It all starts with a football match sixty years ago….




Stadio Artemio Franchio

Stadio Artemio Franchio (UFOs added)

On the 27th October 1954 during a local derby between Fiorentina and US Pistoriese, the match was stopped as all eyes turned to the sky. Cigar shaped UFOs were seen drifting above, dropping fine filaments of ‘angel hair’ as they went. Many thousands witnessed the strange craft. You can read all about the event in this recent BBC article. In fact many hundreds of sightings of similar UFOs were witnessed that month all over Europe, mainly in eastern France and northern Italy. The fine hair that was left across rooftops and trees disintegrated rapidly, but some samples were preserved and submitted for analysis. When the results came in, the hair left behind by the UFOs consisted predominately of boron, silicon, magnesium and calcium.

Samples of 'Angel Hair' left by UFOs

Samples of ‘Angel Hair’ left by UFOs

By 1954 many sightings of UFOs had been documented all over the world. The craze had kicked off in the late 1940s with the Roswell sightings. Since that moment, flying discs and little green men had been cropping up all over the place. The things that were different about this sighting was that so many people saw the UFOs and that they left behind evidence that was publicly tested. These UFOs were not hallucinatory, they were real and left evidence behind. Were their craft made of some sort of borosilicate glass?

There are sceptical explanations of course. The most popular is that the cigar-shaped masses were hordes of spiders ‘ballooning’ into the atmosphere using webs of silk to travel long distances. As the webs fell apart, they left fine threads over the surroundings. Examples of this have been witnessed and captured on film. To this day, the spider-ballooning theory is the one that most stick to if they are less than convinced that alien visitors have an interest in Italian football. It also makes any arachnophobes I’ve explained this to go weak at the knees and start shaking.

Luckily for them, there is a big problem with the spider theory in this case. Spider silk is not made of boron, silicon, magnesium or calcium. That does not sound like spider-silk at all. In fact boron is used in insecticides and can be poisonous to spiders. Boron. Silicon. Magnesium. Calcium. It all sounds a bit…mineral doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Tuscany, the Italian geothermal industry is getting back on its feet after the Second World War. The first geothermal power produced in the world was in Tuscany, at Larderello which produced enough electricity to light four bulbs in 1904. Commercial electricity production started in 1911. In 1954, it was still the only geothermal power plant in the world. But the Italians were trying for more. Exploratory drilling was taking place in the area around Larderello, at sites such as Monte Amiata that very year. The geothermal energy museum at Larderello still features a ‘tutorial well’ first drilled in 1956. New power plants were commissioned nearby in the second half of the 1950s based on these results.

Engraving of the hot springs at Larderello

Engraving of the hot springs at Larderello

The Larderello area is famed for its hot springs. The Romans used them spas to bathe in and soothe their aching, ancient Roman muscles. Many centuries later, in 1827, François de Larderel found a way of using the steam from the springs to separate boric acid from the volcanic mud found in the area, becoming one of the earliest sources of boric acid in the world. Larderllo itself is named for François de Larderel because of his discovery. Something else that forms in the presence of hot springs and igneous sources of magnesium is tremolite asbestos. This has been mined all over northern Italy for centuries, including in Tuscany. Tremolite consists predominately of calcium, magnesium, silicon and oxygen.

Tremolite Asbestos

Tremolite Asbestos

Which brings me to my question:

What would happen if dry steam from a subterranean source, at relatively high-pressure was released by an exploratory borehole dug through seams containing asbestiform tremolite and borates, and then vented directly into the atmosphere?

Would you get a cigar-shaped cloud of fiberous strands that might drift at altitudes sufficient to be visible over a football match more than fifty kilometres away? Would the resulting fibres test as consisting mainly of boron, silicon, magnesium and calcium?

Yes, it’s all circumstantial, and for all I know, not only is there no tremolite in the area, but if you steam treated it, it would just sit there safe underground.

But just possibly there is a subterranean explanation for one of less easy to dismiss UFO sightings in history.

Competition update

Well done everyone who identified yesterday’s window correctly, it was of course Cwm Idwal & Darwin’s Boulders! If you recognise today’s window, leave a comment below, first to post the correct answer wins a point towards the Ultimate Geoadvent Prize….

Congratulations to Sue Greig who won the point yesterday, the scores on the doors are now both Chris Jack and Clark Fenton in the lead on two points, with Rallish, Marie, Sue and Martin Heys all on one…

3 thoughts on “Door 9: Football, geothermal energy and the 1954 wave of UFOs

  1. Pingback: Door 24: We wish you a Merry (Mary Anning) Christmas | Geological Society of London blog

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