6.12.16

TIME ON YOUR HANDS

James Gleick. Time Travel: A History. Pantheon, 2016.

Let us start out by saying what this book is not; it is not a history of how physics imagined time travel by means of wormholes and other odd things, nor is it an exhaustive account of time travel stories in science fiction, though both topics are covered in passing. Rather it is a meditation on the nature of time and scientific, philosophical and cultural attempts to try to answer that question.

Before there can be a meaningful concept of time travel there has to be a concept of a future or past that is significantly different to the present, if such a thing exists, which is one of the issues covered here. It is only with the development of the enlightenment idea of progress that time travel into the future becomes something of interest. From the end of the 18th century novels were produced in which a future different in greater or lesser ways from the present were presented, many of which are featured in I. F. Clarke’s The Pattern of Expectation (1979). Where time travel was involved it was often in the form of the sleeper awakening, a theme that developed from fairy stories in which those taken to fairyland find that centuries have passed when they return to the mortal world.

What separated H G Wells’s The Time Machine from these is that the traveller goes into the far future on a machine and returns to the present bringing dark news, Of course the time machine is simply a narrative device used by Wells to promote his philosophical and political views.

While time travel to the future is always going on one second at a time, as we head down the one way street of life and history, ilert is possible though difficult to push yourself along that road faster without increasing your own chronological age by travelling close to the speed of light or hanging around dangerously close to a black hole. What time travel really means today however is travel into the past. Gleick sees this as a form of nostalgia, a desire to recoup times gone by. Of course the past that people are nostalgic about is always a fictional one, rose coloured and bucolic, it is never the past of slums, smog and sliding slag heaps.



For whatever motive; to meet one more time lost loved ones such as motivates the physicist Ronald Mallett who dreams of meeting his father again, the redeeming of history, or just curiosity, travel to the past involves all sorts of paradoxes, which have led to some very convoluted science fiction stories, some of which involve sex changes which allow you to become your own mother, father and child. Others involve information coming out of nowhere. Garry, a time traveller, recalls the songs of Lennon and McCartney, goes back in time to the 1940s, plays them on a pub piano. These are heard by a member of the audience who writes down the tunes. The scores end up in a junk-shop in Liverpool in 1960 where they are bought by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and becomes their main inspiration. Who wrote the songs?

In particle physics, there is no clear division of time, but in the macroscopic world time dominates, broken saucers don’t rise off the floor and reassemble, and the milk does not separate out of the tea and pour back into the jug. Disorder always wins in the end. The past seems to be the zone from which he can receive information, the future the zone to which we can transmit information.

To Gleick time travel does not always involve machines. One interesting idea he has is that the sort of time capsules that are buried from time to time are meant as a kind of nostalgia for the future, forgetting that if they are opened in the far future they may well be incomprehensible.

Philosophers have contemplated the eternal, not in the sense of endless time but in the sense of no time at all, outside of time, such that all events are together, a feat often ascribed to God, though as Gleick points out, in that case it is not clear how God could think or act, activities that take place in time.

Or perhaps everything has multiple histories, as in some interpretations of quantum mechanics, though presumably we only have access to one of these (or perhaps to a consistent information trail). Notions of time travel therefore create a common space for academic philosophical speculation and pulp fiction in which metaphysical subjects like free will can be discussed. If you have of a view of the universe as some sort of solid block in which tomorrow is as much a real place as next door, where does that leave free will? These are arguments that hark back to theological debates about predestination. Or perhaps everything has multiple histories, as in some interpretations of quantum mechanics, though presumably we only have access to one of these, or perhaps to a consistent information trail. Is the therefor some deep connection between information and entropy?

In the final chapter Gleick considers time and immortality in the virtual world, whereby some algorithm or other can continue to tweet or update Facebook in your name long after you are as dead as a door-nail. Wouldn’t that be the haunted Internet? – Peter Rogerson

3.12.16

MONSTER ROUND-UP

Malcolm Robinson. The Monsters of Loch Ness (The History and the Mystery) lulu.com, 2016.
Karl N. P. Shuker. Here’s Nessie: A Monstrous Compendium from Loch Ness. CFZ Press, 2016.
Nick Redfern. Nessie: Exploring the Supernatural Origins of the Loch Ness Monster. Llewellyn, 2016.
Denver Michaels. Water Monsters South of the Border. CreateSpace, 2016.
Ken Gerhard. A Menagerie of Mysterious Beasts: Encounters With Cryptid Creatures. Llewellyn, 2016.

It seems that after a long lull there is now a growing literature on the Loch Ness Monster and related topics.

Malcolm Robinson is someone who has had, it is fair to say, a somewhat controversial reputation in the field of anomalistics, but I must say that on the whole I found this self-published book a reasonably fair examination of the evidence and possible suspects. I think it would be accurate to position Malcolm as something as an ex-believer in Nessie, now willing to entertain the possibility that the reports are really just a lot of other, more conventional, things.

The main bulk of the book is a chronology of the sightings and press reports. While some of, particularly the earlier part, will be familiar to long term enthusiasts, newcomers to the field should find this section a useful summary. However the more up to date we come, problems creep in which demonstrated that authors often need good editors, for increasingly the chronology becomes a succession of newspaper clippings. Many of these are pointless pieces from Britain’s tabloid press which in large parts is aimed at people with a mental age of twelve. A good editor would have pruned these down. They would have also removed some of the author’s holiday snaps along with long quotes. That being said the summary of explanations at the end is well balanced.

Karl Shuker’s book is a slighter effort, being mainly a reproduction of previously published essays, not without interest as an exploration of the various suggested candidates for Nessie, all of which seem to predicated on the belief that there is something truly exotic in the Loch, an idea which becomes less plausible by every passing year. There is a useful summary of other Scottish lochs with monster stories and legends attached and an amusing hunt for the origin of the fantastic tale of the monster trap of Loch Watten, a tale told by the less than reliable Peter Haining, plagiarised essentially from the even less reliable Tony James aka John Macklin.

There is an annotated list of Nessie DVDs and a very useful and extensive bibliography of LNM books, quite a few of which I had never heard of before. There is also a 31 page collection of Nessie art, much of it fairly kitsch, which the uncharitable might suggest was put as padding. We still await Karl Shuker’s full length book on Nessie.


Nick Redfern’s book is well, eh, a Nick Redfern book, exploring in a breathless fashion all sorts of supernatural lore surrounding the Loch, featuring of course Aleister Crowley and his time at Boleskine House; the sinister reputation of which owed much to the Crowley publicity machine. The cast also includes Ormand the exorcist, “Doc” Shields, “Ted” Holiday along with tales of Dragon worshipping cults which seem to have been straight out of the pages of H. P. Lovecraft. As time goes on and the chances of being a flesh and blood monster or monsters in the Loch fade away, tales of the supernatural seem to be a way of keeping the mystery alive.

It isn’t, though, just Loch Ness which is associated with tales of monsters. Denver Michael's self-published book lists a good number of examples from Mexico, Central and South America of a variety of creature, not excluding giant seals and the odd mermaid or two.

Ken Gerhard’s book reminds us that water monsters are not the only strange beasties out there. It is a collection of accounts of all sorts of very strange creatures, real or alleged, ranging from lesser known American humanoids, through water monsters, giant birds, equally massive amphibians and reptiles, insects you definitely would not want to crawl into your tent, all the way though to mermaids and black eyed children. I thought it a pity that the Minnesota iceman was dragged up again with the argument that two such qualified naturalists such as Heuvelmans and Sanderson could be fooled by a fake. Well loads of people who had a much more intense inspection over a number of years were fooled by the Piltdown hoax, and of course Sanderson’s eyesight was not of the best.

It is hardly plausible that many of these creatures are real flesh and blood animals and appeals to the supernatural seem strained to say the least. Perhaps all of these beasties are creatures of the human imagination and ways of relating to the otherness of wild nature. – Peter Rogerson.

29.11.16

DE TENEBRIS LUCEM

Greg Taylor (Editor) Dark Lore IX. Daily Grail Publishing, 2016.

The almost-annual appearance of Dark Lore is something of an occasion, with its collection of well-informed, well-written essays on a wide range of mystical, Fortean and paranormal topics. But it's this very range of topics which makes Dark Lore a very difficult volume to review. I'll start with the declaration that Allan Moore's splendidly extravagant polemic on the practical uselessness of modern magic (an idea which you would not expect a sceptical Magonian to disagree with) largely rushes past me – if not well over the top of my head – but his enthusiastic demand that magical ritual processes be regarded as a new and encompassing form of art seems to be something with which I would agree.

Fortunately, quite a few of the essays are rather more accessible to me. When discussing scientists' unwillingness to accept the reality of UFOs as a genuine physical phenomenon, the precedent is often quoted of the scientific blindness to meteorites in the early nineteenth century. A wealth of eye-witness testimony was adamant that stones did fall from the sky but was rejected by the scientific consensus. Although this is a reasonable point to make, I have often been surprised that UFO proponents have not been able to come up with another, and perhaps more recent, example of scientific rejection of an observed phenomenon.

Greg Taylor presents just such an example. Many people for several centuries have reported hearing noises in conjunction with the visual observation of meteors. Astronomers, including the famous Edmund Halley, were quick to dismiss this testimony on the entirely reasonable grounds that as the meteors were many tens of miles distant from the observer, there could be no direct connection between what was heard and what was seen, and the phenomenon was entirtely psychological – witnesses expecting there to be some sort of 'swooshing' sounds to accompany the spectacular sights. As this 'earwitness' testimony grew scientists began to find a little wriggle-room for accepting it, which was not available for hard-core UFO reports. A suggested mechanism for the creation of these 'sounds' was the effect of Very Low Frequency electromagnetic waves produced by the meteor's descent into the Earth's atmosphere, although it is still not clear how these may have an effect on witnesses such as to produce an aural or pseudo-aural phenomena.

In an interesting sidelight on the 'skeptical' scientist, Taylor instances Colin Keay, who proposed a theory of 'electrophonic meteors'. He justified the existence of the phenomenon by referencing “some very notable people have reported them … so many people can't be wrong, you might say”. When his interviewer suggested that this was exactly the same argument used by UFO proponents, of whom Keay was a noted critic, his answer was, “Yes, but when a lot of people with observational experience report it, you can't discount it”. Those 'trained observers' eh?

Other essays include Mike Jay's investigation of the Club des Hachischins in mid-nineteenth century Paris, which uncovers a curious amalgam of occult, literary and scientific activities hidden in the activities of a sinister undercover society which may never have actually existed, but has had a significant influence on the development of psychiatry.

The impenetrable complexities of the Kennedy assassination are explored in Adam Gorightly's account of the life of Kerry Thornley, who seems to have been involved with just about every underground figure and sinister conspiracy from American culture in the sixties and seventies. Thornley reappears in Ian 'Cat' Vincent's exploration of new religions and cults and their origins in popular culture, as as originator of 'Discordianism', a religion based on Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos. Another religious movement evolving at this time was the 'Church of All Worlds', based on the religious ideas behind Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Vincent sees this as a developing process, with young people seeking gods and myths that “closely match' their truths … that bring that 'ecstatic sense of recognition" they do not find in older figures.

Other contributors to this volume are John Reppion, who examines a specific English form of magic, via the magical significance of the characters and actions in Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the fairy tradition in English folklore; Paul Deveraux, writing on the use of hallucinogens in native American shamanism, and why it is far more widespread in the New World as compared to the Old; Robert Schoch gives us a condensed history of lycanthropy, and examines links between the physical and psychic manifestations of the phenomena and Blair MacKenzie Blake traces the nature and history of grimoires.

It is unlikely that any one person will find everything in this book of equal interest, but everyone will find a great deal to enjoy, and will gain something even from the essays on topics in which they may feel they have little interest – in fact probably especially from those essays. – John Rimmer.

26.11.16

OUT THERE

John W Traphagan. Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds. Springer, 2016.

Apparently there is a strange star out there given the decidedly unromantic name of KIC8462852, the light of which unexpectedly dims every few weeks or months, which has led some people to suggest that its light is being intercepted by huge megastructures orbiting it, built by aliens. This provided the springboards for John Traphagan of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Austin, Texas to ask some deep philosophical questions about how we conceive of extraterrestrial life.

Not surprisingly he discovers that such beliefs tell us much more about ourselves than any aliens. In particular, he argues, the hopes and dreams behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are predicated on a predominantly western concept of scientific and moral progress, a theme which perhaps dates back to Christian assumptions of its superiority over paganism and greatly influenced by elements of social Darwinism. 

Traphagan sees little evidence of a continuous curve of progress and notes that skills that the Romans possessed such as the manufacture of concrete were lost for centuries. The first Australians lost the technology of boat building, the Tasmanians lost the technology of fire production that their ancestors had possessed. Today more and more skills are being lost and if we faced an electricity disrupting solar storm much of modern civilisation would collapse in weeks if not days. The terrors of the 20th century suggest little reason to believe in universal human progress and does anyone really think that Donald Trump is a significantly nobler or wiser person than, say, Alfred the Great?

We might think that had they possessed a notion of linear progress, the 'Dreamtime Mariners', who first came to Australia 60,000 years ago, would have marvelled at the unimaginable wonders that 60,000 years of sea travel would bring. A sobering thought then that with very little extra training they could have crewed a Polynesian boat to New Zealand, almost 60,000 years later, a few more weeks and they could have crewed a Viking longboat and a couple of months more and they could have sailed HMS Victory, only with the coming of the steam engine would they have been completely baffled. Might not 60,000 years or 6,000,000 years of space travel be the same.



It is also an axiom of the CETI lobby that an extraterrestrial message would somehow transform the world. Given the unlikelihood of actually translating such a message, it would be just an enigma, a nine days wonder. The things that seemed so important at the time are now forgotten, who, he asks, remembers Eugene Cernan now?

Today’s children are likely to have parents who were born after the moon landings, so these to them are just the stories of olden days told by their grandparents, along with tales of smog and steam locomotives. The great signal, Traphagan argues, would go the same way. I think it might be worse, like the moon landings, but even more so, the signal will be dismissed as a hoax. Even if it is not, it will soon be swept out of the papers by some ZX-class celebrity’s latest affair.

A far deep philosophical conundrum is the question of just what “intelligent” means in this context and Traphagan gives a fascinating comment on the problems of ranking the relative intelligence of cats and dogs or of what bats make of the world. He argues that even our most basic presuppositions such as that “they” would share our mathematics may well be false. “They” may be, indeed probably will be, more different from us both physically and mentally than we could possibly imagine.

Of course we don’t need to send a signal, already the electromagnetic ghosts of long dead analogue TV and radio programmes are fleeing onwards. If there is something at this strange star 1,400 light years away, perhaps one day, creatures such as no human eye has ever seen will scan them and return a message to the unheeding squirrels and raccoons and perhaps to a lonely thing that had once been a machine, in which it will evoke semi-memories of warm, wet upright walking things that lived, loved, laughed and lost. Eons after that things that had once been raccoons will send their message to the same strange star and something of age old memory will return the message to the things that had once been raccoons and they will see pictures of the upright walking things and wonder from what a strange and fantastical world they have received a greeting. -- Peter Rogerson



[Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon]

24.11.16

FORTEAN FICTION AND FICTIONAL FORTEANA

Andrew May. Pseudoscience and Science Fiction. Springer, 2017.

In this book Andrew May, known for his articles in Fortean Times, examines the influence that 'pseudoscience', i.e. Fortean phenomena and the paranormal, have had on science fiction and vice versa. As the book is aimed at an academic readership in a series entitled 'Science and Science Fiction' it adopts a suitably sceptical tone. 

In the first chapter May examines the influence of Charles Fort on science fiction writers such as Edmond Hamilton and Eric Frank Russell. The latter’s Fortean novel Sinister Barrier is based on Fort’s suggestion that 'we are property' and one can see its influences on many of today’s conspiracy theories. I was rather surprised to see that May thought Fort drew his sources from “small local newspapers”, where in fact most came from journals such as Nature, Popular Mechanics and similar, although most were from the early years, before science had become professionalised and systematised.

May notes that many Fortean writers also engaged in science fiction, often under assumed names, Lionel Fanthorpe for example before becoming a minster of religion wrote a vast number of science fiction potboilers under assumed names. The lines between the two are very permeable and May shows how Fort and the Shaver mystery were united by pulp writer Ray Palmer to create the background for ufology. I hadn’t realised before that the other main creator of ufology, Donald Keyhoe, had been a pulp science fiction writer. 

Science fiction often anticipated allegedly real events; for example the first UFO abduction came in a fictional story by Dennis Wheatley The Star of Ill Omen. The fictional Terror above Us by Malcolm Kent anticipated many later developments in the abduction narratives. In later chapters May examines the role of ESP and other 'wild talents', exotic spaceship propulsion theories, zero point energy and all sorts of unusual devices, several of which were patronised by authors such as John Campbell. Science fiction writers have tended to avoid the overtly occult, and are more likely to give pseudo-scientific or pseudo-technical explanations of wild talents.

Another trope which comes eventually from Fort is the ancient astronaut hypothesis, which drew in elements from theosophy via Desmond Leslie, biblical fundamentalist via the likes of M. K. Jessup and many more, along with dreams of Atlantis. One of the key texts here was Dawn of Magic, which also introduced notions of secret societies and occult influences on Nazism. These, of course feed into the modern conspiracy theories. 

While many of the themes and examples given in this book will be familiar to a Fortean readership, this is not the target audience for whom this book is aimed, and it will make a useful introduction to those not familiar with the topics involved and is illustrated with some very striking colour illustrations of book and magazine covers.

One of the ironies of what May calls pseudoscience is that it is often the last refuge of the very authoritarian presentation of science through argument from authority that Fort was protesting against (and ironically could not understand science as a ongoing enterprise in which new observations and experiments can change opinions rapidly and which there often serious disagreements). Probably economics and logistics helped to give rise to this ideology of 'Todhunterism', named after the mathematician Isaac Todhunter (1820-1884), who argued that experimental science had no place in schools as it was mere repetition, which all too often had the unfortunate outcome of not giving the “right result”. Students should therefore just believe the word of their tutor “probably a clergyman of mature knowledge, recognised ability and blameless character” (i.e. someone like Todhunter). This is of course the essence of pseudoscience. -- Peter Rogerson

21.11.16

ALL THE NEWS NOT FIT TO PRINT

Jan Bondeson. Strange Victoriana: Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from Our Victorian Ancestors. Amberley, 2016.

Neil R. A. Bell, Trevor N. Bond, Kate Clarke and M. W. Oldridge. The A-Z of Victorian Crime. Amberley, 2016.

Today we have an image of the Victorian era as a sort of puritanical, tightly-laced and very restrictive period. These two books show just how wrong that impression is.

Jan Bondeson will be well-known to readers of Fortean Time through his column relating stories from the pages of the Illustrated Police News, a sensationalist weekly paper, dubbed the 'worst paper in the world' by the sorts of people who happily make similar judgements about today's tabloids. However it was hugely popular,with its standard fare of sensational crime, celebrity scandal, bizarre events, and heart-warming stories of cute kids, brave animals and strange people. And if these could be mixed with pictures of scantily-clad (as far as the period allowed) young ladies, so much the better. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

What these books reveal, far from a repressed and dour era, is a vibrant society bursting with vigour, with all kinds of crazy ideas (and people) being given full rein to entertain and amaze. We have celebrity fasting, barbers displaying their speed-shaving skills, competitive butchery, tightrope walkers, daredevil parachutists, and various daredevil acts in a cage of lions, as well as examples of the great Victorian tradition of ghost impersonators, many seeking to emulate their hero, Springheel Jack. 

The Royal Aquarium in London hosted many of these stunts. Sometimes they even performed before crowds of gasping admirers on Sundays – although a female human cannonball was criticised for her skimpy outfit, which was not considered suitable for the Sabbath. The Illustrated Police News was, of course, careful to depict it, so that readers might form their own opinion!



The Victorian age's reputation for sobriety and respectable churchgoing was rather tarnished by the antics of the 'Skeleton Army', groups of mostly young men who went around, often dressed in fanciful costumes disrupting meeting of the Salvation Army, throwing mud and manure at the worthy Salvationists. When one injured band member took his attacker to court, he himself ended up getting fined for assaulting his attacker. The judge dismissed that case sternly: “The Salvation Army was a great nuisance. Why could they not go to their devotion quietly, without making a noise in the street”.

The Illustrated Police News also played the role of a predecessor of Fortean Times, chronicling all kinds of natural and supernatural weirdness, with accounts of conjoined twins paraded in circus sideshows, giants, dwarfs, bearded ladies and dog-faced men. There seemed to be a whole community of somnambulist ladies who would sleepwalk onto roofs or precarious parapets, to be saved from the clutches of death by a brave and vigilant passer-by. Of course, as these ladies would usually be dressed in their nightwear the paper was always anxious to illustrate them in some detail. Children being carried away by eagles was also a staple of its pages,

Ghosts were always popular material, and a good ghost story could be relied upon to case a near riot around the haunted house. To add to the general joi de vivre, if the haunted premises were a hotel or inn (they often were) large amounts of alcohol could be relied upon to enhance the atmosphere. Of course, not all these stories would stand up to later examination, and Bondeson's detailed investigation of the notorious haunted house in London's Berkeley Square is an excellent example of historical paranormal research.

Freaks of behaviour features prominently in the papers pages, with 'animal hoarders' being a particular interest, although Miss Vint and her collection of cats which she claimed were re-incarnated members of her own family, seems to have been a journalistic hoax. This is often a problem when hunting down historical Forteana, as demonstrated by many 'historical' UFO records, which on closer investigation seem to have no factual basis. It's just as well that journalistic standards have improved over the last century, and none of today's popular tabloids would sink to publishing fabricated stories of UFO crashes!

Having mentioned UFOs, I was amused to see a name very familiar to ufologists cropping up in the chapter 'Misdeeds of the Rich and Famous'. Lord Dunlo was involved in a notorious divorce case in 1890 which involved music-hall actresses, disapproving fathers, love-nests in St John's Wood, private detectives and sensational court-room revelations. Lord Dunlo was otherwise known as William Frederick Le Poer Trench, the great-grandfather of our very own Brinsley le Poer Trench, erstwhile editor of Flying Saucer Review and instigator of the famous House of Lords UFO Debate. It's worthy of note that the current Lord Clancarty remains a member of the House of Lords even after the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers, having been elected to fill a vacancy amongst the cross-bench (non-party) peers. His interests seem to be in the arts and literature rather than UFOs.

The Illustrated Police News first hit the streets in 1864, and continued with its recipe of sensationalism and salaciousness well into the twentieth century. Uniquely amongst the popular press it carried on using drawings, rather than photographs, to illustrate its stories into the 1920s. Eventually its coverage of crime and weirdness declined, and it became more dominated by sporting news, horse and dog racing and football pools. Remarkably, passing through a number of changes of title it finally expired, as the Greyhound and Sporting Record, as late as 1980.

What does this have to do with a notorious Victorian murder?

Many of the stories in Bondeson's book, and in the A-Z of Victorian Crime, are records of criminal trials, often for murder, and it is remarkable to see the ways in which public attitudes to criminals have changed - or in some cases remained remarkably similar - over a period of 150 years. The semi-glorification of criminal gangs was certainly as much a feature of the nineteenth century as the twenty-first, and in the days of public hangings, the crowds who turned up to watch contained as many sympathisers with the condemned as those who came to jeer or just to gawk. I was surprised to learn that the average length of a life-sentence in the mid nineteenth-century was just seven years, although it must be said that many who might have served longer sentences would actually have been executed.

The book by Neil Bell, et al., has little of a specifically Fortean nature but contains a great deal of odd and interesting accounts of murder and mayhem, and again shows the general public's remarkably ambivalent attitude to notorious criminals. One of the cases described is that of Franz Muller, who was charged, convicted and executed for the murder of Thomas Briggs in 1864. Briggs had taken a train from Liverpool Street Station to Hackney. He was found some time later, unconscious and covered in blood from a stab would, beside the track, and he died shortly after.

Muller was traced via a watch which he had stolen from his victim and later tried to pawn. It was felt that he was able to attack Briggs with impunity because the railway coaches consisted of a number of separate compartments, with no communication between them. This led to the introduction of communication cords on trains, allowing passengers to call the train to stop in case of emergency. The North London Railway, on whose train the murder took place, also inserted small windows between compartments so that they could be observed from the neighbouring section. These became know as 'Muller Lights'.

Both these books give a fascinating insight into the manners and mores of another era, which at times seems utterly alien to us, but on deeper investigation can be disturbingly close to our own. Christmas is coming, and if you have friends or relatives interested in history, these would make excellent gifts. – John Rimmer

18.11.16

GOING BY THE BOOK

James A. Secord. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Oxford, 2016.

On 15 September 1830 the world's first inter-city passenger railway, operated solely by steam locomotives, was opened between Manchester and Liverpool. Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, was undergoing radical transformation. Steam power was everywhere: in factories, mills and coal mines, vastly increasing productivity and lessening the need for human labour. Steamships were already voyaging routinely across the Atlantic. The pace of change was exhilarating to some yet terrifying to others, threatening their livelihoods and ways of life. Social unrest manifested in many places across the country. In Kent and parts of East Anglia mobs of agricultural workers went around destroying newly-invented threshing machines for the very reason that they would replace human labourers.

In some ways it could be said that the decade of the 1830s was the dawning of the modern age, marked by the arrival of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837. Rapid communication became possible through the invention of the electric telegraph, and soon the new railways would permit masses of people and goods to be transported across the country at much greater speed than ever before. In addition, steam-powered printing presses were now producing newspapers and books to feed a mass market of readers hungry for information and self-improvement at prices that even a labourer could afford. All of these developments arriving together created a social revolution.

In Visions of Science James Secord, a Professor at Cambridge University, takes a deep and scholarly look at the new ideas, inventions and attitudes of this dynamic period in history. There are seven main chapters, each devoted to a book written by a leading 'natural philosopher' of the day. They are, in order, Humphry Davy, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, George Combe and Thomas Carlyle. Secord's particular interest in the social side of scientific progress is the thread that runs through this highly informative and at times engagingly amusing piece of work.

For example, at the time there was some debate as to what epithet was appropriate for these pioneers of new knowledge and technology. In general, the term 'natural philosopher' was used. The distinction between philosophy and science is at the heart of the invention of the word 'scientist', which is now the term used for such specialists. At the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1833, Samuel Taylor Coleridge complained that they were unjustly usurping a higher authority to identify themselves as philosophers when their expertise was in utilitarian disciplines such as chemistry and geology. A new word was needed. The polymath William Whewell responded at the meeting with a suggestion of the word 'scientist', drawing on the word 'artist' for one who practices art. 

Clearly the word had pejorative overtones because Whewell could not resist further analogies with 'journalist', 'sciolist' 'atheist', and 'tobacconist', "roles scarcely to be emulated". The word 'sciolist', probably as unfamiliar to the reader as it was to me, means a superficial, pretentious attitude towards scholarship. As Secord goes on to explain: "Given its character as a put-down, it is unsurprising that 'scientist' did not catch on". However, in the 1840s it did catch on across the Atlantic in the United States, where "those engaged in practical work in laboratories and observatories were less troubled by philosophical aspirations. Only several decades later did 'scientist' travel back across the Atlantic to be used in Britain, and it remained controversial well into the twentieth century".

Clearly, there was a great deal of intellectual snobbery, or at least intense rivalry for status, going on in Britain during those years. Times were changing and established authority was being challenged as never before. Leading figures argued with each other, verbally in debates and textually in print. Charles Babbage's Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830) was a savage work of pique that upset a lot of people. He was very much in favour of machines taking over human labour and thought the authorities were holding back progress towards that goal by not adequately supporting scientific research and development.

The brilliant polymath Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) was an attempt to demonstrate the unity of the observable world, and indeed the universe beyond. It became a key work in transforming the 'natural philosophy' of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the 'physics' of the nineteenth century. There was already a trend to separation and specialisation of physical sciences. What was needed was an inclusive approach. Mathematics was considered to be the most promising source of unity. But electricity and magnetism did not seem to fit into the mathematical model. Here was a paradox: the book did not include a single mathematical equation. Was a unifying synthesis of all physical science even possible? The intention was good, but many thought it could never be done. What is quite remarkable in those male-dominated times is that a woman could attain a position of great respect in the field of the sciences. Somerville College, Oxford, was named after her.

As it turned out in the 1830s and ensuing decades, the scientific method was gaining supremacy over the old established orthodoxy. The God of the Bible was about to be de-throned from his perceived role as supreme arbiter of truth, just at the time when Princess Victoria was about to ascend to the throne of the greatest empire this world has ever seen, and that, of course, was the British one.




Charles Darwin did not publish his most famous and world-changing work On the Origin of the Species until 1859, but there can be no doubt he was greatly influenced by the books and ideas in the years around 1830 when he was studying for a BA at Cambridge University. Ironically, his general aim aim after graduating was to become a country parson. Books such as Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (published in 3 volumes 1830-33) and John Herschel's Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) helped to hone his critical reasoning skills with regard to evaluating hard physical evidence. Lyell's book gave absolute proof that the Earth was very much older than the approximately 6,000 years estimated from the Bible record of Genesis. Secord's chapter on Principles of Geology opens with this quotation from Charles Darwin himself: "The great merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one's mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one saw it yet partially through his eyes".

It is obviously significant that the first volume of Lyell's book was given to the 22 year-old Darwin by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, just before they set out on 27 December 1831 on a voyage of discovery that would eventually last nearly five years. For most of his time on land, during the expedition around the world, Darwin, as expected, studied the geology and natural history of the places visited. He found fossils of extinct creatures and studied variations in living animals and insects that shook his belief in fixed species, which eventually led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. One of the major keys to this discovery was the observation that geological change occurred over enormously long periods of time.

Returning to the fundamental question of whether ultimate truth was divine in origin and philosophical in nature, or material, practical and measurable, some 'natural philosophers' managed to bridge the void between both extremes. Although celebrated as a great chemist, Humphry Davy was also a poet and a dreamer. Secord provides an amusing biographical sketch of his eccentricities. He was often portrayed as an effeminate 'fop' or 'dandy', and one newspaper article ridiculed him for not noticing that on one occasion he was wearing five shirts at once. His Presidency of the Royal Society was not a success, criticised for autocratic behaviour. He certainly had his work cut out trying to control the Society's warring factions. 

But one of his greatest legacies is his final work Consolations in Travel, written virtually on his deathbed at the early age of fifty and published posthumously in 1830. It is a curious and romantic mixture of thoughts about the afterlife, eternity, universal mysteries, and the meaning of life on earth. Using the device of a dialogue between various entities, one of which is the Unknown, Davy seeks to find a harmonious answer to all of the great questions. The outcome may be described as ambiguous, and indeed there was some sneering criticism from some quarters when the book appeared, but Secord rightly gives Consolations its place as a major source of inspiration to the reading public of the early Victorian period.

Each of the seven books selected by Secord are in their way individual and radical. George Combe's Constitution of Man was revolutionary and controversial. Combe, an Edinburgh lawyer and lecturer, proposed that the human mind was dependent on the brain's physical qualities. The new science of 'phrenology' had become popular during the early part of the nineteenth century. Like other parts of the body, different parts of the brain could be seen as organs controlling specific functions and propensities. Equating the physical brain with the mind itself caused offence and alarm throughout British society.



Giving primary emphasis to the physical properties of the brain negated one's spiritual nature and even challenged the need for Christ's atonement and the doctrine of original sin. It seems absurd now, but this was heavy stuff around 1830. Constitution of Man was denounced from pulpits, removed from libraries and even occasionally burned. The book became a target for those who feared that the laws of nature revealed by science would replace the need for a caring God. No doubt it was all of this controversy that caused the book to become a massive best-seller by the standards of the day.

In the seventh and final chapter, 'The Torch of Science', Secord examines an immensely influential and unusual book by Thomas Carlyle: Sartor Resartus ('The Tailor Re-tailored'). Carlyle set out to write a parody of scientific thought towards the end of 1830. It was first published as a serial in Fraser's Magazine in 1833-34, and was finally published as a book in 1836. Ostensibly presented as a scientific analysis of clothes, it was purported to be based on a treatise by a German professor of 'things in general' at the University of Weissnichtwo (know-not-where). The professor's name was Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, which, literally translated would be 'God-born Devils-shit'.

Actually fiction but partly factual, serious but satirical, scientific yet also speculative, the book uses many devices to show the difference between appearances and inner reality. Just as clothes change with fashion or the taste of the wearer, so do beliefs. Everything changes over time. Many famous writers who came later, both British and American, acknowledged their debt to Carlyle for stimulating their thoughts and perceptions. It became a guide and a beacon to many. The ironies and contradictions of Sartor Resartus appealed to seekers of truth. In it many found a way to reconcile the quest for spiritual fulfilment with the belief in scientific progress towards a better world. One could in fact be both a 'natural philosopher' and a 'scientist' at the same time.

All of these books present a society and nation in ferment. The machine age had well and truly dawned in Britain, and Charles Babbage had invented a 'calculating machine' that prefigured computers. Science was on the march, bringing constant change and the promise of more to come, usually for the better but not always. If human history really does proceed in cycles, as seems to be the case, the 1830s provide much material for useful study as to how British society somehow 'muddled through' its challenges then, even with much argument and complaint. We cannot stop progress. The question is how we can influence and use it to fulfil our own needs and aspirations. Professor Secord's Visions of Science is masterful compendium of intellectual and philosophical thought from a critical period in our history. – Kevin Murphy

16.11.16

FIRST READ - DEEP WATERS

Tim Dinsdale. Loch Ness Monster. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.

Maurice Burton. The Elusive Monster: An Analysis of the Evidence From Loch Ness. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961.

Nessie would have been 80 this year if she had still be around as a living legend, but of all the old standard Fortean phenomena she is the one that has been most comprehensively debunked, mainly by the combined efforts of Ronald Binns, Steuart Campbell, Adrian Shine and Christopher Spurling. Things were not always thus, and here are two books that I first read back in 1963, when the LNM appeared to be alive and well.

Dinsdale’s was, I think, the first book on the LNM that I came across, probably in late spring/early summer 1963. It all looked very convincing, after all Dinsdale was an aeronautical engineer, which must mean he was someone reliable. He read about the LNM in a magazine, and decided to investigate for himself. In a week-long trip to the Loch he met witnesses and more importantly he took a film of the thing. There were other photographs also, including the famous Surgeon’s Photograph, which Dinsdale examined and proved was genuine (he was an engineer after all) and a close-up of the beastie taken by a Mr O’Connor, who Dinsdale thought was terribly sincere. There was the eyewitness testimony, of course this tended to disagree in places, but that was alright because there were several monsters of various sizes, and if not exactly shape shifters, could change the number of humps on their backs by some process.

Dinsdale followed the path taken by Rupert T Gould and Constance Whyte, whose books I was to encounter in later years, he gave eyewitness testimony, he mentioned traditions, and he gave brief accounts of sea serpents and monsters in other lakes. It seemed all so real, and so I was hooked. I probably agreed with Dinsdale that the LNMs were plesiosaurs, and dreamed of going on holiday to Loch Ness to see the beasties for myself.

Looking back on this book after 50 years, the cracks are more obvious, Dinsdale greatly overestimated his ability to read photographs and to read people, greatly underestimating the role of misperception in all of these fields.

TIM DINSDALE

The idea that the LNM was some sort of prehistoric monster became the default position among the Nessieologists, and anyone who disagreed was a debunker. One such was Maurice Burton, formerly on the staff of the Natural History Museum, and an author who had several times skirted the edges of what was to become known as cryptozoology. Burton had earlier been a supporter of the idea that LNM was a plesiosaur, so his defection from that position, to that argued in this book, that most sightings of Nessie were due to mats of rotting vegetation forced to the surface by gases didn’t go down to well. He became to Nessie believers what Donald Menzel came to be to ufologists, the bĂȘte noire that they loved to hate. Obviously his change of view had to have some sinister motivation, either he had lost his nerve, or was part of the establishment, or they had got at him. I don’t think that I was terribly impressed with Burton’s conclusions at the time, and in retrospect he, like Menzel, was too quick to jump to a catch all explanation, rather than accepting that Nessie reports were generated by lots of different things.

He did concede this to a point, he regarded Dinsdale’s film as being that of a boat, argued the O’Connor photograph was a fake, and put down some sightings to deer. His main argument was that the descriptions of Nessie in many cases were just not compatible with those of a living creature, and he based this on a detailed study of the more reliable descriptions available at the time.

The great sceptic was in fact not all that sceptical, he accepted the Surgeon’s photograph (now known to be a fake) at face value, and also accepted the various tales of the beast being seen on land. From these stories and some others he speculated that some Nessie stories were generated by giant long necked otters. Evidence for these has not been forthcoming.

As time went on, the evidence began to fade, first one photograph then another was discredited, it became clear that the LNM story had started as a publicity stunt, and then sheer weight of time dragged the beastie down. 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, 70 years, 80 years without any definitive evidence, not a single carcass, and this from a finite location. Ultimately a psycho-social type of explanation for the sightings became much more likely.

Behind all of these stories, was the idea of something prehistoric, archaic and deeply “other” emerging from deep, dark depths. It is, I suspect, not entirely a coincidence that this myth was born in the year that Adolf Hitler came to power. -- Peter Rogerson



See also: http://pelicanist.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/in-search-of-monster-hunters.html

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