4.9.11

STRANGE TIMES, ODD SPACES

David A. J. Seargent. Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre and Other Hard to Explain Observations. Springer, 2011.

Australian writer David Seargent may be remembered by our older readers as the author of UFOs: A Scientific Enigma (Sphere 1978), one of the few sensible books on the subject published in the wake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In this book, Sergeant, a philosopher, theologian and amateur astronomer looks at some astronomical enigmas. As one might expect the treatment is always sensible, and minus the wild claims one sometimes encounters in these topics.

He looks in turn at transient lunar phenomena and other mysteries associated with the moon, including dark objects passing across it or shadowed against it; the non-existent planet Vulcan and other anomalies associated with the sun; alleged anomalies of Mars and Venus; curious meteors and anomalous stars.

One of the more curious lunar anomalies was the sighting by a Mr Harris in 1912 of "an intensely black body about 250 miles long and 50 wide ... in the shape of a crow poised" on or above the surface. This story has been hailed as an early UFO report, but that seems rather fanciful. Past ages might, however, have regarded as a dark omen of the coming terrors.

Throughout he looks for natural explanations, and argues for a version of Ockham's Razor which proposes that the explanation involving the least complexity should be preferred; and life and intelligence being very complex,. these are among the least likely explanations. His position is rather sceptical regarding complex extraterrestrial life, as he argues that truly earth-like planets may be very rare indeed. What are usually called 'terrestrial planets' he suggests should be better called Venusian planets, Venus-like conditions being likely to be the rule rather than the exception. It is the earth which is the exception because of the conditions created by the creation and existence of the moon. -- Peter Rogerson

Lamont Wood. Out of Place in Time and Space. New Page, 2011.

This book also discusses some of the topics covered by David Seargent, including the moons of Mars, 'predicted' by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, along with the 'monolith' on Phobos and Jupier's curious companion Iapetus. The basis of the 'Sirius Mystery' - the claims that the Dogon of Mali had knowledge of the star's binary nature before the findings of modern astronomers - is also adequately explained.

The major part of the book is largely devoted to technical and intellectual achievements that with hindsight seem to be anachronistic such as the 'computer' found in a shipwreck of the coast of the Greek island of Antikytherios, the problems involved in dating the Sphinx, Nelson's apparent use of a form of mathematical analysis that was not discovered until 1916, and the anachronistic monotheism of Akhenaton.

Wood describes some of these as 'reverse anachronisms' things which at the time seemed to be of little significance - a toy helicopter in a 15th century painting of the Virgin, or Hero of Alexandria's 'steam engine' - but only now seem anachronistic because of how they didn't subsequenty develop, and only came to be of real significance hundreds of years later.

Other chapters outline a number of literary predictions - both those intended as actual predictions, and those intended as works of fiction. A particularly poignant example was W. T. Stead's 1886 magazine article describing the sinking of an Atlantic liner, which contained many parallels with the Titanic disaster in 1912, which claimed Stead's own life.

Perhaps of particular interest to Magonia readers will be the notes on alleged depictions of UFOs in painting from the 15th century and later. Wood demonstrates clearly how these all can be explained through an understanding of the iconographic conventions of the era. There are also a number of anachronisms which were completely new to me, such as the story of the remarkable Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, who wrote a computer program just a hundred years before the first programmable computer was invented. It is also possible she invented the first computer bug!

The fact that Wood is able to explain most of these out-of-place artefacts and ideas does not in any way reduce their interest as historical oddities. An intriguing look as some byways of history. -- John Rimmer

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