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Sunday, 22 May 2016

I already said that AGES ago

There’s nothing more frustrating than saying something clever, being completely ignored, and then years later someone else says exactly the same thing. That’s always happening to me. A case in point was the above article on the BBC website last week. It’s about how E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” from 1909 seems to foreshadow the world of social media, with its depiction of a dystopian future where people interact with each other via technology rather than face-to-face. But I made exactly the same point as long ago as 24 January 2011, in what was only the third post on this blog.

The post was called Wikipedia Prophecy, and in the last five years and four months it has amassed a grand total of 48 page views. In it, I said that Forster’s story “can be read today as an amusing satire on the World Wide Web, and on social networking sites such as Facebook in particular” – which is essentially what the BBC article says. However, as the title of my post indicates, I made another connection they missed – with Wikipedia’s strict (and to my mind frighteningly fascist) policy of “No Original Research”, which is also a central tenet of the future world envisaged by Forster.

A later post I wrote on a similar subject was The End of Books, about Octave Uzanne’s short story of that title from 1895. That post has fared better, with a total of 647 page views (above average for this blog). However, I can’t resist repeating this illustration by Albert Robida, which shows a group of earphone-wearing commuters on a metro train. When you realize that Queen Victoria was still on the throne when the picture was drawn, it really is astonishingly prophetic.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Test your ESP

Here’s a nostalgic curiosity I found in a second-hand shop a couple of weeks ago. It’s called Know Your Own Psi-Q, and it’s the only retro-fortean book I’ve come across that contains computer code. The book dates from 1983 (or 1986 in the case of this paperback version), so the programs were written with things like the Apple II and BBC Micro in mind. However, I managed to convert one of them to JavaScript and will try embedding it at the bottom of this post.

The computer programs only take up one chapter of the book – the rest consists of what you might call “manual” tests. In effect they’re all guessing games. Typically you’re asked to do a repetitive task, like guessing the colour of playing cards before they’re turned over, and record the number of “hits” or correct guesses. Then you have to look at the tables in the back of the book (or use a formula for more complicated examples) in order to calculate your “z” score and hence the probability of obtaining that result from pure chance. According to the authors, you have “some Psi” if this probability is 1 in 20, “good Psi” if it is 1 in 100, and “excellent Psi” if it is 1 in 1000.

There are several problems with this. Firstly, it assumes there is a black-and-white choice between pure chance and ESP, with no other possible explanations. Secondly, if you do a lot of short test runs one after the other (20 of them, say), then the likelihood that one of them will yield a 1-in-20 result is pretty high, by definition (thanks to Peter Harriman for reminding me of this last week, in a completely different context). Finally, if you have to resort to hunting for small deviations from chance, then “extra-sensory perception” is far inferior to regular “sensory perception” (which comes close to 100% reliability and repeatability).

If you want an intelligent discussion of such issues, you won’t find them in Know Your Own Psi-Q – even though the authors, Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent, were both professional psychologists who ought to have been aware of them. Your money is much better spent on Brian Clegg’s Extra-Sensory, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Now for my attempt at reproducing one of their computer programs. I’ve simplified it a bit, making it a straight choice between heads or tails. Imagine that the computer has just flipped a coin – and click on “heads” or “tails” according to which of them you think it is. As soon as you do this, the computer will tell you whether you were right or wrong, and immediately flip another coin. So then you can guess again. Keep doing this as many times as you like – the computer will accumulate your z-statistics, but only start displaying them after you’ve had at least 36 guesses.

Don’t click the “Restart” button unless you want to clear the statistics and start again from scratch (which you might want to do – as mentioned earlier, a large number of short runs is more likely to produce a high z-score than a single long run). What you’re aiming for is a z-score of 1.96 or higher, corresponding to “some Psi ability” according to Eysenck and Sargent.

DISCLAIMER: This is a cut-down version of Eysenck and Sargent’s Program 2 (“Clairvoyance Test”), with an updated user interface. The main reason for putting it here is to illustrate the tedious and soul-destroying nature of such tests. Please don’t expect it to demonstrate anything other than the random nature of JavaScript’s math.random() function. If it doesn’t work on whatever device you’re viewing this on, you aren’t missing anything.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

A Low Budget Flying Saucer

 Here are some pictures of an odd little vehicle I saw at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare last week. It struck me as looking like the kind of cartoony flying saucer the Jetsons or Marvin the Martian might be see in. My previous visit to the museum was 12 or 13 years ago, and while most of the displays were just the same as last time, I don’t remember seeing this one. Either it was in storage, or else I blinked and missed it. That’s possible, since it’s half-hidden behind a screen in the far corner (possibly out of embarrassment – it’s like the airborne equivalent of a Sinclair C5).

According to the display placard, the Westland WG33 was a proposed short-range, two-seat helicopter that could be flown by inexperienced personnel and would cost less than £30,000 per unit. It was considered for use as an aerial observation platform by both the British and U.S. army in the late 1970s, but never got to the stage of a flying prototype. This full-scale mock-up was donated to the museum when the project was declassified in 1980.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Paranoid Conspiracy Death Cult

I found another really good retro-style adventure game on Steam last week (I got it at an 80% discount, but I see it’s back up to full price now). It’s called Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting, which is a rather weird title – but then it’s a rather weird game, from the minimalist gameplay and graphics (see screenshots above) to the disturbingly psychotic storyline. Personally I liked both these aspects, but not everyone will agree about the style, so I’ll start with the story (and I’ll keep it as spoiler-free as possible).

To start with a general comment – there’s something very odd about conspiracy theorists. The theories themselves are pretty odd, of course – especially the ones that involve shape-shifting aliens infiltrating world governments with a view to eradicating homo sapiens and taking over the planet. But it’s even odder that, having discovered this terrifying truth, all the conspiracy theorists do is talk about it on the internet. When France was occupied by the Nazis in the 1940s, the underground resistance fighters went in for things like sabotage and assassination. Why don’t conspiracy theorists do the same, to save Earth from the threat the rest of us are too stupid to see?

In a nutshell, that’s the idea behind this game. It’s played from a first-person perspective, with the player exploring a now-deserted underground complex that until recently was occupied by a small cult with a very strange belief system. In this case, the supposed threat isn’t from shape-shifting aliens, but from an ancient race of “demons” that can take people over at random. But the effect is pretty much the same. The cult members believe they can detect demon-possessed individuals (although a cynic might think they just pick members of the public at random), who they bring back to the complex to be dealt with. I won’t say exactly what this entails, partly because it would be a plot-spoiler, but mainly because it’s too horrible to think about. If you play the game, you’ll find out – if not, then count yourself lucky!

One of the outstanding things about Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting is its characterization, which is excellent and chillingly believable. That may seem an odd thing to say, because you never actually come face to face with any of the cult members. However, you get a very good picture of them from their writings and audio recordings. There are six of them in all, four of which you get to know really well. Essentially they’re all social outcasts with deep-seated grudges against humankind in general – so it’s rather ironic that they consider themselves to be humanity’s saviours. Also ironic is the fact that they all hate each other, to the point of working to subtly different agendas. And they’re all head cases. One of them is a psychopathic sadist, another is a paranoid schizophrenic, another suffers from a chronic inferiority complex.

Worst of all is the cult’s charismatic leader, who is the ex-CEO of a large pharmaceutical corporation and the only one who knows what’s real and what isn’t. I won’t say too much on that subject – except that one of the two chemicals the demon-hunters use to “immunize” themselves turns out to be a harmless placebo, while the other is a fear-enhancing hallucinogen… and the whole narrative about ancient demons (and how to neutralize them) is taken from the rambling notebooks of a mad psychiatrist in the 1950s.

The first-person point-and-click gameplay is reminiscent of Jonathan Boakes’s Dark Fall games, which I’ve enthused about on at least two previous occasions (here and here). But Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting was released in 2012, ten years after the first Dark Fall game, and if anything its user interface is even more minimalist. That gives it a strongly nostalgic feel (and when you get to my age, that’s never a bad thing). Like the Dark Fall series, this game is pretty much the work of a single creator – in this case Daniel Lee Peach. Like Jonathan Boakes he’s British, but unlike Jonathan’s games this one is set in America (I spotted a few British spellings and the occasional little-endian date, but apart from that I thought the American setting was pretty convincing).

Point-and-click adventures always tend to emphasize the cerebral rather than the visual, and Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting is an extreme example of this (if you’re wondering why I picked those four screenshots at the top of the post, it’s because they were the most exciting ones I could find). Personally I wasn’t too bothered by the minimalist graphics, but I did find the gameplay a bit too obscure in places. I ended up having to consult a walkthrough at least half a dozen times, in most cases because there was some non-intuitive action I had to perform on one of the in-game computers. Having said that, if there’s ever a sequel, I’ll snap it up as soon as it comes out (and happily pay full price this time).

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Popular Science with a difference

Yet again I’ve been working so hard on my book about Pseudoscience and Science Fiction that I haven’t left enough time (or energy) to do a proper blog post this week. So I thought I’d just give a quick plug to three books by Brian Clegg that I’ve found very useful as reference sources:
Despite their subject matter, all three of these books are about real, reputable science – even if they take pseudoscience and/or science fiction as a starting point for the discussion. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to understand the facts behind the speculations!

(Another of Brian’s books in a similar vein, Ten Billion Tomorrows, was mentioned in an earlier blog post)

Sunday, 17 April 2016

A little box of Bigfoot relics

Pictured above is a rather unusual Bigfoot-related item I happened to spot on an episode of Baggage Battles on the Travel Channel last weekend. It appears to be some kind of sideshow gimmick or stage prop (it’s too deliberately phony to call it a “hoax”). There are a couple more pictures below, but first I’ll explain the context.

I hardly ever watch TV these days, and when I do it’s often low-budget “factual” programmes on high-numbered channels that most people never bother with. Baggage Battles is a case in point. It features a group of people who attend auctions around America (and sometimes elsewhere) buying up the oddest items they can find, and then getting them independently valued. There used to be a similar show on British TV, and it was rubbish. The antique dealers were real antique dealers, the auctions were real auctions, and the end-customers were real end-customers. Boring, boring, boring. If I wanted real-life, I wouldn’t switch on the TV, would I? Baggage Battles is fake from beginning to end, but it’s really good escapist entertainment – which is exactly what TV should be.

This particular episode (season 5 episode 5, called “Burial Expenses”) was set in Providence, Rhode Island – and was even more “fake” than usual. All the auction lots were horror-related novelties, from sideshow items to movie props. The weirdest item was a small framed object that appeared to be a tattooed human nipple. You can see it on YouTube if you want to (and I bet you do): just click here.

At the start of that clip, you can just see one of the buyers, Valérie-Jeanne Mathieu, winning a lot at $275 (actually that figure is meaningless, since the under-bidder was fellow cast member Billy Leroy trying to give her a hard time, rather than a genuine bidder). Although you can’t see it in the video clip, that particular item is the “Bigfoot kit”. At the end of the show Valérie gets it appraised by a local Bigfoot expert, Dina Palazini, who puts its value around $400 – although she doesn’t explain what it is (other than confirming the obvious fact that it’s not real).

The label inside the lid has a still from the Patterson-Gimlin film, together with an inscription saying “Cryptozoologist Roger M. Allen, Chief Investigator, has found long sought after evidence that a so-called Bigfoot (Gigantopithecus) does in fact exist. New DNA, a small finger digit and hair samples conclude positive results.” There is also a date, 1999. Inside the box there are two small glass jars, one labelled “hair sample – human/animal hybrid” and the other, containing what appears to be a finger, labelled “unknown being – possible human hybrid”.

I deciphered those inscriptions from a set of HD screenshots that Paul Jackson was kind enough to send me. One of them was shown above, and here are two more. First, a clearer view inside the box:
… and a close-up of the “finger”, when Billy was inspecting it earlier in the show:

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Who was Kirk Allen?

One of the chapters in Nick Redfern’s Science Fiction Secrets is called “The Strange World of Kirk Allen”. I’m fairly sure I’d read about this case somewhere before, though I can’t remember where. It was originally written up in 1954, under the title “The Jet-Propelled Couch”, by a psychologist named Robert Lindner. It concerns a client who was sent to him for treatment several years earlier – a young man whose identity is hidden behind the pseudonym “Kirk Allen”.

Taken at face value, it’s a fascinating – and rather scary – case. At the time Lindner met him, Kirk Allen was working as a physicist on an ultra-secret government project – from the timing it might even have been the Manhattan Project. But Allen wasn’t the sort of person you’d want to see anywhere near an atom bomb. At the age of 14 he came across a series of science fiction books, whose larger-than-life hero had the same name as him (whatever his real name was). Allen became obsessed with the books, convincing himself they were accounts of real adventures he was going to have in the future. But it was only after he started working at the government lab that things got seriously weird. He discovered he could teleport to this alternate existence where he was “lord of a planet in an interplanetary empire”.

Fortunately Lindner managed to cure Allen of his delusion, by pretending to go along with it and making him see how ridiculous it was. No-one has ever worked out for certain who Kirk Allen was, but according to one theory he was a man named Paul Linebarger – who went on to write science fiction himself under the pen-name of Cordwainer Smith.

The full version of “The Jet-Propelled Couch” can be read online – Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Both parts are 13 pages long, but there’s a lot of psychological padding. If you’re in a hurry, the important bits can be found on pages 1, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 13 of Part 1 and pages 1, 8, 10, 11 and 12 of Part 2. Forteans will be particularly interested in page 12 of Part 1, where Allen wonders whether he has “what Charles Fort called a wild talent”!

Reading through Lindner’s account, there are a couple of fairly obvious problems with it (this is why I used the phrase “at face value”). Firstly, he was based in Baltimore – so why on Earth would he have a client who worked at Los Alamos, 1500 miles away? Secondly, he says that Allen was born in 1918, which would mean it was 1932 when he encountered the series of science fiction books featuring the hero who shared his name. But there were almost no SF books in 1932. The only possibility I can think of is the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, featuring the hero John Carter (a common enough name – or even commoner if just one of those names was shared). But the Barsoom novels are all set on Mars, whereas Kirk Allen’s adventures take him on “an expedition to a planet in another galaxy” and into contact with “the Intergalactic Institute”. Stories with that sort of scope did turn up later in the 1930s, but only in the form of magazine serials.

[As an aside, I can’t resist pointing out that if Kirk Allen was his real name, not a pseudonym, then the larger-than-life hero he identified with might have been Captain Kirk of Star Trek. But since Star Trek didn’t appear until more than a decade after “The Jet-Propelled Couch”, that would require time travel as well as space travel.]

Another article I found very interesting (and which clarifies some of the issues I just mentioned) is “Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch” by Alan Elms – another psychologist who happens to be a strong advocate of the “Cordwainer Smith” theory. The most important thing I learned from his article is that when psychologists write up case studies for publication, they don’t just hide their client behind a pseudonym. They change every little detail that might be taken as pointing at the client’s true identity. So in the case of Kirk Allen, there is no way he could have been a physicist who worked at the Manhattan Project, because the hints pointing in that direction are too strong. Similarly, it’s extremely unlikely that he shared one or both his names with a science fiction hero – which again is too clearly hinted at to be true. On her website, Cordwainer Smith’s daughter mentions another investigator who “examined another one of Lindner’s stories, figured out who the person actually was, and found out that Lindner fictionalized the stories far more than you might think”.

So I don’t think Kirk Allen’s fantasy world was based on any specific book or series. It seems more likely that, having immersed himself in SF from an early age, he created his own intergalactic scenario out of his own imagination. And reading “The Jet-Propelled Couch” it really was one heck of a scenario and one heck of an imagination. That makes it even more believable that after he’d rid himself of his delusion, “Kirk Allen” went on to become a successful science fiction writer.

Elms makes a pretty good case for Kirk Allen being Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith. Linebarger wasn’t a Manhattan Project physicist – but he served as an intelligence officer during the war, which is almost as sensitive. Conspiracy theorists will be gratified to see where Elms says one of his informants “implied that I was reaching for secret government stuff and had better back off”.

I read half a dozen Cordwainer Smith stories back in the 1970s, when I used to read a lot of SF anthologies. They’re highly imaginative, galactic in scale … and distinctly weird. Take the picture below, for example. It’s the cover of an anthology I read when I was still at school: Spectrum 4, edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. You might assume the image is an exercise in Daliesque surrealism… but actually it’s an objective depiction of a “A Planet Named Shayol” by Cordwainer Smith.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

My Kirlian Aura

On a recent trawl through my Weird Science files (which are extensive) I found this Kirlian photograph of my hand that was taken about 16 years ago. According to my copy of The Aquarian Guide to the New Age (which is even older), this is supposed to show my mystical energy aura. Alternatively, the ever-skeptical Wikipedia says “the coronal discharges identified as Kirlian auras are the result of stochastic electric ionization processes”.

Whichever it is, my Kirlian aura and/or stochastic coronal discharge looks disappointingly unimpressive, so I couldn’t resist trying to improve on nature. The version below has the image inverted and false colour added – and it looks a lot livelier!

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Anything can happen in the next 30 seconds

I just received my contributor’s copies of 30-second Physics and 30-second Newton – pictured above with 30-second Quantum Theory from 2014. All three books are edited by Brian Clegg and include contributions from some really top class science writers (as well as me). As I said when the quantum book came out, I really like the format of these books. The covers may look dull, but the interiors are packed with information and visually stunning images.

There’s a whole series of 30-second books, including subjects like Opera, Shakespeare, Religion, Mythology and Architecture as well as the sciency ones. They’re based on the “elevator pitch” theory that anything that’s worth knowing can be summarized in 30 seconds. That doesn’t mean the books can be read in 30 seconds, but they’re organized in double-page spreads and the idea is that each DPS can be absorbed in 30 seconds (although when I tried it with a stopwatch, it came out closer to 90 seconds).

The publisher’s website includes a few example spreads from each book. To give you a flavour, I’ve put a copy of one of these (my entry on “Comets” from 30-second Newton) at the bottom of this post. Note however that it’s a deliberately degraded low resolution image – to read it properly you really need to buy the book!

Speaking of which, here are a couple of Amazon links for you:

Sunday, 20 March 2016

More Research

I usually aim to do a blog post every weekend, but earlier this year I said I might skip an occasional week if I ran short of ideas. Today is a case in point – but just so you know I’m still here, here’s a photo of some more research material for the book I’m writing. All these items were bought since my previous post on the subject three weeks ago!

As you can see, I managed to get hold of one of the two missing issues from the near-complete run of Skull the Slayer I acquired this time last year. I spotted the missing issue on a shopping trip to London last week, which also yielded four of the books shown in the photo. The other two books were bought online, while the DVDs came from my local HMV store.

In broad terms, the book is about the crossover of ideas between science fiction and Fortean-style speculation. I picked that subject partly because I already know a bit about it, but mainly because it’s the perfect excuse to indulge in lots of lowbrow “research material” of the kind pictured above!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Return of the Lone Gunmen

The new X-Files episodes are being shown in the UK (on Channel 5) a few weeks after their US airing. Last week’s episode, called “Babylon”, was notable among other things for a brief cameo by the three Lone Gunmen characters from the original series. Sadly, it really was only a fleeting glimpse – I almost missed it on Monday and had to watch it again on catch-up the next day (I also had to see Agent Einstein again, but that’s another story). The official publicity shot, pictured above, shows the characters more clearly – from left to right: Byers, Frohike, Langly (by coincidence all three of them are wearing bolo ties, which I mentioned in Green-skinned nostalgia two weeks ago).

I have very fond recollections of the Lone Gunmen. Partly this is nostalgia for a time when only a small number of highly eccentric individuals, such as these three, believed in conspiracy theories (as opposed to half the internet today). Also they are among the very few TV stars that I can really identify with (I like to think I combine Byers’s scintillating personality, Frohike’s stunning good looks and Langly’s impeccable fashion sense).

Actually I really do have a rather tenuous connection with Byers – or rather with Bruce Harwood, the actor who played Byers. If you look back at the December 2002 issue of Fortean Times, then on page 52 (the letters page) you will see the names “Bruce Harwood” and “Andrew May” in close proximity to each other. How this came about is a rather long story, but it’s an interesting one – so here it is.

Back in 2001, the Lone Gunmen briefly had their own TV series as a spinoff from The X-Files (see the publicity image at the bottom of this post). I saw most of the episodes when they were shown in the UK the following year on the Sci-Fi Channel – with the exception of the pilot show, which was missing from the UK run. I found a full transcript of that episode online, and it reads like a fictionalized version of a fairly standard 9/11 conspiracy theory… except that it had aired in the US six months before 9/11. This bizarre coincidence wasn’t mentioned when Fortean Times ran their first article on 9/11 conspiracy theories in September 2002, so I sent them the following letter:
The pilot episode of the Fox TV series The Lone Gunmen, which first aired in March 2001, involved a conspiracy theory as persuasive as anything which emerged post-9/11. In that episode, the Lone Gunmen (three characters who will be familiar to viewers of The X-Files) uncovered a plot by a group of Pentagon officials who were unhappy with the decline in defence spending following the end of the Cold War. The plotters seized control of a domestic airliner en route from Washington DC to Boston (not by hijacking it, but by hacking into its flight control computer), and set it on a collision course for New York’s World Trade Center. Their reasoning was that in the wake of such a high-profile atrocity, extremists around the world would be quick to claim responsibility, an outraged government would declare an all-out war on terrorism, and defence budgets would soar. In the TV version, the Lone Gunmen foiled the plotters, saving the plane and the Twin Towers. Tragically, in the real world six months later there was no such happy ending. Whether or not the US military/industrial complex really was behind the attacks, there’s no denying that it’s profited from them. The pilot episode was omitted from the Sci-Fi channel’s UK run of The Lone Gunmen, but a full transcript can be found at
As it turned out, Bruce Harwood sent them a letter saying pretty much the same thing. Needless to say, the intimate perspective he was able to offer meant they printed his letter in preference to mine. He concluded by saying “I think it’s safe to say that our pilot … will never be seen on network television anywhere. Ever.” – after which they printed the last sentence of my letter.

I was more than happy with this result. It was only the second time I’d had something of mine printed in Fortean Times – and it linked me with one of my favourite characters from the X-Files!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

What Makes a Great Physicist?

The latest issue of Fortean Times (FT338, March 2016) includes my review of the book pictured above (the one in the middle – the other two are shameless self-promotion): Ten Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of Reality by Rhodri Evans and Brian Clegg. As I say in the review, it’s an excellent choice of title. Far too many people dismiss physics as boring and irrelevant, without stopping to think how much it’s changed the Western World’s collective view of reality. If you think of a “planet” as a world like the Earth, rather than a tiny dot of light in the sky, then you’re subscribing to a worldview that simply didn’t exist before Galileo and Newton came onto the scene. The everyday technology most people take for granted – wifi, capacitive touch screens, GPS, fibre broadband, lithium-ion batteries – could never have been developed without the groundwork laid by physicists like Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein.

One thing I nobly refrained from doing in my review was to criticize Rhodri and Brian’s choice of “top ten”. I honestly don’t think that’s a particularly worthwhile thing to do. On the other hand, once a challenge like that has been laid down it’s difficult to resist – so I’m going to rise to it anyway (this is my blog, after all).

As it happens, the ten physicists in the book weren’t chosen by the authors – they’re taken from a top ten list published in the Observer newspaper in 2013. If the aim is simply to produce a list, rather than to write a book, then maybe you can just go for the people you think did more than anyone else to “transform our understanding of reality”. Even by that criterion, though, I’m not sure I agree with everyone on the list (and neither does Nobel-prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg, in his foreword to the book). When you’re writing a book, however, there are potentially other criteria to consider besides how important a person’s contribution was.

Another thing I said in the review was that “any book of this type is going to involve a mix of biography and popular science” … and if anything, this book is biased toward the former rather than the latter. If you’re writing biographies, you really want subjects who are “interesting” as well as “important”. The two physicists in my Pocket Giants books – Newton and Einstein – certainly fall in both categories. I can’t imagine they would be missing from anyone’s top ten – and the same is true of Galileo, Faraday and Marie Curie.

The only name that is unambiguously up there with those five in terms of importance is James Clerk Maxwell. As I pointed out not long ago, Maxwell is strangely unknown to the public at large, even though the modern high-tech world arguably owes more to him than any of the other five. The fact is, though, Maxwell simply wasn’t very interesting. He didn’t argue with the Pope (like Galileo), didn’t dabble in alchemy (like Newton), wasn’t the son of a blacksmith (like Faraday), didn’t have a sex life that made tabloid headlines (like Marie Curie) and wasn’t an outspoken political campaigner (like Einstein).

Boring or not, no top ten list can seriously omit Maxwell. On the other hand, I would replace another notoriously boring physicist – Paul Dirac – with his much more exciting contemporary Erwin Schrödinger (who I wrote about for 30-second Quantum Theory). Not only was Schrödinger a nicer and more interesting person than Dirac, but I can just about understand his version of quantum theory (which is more than can be said for Dirac).

Replacing Dirac with Schrödinger addresses another mildly embarrassing thing about Rhodri and Brian’s list – six of their ten are from English-speaking countries. Partly for that reason (and also because he wasn’t so much a great physicist as “in the right place at the right time”) I would ditch Lord Rutherford. It’s not obvious who to replace him with, but Steven Weinberg’s suggestion of Ludwig Boltzmann is as good as any. That would address another deficiency of the list, namely that it focuses exclusively on reductionist physics rather than the equally important physics of macro-systems.

Finally, I would reinstate the person who is most conspicuously absent from the list – Stephen Hawking. He is far and away the best known physicist of modern times, even if not the most significant (the authors say “there are a whole host of other physicists who didn’t make the cut who would be placed above Hawking by anyone who knows the field”). But as I said, my criteria include “interesting” as well as “important” … so Stephen Hawking pushes Richard Feynman out of the chronological tenth spot.

To summarise (if anyone cares) my list is: Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Boltzmann, Marie Curie, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Hawking.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Green-skinned nostalgia

Here are three Hulk-related oddities I accumulated over a period of 15 years or so. If the period in question was 2001-2016 that would be little more than the blink of an eye – but actually I’m referring to circa 1970 to 1985, which was a very long time indeed. As most readers of this blog will be aware, time used to pass a lot slower in the 20th century than it does nowadays.

The earliest of the three items is the paperback book, published by New English Library in 1967. It contains black & white reprints from the original (1962) Hulk comic and from Tales to Astonish. According to the copyright page, it was previously issued in the USA by Lancer Books. I think I acquired my copy in 1970, possibly in a “swap” with a schoolfriend. At one time I also had a similar Spider-Man paperback, but I couldn’t find it when I looked for it last week.

The medallion is inscribed “The Incredible Hulk – World’s Strongest Mortal” with a copyright date of 1974. I probably bought it that year – via mail order from The Mighty World of Marvel or another British Marvel comic. It came in the form of a bolo tie – a type of neckwear that was briefly popular around that time (Isaac Asimov was wearing one when I saw him in Birmingham in June 1974). You can see it in the photo at the bottom of this post, which also shows the “tails” side of the medallion. This depicts Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk, together with the quote "Within each of us, ofttimes, there dwells a mighty raging fury”.

The third item in the top picture is a Hulk video game for the Commodore 64. This is dated 1984, but I didn’t get my C64 until the following year, which must have been when I bought the game. By that time I was working in Oxford as a postdoctoral research assistant, running computer simulations on a “grown-up” computer (a VAX 11/780 – which invokes a completely different type of nostalgia). According to the user guide, the game features Doctor Strange and Ant-Man (Henry Pym) as well as the Hulk. The background info mentions that “Among Pym’s more dubious accomplishments was the creation of the mad robot Ultron” … which is perfectly true, of course (despite any nonsense the youth of today might believe about Ultron being created by Tony Stark).

Sunday, 21 February 2016

I Call It Research

As mentioned in last week’s post, I’ve just embarked on a new writing project. It’s a book about the cross-fertilization of ideas between Fortean-style speculation and popular culture (which is why I was reading up about the X-Files last week). Obviously that’s a subject I’ve often written about on this blog, and there’s already a lot of potential material (books, magazines, comics, DVDs) lying around the house. But being ultra-meticulous about research, I also tracked down various other relevant fiction and nonfiction books on eBay. A selection of these are pictured above, together with some nostalgic DVDs I bought from my local HMV store (all in the interests of research, of course).

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Some old X-Files

I don’t usually hoard old magazines (except Fortean Times), but I kept these three issues of Cinefantastique because between them they contain complete episode guides to the first four seasons of The X-Files. I was prompted to dig them out last week – not because of the “reboot” currently showing on Channel 5, or from any general sense of nostalgia, but because I needed to do some research for a new book I’m working on. In looking through them, I was struck by how highbrow some of the X-Files episode titles were. Here are a few of the more Fortean examples – two from each of those first four seasons (just focusing on the titles, not the storylines).

The Jersey Devil (Season 1, Episode 5). One of America’s lesser known cryptids, this one dates back to those pre-Darwin days when mysterious creatures weren’t required to conform to the logic of evolutionary genetics. According to Wikipedia it’s “a kangaroo-like creature with the head of a goat, leathery bat-like wings, horns, small arms with clawed hands, cloven hooves and a forked tail”. Wings AND arms AND hooves… they don’t make them like that any more.

Ghost in the Machine (Season 1, Episode 7). This cool-sounding phrase was coined by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in 1949, as a disparaging description of the dualistic theory of human nature (i.e. a spiritual soul inhabiting a material body).

Little Green Men (Season 2, Episode 1). A facetious term for extraterrestrials, which was already well established when Mack Reynolds wrote The Case of the Little Green Men in 1951 – a Fortean-themed detective novel I wrote about in a blog post last year.

Fearful Symmetry (Season 2, Episode 18). This phrase comes from William Blake’s famous poem “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright”. The poem isn’t very Fortean, but its author was – as I explained in A 19th Century Contactee. One of the strangest spiritual creatures Blake claimed to have encountered was “The Ghost of a Flea” – his painting of which I happened to see in the Tate Gallery last year (see photo at the bottom of this post).

Paper Clip (Season 3, Episode 2). This is a reference to Operation Paperclip, a real world “conspiracy” that brought hundreds of German scientists – many of them war criminals – to the United States in the aftermath of WW2, giving them clean new records and salaried positions working for the U.S. government. It may be no coincidence that “Nasa” sounds a bit like “Nazi”.

Talitha Cumi (Season 3, Episode 24). This is one of several X-Files titles derived from a foreign language. In this case it’s Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. It’s a quote from the New Testament, which of course is full of Jesus quotes, but most of them only appear in translation. This example (from Mark 5:41) is one of only about a dozen that are given in the original Aramaic first (I’d be interested to know why they were singled out in this way). From the King James version: “And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.”

Tunguska (Season 4, Episode 8). This, of course, was the site of a mysterious explosion that flattened two thousand square kilometres of Siberian forest in 1908. It was probably caused by a meteor impact, although several odd things about it have led to various alternative explanations (e.g. an exploding UFO). As mentioned in my post about Ian Watson last year, his novel Chekhov’s Journey offers a particularly weird interpretation of the Tunguska event.

Terma (Season 4, Episode 9). This has to be one of the most obscure X-Files titles of all. It’s a technical term from Tantric Buddhism, referring to secret teachings carefully handed down among the inner circle of adepts. Such as, for example, that Tantric classic “Sex Secrets of the Ancient Masters” (which I really must get round to writing one of these days).

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Planet of Vampires

Here are two more nostalgic comics from 1975. Unlike Arrgh! #3 and Marvel Preview #1 which I wrote about recently, these aren’t something I deliberately sought out on eBay – I found them (for just a pound each) at a collectors’ fair in Shepton Mallet last Sunday. And unlike those two comics (which, on a scale of 1 to 10, rated 1 and 3 respectively) Planet of Vampires #1 and 2 turned out to be really excellent – 8 out of 10 at least.

As you can see from the masthead, they were the product of the short-lived Atlas/Seaboard company I mentioned in The Department of Fortean Events last year. This was set up as a direct competitor to Marvel (see the whole fascinating story here), and had some good things going for it (to quote Wikipedia: “Atlas/Seaboard offered some of the highest rates in the industry, plus return of artwork to artists and author rights to original character creations”). Possibly 10 or 20 years later, with the proliferation of “direct market” comic speciality shops, Atlas might have taken off… but in the newsstand-dominated world of 1975 it collapsed after a few months.

My memory from the time is that Atlas/Seaboard comics were OK but not great. That’s certainly true of the Devilina magazine I mentioned in the earlier post, and of Rich Buckler’s Demon Hunter #1 which I bought at the same time. By coincidence, just as I was buying these comics last weekend, Kid Robson’s blog was in the middle of a complete cover gallery of Atlas/Seaboard titles (Part 1  – Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7). The consensus that emerged in the comment threads was that Atlas tried too hard to copy what Marvel was doing at the time, without being original enough.

In the case of Planet of Vampires, I can’t deny that’s the impression the cover gives. At the time the first issue came out (February 1975) Marvel had several vampire-themed titles (Tomb of Dracula, Vampire Tales, Morbius the Living Vampire) as well as a Planet of the Apes magazine. But apart from the title and the covers (which are misleading, as I’ll get to in a moment) Planet of Vampires really has nothing in common with any of these. In my opinion, it’s much closer to “grown up” science fiction than any of them. If I had to liken it to a Marvel series of that period it would be Skull the Slayer (which actually dates from later in 1975) – but only in the general sense that it’s about a group of ordinary, flawed humans caught up in a “world they never made”.

The story is set in 2010, 35 years in the future from 1975. Issue #1 opens with a spaceship crew returning to Earth after spending several years in orbit around Mars. While they were away World War Three broke out, and they haven’t heard anything from Earth since. They land in New York to find the survivors divided into two factions – super-rich capitalists who were able to take refuge in a vast dome, and ordinary people who live a ragged existence outside (and seem to be more interested in gang warfare than anything else). Initially there are five astronauts (not six as it says on the cover), but almost immediately the token “middle-aged scientist with a beard” is killed off, leaving just two male-female couples (one white, one black).

After the introductory scenes, the story turns into a pretty intelligent dystopian adventure, with the astronauts persuading the gang leaders to forget their differences and team up against the common enemy – the Domies. It’s important to stress that the latter aren’t “vampires” in any literal sense. They aren’t undead, they don’t have fangs and they don’t dress up in gothic clothes. It’s true they harvest blood on an industrial scale, but they do it in laboratories, not by biting necks. The war saw the widespread use of biological weapons, to which people outside the dome developed an immunity. As a result, their blood contains antibodies which the non-immune Domies need whenever they venture outside their closed environment. The blood of the Mars astronauts, who escaped exposure to the toxins, is considered even more valuable.

If they awarded a Pulitzer Prize for dumbing down, then the cover of issue #2 would win it. It depicts a cliché comic-book vampire doing a cliché comic-book vampire thing. This bears only the most tenuous relationship to the actual scene inside the comic, which goes like this:

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Conspiracies, Ethics and Whistleblowers

There was an article on the BBC website last week entitled Maths study shows conspiracies prone to unravelling. The idea is that conspiracies involving large groups of people can be modelled as a Poisson process (like radioactive decay), in which there is a small but finite probability that, in any given interval of time, one of the individuals involved will “blow the whistle”. Cumulatively, over several decades and with thousands of people involved, the likelihood of the conspiracy remaining secret will (according to the study’s author) shrink down to almost zero. In principle the same is true of any secret shared by a group of people – for example stage magician’s tricks, movie scripts (while they’re still in production), the design of the next iPhone, soft drink recipes, etc, etc… and you hardly ever get whistleblowers in those situations. The big difference with conspiracies is that the secret is profoundly unethical – which brings me on to the novel pictured above: Invaders from Earth, by Robert Silverberg.

I’ve always been a fan of Silverberg, who strikes me as one of the most knowledgeable and deep-thinking of science fiction writers. Most of the novels I’ve read by him date from the late 60s and early 70s, but Invaders from Earth was first published in 1958, when he was just 23. I decided to get hold of a copy after I came across a review of it a few weeks ago. The British reprint I found on eBay dates from 1979, but I don’t think it differs significantly from the original. It isn’t Silverberg’s best work, but it’s an impressively mature and intelligent novel for a 23-year-old. And it’s all about conspiracies, ethics and whistleblowers.

Taking place in 2044, the story’s main protagonist is named Ted Kennedy (no connection to the politician of that name, who would have been virtually unknown in 1958). Kennedy is a middle-ranking executive in one of New York’s top PR firms. He enjoys his job, which is essentially creative – manipulating the public’s thought processes in favour of whoever happens to be the agency’s current client. At the start of the novel, the agency acquires the most prestigious client of all – the Extraterrestrial Development and Exploration Corporation. Using private capital, the Corporation has gradually risen to “become virtually a supranational state, with lands of its own, police of its own, a spacefleet of its own”. Having found Venus and Mars to be uninhabitable, the Corporation moved on to Ganymede – the largest of Jupiter’s moons – which is much more suitable for exploitation. Unfortunately, Ganymede is already occupied by wise, friendly, peace-loving natives with an ancient culture of poetry and philosophy (but not science or technology). The situation comes across (although Silverberg never says this explicitly) as an interplanetary analogue of the European conquistadors versus the Maya in the 16th century.

The only way the Corporation can get its greedy hands on Ganymede is to wipe out the natives, but it doesn’t have the military resources to do that on its own. It’s going to need the backing of a United Nations resolution – and how can it get that if the public knows the true nature of the Ganymedeans? That’s where the PR firm comes in. In a moment of inspiration, Kennedy himself hits on the line to take. They will create a completely fictitious human colony on Ganymede, complete with women and children (actually there are just a handful of middle-aged male scientists there). Over a period of five months, through a series of press releases and human interest stories, the public’s affection for the colony will gradually be built up. Then in a sudden shock move the natives will “massacre” every non-existent man, woman and child… and the stage will be set for a UN resolution.

Initially Kennedy – the archetypal company man – sees his idea as nothing but a superlative creative achievement. Improbably (but necessary to the progress of the story) his wife is his political opposite – a free-thinking liberal. Equally improbably, he tells her the whole plan, and is shocked when she tells him it’s unethical. To him, “ethics” is just a strange kind of personality disorder.

At this point in the real world, the wife would blow the whistle to the media herself, and Silverberg would be left without a story to write. Instead she simply walks out, leaving him to gradually work his way round to seeing the Ganymedeans as the good guys and the Corporation as the bad guys. By this time (about two-thirds of the way through the novel) Kennedy is on the run, and it finally comes down to the question the reader has been waiting for – will he live long enough to blow the whistle and destroy the Corporation, before the Corporation succeeds in destroying Ganymede? Not surprisingly, the last third of the book is the best bit!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Arrgh! Bigfoot

Here is another comic I tracked down on eBay after seeing a cover image on Tumblr. Like Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars this one dates from 1975, when I was buying a lot of Marvel comics. However, it’s another case of “faux nostalgia”, since it isn’t one I owned at the time (in fact I don’t recall seeing any issues of Arrgh! before).

As it turns out, the cover (by Alfredo Alcala) is by far the best thing about the comic – not just for the layout, but for the promise of an intriguing “Bigfoot-hunting” scenario. Unfortunately the cover bears very little relation to the interior story – “Beauty and the Bigfoot”, written by Don Glut and drawn by Mike Sekowsky (as you can see from the sample below, the setting and characters – and artistic style – are completely different).

The story (just 7 pages long) is a slight one, about a Bigfoot falling in love with a human female. The latter, despite already being married, quite enjoys the situation. While the set-up has distinct possibilities, the Comics Code stamp on the cover means that Bigfoot has to keep his trousers on (probably the only time you’ll ever see Bigfoot wearing trousers, in fact). The only positive thing I can say about “Beauty and the Bigfoot” is that it’s better than the other two stories in the comic (“Rat Reborn” and “The Mummy Walks” – the latter being a recycled political satire from the 1950s that wouldn’t have made much sense in 1975, let alone now).

I still think it’s a great cover, though.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Five Years

I started this blog five years ago this week, in January 2011. In that first year I averaged just over two posts per week, then from the second year onwards I’ve managed one post per week. When I started, the blog was (with one exception) the only non-fiction, non-technical writing I’d ever done. Since 2012, however, I’ve written four non-fiction books and co-written a fifth, as well as 12 short ebooks and about a hundred non-fiction articles for magazines, other websites etc. In its first year this blog got around 40,000 page-views, then about 60,000 in the second year and 90,000 in each of the third and fourth years, dropping to around 80,000 in the fifth year.

That suggests the blog has passed its peak, but the graph above paints an even more depressing picture. It shows the total all-time views per post, with the posts arranged in chronological order. Clearly the posts that are getting most of the views all came from the first 18 months! Of course there’s going to be a bias towards older posts, because they’ve been around longer, but the effect is a lot more dramatic than that. I suspect there is also a positive feedback loop involved – the more people click on a particular Google search result, the higher it appears in subsequent search listings, hence getting even more clicks.

Another trend, which I’ve suspected for some time but only just confirmed, is that there is a strong anti-correlation between the posts that I personally like best and the ones that get most clicks. In broad terms, the post topics can be divided into the following six categories:

  • “Retro-Forteana” – i.e. nostalgic posts about Fortean-related books and comics from the second half of the 20th century.
  • “Original Content” – generally plugs for my own books and other writings, plus creative efforts such as stories, drawings, videos and puzzles.
  • “Places Visited” – posts based on places I’ve visited recently, or things I’ve seen in museums (this category also includes a number of posts I did on behalf of Paul Jackson, before he started his Random Encounters blog in June 2012)
  • “Science” – offbeat aspects of real science (not pseudoscience)
  • “Historical” – oddities from the first half of the 20th century or earlier (unless they fall in the “Places Visited” category)
  • “Contemporary” – i.e. Fortean subjects of current popularity, such as Roswell, Bigfoot and Conspiracy Theories (and not much else).

As you can see from the first graph below, the posts which reflect a personal perspective (the first two categories, and to a lesser degree the third and fourth) are systematically less popular than the ones “anyone could write”. The second graph shows that, over time, I’ve tended to do progressively more of the posts I enjoy writing and fewer of the ones people seem to want to read.

In a way, this is symptomatic of something I noticed a couple of years ago. When I started writing, I carefully read various pieces of advice for new writers. One sentiment that cropped up again and again ran along the lines of “be original”, “say something new” or “find your own voice”. That sounds sensible enough – and it’s pleasantly reassuring, because it’s what most “amateur” writers instinctively want to do – but the truth is that it’s the worst possible advice. What most readers, publishers and booksellers are looking for is familiarity, not originality. If you want to be a professional writer with a large and stable audience, that’s the advice you need to follow. As for amateur writers, who are determined to be original and “speak in their own voice”, there’s only one piece of advice worth listening to: Don’t give up the day job.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

From Newton to Einstein

Devotees of Isaac Newton and/or Albert Einstein have got several new books to look forward to this year. June 2016 sees the U.S. version of Isaac Newton: Pocket Giants (the British edition of which was published last year). The companion volume on Einstein (pictured above, alongside Newton) is scheduled for March in the UK and August in America. In a different series, 30-Second Newton is due out in February, with 30-Second Einstein following a few months later (no exact date yet). Both these books are edited by Brian Clegg, with contributions from several authors including myself.

Einstein and Newton are two of the most famous scientists who ever lived. They were both theoretical physicists, who came up with new models of the physical world using mathematical equations. So did many other people, but Newton and Einstein are pretty much the only ones that non-scientists have heard of. There was a TV documentary last month about James Clerk Maxwell, which started from the premise that hardly anyone has heard of him (including people interviewed in the shadow of his statue in Edinburgh). Yet Maxwell formulated the fundamental equations of electricity and magnetism, just as Newton had done for gravity, and Einstein (an admirer of both Newton and Maxwell) was to do for space and time. Maxwell’s obscurity simply emphasizes the obvious – that most people don’t give a toss about the fundamental equations of anything.

So it’s even more extraordinary that Newton and Einstein are such household names. Einstein in particular is often used as a shorthand symbol for scientific genius. Before the 20th century, Newton fulfilled a similar role. There’s a good example of this at Montacute House, a few miles from where I live. Back in 1770 the then-owner of the mansion used a diamond stylus to scratch a Latin inscription, of his own composition, onto the library window (that may seem a pathologically bizarre thing to do, but apparently it was the fashion among the upper classes in those days). Translated into English, the inscription begins: “Happy is the man who has a sharp mind and a spiritual passion to reveal the innermost secrets of Nature, who can grasp the causes and relationships of things, who can walk in the footsteps of Newton.”

Both Newton and Einstein did other things besides science. Newton put at least as much effort into alchemical research and Biblical analysis as he did into physics, and most of his time after the age of 50 was devoted to administrative work at the Royal Mint. Einstein is almost as well known for his pronouncements on politics, pacifism and philosophy as for his scientific work. Personally I find these extracurricular activities just as fascinating as the mainstream ones. My contributions to 30-Second Newton include entries on Newton’s Theology, Biblical Science and the Royal Mint as well as subjects like Tides, Comets and the Reflecting Telescope. For 30-Second Einstein, I contributed items on Einstein’s pacifism and his letter to President Roosevelt about the atom bomb, as well as observational tests of relativity and similar topics.

I should stress that these “30-Second” books are really excellent, despite the rather glib title and unspectacular packaging (the cover of the Newton book is shown below). I’ve worked on four of them now, all edited by Brian Clegg. Besides the Newton and Einstein titles, there was 30-Second Quantum Theory, which appeared last summer, and 30-Second Physics due out next month. The contents in all cases is absolutely first rate, with none of the dumbing down you might expect from the “30-Second” title. And the copious internal illustrations are much more striking and informative than the cover. You can see some sample pages from 30-Second Physics here and from 30-Second Newton here (first click on the small grey squares to get the appropriate thumbnail, then click the thumbnail for an image large enough to read). The last of the Newton samples is my piece about Comets.

Several of the books mentioned above are available for pre-order from and/or Amazon UK. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the options: