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Sunday, 26 June 2016


The new extension to the Tate Modern museum opened last week. I only need the slimmest of excuses to visit London, so I went to see it. The new part (called the Switch House) mainly houses contemporary art installations, while the original building (which used to be Bankside Power Station) contains older works of “modern art”. Prominent among the latter is Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic painting WHAAM!, pictured above. This was far and away my favourite item in the whole museum – not surprisingly, given the irresistible combination of comic-book nostalgia and military aircraft nostalgia!

Roy Lichtenstein was a controversial artist, because so many of his paintings copied the layout of published comic-book panels (for numerous examples, see this page). But I think it’s wrong to belittle his work for this reason. Yes, it’s a shame that the original artist goes uncredited, but the artistic medium, display context, gigantic size and sheer painstaking precision of Lichtenstein’s works make them totally different from the original (a fact that isn’t always clear when you see small side-by-side comparisons on a web page). In any case, the comic-book industry is much more relaxed about the "swiping" of panel layouts than it is about, say, the unlicensed use of lucrative franchise characters.

The display caption to WHAAM! states that it is “based on an image from All American Men of War published by DC comics in 1962”. But looking at its Wikipedia entry the situation is a little more complicated than that. The basic layout (including the words “I pressed the fire control and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky” and the sound effect “WHAAM”) does indeed come from a single panel in All American Men of War #89. However, the American aircraft in that panel is clearly a jet – probably a Korean-vintage F-86 Sabre. The plane in Lichtenstein’s painting looks more like a P-51 Mustang – and Wikipedia makes a good case for that being taken from a panel in the following issue, #90. Lichtenstein’s victim aircraft is noticeably different from either of those panels – Wikipedia suggests it comes from #89 again, but from a different story in that issue. Whatever sources Lichtenstein used, I still think the result is one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century.

As regards the new Switch House, I have to confess that most of the items on display went over my head. For the most part I mean that figuratively, but the small object pictured below was literally over my head ... because it was hanging from the ceiling in one of the rooms (sorry it’s out-of-focus – my camera was on maximum digital zoom). Regular readers will know I have an uncanny ability to spot things that “look a bit like a dick” (see for example this statue of Balzac or these 1940s comic-book aliens). The work pictured below is a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois entitled Fillette, which is French for “little girl”. I guess that’s what it’s meant to depict ... but it still looks like a dick to me.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Hell-Fire Club

The evocatively named Hell-Fire Caves in West Wycombe were originally excavated for a very practical reason – to quarry chalk for a new road to neighbouring High Wycombe. But the person behind the project, Sir Francis Dashwood, had the tunnels carved in a strange symbolic design (see top left picture), somewhat reminiscent of a modern-day crop formation. The caves were finished in 1752, and for the next ten years they served as the meeting place of Dashwood’s mysterious “Hell-Fire Club”.

I wrote about the Hell-Fire Caves on a previous occasion, using a picture that Paul Jackson sent me (and Paul has written about the site on his own blog). But I finally got around to visiting the caves myself last week, so I can show some of my own photos!

Actually “the Hell-Fire Club” seems to have been a pejorative term applied by outsiders – Dashwood and company actually referred to themselves as “The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe” (or sometimes “Friars” rather than “Knights”). Many of them were prominent poets, politicians and doctors – Dashwood himself was Chancellor of the Exchequer at one point. Other famous members included the Earl of Sandwich (who served as First Lord of the Admiralty, as well as inventing the sandwich) and the great painter and cartoonist William Hogarth (who is fortean enough to have appeared on this blog at least four times – here and here and here and here). Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, wasn’t a member of the club but is known to have visited the caves on more than one occasion (as depicted in the bottom right photo).

The caves contain a strange mixture of Christianity (as in the references to St Francis and Friars) and pre-Christian mythology (such as the statue of Venus that can be seen in the bottom left photo). The final chamber has the pagan-sounding name of “The Inner Temple”, and is located some hundred metres directly below the Christian church on top of the hill. Undoubtedly this helped give rise to the various rumours of “satanic” goings-on at the Hell-Fire Club. Personally, I’m increasingly sceptical about this – remember it was a time when the God-fearing masses believed anyone who read a book other than the Bible was a closet Satanist. Instead, I think Dashwood and his circle were just indulging in fashionable romantic fantasies about Graeco-Roman culture (a bit like the Stourhead temples I wrote about last year, which also date from the 1750s).

Normally when I hear about a “family mausoleum” in a churchyard I think of something comparable in size to my garden shed. Dashwood’s mausoleum, which he built on the hill directly above the Hell-Fire caves around the same time, is more like a small fortress:

Sunday, 12 June 2016

18th Century Electrostatic Flying Machine

Here is an interesting book illustration I came across a few days ago. When I first saw it I had no idea what it was meant to depict, but having done a bit of research it turns out to be really quite remarkable. I’m surprised it doesn’t crop up more often in histories of science fiction – or of ufology and “ancient aliens” for that matter.

It’s the frontispiece from a French-language novel called Le Philosophe sans Prétention (The Unpretentious Philosopher), written by Louis-Guillaume de la Folie and published in 1775. The original French edition can be found on the Internet Archive, although I don’t think it’s ever been translated into English. However, I did find the following summary on Google Books:
This strange but rather wonderful work concerns a visitor from the planet Mercury called Ormisais who flies to Earth in an electrically powered sky-chariot, which he breaks by crash-landing it on Earth. Aided by an Earthling named Nadir, Ormisais searches for materials to mend his spacecraft. [A. Roberts: The History of Science Fiction (2006), p. 79]
It’s worth remembering just how long ago 1775 was. The first manned flight – in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon – was still eight years in the future. Apart from lighter-than-air balloons, the only other means of controlled flight known at the time involved aerodynamic lift (birds, kites etc). “Electricity” in those days meant static electricity – electricity in the modern sense of a flowing electric current wasn’t really discovered until the 19th century.

After a bit of searching within the French text, I found the following on page 30: “I saw two glass globes three feet in diameter, mounted above a small seat” (a French writer measuring things in feet – that shows how old it is!). Presumably the glass spheres somehow collected or stored the static electricity. The next page describes the globes “turning with a prodigious rapidity” – and from the picture it looks like they’re coupled to some sort of gear arrangement to control the craft’s motion.

Of course it could never work – but then it’s only a novel, not an engineering treatise. It’s interesting to see state-of-the-art science (in this case electrostatics) invoked as hand-waving technobabble, in just the same way that a modern-day science fiction writer might use wormholes or quantum entanglement!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The House of the Screaming Skull

“The Screaming Skull” is the title of a Hollywood movie from 1958, a short story first published in 1908, and a rather dubious legend that can be traced back to Victorian times. The short story was set in Cornwall and the film somewhere in the United States, but the legend comes from Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset. That’s only about six miles from where I live, but it isn’t open to the public, and it’s quite a distance from the main road, so I’d never actually seen it till last week. I felt rather awkward gawping at what is obviously just a private house (even if it’s a famously haunted one), so I carefully kept to the public footpath and managed to grab the appropriately cryptic view shown above.

The legend of Bettiscombe’s screaming skull is one of Dorset’s best known ghost stories. In their book Dark Dorset, Robert Newland and Mark North devote no less than 17 pages to it. As is often the case, the legend seems to have evolved with each telling. The first reference to an old skull being kept at the manor house dates from 1847, but it wasn’t described as “screaming”, and it wasn’t associated with a ghost. Quite the opposite, in fact – “While this skull is kept here no ghost will ever infest Bettiscombe House”.

In 1872, the lawyer and amateur folklorist John Udal repeated the story of a skull being kept in the house out of superstition, and added that “the legend runs that it belonged to a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property”. Just over a decade later, in 1883, the daughter of a British Museum researcher accompanied her father to the house, and picked up a much more detailed version of the story. The servant “had declared before his death that his spirit would not rest unless his body was taken to his native land and buried there”. Ignoring the warning, they buried him in the local churchyard – “then the haunting began; fearful screams proceeded from the grave”. The body was dug up and the skull brought into the house, but “the reputation of the screaming skull of Bettiscombe House remains unimpaired”. This was the first written reference to “screaming” in connection with the skull.

Around 1900, John Udal was posted to the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. By chance, he came across a plantation that had been founded by “John Pinney, son of Azariah Pinney, formerly of Bettiscombe”. Udal also learned that one of the early plantation workers had been given the slave-name Bettiscombe – and immediately leapt to the conclusion that this was the “black servant” associated with the legend of the screaming skull. Most modern accounts of the Bettiscombe legend take this association for granted, without mentioning the shaky foundations on which it is based (except Wikipedia, of course, which gleefully tells us that “In 1963 a professor of human and comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons stated that the skull was not that of a black man but that of a European female aged between twenty-five and thirty”).

The reason I decided to go and look at Bettiscombe Manor was that I recently came across the movie version of The Screaming Skull on a public domain movie site (I’d already read the short story a few years ago). It’s often said that the film is based on the story, and the story is based on the legend … but beyond the phrase “screaming skull” there’s really no similarity between the three versions. The short story (written by F. Marion Crawford, and originally published in two parts in Collier’s Magazine in 1908) is really quite clever, although it’s narrated in an old-fashioned way. In contrast the movie comes across as atrociously bad, but that’s largely due to its low budget and amateurish direction. If you can get all the way to the end without falling asleep, the underlying storyline is actually quite good.

Partly as an excuse to show a couple of downmarket paperback covers (which as regular readers know, I can never resist), here are two items of related trivia:
  • The part of Dorset in which Bettiscombe is situated is called Marshwood Vale (in fact I parked the car in the village of Marshwood itself). This boasts a very tenuous connection with H. P. Lovecraft, courtesy of John Brunner’s 1992 short story “Concerning the Forthcoming Inexpensive Paperback Translation of the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred” – in which he transposes two of Lovecraft’s infamous New England towns to the Dorset countryside. Brunner’s version has “the small town of Arkham overlooking Marshwood Vale in the county of Dorset, England”, while Dunwich is “a parish whose boundaries adjoin those of Arkham”. The story is reprinted in Robert M. Price’s Necronomicon anthology pictured below.
  • The anthology in which I read F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull” was The 4th Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, also pictured below. The longest story in the book is James Blish’s werewolf-themed novella “There Shall Be No Darkness”, originally written in 1950. Much later, in 1974, this story was adapted as The Beast Must Die by Amicus Productions – often seen as an inferior competitor to Hammer Films. This is one of their best films, though – pretty faithful to Blish’s original plotline, and with plenty of added seventies grooviness.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Somerset Space Walk

The Somerset Space Walk is a 1/530,000,000-scale model of the Solar System, spread out along the 22.5 km length of the Bridgwater-to-Taunton canal. At the half-way point, the Sun is represented by a sphere approximately 2.6 metres in diameter, and as you walk along the towpath in either direction you come to models of each of the planets to the same scale. For example, Mercury is a stainless steel ball just 9 mm in diameter, around 110 metres from the Sun (Mercury’s orbit is elliptical – this distance represents the semi-major axis).

The main canal-side car park is located close to the northern (i.e. Bridgwater-side) model of Mars. I walked from there past Earth, Venus and Mercury to the Sun, and then past another Mercury, Venus and Earth to the Taunton-side Mars. That involves a total distance of just 860 metres. I then walked on another kilometre to Jupiter, before returning to the car and driving into Taunton, where I “finished” the trail at Pluto, 11.3 km from the Sun (the model dates from 1997, when Pluto was still counted as one of the planets). My photos above show the six planets I visited on the Taunton side of the Sun.

The model really does put “astronomical scales” into perspective. The picture below shows the relatively huge model of the Sun, with the hundred-times-smaller model of the Earth in the inset. The latter is a stainless steel sphere approximately 25 mm in diameter. On that scale, the International Space Station would be a mere 0.75 mm above the surface of the sphere. The Moon, which is the furthest anyone has travelled, would be just a metre away. The nearest star outside the Solar System, Alpha Centauri, would be about 77,000 km away – almost six times the diameter of the real Earth!
During the Second World War, the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal formed part of the “Taunton Stop Line”, another stretch of which I wrote about on Paul Jackson’s blog several years ago (see also Paul’s own post about the GHQ Line, which served a similar function further East). In the short distance I walked last week, I saw no fewer than three gun emplacements, all to different designs:

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).