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Sunday, 27 April 2014

The First UFO Hoaxers?

According to a quote I came across a few days ago, Sir Isaac Newton “caused one of the earliest recorded UFO scares by flying a kite at night with a paper lantern attached to it”. That’s really one of the archetypal UFO hoaxes (although people nowadays would probably use a balloon rather than a kite)... but Newton was doing it way back in the 17th century!

And he wasn’t the only one. Athanasius Kircher was a German scholar who was born about 40 years before Newton. According to the same source as the previous quote “he launched little hot air balloons with Flee the Wrath of God written underneath”. So Kircher was another 17th century UFO hoaxer!

Of course, it’s unlikely that Kircher and Newton wanted people to think the Earth was being visited by extraterrestrials, since the idea barely existed in the 17th century. But there’s no doubt they were trying to alarm people by perpetrating a deception. There’s a tendency to think of hoaxing as a modern phenomenon, so that any unusual object seen in the sky in past centuries must have been the real thing. But why couldn’t it have been some joker flying a balloon or a kite?

The book those quotes come from is The Forbidden Universe by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince (technically the Newton quote is itself a quote from another book by John Gribbin). The quotes don’t have much to do with the main theme of the book, though, which is the significant role (usually glossed over by historians of science) played by the Hermetic tradition during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.

I find this period of history fascinating, because of the dramatic changes that were taking place in the prevailing worldview. One thing that interests me in particular (since my original specialism was stellar dynamics) is the way the universe suddenly grew from very small (with the Solar System embedded in a hollow sphere of fixed stars) to very large (with the stars spread throughout infinite space).

Contrary to popular opinion, the change didn’t come with Copernicus. He put the Sun instead of the Earth at the centre of the Solar System, but he still believed there was a rigid sphere of fixed stars – just tiny points of light – somewhere beyond the orbit of Saturn. It’s a huge leap from that to the idea of an infinite universe, in which the stars are of equal importance to the Sun, possibly with their own planets orbiting around them. In an earlier post (The man who invented aliens) I attributed this idea to Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600). According to Picknett and Prince, however, the same idea seems to have occurred to other people independently. One of them was an English near-contemporary of Bruno’s named Thomas Digges (1546 – 1595).

You may never have heard of Thomas Digges, but you’ve probably heard of a young man who lodged with him for a time in Bishopsgate – William Shakespeare. The latter worked at the same theatre, The Globe, as Digges’s son. So Shakespeare almost certainly heard the revolutionary new theory of “infinite space” direct from the horse’s mouth. One phrase Digges used in refuting the old worldview was to say the universe was not enclosed within the stellar sphere “as in a nutshell”.

“Hang on a second,” you say. “In a Nutshell is a well-known cliché. I thought Shakespeare was the only Elizabethan with a license to coin clichés. Didn’t Shakespeare say something about In a Nutshell?”

Well yes, he did. It comes from Act 2 Scene 2 of Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

Probably the first reference to “infinite space” in English literature!

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