For a rational, non-god-fearing sort of guy I get a real kick out of mysteries. You know the sort of thing – the Loch Ness Monster, the Bunny Man, the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Trawling through Snopes and the Wikipedia lists of urban legends is a great way to spend the long, dark winter evenings provided you don’t get scared easily. As a kid I tested everything in that naive way that kids do – standing in front of the mirror chanting “Bloody Mary”, waiting for something to happen, reading books on the occult (seriously and, before you ask, I wasn’t raised by the Manson family and the Ice Cream van in my neighborhood didn’t play “Helter Skelter”). I was just interested in everything. I spent as much time reading serious books on science and rationality. As a result, whenever somebody at a party tells a FOAF (Friend Of A Friend) story I’m usually prepared to catch them out. This results in another mystery: I don’t get invited to parties any more. That means I have a lot of time to read about Crop Circles (more on that later).
What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational, as Hegel remarked in The Philosophy of Right. The world is resolvable into facts and stories that tally with what we know already. Nothing can be truly new or unexpected about the world: each discovery of any kind fits with the world as we know it already. So the mysteries I read these days have no extraneous spiritual element – no magic, no UFOs, no ghosts or apparitions. That doesn’t mean that the world can’t throw you a loop now and then – sometimes weird shit just happens. And sometimes things aren’t as mysterious as they seem.
The Flannan Island Mystery
The north of Scotland, which is roughly where I used to live, is a desolate, bleak place populated by sheep, blistering winds and grim local types doing god knows what. Or at least that’s how I’ve always thought of it. It’s no surprise that it should attract a certain air of mystery – things like the Loch Ness Monster are almost born out of the lurking, brooding feel of the moors and, you know, all that tourist shit. So when something real happens there it kind of sticks in the mind and appears more mysterious than it is.
The Flannan Islands are a desolate, mysterious group of islands to the far north, mostly uninhabited. Flannan Lighthouse is…well, you can see from the picture. It doesn’t look like a fun place to hang out – and even less so when you know that in 1900 three lighthouse keepers disappeared simultaneously, just after dinner, leaving no trace behind. Given the distance from Oban, the nearest port, it was nearly three weeks before a search-and rescue mission was charted. Upon landing, the team discovered that the lighthouse itself was in perfect working order and there was no apparent cause of their disappearance. They had just vanished.
People of course assumed the supernatural – that they had been eaten by sea serpents or stolen by the devil. The truth may be more prosaic – the Flannan Isles are known for their massive waves, and the three may have simply been swept away. Still, the odds are quite low of that happening, and I prefer the idea that they just got on each other’s nerves so much that one of them snapped, as in Chewin’ The Fat:
A Bad Date
“Boy breaks up with girl, who in her despair picks up a man at a bar, comes home with him, and has casual, unprotected sex. After some days, she experiences bad itch in her crotch. The girl goes to a medical doctor, which upon examining her looks very serious and concerned, says nothing, but gives her an appointment with a specialist. Girl goes off to specialist. He/she examines the girl, turns very grave, makes some notes, and tells her that she will have the results of the test in a week.
The bewildered girl goes home. The next week, the police turns up on her doorstep to question her. When she ask why, they explain that the police is routinely contacted by doctors in every case of corpse-worm. The girl had caught a disease only found on recently-deceased corpses.”
This is by far my favourite FOAF story and one that was told to me, in all seriousness, by a very dear, sexy, friend of mine (she’ll know who she is). Not only had I heard it before (so the urge to laugh was uncontrollable), but as a story it’s the perfect example of logical inconsistencies. Of course the girl isn’t named, and neither is the disease, where this happened, or when. These are fundamental elements of FOAFlore – a paucity of details that seems unimportant because of the graveness of the story. After all, if a friend told you that a friend of theirs got Kaposi’s Sarcoma, you wouldn’t ask, “what friend? Where? When?” You’d commiserate. We have a blindness for data when it seems like feelings are involved.
But think about this story for a second. A necrophiliac who takes a night off to sleep with a living girl? A disease that is only found on corpses yet readily attacks a living host? A doctor referring to the police without the patient’s expressed consent? A cell culture test that takes a week? These are all highly anomalous. Take any loose thread and pull it and the story falls apart.
What’s interesting about this folklore story is that it’s been around for a long time, because it plays on women’s fears about unprotected sex and strange men, which are pretty fundamental – sort of the female equivalent of the Vagina Dentata myth – a cautionary tale designed to protect. Such tales don’t have to make sense (I’m thinking of The Bible, which is one long cautionary tale), merely impress upon the listener the dangers of the world. We have hundreds of them and they hang around for thousands of years – like the “not swimming for thirty minutes/an hour/two hours before you swim in case you get cramp and drown”. FOAFlore is largely based on this system of cautionary tales. Take apart any FOAF story and you’ll see, without much effort, that it’s meant to inform you of dangers. Even if they are made up.
So I am breaking the rules a bit here, providing a palpably fake “mystery”, but I thought it was too good to not share.
The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) has sonar stations all over the world, keeping tabs on submarine movements and tidal patterns in the Pacific and Atlantic. One program it runs is SOSUS, a network of hydrophones that have been used to record the sounds of the ocean. Usually they just pick up naval activity, landmass movement and Whalesong. Sometimes they pick up something extraordinary, as in 1997 when hydrophones picked up an incredible low-frequency noise between 0 and 50Hz that was picked up over 5,000km away.
The sound is several times louder than anything attributable to an animal, and its source is open to dispute. The NOAA believes that it’s the sound of icebergs “calving” near the most northern tip of the Antarctic ice sheet. Dr Christopher Fox of the NOAA has, however, suggested that it was produced by an animal. What’s interesting is that the Bloop is similar to several other mysterious and unexplained sounds detected by the NOAA through its hydrophones between 1997 and now. These include a few that come from nowhere near icebergs, volcanic activity or anything of particular note. The Bloop emerged from an area traditionally associated with the Lovecraftian sunken city of R’lyeh, a hidden labyrinth ruled over by the tentacle-headed Cthulhu, which might suggest that the Bloop was actually the Call of Cthulhu itself.
“The nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh…was built in measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu (1928)
This is where I reveal myself as a seething, gibbering maniac, every bit as bad as every folklorist, religious nut, and conspiracy theorist: because I do not accept the general interpretation of crop circles. I know up there I said I was rational, so I’m hoping that you’ll bear with me here. I am rational. I don’t believe UFOs make crop circles. I don’t believe ghosts make them. I don’t believe they’re messages from our Lizard overlords. But neither do I believe that some guys made them with planks and string. I’ve seen the experiments and the TV attempts where they’ve got “circle making societies” to produce crop circles of equivalent complexity and fidelity under falsifiable conditions, and found the results lacking. I’ve read Doug Bower & Dave Chorley’s account of how they “started” the crop circle thing in the seventies when they got drunk one night and mucked about in a field (for the record, crop circles have been appearing since the 1700s, if not earlier). I’ve seen lots of photographs and read lots of books by nutters and scientific papers by reputable scientists and, I’ll be honest, I’m still nonplussed. I’ll give you an example: this crop circle is known as the Triple Julia (after the Julia fractal, the product of a fairly complicated recursive fractal algorithm).
It covered nearly five hundred square feet. It appeared on July 30th, 1996, near Avebury in Wiltshire. It is composed of one hundred and ninety four perfect circles, exhibiting a degree of accuracy beyond what is usually possible outside of a computer simulation. It appeared in a window of about fifty minutes during daylight.
I don’t think it was made by aliens or spiritual essences, because that’s dumb. I believe it was made by people because, as Sherlock Holmes noted, “when you discount the impossible whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth”. Humans are the only agents in nature that have a grasp on complex mathematics, and that is enough of an explanation of origin for me. What I want to know is how. I don’t grasp how, without constant guidance from an overhead helicopter crew and a team of computer modellers and mathematicians, such a thing could be produced by people trampling down the grass. So I reject that explanation. But I have no alternative theory – I don’t have a counter-explanation.
If you have any theories, or explanations, or you’d like to explain to me how something this complex could be produced with such finess, I welcome your comments. I would genuinely like to know, because sometimes this keeps me awake at night.