25.8.14

FIRST READ - MEETING MR FORT

The books of Charles Fort had been taunting me for a while, as they sat on the shelves of Wilshaw’s in John Dalton Street, Manchester, then the town’s leading bookshop. I wanted them but their cost was enormous. £3.00 or 60 shillings. That was a time when my weekly pocket money was five shillings (25p). Finally with some money I had been given for my thirteenth birthday, I went ahead and bought the volume, which, with its indexes is over 1,000 pages long.
 
I think I consumed it in a night and day, or that is how I remember it. It was a wild ride with a crazy man doing the driving. Fort at times looked brilliant to a thirteen year old, and at other times, just plain nuts. Of course the collected Books of Charles Fort is not really a set of volumes for reading right through, it is more something to be dipped into for the fragmentary stories of things falling from the sky, strange lights in the sky, mysterious appearances and disappearances, animals the like of which no sane person has ever seen, poltergeists and teleportations. Many of these read like the opening lines of novels, stories that no-one has ever told.
 
Of course to get at these you have to plough through Fort’s unique, 1920s style experimental writing technique; one which, had he actually settled down to write the really great novel, could have made him America’s answer to James Joyce. I imagine, however, that Fort had come to the conclusion that reality was just so damned weird that nothing you could make up would come close.
 
Fort’s semi-anarchic world view was the sort of thing that was quite attractive to a teenage boy, after all he was getting at all those authority figures, and, Tiffany Thayer assured us, he didn’t really believe the crazy things he was coming out with, it was all a satire on science.
 
Looking back as an adult, and now having the insights that his biographers Damon Knight and Jim Steinmeyer have provided, I am not so sure. The sort of small-womb cosmos that Fort half believed in is typical of many cranks, and it seems the sort of thing that the motherless, abused boy might crave, in much the same way that his more than semi-mysterious wife seems to have been more of a mother figure than a lover. I have suspected that Fort’s legendary reclusiveness may have been more to protect her than himself, as he seemed to have led a fairly active life until their marriage.
 
If you want to read Fort for the first time in one of the many single volume paperbacks, I would recommend Lo! as by far the best, with Book of Damned as second, half of New Lands is taken up with a rather embarrassing tirade against astronomers and by the time he was writing Wild Talents his last illness was clearly taking its toll.
 
Lo! has a special place for Magonians because it is the source of the tales of the wild years of 1904/05, interest in which became the catalyst that brought myself, John Rimmer and Roger Sandell together. -- Peter Rogerson
  • Charles Fort The books of Charles Fort, with an introduction by Tiffany Thayer. Henry Holt for the Fortean Society, 1941 (1959 reprint)
 

21.8.14

25 YEARS AGO: MAGONIA 33

The lead article in this issue is 'From My Pennine Valley Notebook', by David Clarke. Yes, the title is a rip-off of John Keel's classic Flying Saucer Review piece from the 1970s, 'From My Ohio Valley Notebook', and it was inspired by Dave's introductory paragraphs, where he states: “folklore seems to be very much in the making in the haunted areas of the Pennine Hills into which I have been wandering in recent years”. Very Keelian!

The full article describes the spooky experiences of a couple of policemen, patrolling the semi-industrialised valley of the Little Don, which seems very much the same sort of liminal, marginal area that Keel reported from in his Ohio Valley travels. Their experiences seem to combine traditional ghost and fairy-lore (or as we are in deepest Brigantia, perhaps that should be boggart-lore) and modern UFO reports.
 
Arch-skeptic Steuart Campbell was not going to let Ralph Noyes defence of superstition in the previous Magonia go unchallenged and here he presents a vigorous riposte. A critical reading of the article may lead one to suspect that he defines 'superstition' as 'things that Steuart Campbell does not agree with', but others may have a different opinion. Read the article here and see what you think.

Campbell makes a re-appearance in the Readers' Letters pages, in which he presents another vigorous riposte, this time to those, including your editor, who felt that his own one-explanation-covers-all solution to the UFO mystery - namely  that they are mirages of virtually anything, under virtually any circumstances - itself might be considered a sceptical superstition.

Much of this issue was taken up with letters from our readers, including such ufological luminaries as Dennis Stacy, erstwhile editor of MUFON UFO Journal who was eased out of the post for being a little too rational, although ironically this particular letter praised the journal's rationalist credentials; and Thomas Bullard, challenging Hilary Evans's conclusions in his review of Phil Klass's book UFOs A Dangerous Game, concluding cautiously “The objective reality of abductions is by no means assured, but neither is their subjectivity a foregone conclusion. This phenomenon dererves better than a vague gesture in the direction of psychology, followed by a premature call of 'game over'.

Indeed it did, and in the years to come Magonia, amongst others, gave the phenomena the consideration it deserved, but still came to the conclusion 'game over'. -- John Rimmer

14.8.14

FAIRYLAND, MY FAIRYLAND

Marjorie T. Johnson. Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times. Anomalist Books, 2014. Reviewed by Janet Bord.

If this book is any guide, there are a lot of people out there who claim to have seen fairies. Its 350+ pages are crammed full of first-hand sighting reports, most of them not duplicating the many accounts recorded in my own book Fairies: Real Encounters With Little People. Marjorie Johnson collected her reports over several decades, and the mystery is that she was never able to get her book published during her life-time (apart from editions in German and Italian), since it is a unique database of 20th century fairy reports. Simon Young, who was responsible for bringing about this belated English-language edition, details its history, and Marjorie’s involvement with the Fairy Investigation Society, in his comprehensive introduction.

Reading these strange accounts one after another is a disturbing experience. They give the impression that the countryside is heavily populated with little people who live alongside us but are never seen by most of us. Can this really be true? Common sense tells us that it isn’t, and that there must be some other explanation. How can we find out what it is? These are not questions that the author tries to answer, and if we are to solve the mystery, it will be necessary to adopt a more critical stance than hers.

When considering, in a very general way, the fairies’ appearance, there is one major feature that separates one kind of fairy from another: some have wings, and some don’t. Although today many people assume that all fairies have wings, as Simon points out they did not feature in early fairy lore, first appearing in fairy art in the late 18th century, and then in fairy accounts from the 19th century onwards. Therefore any sightings of winged fairies, which account for around half of the reports in this book, are suspect. The witnesses clearly believe they are seeing winged fairies, but it seems likely that the brain is projecting onto the external world a vision of what the witness considers a fairy looks like. Why this should happen is another question entirely!

There is another problem with the winged fairies: they are usually interpreted as some kind of nature spirits by those whose world-view incorporates such things. Far be it from me to criticise such beliefs or pronounce them misguided, but I do not subscribe to them myself. Marjorie Johnson was very much a believer in nature spirits, writing of ‘Devic Guardians’, etc. The photograph of Marjorie which appears on the front cover tells us all we need to know: she is sitting in the bracken playing on a home-made bamboo pipe. To the bottom left is an area looking like white mist, where light has ‘fogged’ the film. This obvious explanation is rejected by Marjorie, who prefers to think that fairies were attracted to her music and were ‘building-up out of the ectoplasm from my aura.’

If we disregard for the moment all those accounts that include winged fairies, nature spirits, and other whimsical creations, we are left with what I consider to be a real mystery: the totally unexpected sightings of little people doing strange things. These are the accounts that are, to me, the most puzzling and disturbing, as there seems to be no obvious explanation for them. In 1953 a 5-foot figure in bottle-green clothing, a conical fur-edged hat and knee-boots was seen to run across a road in Ewell, Surrey, disappearing before reaching the kerb; a child aged 3 or 4 watched a ‘funny little man’ with a long pointed cap working in the beans in their garden at Walesby, Nottinghamshire; some people who had had a moonlit picnic on the moors near Land’s End, Cornwall, saw in the car headlights a little man just over 2 feet tall with a hairy face, long arms and long pointed feet, wearing a hat looking like a mushroom; in 1896 a Shetland woman walking to a neighbouring house saw a little man in dark brown clothes and with a long beard staring belligerently at her and making loud grunting noises; and so it goes on. Sometimes everyone present sees the creature(s), but this is not always the case.

When judging any of the accounts in this book we have to rely on the veracity of the witnesses. I’m sure they aren’t all lying – but some may be deceiving themselves, or misperceiving what they see. It seems certain that in the majority of cases, the witnesses believe they are recounting a genuine event: they believe what their eyes and brains are telling them they are seeing. In order to determine exactly what is happening, a detailed analysis of each witness would need to be undertaken – of their beliefs and expectations as well as their physical condition. Medical evidence is growing to show that there are mechanisms by which people can and do see things that are not physically there. For example, as I was reading this book, recent research into AMD (age-related macular degeneration) was reported in the press [Daily Telegraph, 21 July 2014], to the effect that some sufferers see visions. An unnamed 87-year-old retired teacher saw a ‘funny little miniature woman coming up under [a table]… She had a smiling round face looking up at me, and as I was watching it grew, like a genie coming out of a bottle. I couldn’t see the feet, just a head and shoulders. Her face was tanned and shiny, like someone who had been working out in the fields and was covered in perspiration. It is thought that the faces you see are often from way back in your past. I think this was my Cornish grandmother.’
 
 Of course we cannot explain sightings of fairies by saying that all witnesses must have AMD, but if such visions can be experienced by people with AMD, it is likely that other conditions can also trigger similar visions and hallucinations. The form the vision or hallucination takes may well be influenced by the witness’s belief system, with believers in visions of the Virgin Mary being prone to see Our Lady, believers in aliens being prone to see creatures from UFOs, and believers in nature spirits being prone to see winged fairies.

Unfortunately Marjorie’s presentation of the reports she has collected is uncritical. There is no attempt to analyse the reports dispassionately, or to search for any explanation other than the (to her) obvious one, that the witnesses are blessed with the ability to see nature spirits. But the true value of Marjorie’s efforts in collecting these reports is that we now have the raw material for a proper, unbiased, study of fairy sightings, and it is to be hoped that someone with the knowledge and ability to tease out all the clues can come up with a plausible explanation.

Wherever the truth is to be found, this book is essential reading for anyone with the slightest interest in fairies and the Little People.


11.8.14

THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS

Jeremiah P. Ostriker and Simon Mitton, Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe, Princeton University Press, 2013

Katherine Freese, The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter, Princeton University Press, 2014

It’s ironic that one of the achievements of which modern science is most proud is discovering that it doesn’t know what the vast majority of the universe is made of. As Ostriker and Mitton sum up in Heart of Darkness: ‘We seem to have been forced into one of the oddest situations ever encountered in science. We have a model for the universe that really works in the sense that it truly passes every empirical test; yet it is founded on two mysterious, invisible components whose influence is palpable but whose nature is totally obscure to us.’

These ‘known unknowns’ are dark matter and dark energy, which together make up some 95% of the universe, leaving the ordinary atomic matter that constitutes the visible universe a puny 5% of all creation. Despite the terminology dark matter and dark energy are unrelated. (At least probably; nothing is certain in this ocean of uncertainty.)

These two books, both part of Princeton University’s ‘Science Essentials’ series that aims to ‘bring cutting-edge science to a general audience,’ tell the story of this discovery of how much there is left to be discovered. They complement, rather than compete with, each other, as recognition of the ‘dark side’ of the universe came from two converging scientific pathways, astronomical observation and theoretical particle physics. Ostriker and Mitton put the emphasis on the former, Katherine Freese on the latter.

The bulk of both books deal with dark matter, since that is a little better understood, in the sense that cosmologists at least know what they don’t know about it and have some ideas about how to find out. On the other hand, as Freese writes, ‘Given our current knowledge of physics, dark energy doesn’t make any sense.’ Scientists know there is a force – a kind of antigravity - that is responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe, the strength of which, unlike every other known force, increases with distance, but they have no idea what it is or where it comes from. Consequently, both books devote only a chapter to dark energy; there just isn’t that much to say about it.

Heart of Darkness is written by an American and a Brit. Jeremiah P. Ostriker is professor of astrophysics at Columbia University, and was one of the first to draw attention to the dark matter problem in the mid-1970s. Simon Mitton is a research scholar in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University and former Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society.

They take a chronological approach to the development of cosmology’s ‘modern paradigm’, ‘a flat, hot, big bang model dominated by dark matter and dark energy.’ They begin with Einstein and the new ‘toolkit’ his theories and mathematics provided, which coincided with the recognition that the fuzzy blurs known as nebulae were not clouds of gas but in fact other galaxies beyond our own Milky Way, in what amounted to a second Copernican revolution. Ostriker and Mitton then show how this led to the discovery – against the resistance of Einstein, who called the concept an ‘abomination’ - that the universe is expanding, which caused a dramatic paradigm shift in 1930 and led to the development of the big bang theory.

However, the complacency engendered by the belief that science had nailed how the universe works was jolted when efforts to work out the detail – such as the rate of expansion - as well as ever more accurate data from space-based platforms such as the Hubble Space Telescope, revealed, first, the existence of dark matter and then dark energy. The conclusion of Ostriker and Mitton’s final chapter, which reviews the current state of play, is that ‘an honest look at our current model shows that we are profoundly ignorant about the basic underpinnings of the modern paradigm.’

A fascinating aspect of the story is how much of today’s model was anticipated by the first, inter-war generation of cosmologists and theoretical physicists. The first to propose the existence of dark matter (dunkle Materie), way back in 1937, was the ‘brilliant but zany’ Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky. His idea was ‘all but forgotten’ until the mid-1970s, when cosmologists stopped brushing the problem aside and began to take it seriously.

Similarly, it was only in the mid-1990s that cosmologists were ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ to acceptance of dark energy, even though theoretical physicists such as Einstein and the remarkable Belgian Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaître, whose proposal of the expanding universe led to the 1930 paradigm shift, had ‘seemingly via precognition’ discerned it in their equations seventy years before. Ostriker and Mitton write that the closeness of Lemaître’s ‘rank speculation’ to today’s model of the origin and evolution of the cosmos – which even included the concept of vacuum energy, something only accepted by science in the 1990s (and one of the favoured candidates for dark energy) - is ‘more than a little unsettling.’

Ostriker and Mitton deliberately emphasise the contributions of scientists who are not so well known to the public, such as Zwicky, Lemaître, George Gamow (who brought particle physics into cosmology in the 1940s and 50s) and the ‘daring and perspicacious’ New Zealander Beatrice Tinsley. In the early 1970s, Tinsley played a major role in puncturing cosmological complacency by making the common-sense point, missed entirely by her male peers and accepted only grudgingly, that cosmologists need to take the way galaxies have evolved into account when attempting to work out values such as the expansion of the universe, the radical consequences of which forced them to confront the dark matter problem.

The female perspective is, unsurprisingly, also brought out in Katherine Freese’s The Cosmic Cocktail, together with a greater sense that physics can be fun, the first sign of both being the jacket’s author photo, showing Freese wrapped in a lilac feather boa. Hers is a more personal account than Ostriker and Mitton’s, as she mixes her ‘personal trajectory as a scientist’ with the quest to understand the universe’s dark side. The title reflects the sense of fun, both in physics itself and in the lifestyle of a physicist - her many anecdotes always seem to involve cocktails, champagne, whisky, dancing, bars and nightclubs.

Freese, a professor of physics at Michigan University, notes that women tend to be attracted to dark matter research, which she attributes to the smaller size of research teams in that field giving them more chance of being able to make their mark in what is still largely a man’s world. She relates how working as a hostess in a Tokyo bar during her post-graduation travels taught her how ‘to deflect men’s advances and demand to be treated professionally – skills that later proved invaluable in the male-dominated physics world.’

She is firmly in the theorist camp, happiest working with the mathematics of particle physics (‘better than any cocktail’) to tease out clues for the ‘experimentalists’ to test, an area in which she has made major contributions to dark matter research. However, she begins her account with the astronomical evidence for dark matter, starting with its first proposal by Zwicky and taking the reader through the observations that allowed astronomers to infer its existence even though it cannot be viewed directly. She then turns to dark matter’s role in the evolution of the universe, showing how scientists have reached their current conclusions about the ratios of ordinary matter to dark matter and energy.

Freese goes on to consider the various theories of what dark matter is, and their relative strengths and weaknesses, before concentrating on the most popular theory, that they are made up a type of particle termed WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). Not that WIMPs have actually been discovered, existing only in supersymmetry theory, which itself hasn’t yet been established, but if they are proven to exist they will be the best candidates for the type of particle that makes up dark matter. No wonder that Freese writes that ‘Theoretical physicists always have this uneasy feeling that they may be working on science fiction.’

At the end Freese ponders (as most readers will have done by this point) whether either dark energy or dark matter really exist at all, rather than just being fudges to cover up science’s ignorance about the nature of the universe. She concludes that ‘the case for dark matter is so strong, so consistent, and so easy to resolve with a new fundamental particle’ that science is probably right about it, whereas ‘Dark energy is a little more disturbing, because scientists really don’t know how to begin to explain it.’

Although both sets of authors have done their best to make their accounts entertaining – Freese more successfully - I didn’t find either book a particularly easy read, both being heavy going in parts. This is perhaps unavoidable, as while the headline facts about the mysteries of the universe’s dark side are exciting and easily grasped, the detail of how science came to recognise them requires a lot of complicated and technical explanation. I don’t think either would make a good general introduction to the subject, as a fair amount of background knowledge of scientific principles is assumed.

Freese – again unavoidably for a book based on the theoretical approach – uses a lot of equations, which can be off-putting for the non-mathematical reader. While Ostriker and Mitton save most of the maths for an appendix, they too throw the odd equation into the main text. This is slightly ironic, as Mitton was the editor of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time who famously advised him that he would lose half his readers for every equation he included.

Neither book deals with the deeper philosophical (still less the theological) implications of modern cosmology – what it might tell us about why the universe exists and how it came to be - which is perhaps understandable but also a shame, as these questions are likely to be of interest to the general readers the books are aimed at.

Ostriker and Mitton acknowledge the philosophical issues but pronounce them outside their remit. Chief among those questions, raised several times as the story in Heart of Darkness unfolds, is the ‘Goldilocks Problem’: the recognition that, to a degree that can’t be shrugged off as mere coincidence, cosmological and quantum forces seem to have ‘fine-tuned’ in order to produce a universe that is just right for the evolution of intelligent observers, carrying the awkward implication that it is, in some sense, designed to be that way. Dark energy is itself the prime example of this – another ‘embarrassing coincidence’ - since it is, to a ludicrous degree of precision, exactly the right value to produce such a universe.

They briefly discuss the celebrated anthropic principle, which attempts to address this problem, but consider it ‘outside the realm of science’, and therefore their book, because it is untestable by observation or experiment. However, unlike many science writers they are consistent in dismissing the only viable scientific alternative to design, the multiverse theory, on exactly the same grounds.

Freese also declares herself ‘not a fan of the multiverse,’ again on the grounds that it doesn’t make any testable predictions (‘saying that we happen to live in one universe of many doesn’t absolve us of explaining why our world behaves the way it does’). For her part, Freese gives the slightest of nods to the fine-tuning problem, when she discusses the ‘bizarre’ timing of the period in the universe’s expansion six billion years ago when dark energy overcame the attractive forces of ordinary matter: ‘The epoch when dark energy kicked in as the dominant component coincided with the epoch where the conditions became ripe for the existence of life. Cosmologists are struggling to explain this strange coincidence.’

What does come through in both books, though, is a real sense of the excitement that these scientists feel in not knowing everything, together with the confidence that one day we’ll work it out. -- Clive Prince



8.8.14

FIRST READ: ENTER THE SCEPTICS

Eric J. Dingwall and Trevor H. Hall. Four Modern Ghosts. Duckworth, 1958.

Donald J. West. Psychical Research Today. Penguin, 1962 (Duckworth 1954)
 
Dingwall and Hall's small sceptical book probably disappointed me at the time, though it probably helped to detoxify ghost stories for me.
 
It deals with four ghost stories; the first was an alleged appearance of an apparition in the library of the Yorkshire Museum at York in 1953. This ghost had the habit of taking off the shelves a volume on church antiquities published on 1896/7 - not exactly an ancient tome - this being witnessed by a number of dignitaries. It is perhaps fitting that old libraries should have ghosts, though if they appear today they are likely to be roped in as volunteers to replace the paid staff, and they would find the old volumes replaced by computers. Maybe the haunted Kindle as just around the corner. The sceptical authors came to the conclusion that the curator who had seen the ghost in the first place had some sort of hallucination and then faked the book moving from the shelf so they wouldn’t think he was mad and sack him.
 
The second story was that of the 1952 Runcorn poltergeist, which manifested in a teenage boy’s bedroom in a back street. This had also featured in a book by Joseph Braddock I had read earlier, though Dingwall and Hall cut out some of the weirder features such as the strange cloud which appeared on a local farmer’s land and led to livestock deaths. Poltergeists were, of course, a much more convenient explanation for this than pollution from one of the numerous chemical factories in the neighbourhood, which might have led to compensation claims.
 
Ten years later, I was to become local history and reference librarian in Runcorn, in a building with a spooky reputation of its own. Like the Yorkshire museum ghost, this one took books off the shelves and dropped them on the floor, and at least one staff member saw a strange shadow. Ghosts walked all around Runcorn and local tales included a ten foot giant, something like a huge knuckle, the green light of Halton, the phantom monks of Norton Priory and the disappearing island in the middle of the Mersey. It had been home to the mysterious contactee Jim Cooke and a number of slightly odd churches, to say nothing of some Fortean beasts.
 
The third story in Dingwall and Hall’s book is Harry Price and the materialisation of a ‘spirit child’ somewhere in either Brockley or Bromley, which Price was able to fondle in a way that would get him into court these days. Though years later someone confessed to playing the role of the spirit child, it is more probable that the story was made up by Price. If a story looks too good to be true, the lesson is, it isn’t true.
 
The final story, a rather vague poltergeist in an anonymous Yorkshire town’s doctor’s surgery is something of an anti-climax after the rest. The authors conclude that underground water was responsible.
 
Donald West’s Psychical Research Today was the first “serious” book that I read on psychical research and parapsychology and it was especially persuasive because it was a rational and sensible study. West was (indeed may still be at 90) one of the most sensible members of the SPR, and this book very ably navigated the twin extremes of belief and scepticism - with the ‘K’. West was deeply critical of the claims of anecdotal evidence, of tales of poltergeists and hauntings, of spontaneous cases of ESP and of physical mediumship. He pointed out the many problems of perception and memory which bedevil these topics. He was also rather more sceptical than many of the alleged abilities of Mrs Piper, a medium who created a great deal of interest in psychic research circles in the early years of the twentieth century. His review of the case raises the very interesting point that people grossly underestimate what information can be picked up by just a careful attention to body language and other slight perceptual cues (a look on the face, a change in breathing etc.).
 
He was much more impressed by the claims of experimental parapsychology and the work of Rhine and Soal. Back in the 1950s the work of Soal was regarded as by far the most impressive evidence for psi by a wide range of thinkers, and it was not until the late 1970s that his work was finally shown to be fraudulent.
 
There is no doubt that West’s day job as a forensic psychologist and criminologist aided him greatly in acquiring a critical edge that was to be so sorely lacking in many of his colleagues. He understood, in a way that many from a physical science background have never been able to, just how very strange even the most ‘respectable’ people might be, and just how slippery ideas of honesty can become when peoples’ deeply held beliefs are involved.
 
He was certainly not the credulous person that the absurd ‘biography’ in the increasingly dubious Wikipedia suggests; and though sections of this book now seem very dated, those on mediumship and eyewitness testimony are still valuable. -- Peter Rogerson
 

7.8.14

STAYING CONSCIOUS

Christof Koch. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. MIT Press, 2012.

Virulent debates about the nature of consciousness have been going on for centuries; and in general three possible answers have been given; the first is that consciousness is a property of brains, perhaps secreted as the liver secretes bile, often called central state materialism; the second is that consciousness is either itself some spooky extra thing on top of the quotidian things of the world, or is a property of such a spooky extra, substance or Cartesian dualism; the third is that consciousness, or potential for consciousness is a an intrinsic property of everything, or at all information processing systems, panpsychism or property dualism.
 
Koch, who is a professor of both biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology recounts his own life journey in the neuroscience of consciousness, including the loss of his childhood Roman Catholic faith, his long time collaboration with Francis Crick the co-discover of DNA in the development of a science of consciousness, through to his own existential (spiritual?) crisis on the death of his own father and his mentor Crick.
 
Koch takes us through the search for the origins of consciousness in the brain, noting that portions such as the cerebellum, at the back of the brain, can suffer quite extensive damage with severe physical effects without any dimming of consciousness, while even slight damage to tiny areas elsewhere can have profound effects on the phenomenology and nature of consciousness.
 
Koch‘s view on consciousness is based on the theory of ‘integrated information’ developed by Giulio Tononi, now of the University of Wisconsin:
 
Koch is now engaged on a project the ultimate aim of which is to find an object measure of the degree of consciousness in a range of organisms, and in human patients with persistent vegetative state, locked-in syndrome, coma etc. It might also give the insights which would us to build a fully conscious computer.
 
Koch sees a way of envisioning consciousness as a metaphorical crystal in a trillion dimensions. This may be the 21st century version of the soul, but when the underlying physical system disintegrates, the crystal is extinguished. Without some carrier or some mechanism, integrated information can’t exist.
 
Those who propose some kind of life after death then, would have to propose some kind of mechanism that would allow continued information processing (and presumably acquisition and storage). This ‘psychon’ would then have to be at least as complex as the human brain, a rather large ask. – Peter Rogerson.
 

4.8.14

THE BEASTLY LEGACY

Gary Lachman, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, Tarcher/Penguin.

It seems there are an awful lot of people who can forgive Aleister Crowley almost anything. The self-styled Great Beast of the Book of Revelation, and the man the tabloids loved to hate as ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’, who died in 1947, is a largely unreconstructed hero to many groups of modern pagans and ritual magicians. And, author Gary Lachman hastens to add, Crowley is also monumentally influential on rock musicians galore.

After all, what better slogan for the whole 1960s/70s counter-culture and musical revolution than Crowley’s (in)famous: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’? Though in fact he had followed it immediately with the line: ‘Love under Law, love under Will’, a cursory look at the magus’ own life would suggest he himself had pretty much stuck with the first part.

Lachman should know, if anyone should, about Crowley’s influence on the popular music scene. As a founder member of the band Blondie, and an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he himself was drawn into Crowleyism, though as this book makes abundantly clear, he is no longer part of that scene and sees through the more blatantly unattractive – and, worse perhaps, the more ineffective – aspects of Crowley’s life and ‘magick’.

Essentially this book is topped and tailed by an examination of the Great Beast’s influence on the popular music scene, from his iconic appearance (with hall-mark basilisk stare) on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, to Led Zeppelin III and Jay-Z’s fashion. Lachman’s first-hand experience of Crowley’s contribution to the world of popular culture makes this a very new, and undeniably exciting addition to today’s ever-burgeoning Crowleyanity, though arguably it is his measured, wry and incisive take on the Great Beast’s life and work that steals the limelight from the rockers.

As ever, it’s Crowley himself who strides like the colossus he was (both literally and metaphorically) through counter cultural history. For a man who died a heroin junkie and alcoholic in very reduced circumstances – and in a B&B, however Bohemian it might have been, in Hastings, for Heaven’s sake! – roughly 70 years ago, his power remains palpable and his stock is clearly rising exponentially as we speak.

Crowley was complex, contradictory - and talented. He was a mountaineer of note (in fact Chris Bonnington specifically mentions him as a great hero in this context); he was a prolific, if controversially erratic, poet; he was very possibly a spy (although quite on whose side remains debatable) – and of course he shook western esotericism to its core with his ritual magick, largely based on his revelatory writings, such as The Book of the Law. All of that seems, put all too briefly and aridly, to describe someone who could have been Crowley, but without his staggeringly grim and gross aspects. And there were plenty of those.

Indeed, there’s a sort of NIMBYism that goes with being a modern Crowley fan. But instead of the liberal-minded approving of, say, wind farms in principle, as long as they’re Not In My Back Yard, here it’s perhaps more a case of NOMBCism – Not On My Best Carpet. One can’t help thinking that even today’s most devoted fans would balk at having him defecate on their best shag in full view of their other guests, or greet complete strangers – usually women – with his infamous ‘serpent’s kiss’, involving a specially sharpened tooth that often cut their mouths quite badly.

As a direct result of growing up in a strict household of Plymouth Brethren – where he was firmly believed to be the Great Beast of the Book of Revelation, a landmark moment for the future Beastly magus - Crowley set out to shock, as much to shock himself perhaps as to unsettle and disgust others. All his life he sought wild, rough and largely loveless sex in a conscious effort to leave behind the Brethren’s repressive puritanism. ‘Love,’ announced the undergraduate Crowley with obvious satisfaction, ‘was a challenge to Christianity.’ As Lachman notes wryly, it is odd that he had to keep trying to challenge it quite so hard.

And his self-conscious ‘satanizing’ can be both sadistic and puerile in the extreme, as when he tortured and crucified a frog in an effort to dispel a sort of spiritual ennui. One must assume it succeeded.

The violent urge to wound and debase often applied to himself. Like a toddler, Crowley was seemingly obsessed with poo, but unlike the average toddler he grew up into a man who was said to make it into ‘love cakes’ that he offered to visitors, who were oblivious to his secret ingredient – at least until they took their first bite. Presumably they didn’t take a second. At a later stage in his life he sought to explain that physical degradation was an intrinsic part of the breaking down of the ego that was involved in the most profound magickal processes. His penchant for sex magick that involved him being the submissive partner in sodomy was included in this physical and mystical practice. (As Lachman points out, the bisexual Crowley was generally sadistic in his relations with women – most of his ‘Scarlet women’ ended up alcoholic and/or in mental institutions - and masochistic in his homosexual couplings.)

When presiding over up his magickal commune at the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, almost certainly he had congress with a goat. And, if one is to read between the lines with a hard modern stare, according to at least one former guest, he abused a little boy. Neither of those acts, if true, should endear him to 21st-century seekers, but somehow Crowley is becoming untouchable, rising above such accusations and undeniable squalor. (The Abbey of Thelema had no toilet facilities so the house and gardens were used: visitors remarked on the all-pervasive stench. One wonders why it was beyond the community at least to dig army-style latrines in the grounds, but perhaps drugs, drink, sex and magick took up all their time and energy.)

Of course characters as colourful as that, and as addicted to causing commotions – besides being addicted to more usual substances - would go out of their way to encourage pretty much any kind of wild story about themselves. Crowley lived most of his life as if he believed the adage about all publicity being good publicity. But for him, it really wasn’t always.

Part of his vendetta-strewn life was due to his inability to take the blame for anything. And there was a great deal to take the blame for. Even in the racist days of the early 20th century, his treatment of the coolies during his Chinese wanderings was startlingly violent. He whipped them to reinforce his ‘moral superiority’, and then took delight in cheating them out of money due. And later, when engaged in intense sex magick with Victor Neuburg, he sank to even lower levels, basically because he could. Crowley would slash away at Neuburg’s bare flesh with stinging nettles, berating him for his Jewishness.

Neuburg wrote: ‘My Guru is unnecessarily rude and brutal, merely to amuse himself and pass the time away… It seems to me that unnecessary and brutal rudeness is the prerogative of a cad of the lowest type. It is the very limit of meanness to grouse at a man because of his race…’ ‘Meanness’ somehow doesn’t seem to cover it.

His desire to sink to ever lower depths – for whatever reason – would include the ritual slaughter of a cat, while at his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. Crowley’s acolyte Raoul Loveday was made to drink its blood, and died shortly afterwards from acute gastroenteritis, probably contracted from contaminated water. But it is easy to see why accusations that it was due to the cat’s blood stuck. This was Aleister Crowley, after all, a man bent on satanizing as outrageously as he could, often at a terrible cost to others.

It was after the tragedy in Sicily, with Crowley hounded out, that the British press described him as ‘The King of Depravity’; ‘A Man We’d Like to Hang’ and, of course, ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’. It goes without saying that Crowley did his best to live up to the last one.

Clearly it is hard even for someone reasonably familiar with Crowley’s life – but not blinded by his perverse stardust – to see beyond the viciousness, squalor and even the grotesque over-the-top image, apparently lipstick and all. But even to 21st-century admirers of celebrities who are just famous for being celebrities, Crowley has much more to offer than that.

While never shrinking from describing, and analysing the myriad of examples of Crowley’s arguably insane vileness, Lachman carefully and objectively presents the man’s desperate quest for the ultimate magickal prize – to know himself, through the medium of conversation with his Holy Guardian Angel (HGA). Did Crowley succeed? Certainly something almost literally mind-blowing happened in desert rituals with the appearance of Crowley’s HGA, Aiwass. Had Crowley succeeded in crossing the Abyss, in literally facing his demons? Certainly Aiwass’ legacy was of enormous significance to the western esoteric tradition.

Over the following years Crowley had set down – sometimes in a sort of revelatory automatic writing – works of astonishing magickal depth. His Book Four (1912), termed by Lachman ‘Crowley’s most articulate exposition of his ideas about magick’ concerns techniques for using the ultimate magickal tool – the human mind. But once again, the magus ‘didn’t get the hint’: ‘he often grabs hold of an important insight, but drops it and falls back into “satanizing” and rebellion that he knows is unnecessary.’

With Crowley, theory and practice could be worlds apart – usually very much to his own detriment. Here, while admitting that solitude and contemplation were the most necessary tools of the magus, as Lachman points out: ‘He was practically always surrounded by people, and example, perhaps, of his following the small part of himself rather than the great.’ And though Crowley knew that true, successful magick, did not depend on robes or secret sigils, he continued to use them, while also admitting most magicians suffered from the delusion that they were essential. ‘But he also knew that success in magick “depends upon one’s ability to awaken the creative genius which is the unalienable heirloom of every son of man.” The “creative genius” was one of Crowley’s phrases for the unconscious.’

It is perhaps Crowley’s naked earnestness, his desperation to understand the potentially limitless forces of the psyche, even coupled with his sometimes sincere admissions of incomprehension or failure, which edge him into greatness. Despite all the bombast and the grotesquerie, his occasionally fearful explorations of the unconscious through the medium of magickal ritual are gripping and thought-provoking. In a sense, this was both philosophy and psychology in action. His Book of the Law and Magick in Theory and Practice are astonishing achievements – the ultimate daring thought experiments.

Known for his line ‘every man and woman is a star’, Crowley announced that the universe was ‘Nothingness with twinkles!’ Lachman explains that this encompassed his concept of the unity of all things: space being occupied by infinite numbers of bright points, though space itself became ablaze… the points became stars, ‘linked to ideas, souls, everything, in fact, as well as to each other.’ And since to Crowley, ‘everything is one, there is no reason to do one thing rather than another’… ‘The idea “flea”, he believed, is “just as full and interesting as the idea “Ulysses”, and so, ultimately, one should make no distinction between them, something Aiwass told him long ago’. To Crowley ‘the line of least resistance’ is to do one’s own Will – should one ever discover what it is – even though ‘nothing can happen. Nothing is All…’ But as Lachman points out, this soon got him tied in logical knots. As he believed ‘all the solutions turn out to be no solutions’, ‘it is difficult to see how he or anyone else could make anything better, or worse, for that matter.’

Unlike other philosophers and mystics, however, Crowley took the perceived ‘cosmic futility’ as carte blanche to ‘do what he wilt’.

After an astonishingly turbulent life lived on several continents and possibly more than one dimension, Crowley notoriously ended his days poverty-stricken, a junkie alcoholic in a B&B in Hastings. All of that is undoubtedly true, but there were still gems among the squalor. For example, he told one distinguished visitor: 'Magic is something we do to ourselves’, though ‘it is more convenient to assume the objective existence of an Angel who gives us new knowledge than to allege that our invocation has awakened a supernatural power in ourselves.’ But as Lachman says, this flatly contradicts what he had always said was his key discovery – the reality of ‘discarnate intelligence’. Contradictory, controversial, and ultimately exciting, to the last.

Twenty years after his death in Hastings, ‘Crowley was without a doubt back’. His anti-Establishment stance, his ‘do what thou wilt’ imprimatur, was made for the rock stars and counter-culture movers and shakers, such as the Rolling Stones and film-maker Kenneth Anger. It was Satanism for all, though then as now there were arguments about whether Crowley was technically a Satanist. (According to his own declaration, he was.) Lachman points out that ‘do what thou wilt’ resonates perfectly with the modern stance of ‘just do it’.

Part of Crowley’s continuing appeal has to be his sometimes impish humour, which this book features to great effect, such as the story of him letting the Germans – during the First World War – know the precise address of his aunt in Croydon so they could drop bombs on it. But as ever with Crowley, little was uncomplicated. Amusing though this anecdote is, it barely plastered over the real point at issue, namely the fact he was in communication with the enemy during hostilities.

Significantly, Crowley believed that a new Epoch was upon us – or very nearly: The Age of Horus, or of the Child. And certainly his own behaviour was that of a particularly attention-seeking, spoilt little boy, flouncing around in colourful costumes, such as Sheikhs’ or Highland Lairds’, and affecting bogus titles to match. If that was all, of course, it would merely make him just another English eccentric, but as we have seen, that was very much not all – sometimes for the better but very often for the worse.

Lachman addresses the idea of the coming Age of the Child at the very end of the book: ‘But if Crowley was right, and this is the era of the “crowned and conquering child”, I can only hope that he grows up soon.’

Inevitably any review can only touch on certain elements of a book, but with a Crowley biography a review is truly the tiniest iceberg tip – a barely discernible ice floe. What about his vexed membership of magical orders, such as the Golden Dawn, or the OTO that continues in his name? Well, quite.

Of course the only way to compensate for the gaps is to read the book for oneself. And in this case that is an excellent idea. -- Lynn Picknett



30.7.14

"WHAT ARE THE CHANCES...?"

David Hand. The Improbability Principle: Why Incredibly Unlikely Things Keep Happening. Bantam Press, 2014.

The other week something rather spooky happened. I was re-reading William Poundstone’s Big Secrets, a book published in the US in 1983 and the UK in 1985. One of the secrets discussed was how mentalists like (the then famous) Kreskin did their tricks. On page 206 there is this little excerpt:
 
Take the following hypothetical exchange:
Kreskin: "Does the date September 11 mean anything special to anyone...?”.
 
September 11!? Do the shivers go down your spine at this? It’s amazing, spooky, that at random Poundstone chooses a date which now means so much to so many?
 
Well perhaps not according to mathematician David Hand, who argues that very improbable events happen all the time, not least because our understanding of statistics is weak and we forget the impact of very large numbers. Improbable events of the sort that fill the little spaces down the margins in Fortean Times: you someone loses a ring out on a boat and ten years later it is found in a fish caught by their father in law; you pick up a book left on a train by a stranger and it is the one your partner loved as a child and lost when they moved house twenty years ago. You get the sort of thing. (From my own experience: you are sent a small cutting from a local newspaper with an item that a relative thinks may be of some interest to you, and on the reverse is a report of the coroner’s court verdict on the suicide of someone you knew well twenty years earlier! - JR)
 
Hand sees several factors at work; the law of large numbers, such an astronomical number of events are occurring in the world that some are bound to lead to very unlikely situations, such as being hit by lightning many times over, or getting three successive holes in one; misunderstanding the correct estimate of probabilities (this one, which involves the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘Cauchy’ distributions is very technical but it apparently means that something that is beyond astronomically unlikely on the former, has odds of less than 100 to 1!
 
Another error is to assume that things are unconnected and occur at random, when the reverse is the case. He points to the tragic case of a mother who was found guilty of murdering her two children, because a paediatrician (with no real knowledge of statistics) had estimated the chance of two children dying of cot death were 73 million or more to one against, but that assumed that one child dying of cot death did not increase the risk for a second, and that turned out to be wrong.
 
Another principle is that of ‘close enough’, the two events are not really all that close, and if one goes wide enough then all sorts of things are bound to occur. A case I remember from psychical research was of a woman who had a dream about a (real or imaginary) wartime film in which a British agent, played by Leslie Howard, was murdered by a German. This became a ‘precognition’ of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (who, of course, was once an actor, and his assailant was rumoured to have neo-Nazi sympathies).

So Hand would argue that whatever date chosen, sooner or later something significant would have happened on that date. Furthermore on any given date things of great significance happen. Plug in any random date in Wikipedia and see what happened on that date.
 
The random date I had thought of was April 27, nothing much came to mind, but is filled with ‘significant’ events, and going down the list we see that on this date in 1878 was born the English athlete John Rimmer (died 1962). Someday, somewhere something truly momentous and earth shaking will occur on April 27 (or March 16, Oct 8, June 19 or any other date you care to choose) – Peter Rogerson.


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