15.9.14

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL BIOGRAPHIES

Bernard McGinn. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

David Gordon White. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

The excellent ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series is continuing: McGinn begins by observing that few people have ever read the whole of the Summa theologiae, which runs to a million and a half words. Personally, I have only read the sections on demonology. Even Bertrand Russell’s compendious History of Western Philosophy deals mainly with the shorter Summa Contra Gentiles.

From the age of five Aquinas (1225-1274, the author usually refers to him as Thomas) was brought up in a Benedictine monastery, but at sixteen he joined the Dominicans, a preaching order who had only recently been founded. Over the course of his life he wrote more than a hundred books, most of which he dictated to secretaries. About twenty-six of these were commissioned by his ecclesiastical superiors, but the rest were entirely his own inspiration.

His writings combined traditional Christian theology with the newly rediscovered Greek philosophy. I was under the impression that the versions of Aristotle that circulated in western Europe in the Middle Ages were all Latin translations of Arabic translations of the original Greek, but in fact another Dominican, William of Moerbeke, had spent time in Greece, learned the language, and produced ‘improved’ translations.

One attractive feature of scholastic theologians is that, when attacking rival opinions, they would normally state them in detail before attempting to refute them (unlike some modern authors). This was even true of the fanatic authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.

The Summa began by discussing the nature of God. Since Thomas accepted that God is essentially unknowable, this caused him some difficulties. Moreover, whilst he held that the existence of God could be demonstrated logically, there were other Catholic doctrines, such as the Trinity, that could only be known through divine revelation. Some of the issues are hard to follow nowadays, such as “the nature of separate subjects (i.e. angels), individuation by matter, and the operation of the intellect.”

‘Thomism’ went out of fashion after about 1700. But later it came back, to the extent that in 1914 Pope Pius X laid it down that scholasticism meant the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, and that “all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviated so much as one iota from Aquinas, especially in metaphysics, they exposed themselves to grave risk.” He did not specify the nature of the risk.

White’s book has a novel feature: his text was rather longer than the standard size required by the publishers, so he abridged it, but put the excised sections up on the internet, their former presence being indicated by crucifixes in the margin.

Whilst the Summa theologiae is gargantuan, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is a brief work, consisting of 195 short one-line verses. This is unusual, given the vast corpus of Hindu scripture, Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Dharmasutras, Tantras and Puranas, enough to fill several bookcases. It is concerned with what may loosely be termed meditation, rather than getting into funny postures.

Nothing is known about Patanjali, not even when he lived. The British Orientalist Henry Colebrooke went so far as to describe him as ‘a mythological being’. All one can say for certain is that the Yoga Sutra was in existence by the fifth century. One theory is that it is a compilation of works by different authors. It has also been suggested that the fourth section was added later, since it was not included in the Arabic and Old Javanese translations. Another idea is that the commentary by Vyasa was written by Patanjali himself. (Not a ridiculous idea – Aleister Crowley wrote commentaries on some of his own works, such as The Book of Lies.)

Strangely, in 195 verses there are only four verbs. This is partly because, in Sanskrit, as in many languages (such as classical Greek and Hebrew) the verb ‘to be’ is usually omitted, unless the author wants it for emphasis (as in “Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde”), The second verse reads: “yoga-citta-vritti-nirodha”, which might be literally rendered as “Yoga-mind-thought-cessation”. White lists twenty-two different translations, including “Yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind”, and “Disciplined meditation involves the cessation of the functioning of ordinary awareness.”

Whilst the existence of commentaries from the fifth to the twelfth centuries showed that the book was often read in these centuries, it came to be neglected thereafter. In the 1890s, however, it was incorporated into a book entitled Raja Yoga, by Swami Vivekenanda, which was widely distributed in the west – I have a copy whose title page describes it as Fifteenth Edition, 1955.

White refers to “such fraudulent self-proclaimed practitioners of Tantric Yoga as Alistair [sic] Crowley”. It is worth noting that Crowley (sorry to bring him into this twice) included both The Aphorisms of Patanjali and Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (as if they were separate works) in a recommended reading list of mystical books that he published in 1909. They were omitted in an otherwise longer version that he published a few years later (perhaps from an oversight), but his Eight Lectures on Yoga, delivered in the 1930s, show a clear influence of Patanjali. – Gareth J. Medway


11.9.14

LOST AND FOUND

Michael Pye and Kirsten Dalley (Eds.) Lost Secrets of the Gods. New Page Books, 2014.

Lost Secrets of the Gods is one of the latest offerings from the prolific New Page Books. The publishers themselves are making quite an impression in the areas of Fortean and unconventional history, although, after having reviewed a few of their releases, the quality of their authors can be quite hit-and-miss. This latest tome is an anthology of essays covering a veritable chasm of time, some examining what has become known as alt-archaeology and others looking at issues in periods that qualify as recent history. Strange questions are posed and, some would say, answered in an even more strange fashion.
 
There are well-known names here along with some that are fresher to the counterculture. Those of Robert Schoch, whose statements concerning the age of the Sphinx galvanised both the fields of alternative Egyptology and more conventional scholarship in this area, the astonishingly prolific expatriate Nick Redfern, and Jim Marrs, whose book about the assassination of John F Kennedy, Crossfire, is still noteworthy, will be most familiar to regular readers or those steeped in Fortean lore. The subjects covered range from beast men created long past as the guardians of sacred places, the true location of the Trojan War, and indigenous peoples descended from various visitors from the stars. The types of topic also cover a vast sweep, from historical speculation to conspiratorial intrigue.
 
The variety of questions being asked are typical of those that interest me personally.  Were there giants in the Americas back in the mists of time? Did Atlantis (and it gets more than its fair share of coverage in these pages) really exist outside of the works of Plato?  Are we ourselves alien (this, again, is asked more than once) to this planet?  Were there ten-thousand-year-old secret societies whose knowledge is still preserved to this day?  Certainly it would enlighten and motivate us immeasurably as a species if we were to discover that we are directly descended from a race (or races) of beings who were not from this Earth, although, if this were to be proven, one would have to wonder if our forefathers intended to pop back and see how we were getting along, and if so, what form that would take.
 
The question is, though, do these inquiries get answered in this intriguing tome?  To be fair, one or two of them almost do. Micah Hanks, for example, tells us that, far from trying to cover up the existence of giants in the West, that there are catalogued bone samples and scholarly articles alluding to the possible reality of the existence of larger humanoids, although as to whether there is sufficient evidence to answer if there was a whole race of such beings is not mentioned. As to the rest, it is provocative stuff, particularly about whether the Trojan War took place on the Atlantic coast and featured, as posited by Steve Sora, the sea power that may have been - well, suffice it to say that it features the A-word again.
 
I wouldn’t like to say that everything here is convincing. Some of it is even downright confusing. I must say, however, that I take to these anthologies, provided there are some authors who make a reasonably convincing argument for their particular issue and that the subject of the writing is related. This is stretched here by including the Jim Marrs conspiracy piece and the Nick Redfern speculation on ancient spirit forms in with the general ancient alien and archaeology theme. I would say that, at least as a cross-section of some of the more radical thought going on in this area today, this is worth a look. Author biographies are included, along with an index and, depending on the piece, bibliographies at the end of most essays. -- Trevor Pyne
 

6.9.14

BLACK MAGIC AND BOGEYMEN

Richard Jenkins. Black Magic and Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour and Popular Belief in the North of Ireland 1972-1974. Cork University Press, 2014.

Northern Ireland forty years ago was in a very dark place indeed, with violence on a scale which dwarfs our current concerns with terrorism. It was a place of sectarian/ethic warfare waged by both 'Republican' and 'Loyalist' paramilitaries, neither showing any actual loyalty to the 'really existing' Irish Republic or United Kingdom respectively. The normal everyday assumption that if you went out in the morning there was an overwhelming probability that you would come home safely in the evening no longer applied. It was a time or fearful rumour and paranoid suspicion.
 
In the middle of this crisis, in August 1973, a local Sunday newspaper presented a lurid tale that on the beach of the main Copeland Islands, a picnic spot in Belfast Lough off the coast near Bangor, the remains of four slaughtered sheep had been found, along with 'occult symbols'. A 'leading authority' claimed that these were Satanic Rites, to coincide with either Beltane or St John’s Eve (neither of which were in August).

This story might have died the natural death of all such silly season stories had it not been for the horrific murder in September of a 10 year old boy, whose body had been burned and mutilated. This then became linked with tales of slaughtered dogs and a 'black magic' moral panic ensued on both sides of the sectarian divide. As with most of these things, fear of the occult ranged through a whole variety of beliefs and behaviours, in which, for example, playing with Ouija boards became conflated with sacrificing dogs and murdering children.
 
Occult and spiritualist beliefs and practices, were thus often confused, for example the belief that 'republicans' were engaging in occult rituals in order to contact the spirits of dead members of the IRA. On both sides of the sectarian divide heterodox forms of spirituality were seen as snares of the devil.
 
Jenkins places these fears within the context of the traditional lore of Ireland and of an “enchanted” worldview, in which ghosts, fairies, banshees, faith healing and the like were envisioned. Among these were such bogeys as the 'Black Man' or 'Big Man of Arden Street, a sinister figure that tapped on the windows of those about to die.
 
Much of this is pretty much the general popular lore that might have been encountered in any British town. What these other towns did not have to content with was the possible manipulation of this folklore by state agencies. The controversial whistle-blower Colin Wallace claimed to have been involved in spreading some of these stories; bogeymen being convenient devices for keeping youngsters off the streets at night, and perhaps to further unnerve the population.
 
Jenkins also traces the rise of the myth of Satanism in this period, based largely on the works of Dennis Wheatley. This was exploited by alleged 'survivors' and converts such as Doreen Irvine. This myth was in some ways an outcome of fantasies and conspiracy theories surrounding the Profumo scandal and much of it can be found in works such as Sellwood and Haining’s Devil Worship in Britain (1964), in which post Profumo paranoia was mixed with anti-immigrant paranoia.), and the infiltration into Northern Ireland of a largely American inspired apocalyptic tradition.
 
This is an important book in which there fears and fantasies of a very specific period, perhaps mainly lasting only a period of a few weeks, are placed in their specific historical and cultural contexts, in this case a society torn apart by violence, where the normal boundaries of human conduct were being steadily eroded. -- Peter Rogerson
 

3.9.14

BRITISH BLOODLINES

Paul Adams. Written in Blood: A Cultural History of the British Vampire. History Press, 2014.

Although the conventional belief is that the vampire's origin is the Carpathian Mountains or some other rugged area of Eastern Europe, this book demonstrates that the place where the Undead feels most at home is right here in England. From the moment the sinister count fetched up on the coast of the East Riding he found a comfortable niche waiting for him in English culture and literature.

Adams shows how the vampire theme developed from an earlier Gothic tradition of blood-drinking and life sapping revenants, like Gottfried Burger's Lenore, Goethe's The Bride of Corinth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel. Given more specific form later in the century by writers like Polidori and Rymer (who also introduced us to that other great blood-soaked monster, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street), the image of the blook-sucker rapidly metamorphosed from the decayed grave-escapee of European folklore, to the suave, sexually charged figure we know today. The format of the vampire story allowed Victorian writers to explore aspects of sexuality that would be unthinkable (or at least unpublishable) if dealt with in a more realistic format – Sheridan le Fanu's lesbian vampire Carmilla, for instance.

A chapter on possible historical English vampires in rumour and folklore looks at the 'Beast of Coglin Grange' an ambiguous collection of ghost stories where Adams can come to no firm conclusion but leads on to a consideration of a number of murder cases which had vampire-like features.

Stoker's Dracula is of course the defining vampire and has coloured nearly all subsequent fictional treatments of the figure. Adam's traces the development of the character of Dracula and other characters in the story, suggesting that the overpowering personality of the Count himself may have been inspired by the larger than life-sized figure of the actor Henry Irving, whom Stoker worked with for many years; and intriguingly that the whole story may have been inspired by a hypnogogic vision which Stoker experienced years before writing the book.

Adams describes Stoker as a 'benchmark', and clearly his characterisations have indelibly influenced nearly all subsequent literature, even that which consciously avoids the Stoker template. In the first decades of the twentieth century writers such as M R James, Algernon Blackwood and E F Benson – of the genteel Mapp and Lucia novels – all tackled the vampire theme. However he sees much of the credit (or blame) for the development of the particularly English vampire going to the enigmatic Montague Summers. Like much else of his literature and life, his 'history' of the vampire had only tangential connection with anything that might be described as 'the truth' and is best described by the inscription on his gravestone, just a mile from Magonia HQ, “Tell me strange things”.

Most of the rest of this book is devoted to what I think is Adams's first love, the vampire on film. He traces the development of the British vampire on screen back to a one-reeler produced in 1913, The Vampire, set in India and now totally lost. Friedrich Murnau's Nosferatu of 1921 presented a defining vampire image for a generation, and in England Dracula became linked in the public mind with the image of Jack the Ripper, both sinister figures looming through swirling mists in the mean streets of London's East End; and both, it would increasingly seem, equally mythical.

But the most English of vampires was that created by Hammer Films, and Adams narrates the rise and fall of this iconic studio with its stable of classic horror actors, and chronicles the eclectic group of people involved in the production of its string of culturally influential films over nearly three decades. But much like their coevals the Carry On films, they became victims of their own success, gradually falling into formulaic treatments, and being overtaken by more explicit and imaginative films from other studios, particularly following the loosening of film censorship in the nineteen-seventies.

Adams bravely tackles the Highgate Vampire story, and as an outsider I think it seems a pretty balanced account of a subject which raises sometime violent emotions on all sides. Echoing Basil Fawlty, Adams can probably say “I mentioned the Highgate Vampire but I think I got away with it”!

The final chapter looks at modern (post 1975) literature and how the vampire template has grown to allow writers to explore a wide range of psychological, psychosexual and parapsychological themes. I am pleased to see an old library colleague Ramsey Campbell getting due acknowledgement here, especially now that his name is inscribed in golden lettering along with other Liverpool literary greats on the wall of the newly-rebuilt city Central Library.

Although sometimes a little difficult to follow because of the sheer wealth of detail – which is mainly a result of the author's enthusiasm for the topic – this is an intriguing book which demonstrates just how very English the vampire phenomenon has become. – John Rimmer


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



MAGONIA RECOMMENDS